The three-year-old development. . . A wonderful stage where life is getting easier with your little one–they are now able to handle more responsibility, are going off to preschool and you may find yourself having more fun since they can participate in more “grown-up” activities. But, with this greatness comes a need for expressing their opinion (which many times differs from yours) and a want to do everything on their own, their way. Handling a three year old can takes a lot of patience and goodwill, so Breezy Mama turned to Dr. Fran Walfish for advice on overcoming the hardest behaviors. . .
Why are the “two’s” considered “terrible” when it’s really the three’s that are gnarly?
THE “TERRIBLE TWO’S” SEEM TO HAVE BECOME THE “TERRIBLE THREE’S” FOR THE FOLLOWING REASON. ORIGINALLY, RESEARCHERS BELIEVED THAT THE RAPPROCHEMENT PHASE OF DEVELOPMENT OCCURS FROM 18 MONTHS- 3 YEARS. IN MY LARGE PRIVATE PRACTICE WHERE I HAVE TREATED THOUSANDS OF YOUNG TODDLERS, I OBSERVE THAT THIS PHASE OF DEVELOPMENT RESOLVES CLOSER TO AGE 4 YEARS. THAT IMPLIES THAT WHAT WE USED TO SEE IN TODDLERS AROUND AGE 2 IS NOW BEING OBSERVED AT AGE 3 YEARS. THESE BEHAVIORS INCLUDE AN INCREASE IN OPPOSITION, DEFIANCE, AND CLAIMING ONESELF AS A SEPARATE BEING FROM MOMMY AND DADDY. THIS MAY INCLUDE TEMPER TANTRUMS, HITTING, DELAYS FOLLOWING COMMANDS, AND GENERALLY REQUIRING MORE TEACHABLE MOMENTS. THIS PHASE INVOLVES THE RHYTHMIC BACK-AND-FORTH MOVEMENT IN THE TODDLER BETWEEN ATTACHMENT AND SEPARATION. YOU MAY SEE YOUR TODDLER HOLDING ONTO MOMMY’S PANT LEGS. THEN, HE LOOKS ACROSS THE ROOM AND NOTICES AN INTERESTING TOY. HE LETS GO OF MOMMY’S AND TODDLES ACROSS THE ROOM, BENDS DOWN AND PICKS UP THE TOY WITH CURIOSITY AND DELIGHT. HE THEN TURNS TO LOOK OVER HIS SHOULDER TO SEE IF MOMMY IS STILL THERE SECURELY BASED FOR HIM TO RETURN TO. HE TODDLES BACK TO MOM AND HANDS HER THE TOY WITH GLEE. THIS IS NOT ABOUT THE TOY. IT IS ABOUT THE CHILD’S PRACTICING SEPARATION AND ESTABLISHING SECURITY THAT HE CAN COUNT ON MOMMY TO ALWAYS BE THERE TO RETURN TO. BECAUSE OF THE CHILD’S UNCERTAINTY OF THIS DEVELOPING SECURITY, I RECOMMEND NO “TIME-OUTS” ALONE WITHOUT A WARM, EMPATHIC PARENT OR CAREGIVER ACCOMPANYING THE CHILD AS HE LEARNS TO CALM HIMSELF.
Now that the child can talk AND has major will power, what is the best way to handle when they disagree with you?
THERE NEEDS TO BE A CLEAR UNDERSTANDING OF ZERO-TOLERANCE FOR PHYSICAL AGGRESSION, BUT AT THE SAME TIME YOU INVITE YOUR CHILD TO EXPRESS DISAGREEMENT AND ANGER DIRECTLY TO YOU. IN OTHER WORDS, PRAISE YOUR CHILD FOR HAVING A DIFFERENT IDEA AND OPINION THAN YOU. PRAISE HER FOR TELLING YOU. THEN HELP HER SHOW UP FOR THE TASK. SHE CAN DISAGREE WITH YOU AND EVEN FEEL SUPER MAD AT YOU BUT YOU STILL WILL HELP HER DO HER JOB. YOU ARE TEACHING HER RESPONSIBILITY.
Most three year olds are starting preschool—it seems as if they are perfect angels for their teaches, but unleash the “bad behavior” when they come home. Do you have any suggestions on how to combat this?
IF YOUR THREE YEAR-OLD IS A PERECT ANGEL AT SCHOOL – CELEBRATE!!! YOU’RE DOING SOMETHING RIGHT. MOST CHILDREN THIS YOUNG ARE STILL LEARNING HOW TO REGULATE STRONG FEELINGS INCLUDING FRUSTRATION, DELAYED GRATIFICATION, AND FEAR. IF YOU LITTLE ONE IS MANAGING THESE THINGS AT SCHOOL HE IS DEMONSTRATING A CAPACITY. THAT MEANS YOU CAN “BEGIN” TO EXPECT THESE THINGS AT HOME AS WELL. IF YOUR CHILD UNLEASHES THE “BAD BEHAVIOR” WHEN THEY COME HOME, ENLIST A REST TIME AND SNACK BEFORE PLACING ANY DEMANDS ON YOUR YOUNGSTER. OFTEN, THE CHILDREN ARE WORKING HARD IN SCHOOL AND USING RESTRAINT. THEY COME HOME TIRED AND HUNGRY AND LET THEIR GUARDS DOWN DISPLAYING A SHORTER FUSE AND LOWER THRESHOLD FOR FRUSTRATION. YOU MIGHT WANT TO SELF-EXAMINE TO EXPLORE IF THERE IS ANYTHING IN YOUR PERSONALITY STYLE THAT GETS CAUGHT IN POWER-STRUGGLES WITH YOUR CHILD. DO NOT ENGAGE IN NEGOTIATIONS, BARGAINING, OR DEAL-MAKING WITH YOUR CHILD. BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR EXPECTATIONS. THEN, FOLLOW-THROUGH AND TAKE ACTION TO HELP YOUR DO WHAT THEY NEED TO.
