Lately I have strayed from writing parenting advice to reflect on my own experiences instead. Sharing about communicating with young children was my original intended focus for this blog because my parenting experience was enhanced as a result of my knowledge base from Speech-Language Pathology. But, I lost motivation to write from that standpoint because I felt sensitive to people dishing out parenting advice. I don’t want to add to the “you should be doing this, you should be doing that” craze. Most of it is just plain ridiculous. One of my friends was chastised for her TWO-YEAR-OLD not yet being potty-trained. This stuff needs to end.
Not so long ago I came across this picture of Charlie and had an ah-ha! moment. At the time, Charlie was almost three-and-a-half and Miles was a few months old, nearing the height of his refusal to sleep. We were sleeping horribly, trading off bouncing and doing squats with him from 12-4am so that he wouldn’t scream and would for-the-love-of-all-things-good go back to sleep. I was so tired that I experienced auditory hallucinations. I frequently chose not to drive because I knew I wasn’t safe. I also was experiencing absence of smell and diminished taste. In general, I was a disaster. Plus, I had a three-year-old. For the first time. I was completely blindsided by what having a three-year-old means.
I now know that the three-year-old’s highly predictably irrational behavior is a hallmark of the age. You all know that two is nothing compared to three? Right? Nothing. The sobbing, screaming, hysterical “This banana is BROKEN! I WANT A GOOD BANANA!” seemed to come overnight, and all because a banana had somehow been peeled “incorrectly”, or was completely out of the peel, or had brown on it, or was in two pieces. You either give in and get them a new banana to complain about, you eat it yourself, or you make them deal. No matter what you do, they will not be pleased. They’ll want the original banana if you eat it. They’ll want a third if you give them a second. If you give a three-year-old a banana, YOU CAN NOT WIN.
If we didn’t have friends with whom we could commiserate, we would’ve been wondering if our child was headed for lock-down. I was equally shocked by my own response to his behavior. I was raising my voice, which I had truly almost never done prior, and at least once or twice I physically carried him to his room to isolate him during a tantrum. This is necessary for some kids for safety, but for him it wasn’t. Charlie was such a sensitive little guy that me crossing this boundary of not respecting his body as his to move was a clear sign of me crossing the line. He knew it, I knew it. I needed the right skills and language to navigate both Charlie and my emotions during his challenging moments. I was feeling like an awful mom. In general, actually. I was feeling awful in general.
I read several parenting books and discovered some helpful ideas, but thought most lacked a compassionate voice. I already knew time-out, spanking and other “traditional” discipline methods weren’t for us. An “old classic” comforted me a little by normalizing behaviors for this age. “Refusing to obey is perhaps the key aspect of this turbulent, troubled period in the life of the young child. It sometimes seems to his mother that his main concern is to strengthen his will, and he strengthens this will by going against whatever is demanded of him by that still most important person in his life, his mother.”
Unfortunately, most books provided few practical tips, which made me feel powerless. “No mother of a child this age should hesitate to place the burden of daily routines on the shoulders of a sitter, who, for the time being, may be the best person for the task. Nor should the mother who needs to put her child in day care feel burdened with guilt.” Not very helpful to a stay at home mom on a budget. Thankfully, just in the nick of time, a friend lent me her copy of Gottman’s Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.
Three years later, I’m scouring those pages again. I really should’ve done this months ago. I had been resorting to more “no’s” and more exasperated comments than I care to admit. Our little stroller incident gave me the kick in the butt I needed to refresh my skills. Three-year-olds are super fun and energetic, crazy horrible and wild. In equal measure. One moment you have the sweetest conversation about the colors of a leaf, the next moment they are whacking you in the face with a stick because you held the leaf wrong.
I share these ideas with you with hopes that they bring relief during such a trying developmental period. Not guilt-inducing, just thought-provoking. Not shaming, but edifying. Not polarizing, but unifying. These techniques, strategies and specific language choices have assisted my parenting and brought more peace into our household during this butt-kicking stage.
Establish positive routines and bribe the heck out them
Three year olds are all about routine, control, routine and control. They also respond well to positive reinforcement, rewards and bribes. The difference between those last three basically boils down to semantics unless you’re a behavioral therapist. Most parents will choose to call the dangling of carrots one of the three. Take your pick.
