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Child Caring

3-year-old is trying mom's patience

[This letter has been condensed.]
Dear Barbara,
I am a patient mom. I am a single mom by choice. I have the best kid. He is bright, happy, intelligent, and definitely ahead of the game. We really do have a great time and he is very kind to others and receptive to the needs of others. He will be 4 yrs old in April and I can attest that age 3-4 is hands down the hardest year we have had. As I said, I am patient, I don't say "no" all of the time, I allow him to learn through his own actions (safely). However, I have a switch that he can flip and I lose it. I have made a pact with myself not to scream. I feel that screaming doesn't help, it makes me feel awful, and then I set the example that it is appropriate to cope that way. That said, I have tried all the tricks, I have changed schedules, routines, etc. but the morning routine of getting out the door is awful. And more times than I want, we leave hurried, upset, and late.

My question...do even the best of the best, the Jane Nelsen's of the parenting world never completely lose it? How can anyone live with a 3 year old [who] never lets up, not finally throw their hands in the air and resort to the only thing they haven't tried...screaming?

I don't want age 3-4 to be what defines my relationship with this amazing little person that I love dearly. I remember feeling that same impatience with my mom and I don't want to portray that to him. But I don't know developmentally if they pick up and remember this age or if I got that feeling from mom at a later age.

Thanks for your insight. It is much appreciated.

From: AN,

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Dear AN,

Phew, you've raised a lot of issues here!

1. Yes, Three going into 4 is a tough age. Among other developmental milestones, kids are using more and more language and trying to figure out ways in which they can feel powerful and independent in the world. "If I say this, what will mom do? Hm, that was interesting. Well, what if say that again? What will she say this time? And this time?"

The trick is to find safe ways to allow her to feel powerful:

Offer choices. Yeah, you've heard this before. If it's not working, it's likely because you are getting sidetracked. A problem area for you seems to be getting out in the morning. Do you lay his clothes out the night before? Does he sometimes reject what you've put out? Offer a choice of two or three possibilities. If he wants a fourth that you haven't offered, don't negotiate! Here's your response: "That isn't one of the choices." Calmly repeat what is available. Do this around everything.

Substitute "When" for "If." Preschoolers seem to have a built-in negative reaction against sentences that begin, "If you don't put your shoes on...." Phrase your request in a positive way: "When you put your shoes on.." and see if you get better response.

Use a timer. For your morning struggle, try using an egg timer, the kind with the sand, to set a limit on dawdling. A timer is objective.

Click here for more tried-and-true strategies.

2. Yes, every parent loses it now and again. You're human, right? What matters is the frequency with which it happens, the degree to which we lose it, and how we recover. A new study that looked at teens shows that frequent yelling, especially if it is abusive, can be as damaging as physical abuse. Common sense tells us this is true for younger children as well.

If you say something and immediately regret it, are you able to apologize to your child? An apology does not weaken your position as the parent, assuming this isn't happening frequently; it's a positive role model that helps a child know that everyone sometimes loses control but is able to gain it back; that reconciliation is possible; and that relationships can go on even when feelings have been
hurt. Here's an example of what you can say: "I'm sorry, I wish I hadn't said those words. I hurt your feelings. I'll try not to say that again."

When you find yourself on the verge of yelling and can't think of what else to do, take a 30-second break. Literally. Stop your mouth mid-word and say simply, "I need to take a break." Go into the bathroom and take a few deep breaths. Remind yourself that you're the adult and of all the strategies at your disposal. Go back out and start over in a calm, matter-of-fact voice and say, "OK. Let's start over. Here are your choices." If you use this strategy wisely and infrequently, your child will be so surprised that you are walking away, that it may shock her to silence. For some kids, this is scary. That's why you're only gone 30 seconds.