Frustrated 3-year-old & the backbone of my parenting philosophy

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 25, 2009 06:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Question: I am a young mother of a 3-year-old and I have been getting extremely frustrated lately. It seems like all she knows how to do is cry or have a fit. It doesn't matter want I do or say she seems to only hear the "no," "later," "not now," and she screams bloody murder. I just stand there and tell her to calm down or go to her room and scream which makes her scream louder! I'm about to hit rock bottom. What can I do to calm her down, make her stop having these fits, and gain my sanity back?

From: Amber Baker, Bremerton

Hi Amber --

When a toddler or preschooler is having a tantrum, there are two things to keep in mind: a) She literally can't hear you, so no matter what words you use to try calm her down, it only enrages her more; b) The level of frustration she feels is perhaps even more intense for her than for an adult in a similarly frustrating situation but with a big difference: she doesn't have the verbal ability to express herself, a repertoire of coping experiences up her sleeve, or past experience to compare to.

In other words: it's pretty darn frustrating. The only outlet she has is a physical one and the more upset she is, the more likely she will resort to such physicality as stopping her feet or throwing things.

The best way to help her stop having these tantrums (I stay away from calling them "fits") and to gain your sanity back is to:

(1) Anticipate her frustration by learning to recognize what is likely to set her off ;
(2) Before things get out of hand, label the feeling for her: "You want to go outside right now, don't you? And mama said you had to put your jacket on because it's cold outside. I can see that you are getting frustrated because you don't want to put your jacket on."
(3) Help her to learn to problem solve: "What can you do so you can go outside right now?!"
(4) Offer coping mechanisms: "You could decide to wear your jacket so you can go out right now; You could ask mama to help you learn to put on your jacket all by yourself; you could decide to play inside so you don't have to wear a jacket at all; you could decide to go outside later, when you might not mind wearing your jacket."

The idea of helping her to see not only that she has choices but also that she has control over these choices is very powerful and can go a long way toward reducing her level of frustration.

I hope it's clear that by anticipating frustration and/or offering choices, that you, as the parent, are the person in charge. Because here's something else that leads children to be screechy, frustrated and out of control: Not feeling safe.

OK, stay with me on this now because this is at the heart of my philosophy of parenting: What tops the list of what makes children feel unsafe is inconsistent limit-setting.

Think of your child as living inside a box; it's a magic box; it grows as they do so it's always just the right size to give them enough room but not too much room. In fact, being able to reach out and feel those sides is critical. It reassures her: "My world is contained. I'm safe."
Every now and then, though, she reaches out and pushes on the sides of the box just to make sure: Is this box still solid? Am I still safe? If there's a teeny sliver of an opening on the side, not a big deal, but if there's a gaping hole? Uh oh! Trouble in River City.

Substitute your parental limit-setting for the sides of the box. Once in a while, being inconsistent in limit setting isn't a big deal as long as the limits slide back into place next time. But when we are more and more erratic -- when the limits are loosey goosey and flimsy, a child feels compelled to push on the walls of the box more and more, as if she is testing it out: Is this wall still standing? Is it still strong enough to keep me safe. Or put another another way: "Is mom paying attention?" And if she isn't, she gets frustrated and frightened. She'll do whatever she has to -- act out more and more -- in an effort to get mom or dad to realize: "Hey! This box is in trouble! Are you paying attention?"

Any chance this describes your parenting? Get the sides of the box firmly back in place!

An article in last Sunday's New York Times, "Becoming the Alpha Dog in Your Own Home" speaks to the same point. You may also find some helpful suggestions in this article of mine, "Mini Magic," which is the most frequently requested column of mine in the 19 years of writing my parenting column.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with
some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

11 comments so far...
  1. I agree with the second portion of Barbara's response here about safeness, and I don't think it's much of a stretch to understand. But as far as what to say to the toddler before the meltdown ensues? I think there are just TOO MANY WORDS there. I'm only an expert on my own kids, but In my experience, the tantrum escalates too quickly to get all those words out and frankly, I think it makes adults sound like wishy washy idiots. (Sorry, Barbara!) And it also seems to me like by repeating over and over again the thing that is causing the frustration, you're almost taunting the child. A big speech is giving too much attention to the bad behavior. Even though it IS totally normal for them to test these limits, it's still bad behavior.

