Terrible 3's

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  August 16, 2011 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,

I am an avid reader of your column and have been mentally filing away your great advice for future use. I have an almost 3 year old daughter who until two or 3 weeks ago has been so easy to parent. She is easy-going, happy and joyful and my husband and I frequently comment on how good we have it.

When she turned 2, I braced for some "terribleness" which never manifested. Friends warned me that 3 is more challenging than 2. I'm not sure if that is what is going on, but my daughter has been very uncooperative lately, wanting to do things her way. Getting her to take a bath is a battle because she knows bedtime comes after that. She's also recently stopped napping most days even though she used to take 2.5 hour naps. She's not fresh, but just uncooperative and I don't have any strategies to deal other than to offer her two choices so she feels like she has control. (This hasn't worked so far because she offers her own thirds choice!) My patience and my nerves are frayed and I am afraid that she'll sense my frustration when she's really just doing what is normal and healthy for a child her age. Can you offer me any pointers for getting through this phase?

From: Weary in Watertown, Watertown, MA


Dear Weary,

Sounds like your daughter is having terrible 3's instead of 2's and, yes, I'd definitely put this in the category of typical behavior.

Frankly, that you offer her choices and she comes up with her own, third choice just makes me smile. She may be a handful, but you've got to admire that quality. May she always be an out-of-the-box thinker!

At this stage of development, what she needs more than anything is to feel powerful and autonomous. She needs to see that she has an effect on her world. Mostly, that means you. What you need to do is play into her strengths. So, yes, offering choices is good. That can give her a sense of power. But guess what? If she has too much power -- if you start to negotiate with her when she offers a third choice -- that's actually frightening. Think of it this way: When you offer her choices and she comes up with a third, here's how to translate what she's saying: "Listen, I'm testing you, mom. I want some control, but deep down inside, I need to know that you're in charge. That's how I feel safe." Hopefully, that makes it easier for you to say, "That isn't one of the choices. Here are the choices." Then repeat them calmly. If she digs her heels in, tell her, "There are two choices. Let me know when you decide." Then turn your back on her. Kindly. You're giving her power in an age-appropriate way.

For more ideas, read this column of mine. It's one of those golden oldies, the most requested column I've ever written.

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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.

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