When a routine changes, three-year-olds freak out. Their expectations may be simple: graham crackers aren’t meant to be broken, plates are meant to be blue, and mamas aren’t supposed to wear gray hats (“I want the purple hat! Take that off!”). They may also be as complicated as a memory of a particular event, like “Last time we shopped here I ate those red and black things. I want those red and black things NOW! And we don’t walk THAT way, we walk THIS way to the bread!”
Some of these routines you have control of, others obviously not. When possible, try to maintain a consistent schedule so they can rely on some aspects of their life to be predictable. For situations within your reign, there is plenty to be gained by establishing new routines or making sour ones positive again. You might find them beneficial for entering the preschool door, hopping in the carseat, staying in bed, waiting in line at a store, or taking turns with toys.
Our current most successful tool has been a “Surprise Box”, aka our reward and motivator system. I fill an old shoe box with incredibly random stuff, like old race medals and therabands (Angry birds catapults, people!), and dinky toys, like stickers, sponge capsules, marbles, magnets, balloons and party favors that were long forgotten about but exciting again after a few months sight-unseen. If you wanted yours to be stuff-free, you could put in pictures of places you’d visit (parks, playgrounds, beaches) or other experiences (scavenger hunt!, dance party!). My only warning about experiences is that they should be delighted in as close to the time of success as possible for it to be salient, especially when establishing new routines.
You’ll be pleased to know that my little guy is walking into his preschool happily these days. Halloween week he even flew in, dressed as Batman. Epic. Thanks to the advice of a very wise friend, I had a picture of our family in hand that he could show teachers once he was inside, I told him he could hold my hand extra tight if that helped him feel better, and… da da da daaaaah!…. I bribed him. In the end, that was what worked. He didn’t want to take the picture inside, he didn’t want to hold my hand for long, but he desperately wanted the little dinosaur sponge capsules I promised him after preschool if he entered without screaming, hitting or kicking. I told him, “You don’t have to feel happy. You can still feel nervous and sad. But you need to walk in nicely to have the dinosaur sponges after school.” The first day, he walked in dragging his feet, with his shoulders slumped and a huge frown on his face. But he did it and was quite proud of himself when I picked him up. The next day, he scampered in happily. I “rewarded” him three times, all upon request, and he hasn’t asked for more since. Can I get an amen?
I first made a Surprise Box for Charlie when he was three because he wasn’t staying in bed at night. Harry and I would tag team to walk him back upstairs, sometimes twenty times per evening. After a week or two of nonsense, we wised up. I made a picture for him showing him the bedtime routine. (“First we snuggle in bed, then you snuggle with your animal, close your eyes and sleep. When you stay in bed until morning you get a surprise!”) A few nights of reminders followed by one success and we were pretty much done with the back and forth bedroom dance. He only needed a reminder here and there in the months to follow. (If he’d come downstairs we’d let him know, “If you stay in bed for the rest of the night, you get a surprise” and the following night we’d remind him he had to stay in bed from the get-go so as to avoid him learning that coming out once also got rewarded.) If you’ve played bedtime tag with kids, you know just how nice it is to have a peaceful routine. End of the day bliss. HEAVEN. It’s a clear case where a little extra work up front pays off with a better sleep routine (a better rested child!) and much less long-term frustration.
Since I seemed to have birthed out half of my brain with Miles, it took me forever to remember about the Surprise Box. I first thought of it when he refused to get in his car seat several days in a row. I remembered after having to force him in it, which made us both feel awful. Lo and behold, the box worked like a charm. I probably pull it out once a week now. I simply say, “If you cooperate for X, you can have a surprise!” He likes to pick his surprise first and then he almost always happily runs to do whatever is being asked. Can I get another amen? (And why didn’t I use it for preschool entry right off the bat? Who the heck knows! The other half of my brain suffered oxygen loss with chronic sleep deprivation, folks!)