    Many parents think my way is disrespectful to the child, but - I think that saying "you can put your coat on and go outside, or you can stay inside. Those are your choices" is saying plenty and it can be said very quickly. "If you would like to see the puppies in the pet store, then you will sit quietly in your stroller while I pay for Auntie's birthday present." And then follow through! If she has a tantrum, then DON'T go see the puppies! I have found that "threatening" with a consequence that actually means something to a (mine is two) toddler and then making the consequence happen only has to occur a limited number of times before they get it. "No, you may not have a cookie. Would you like to have some apples and then do some play doh/markers/help me make soup in the kitchen?" Trust me, they hear the "play doh" part. Mine might start to fuss a at a low level. I follow with "It's apples and play doh, or you can go sit in your room by yourself until you're calm." If she melts down, I pick her up and physically put her in her room.

    It almost NEVER happens anymore unless she is very tired, very hungry, or very overstimulated, which I work very hard to avoid happening so I can head this type of stuff off at the pass.

    Posted by RH November 25, 09 07:44 AM
  1. I agree that too many words is counter-productive. To the LW, have you considered that maybe you're saying 'no' too much? I know it's not always convenient to drop what you're doing and focus on your 3 y.o., but if you show her 10 min. of undivided attention, the benefits last a lot longer. Instead of waiting for her to ask for something she can't do/have, anticipate her needs. Make sure she's not bored, hungry, attention-deprived before she asks for something. That way you're in control of what you're offering. Also, I found that age 3 was MUCH more difficult than age 2. She'll outgrow her tantrums if you're pro-active rather than re-active.

    Posted by freeatlast November 25, 09 08:41 AM
  1. I agree that you have to offer choices and label feelings, but I also agree with RH that too many words are a lousy idea. Also, something that worked very well with my kids was to give them choices whereever possible (do you want pb&j for lunch or turkey? do you want to wear the green shirt or the blue one?) so that when something was not negotiable (buckling a seatbelt, holding hands in the parking lot), it was easier for them to stomach. I also agree wholeheartedly with threatening appropriate consequences AND FOLLOWING THROUGH. And whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of asking her permission for everything - "I need you to put your coat on now, OK?" "You need to buckle your seatbelt now, OK?" etc.

    Posted by akmom November 25, 09 09:03 AM
  1. RH -- Your words are almost verbatim the ones I have always used! "You can do X, or you can do Y, those are your choices." I do not say it meanly, but am simply firm. The child has choices, so she feels she has some amount of control over her own self, but the limits and expectations are clear and can be said quickly. It always worked very well. My youngest is now 10 and actually I still use that framework (obviously, there are now more, and more complex, choices, but the basic idea is the same).
    I also used the redirecting, as you suggest with the cookie versus apple and play-doh.

    Posted by jlen November 25, 09 09:20 AM
  1. When my son was three, we had the same problem. He typically had six or seven full-blown tantrums a day. Most of them were for no good reason--this had simply become a habit.

    I offered him a deal: on a day when he had no tantrums, he could earn 15 minutes of Henry-and-Mommy time. I was a stay-at-home mom and his older brother was in school so really all day was Henry-and-Mommy time, but he didn't notice that. Simply labeling 15 minutes of it did the trick. We didn't even need to do anything special: usually we played together, read books, or simply sat and talked for 15 minutes.

    He immediately went from several tantrums a day to one every two or three days. When I saw him gearing up for one, all I had to do was say, "Remember Henry-and-Mommy time." and he'd get himself under control right away. It broke the habit nicely.

    Posted by kate November 25, 09 10:19 AM
  1. My oldest was such a monster at age 3 that I thought I was raising a serial killer and consulted with a psychologist, who assured me that he was just being three (he's now 11 and perfectly normal). For us, the simple passage of time worked more than anything else. It's just such a tough phase for little people - they know that they aren't babies, and don't want to be babies, but don't quite have all of the skills (communication, impulse control) to pull off behaving as big as they feel they are. Age 3.5 was the peak of awful, and after that every day got better the closer he got to four and luckily by age four the worst of the difficult behavior had passed. My younger kids were more mellow overall but even with them, their worst behavior was between birthdays 3 and 4. Hang in there, it will get better.

