Child Caring

Dealing with a difficult 3-year-old

Hi Barbera,

I have a 3 and a half year old. He has always had a strong, independent and determined personality. He has always challenged the boundaries but recently he has just gone to a new level of defiant with pretty much every task that is undertaken. Just basic tasks of eating, getting in the car, general play and bed time. He wont listen to instruction willingly and is becoming more more and more upset with himself, me and his carers.

I understand rewarding good behaviors and not giving energy to bad, but when he draws on walls, throws objects when driving in the car, kicks and pushes children in playground, throwing food. This is a challenging age but I was not ready for this. I am trying to stay calm but it is so tiring and he is relentless.

Is there any points that I should be implementing that I may be missing here.

From: Dee, Gold Coast

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Dear Dee,

Some of this may be developmental -- kids get very distraught at this age/stage because they have very strong emotions and they aren't yet able to regulate them. It's a right brain vs left brain issue, according to psychologist Linda Budd, author of "The Journey of Parenting." Here's excerpts from our conversation about your email:

LB: When they get emotional like this, you can't go logical with them. He has no logic at this moment, he's not in his left [logical] brain, so you have to acknowledge the emotional. Enter his world: "You're really angry!"

BM: In the car: he's throwing something?

LB: You ...[pull over and] stop the car. "You're really really mad! But we can't be unsafe in the car. My job is to keep you safe. I can't drive safely when you throw things.."

BM: Will he even hear that?

LB: Maybe, maybe not. But here's the thing: You leave him.

BM: In the car?

LB: You get out of the car and stand there. [Note from BM: Obviously, never shut a child in a car, ever, even for just a few moments. Modify this advice appropriately, depending on the weather and other circumstances. You could also achieve the same end by pulling over and stopping the car and not giving him any attention until the tantrum runs its course. ] Because you do not play audience to the scene. That's the biggest problem parents have, playing audience. They think they are being patient, but they make some comment which feeds the tantrum. And when you feed it, it grows.

LB: At some later, quiet moment you reflect back with him. What I say is, "You had a really
big mad today. It's like a volcano! Your mad is so big!"

BM: So you're getting him back into the left brain, the logic side.

LB: Yes, when he's calm again. Then I would say something like this: "When you have a big mad that's like a volcano, it's your job to figure out what to do with the volcano, because a volcano can hurt people. I get that you were very angry but you cannot do certain things. You cannot throw things in the car. That's why I stopped the car. It wasn't safe. My job is always to make sure you are safe."

BM: It sounds like this mom is doing this to some extent.

LB: So here's the question: why isn't this boy getting it? At 3 1/2, it needs to clear: "You can't do that." [You need to] pick him up and remove him from the activity. He can't be allowed to stay there when he hits. It's not a time-out. It's: "You've gotta be a good boss of your own body, you're in charge of your own body parts." Be clear what that means. "You don't hit, don't bite, don't spit." In any encounter, the adult has to be willing to stop the encounter and take him out of it. "We need to leave. You'll get another chance tomorrow."

LB: Later you can say to him, "You weren't being a good playmate. To be a good playmate, you have to be the boss of your body so you don't hurt anyone. Next time, you can try again." The key is, whatever you do as the adult, it's got to be immediate.

BM: This isn't a one-time deal, it's a process.

LB: This is about a child learning to self-regulate. It's a process, I call it a journey.

BM: Does this child need an evaluation?

LB: I don't want to label a child at 3 1/2, but clearly something is going on. If parental interventions don't help, I would start with a neuro- psychologist who specializes in early childhood. Make sure that the person who does the testing is the one who interprets the test.

BM: Any books to recommend, besides your own?!

LB: Books by Elizabeth Crary, she has a series for children on emotions.