I think many parents worry that these types of rewards need to last forever. With both of my boys they have been easily faded out after a routine was established. Now, with our six year old, establishing positive routines is much more of a conversation with natural, intrinsic rewards. “If you get dressed first thing in the morning, then you can play until we need to leave for school. You won’t need to rush and I won’t need to bug you.” He appreciates this and changes his pattern. And yes, he’s six going on forty.
So, even with routines established and bribes abounding, it’s not going to be easy. It will be easier, filled with plenty of wonderful moments, but there will be exorcism-worthy tantrums. Gottman’s emotion coaching has been the other critical component for all of us to manage our feelings in the midst of such intensity.
I am working hard to identify and respect emotions, empathizing with his very real feelings. I may know that a broken graham cracker is one of life’s smallest problems, but at that moment, he feels devastated. So, I choose to respect his sadness. “I’m sorry that’s so hard for you and you’re sad. You really like it when they’re whole, huh?” If he allows, I will hold him while he cries and let him sit with his emotions as long as he needs. Once he’s calm, I reassure him that I know what matters to him. “Next time I’ll try to give you one that’s not broken.” I don’t make him eat it, but I don’t get him a new one. I see this as having compassionate boundaries. (It is easy to assume that every time a three-year-old complains it’s unnecessarily ridiculous. I sometimes forget that this may not be the case, so coming from a place of compassion while simultaneously looking into the problem has revealed some “real” problems. The milk just might be sour, the nuts rancid, the fruit mealy!)
Next, I try to say yes as much as possible, saving no for when it’s absolutely necessary. I do not give him an open wallet and free reign. I soften my language so that he knows his desires have been heard and he can prepare for any delays or disappointments. Here’s an example that I hear quite regularly:
3yo: “I want to go to the science center!”
Me: “Oh, fun! That sounds great. Maybe we can go next Thursday.”
3yo: “But I want to go to the science center NOW!”
Me: “You want to go there now? Well, I wish we could go now, too, but we have to get groceries today.”
3yo: “But I wa-ant to go NOW-OOOOOOOOOW!”
Me: “I understand. You sound really mad. I’m sorry it’s disappointing for you to have to wait.”
3yo: “I’m going to hit you if you don’t take me now!”
Me: “I understand that you’re mad, but hitting me isn’t going to help. I don’t want to take you if you hit me.”
3yo: “I won’t hit you.” (Sometimes. Sometimes he hits…which often leads to the end of our playtime and having a calm time together, or alone- his choice, on his bed. His self-chosen “safe, calm” spot.)
Me: “Great. Now, let’s keep playing blocks until we go to the store and we’ll go to the science center next week!”
This same type of method can be used for just about any request. It boils down to this: First, acknowledge their desire. Then, let them know the reality of if/when it can happen. Last, acknowledge the resulting emotions. Show them that you care about what they care about.
Lastly, I’m throwing sleep into the pile because I think it’s a decent percentage of the Three-Year-Old Problems pie chart. Most kids are transitioning out of naps at some point during this year. If they take one, they go to bed too late, aren’t rested enough for the next day and need a nap again. The cycle continues. If they don’t take a nap, they’re very challenging at the dinner hour or will fall asleep in car rides at 4:30, ruining their bedtime. We’re trying to handle this transition with a few naps every week, mostly in the stroller or car. I try to not let him nap longer than an hour or 90-minutes, so that his bedtime is preserved. If he naps and then stays up too late, I try to not have him nap the next day (or keep it really short) and get him to bed early. We’ve found that a longer nights’ sleep, with an earlier bedtime, is more important than a daytime nap for our boys to be really refreshed when they’re in this in-between period.
The difference between a refreshed three-year-old and a tired one is like the difference between Jekyll and Hyde.
So, there it is, friends! As always, may I remind you that I fall short of these things EVERY DAY. If you’re friends with me, you get to see this in action! These are patterns I am building, striving towards, integrating into my parenting because I find them useful. When I’m not at my best, these are not the first things to happen. I am also getting good at saying sorry.
If you have any tips for this age, feel free to comment below. I’m sure we all feel like we need a storage shed filled with tools at our disposal to get through this period gracefully.
(PS- First to comment is my 100th commenter on the blog! Yay! The reward for you is intrinsic…)