    Posted by Jen November 25, 09 04:30 PM
  1. LW: "I just stand there and tell her to calm down or go to her room and scream which makes her scream louder! "

    Perhaps teaching her ways to calm down (instead of just expecting that she already knows how to calm herself, which she probably doesn't because if she did she wouldn't work herself up into a tizzy -- no one wants to feel that out of control -- which feels unsafe, as others have mentioned) and modeling calm, assertive behavior when upset (vs screaming) will help her deescalate from her increased state of arousal.

    You mentioned that you are a young mother. Do you have a lot of support with her? Are you able to give her enough individual attention or is this perhaps one way that she feels she can get the attention she needs?

    I agree with many of the suggestions offered here, especially about setting expectations before the tantrum, making them clear again during, and then following through with consequences for behavior that does not meet your specifically stated expectations.

    Another strategy that no one mentioned is to praise her (very specifically) when she is behaving in a manner that is to your liking. "Good job being patient while Mommy does X." It also helps to point out how it benefits her. "This means we can spend more time doing Y together." But keep it short and sweet -- she's 3 and has a short attention span!

    Posted by Michalita November 25, 09 05:55 PM
  1. Addendum -- I didn't read the "Mini Magic" article Barbara suggested before offering my comment. Read the article - it's excellent! It also describes a lot of what I talked about.

    I still think that consequences have a place, although I agree with the article in that I wouldn't want a time out space at a preschool (whereas it may be appropriate in a home).

    It is *amazing* that a lot of these strategies work (in a slightly different way) with unruly teenagers. :) Developmentally, because of the struggle for independence, they are very much large toddlers....

    Posted by Michalita November 25, 09 06:02 PM
  1. I strongly suggest 1/2/3 Magic and "The Happiest Toddler on the Block."

    Posted by C November 25, 09 09:47 PM
  1. This is fantastic advice. Young children are learning about their emotions and operating from a very limited part of their brain. It is crucial in building emotional intelligence that you name children's emotions for them - give them the language to know what is happening to them and help them make better choices in expressing their feelings. Allow their need for autonomy and stop worrying that everyone will think you are coddling!

    The words modeled above are appropriate, set limits and still treat a child with respect. You can adjust the words based on your child's development (ie Happiest Toddler on the Block's"you're mad mad mad...") and still use the same formula - which is to identify needs and feelings and offer strategies for handling the times when life doesn't go your child's way.

    "You can do this or that" - does not offer the child a choice - or allow a child to be autonomous - it offers the child the option of pleasing mom or day in 2 ways - "you can either do A or B" and anything else at this moment is wrong.

    This is conditional and does not teach children to pick up on social cues, learn acceptable behaviors or feel connected to their parent or caregiver.

    This article is sage advice, that is only now making it to the mainstream! Thank you for writing it.

    - Lori
    writer/child advocate
    http://www.teach-through-love.com

    Posted by lpetro November 27, 09 11:27 PM
  1. "...it offers the child the option of pleasing mom or day in 2 ways - 'you can either do A or B' and anything else at this moment is wrong."

    Um, right, Lori - because my two year old is not capable of making an informed decision about what it is in her best interest. I'm the adult and I'm responsible for her care. I'm not disrespecting her when there is nothing for her and I to discuss. If she wants to go outside, she can put on her coat. If she doesn't want to put on her coat, she can stay inside. It's pretty simple. She doesn't need to be autonomous in this situation. The teachable moment for her here is that when I tell her she needs to put on her coat, she needs to put on her coat. There's no arguing about it. If she's going to make a fuss about it, she can lose the "the fun thing" on the other end...the going outside part. That's how she learns the acceptable behavior.

    Posted by RH November 30, 09 02:21 PM
 
11 comments so far...
  1. I agree with the second portion of Barbara's response here about safeness, and I don't think it's much of a stretch to understand. But as far as what to say to the toddler before the meltdown ensues? I think there are just TOO MANY WORDS there. I'm only an expert on my own kids, but In my experience, the tantrum escalates too quickly to get all those words out and frankly, I think it makes adults sound like wishy washy idiots. (Sorry, Barbara!) And it also seems to me like by repeating over and over again the thing that is causing the frustration, you're almost taunting the child. A big speech is giving too much attention to the bad behavior. Even though it IS totally normal for them to test these limits, it's still bad behavior.

    Many parents think my way is disrespectful to the child, but - I think that saying "you can put your coat on and go outside, or you can stay inside. Those are your choices" is saying plenty and it can be said very quickly. "If you would like to see the puppies in the pet store, then you will sit quietly in your stroller while I pay for Auntie's birthday present." And then follow through! If she has a tantrum, then DON'T go see the puppies! I have found that "threatening" with a consequence that actually means something to a (mine is two) toddler and then making the consequence happen only has to occur a limited number of times before they get it. "No, you may not have a cookie. Would you like to have some apples and then do some play doh/markers/help me make soup in the kitchen?" Trust me, they hear the "play doh" part. Mine might start to fuss a at a low level. I follow with "It's apples and play doh, or you can go sit in your room by yourself until you're calm." If she melts down, I pick her up and physically put her in her room.

    It almost NEVER happens anymore unless she is very tired, very hungry, or very overstimulated, which I work very hard to avoid happening so I can head this type of stuff off at the pass.

    Posted by RH November 25, 09 07:44 AM
  1. I agree that too many words is counter-productive. To the LW, have you considered that maybe you're saying 'no' too much? I know it's not always convenient to drop what you're doing and focus on your 3 y.o., but if you show her 10 min. of undivided attention, the benefits last a lot longer. Instead of waiting for her to ask for something she can't do/have, anticipate her needs. Make sure she's not bored, hungry, attention-deprived before she asks for something. That way you're in control of what you're offering. Also, I found that age 3 was MUCH more difficult than age 2. She'll outgrow her tantrums if you're pro-active rather than re-active.

    Posted by freeatlast November 25, 09 08:41 AM
  1. I agree that you have to offer choices and label feelings, but I also agree with RH that too many words are a lousy idea. Also, something that worked very well with my kids was to give them choices whereever possible (do you want pb&j for lunch or turkey? do you want to wear the green shirt or the blue one?) so that when something was not negotiable (buckling a seatbelt, holding hands in the parking lot), it was easier for them to stomach. I also agree wholeheartedly with threatening appropriate consequences AND FOLLOWING THROUGH. And whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of asking her permission for everything - "I need you to put your coat on now, OK?" "You need to buckle your seatbelt now, OK?" etc.

    Posted by akmom November 25, 09 09:03 AM
  1. RH -- Your words are almost verbatim the ones I have always used! "You can do X, or you can do Y, those are your choices." I do not say it meanly, but am simply firm. The child has choices, so she feels she has some amount of control over her own self, but the limits and expectations are clear and can be said quickly. It always worked very well. My youngest is now 10 and actually I still use that framework (obviously, there are now more, and more complex, choices, but the basic idea is the same).
    I also used the redirecting, as you suggest with the cookie versus apple and play-doh.

    Posted by jlen November 25, 09 09:20 AM
  1. When my son was three, we had the same problem. He typically had six or seven full-blown tantrums a day. Most of them were for no good reason--this had simply become a habit.

    I offered him a deal: on a day when he had no tantrums, he could earn 15 minutes of Henry-and-Mommy time. I was a stay-at-home mom and his older brother was in school so really all day was Henry-and-Mommy time, but he didn't notice that. Simply labeling 15 minutes of it did the trick. We didn't even need to do anything special: usually we played together, read books, or simply sat and talked for 15 minutes.

    He immediately went from several tantrums a day to one every two or three days. When I saw him gearing up for one, all I had to do was say, "Remember Henry-and-Mommy time." and he'd get himself under control right away. It broke the habit nicely.

    Posted by kate November 25, 09 10:19 AM
  1. My oldest was such a monster at age 3 that I thought I was raising a serial killer and consulted with a psychologist, who assured me that he was just being three (he's now 11 and perfectly normal). For us, the simple passage of time worked more than anything else. It's just such a tough phase for little people - they know that they aren't babies, and don't want to be babies, but don't quite have all of the skills (communication, impulse control) to pull off behaving as big as they feel they are. Age 3.5 was the peak of awful, and after that every day got better the closer he got to four and luckily by age four the worst of the difficult behavior had passed. My younger kids were more mellow overall but even with them, their worst behavior was between birthdays 3 and 4. Hang in there, it will get better.

    Posted by Jen November 25, 09 04:30 PM
  1. LW: "I just stand there and tell her to calm down or go to her room and scream which makes her scream louder! "

    Perhaps teaching her ways to calm down (instead of just expecting that she already knows how to calm herself, which she probably doesn't because if she did she wouldn't work herself up into a tizzy -- no one wants to feel that out of control -- which feels unsafe, as others have mentioned) and modeling calm, assertive behavior when upset (vs screaming) will help her deescalate from her increased state of arousal.

    You mentioned that you are a young mother. Do you have a lot of support with her? Are you able to give her enough individual attention or is this perhaps one way that she feels she can get the attention she needs?

    I agree with many of the suggestions offered here, especially about setting expectations before the tantrum, making them clear again during, and then following through with consequences for behavior that does not meet your specifically stated expectations.

    Another strategy that no one mentioned is to praise her (very specifically) when she is behaving in a manner that is to your liking. "Good job being patient while Mommy does X." It also helps to point out how it benefits her. "This means we can spend more time doing Y together." But keep it short and sweet -- she's 3 and has a short attention span!

    Posted by Michalita November 25, 09 05:55 PM
  1. Addendum -- I didn't read the "Mini Magic" article Barbara suggested before offering my comment. Read the article - it's excellent! It also describes a lot of what I talked about.

    I still think that consequences have a place, although I agree with the article in that I wouldn't want a time out space at a preschool (whereas it may be appropriate in a home).

    It is *amazing* that a lot of these strategies work (in a slightly different way) with unruly teenagers. :) Developmentally, because of the struggle for independence, they are very much large toddlers....

    Posted by Michalita November 25, 09 06:02 PM
  1. I strongly suggest 1/2/3 Magic and "The Happiest Toddler on the Block."

    Posted by C November 25, 09 09:47 PM
  1. This is fantastic advice. Young children are learning about their emotions and operating from a very limited part of their brain. It is crucial in building emotional intelligence that you name children's emotions for them - give them the language to know what is happening to them and help them make better choices in expressing their feelings. Allow their need for autonomy and stop worrying that everyone will think you are coddling!

    The words modeled above are appropriate, set limits and still treat a child with respect. You can adjust the words based on your child's development (ie Happiest Toddler on the Block's"you're mad mad mad...") and still use the same formula - which is to identify needs and feelings and offer strategies for handling the times when life doesn't go your child's way.

    "You can do this or that" - does not offer the child a choice - or allow a child to be autonomous - it offers the child the option of pleasing mom or day in 2 ways - "you can either do A or B" and anything else at this moment is wrong.

    This is conditional and does not teach children to pick up on social cues, learn acceptable behaviors or feel connected to their parent or caregiver.

    This article is sage advice, that is only now making it to the mainstream! Thank you for writing it.

    - Lori
    writer/child advocate
    http://www.teach-through-love.com

    Posted by lpetro November 27, 09 11:27 PM
  1. "...it offers the child the option of pleasing mom or day in 2 ways - 'you can either do A or B' and anything else at this moment is wrong."

    Um, right, Lori - because my two year old is not capable of making an informed decision about what it is in her best interest. I'm the adult and I'm responsible for her care. I'm not disrespecting her when there is nothing for her and I to discuss. If she wants to go outside, she can put on her coat. If she doesn't want to put on her coat, she can stay inside. It's pretty simple. She doesn't need to be autonomous in this situation. The teachable moment for her here is that when I tell her she needs to put on her coat, she needs to put on her coat. There's no arguing about it. If she's going to make a fuss about it, she can lose the "the fun thing" on the other end...the going outside part. That's how she learns the acceptable behavior.

    Posted by RH November 30, 09 02:21 PM
add your comment
Required
Required (will not be published)

This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it.

About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

Submit a question for Barbara's Mailbag


Ask Barbara a question

Barbara answers questions on a wide range of topics, including autism, breastfeeding, bullying, discipline, divorce, kindergarten, potty training, sleep, tantrums, and much, much more.

Send your questions to her at:
meltzbarbara (at) gmail.com.
Please include your name and hometown.
Moms
All parenting discussions
Discussions

High needs/fussy baby

memes98 writes "My 10.5 month old DS has been fussy ever since he was born, but I am getting very frustrated because I thought he would be much better by now...has anyone else been through this?"

More community voices

Corner Kicks

Dirty Old Boston

Mortal Matters

On Deck

TEDx Beacon Street

RSS feed


click here to subscribe to
Child Caring

archives