One mom wrote in and said there were problems with her daughter and her daughter’s father. She says, “She’ll [the daughter] yell, kick and hit him [the father] when she doesn’t what him around. It could get sparked by something as simple as asking her to set the dinner table to waking her up in the morning to get ready for the day. It’s getting so bad that John* is ready to leave and give himself an extended time out away from us. I’m not sure what I should be doing, I don’t like the yelling and this isn’t good for John and me either. From what we’ve been reading, it sounds like 3 year old behavior. Will Lucy grow out of it or do we need to do something else?
*Not their real names.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, THIS IS NOT AN UNUSUAL DYNAMIC IN FAMILIES. MOST OFTEN THE MOM IS NOT TAKING A CLEAR SUPPORTIVE POSITION WITH HER HUSBAND. TAKE A DEEP BREATH AND REREAD THE SCENARIO. THESE PARENTS HAVE GIVEN A 3 YEAR-OLD TODDLER THE POWER TO MAKE HER FATHER WANT TO LEAVE THE HOUSE! TOO MUCH POWER. THIS MOM AND DAD BOTH NEED TO TELL THEIR DAUGHTER THAT DAUGHTER LOVES HER TOO AND WANTS PLAYTIME AND FUN WITH HIS LITTLE GIRL. FOR NOW, START WITH JUST HAVING FUN WITH HER! AFTER YOU DEVELOP A WARMER CONNECTION, THEN YOU CAN PLACE COMMANDS LIKE SETTING THE DINNER TABLE. IT’S IMPORTANT TO MENTION THAT THREE YEAR-OLDS ARE OLD ENOUGH AND SMART ENOUGH TO PLAY MOMMY AGAINST DADDY. IF ONE PARENT IS MORE LIKELY TO GIVE IN TO THE CHILD’S PROTESTS AND DEMANDS, THE CHILD MAY SHOW PREFERENCE FOR BEING WITH THAT PARENT.
Another reader asked, “My three-year old is an only child. Her terrible behavior is making us not want to have another child. Are we hurting her, in the short and long term, for not having a sibling for her?”
NO, I DO NOT THINK YOU ARE HURTING HER TO REMAIN AN ONLY CHILD. THIS IS A LITTLE MORE COMPLEX. THERE ARE OTHER FACTORS TO CONSIDER. DID YOU ORIGINALLY WANT MORE CHILDREN? IS YOUR DECISION TO NOT HAVE MORE SOLELY BASED ON YOUR DAUGHTER’S TERRIBLE BEHAVIOR? WILL YOU RESENT HER DOWN THE ROAD? I SUGGEST THAT YOU CONSULT A CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST. YOUR FEELINGS AS WELL AS YOUR HUSBAND’S MAY CHANGE IF YOU CAN LEARN STRATEGIES FOR MANAGING YOUR LITTLE GIRL’S BEHAVIOR. YOU WILL BE GIVING HER A CHANCE TO GROWN AND IN THE LONG-RUN HELPING YOUR MARRIAGE.
A mom of two boys, one 3 and a half year-old and a one year-old asks, “I’ve noticed that my older child is becoming much more aggressive toward his younger sibling—what can I do to correct his behavior?”
THIS IS QUITE EXPECTED. AS YOUR ONE YEAR-OLD BEGINS TO WALK, TALK, GRAB TOYS, AND INTRUDE ON YOUR OLDER BOY’S WORLD, THE RIVALRY AND ANGER INCREASES. YOU CAN NOT LEAVE THEM UNSUPERVISED FOR ONE MOMENT. USUALLY THE OLDER CHILD WAITS FOR A MOMENT WHEN NO ONE IS LOOKING AND WHACKS THE LITTLE ONE. YOU MUST GENUINELY EMPATHIZE OUT LOUD WITH YOUR OLDER SON. TALK WITH HIM ABOUT HOW HARD IT IS TO HAVE A BABY BROTHER WHO KNOCKS DOWN HIS BLOCKS AND LEGOS AND GRABS TOYS. TELL HIM MOMMY WILL BE SURE TO WATCH LITTLE BROTHER SO HE DOESN’T GET IN YOUR WAY. BUT WHEN HE DOES, NO HITTING. CALL MOMMY. I WILL COME AND TAKE CARE OF YOU AND YOUR BROTHER. THE OLDER CHILD WILL NEED LOTS OF OPPORTUNITY TO EXPRESS HIS ANGER AND JEALOUSY TOWARD THE BABY. YOU CAN OFFER THIS VERBALLY OR THROUGH SPORTS OR COLORING AND PAINTING.
Some three year olds are starting to drop their nap, causing them to be really cranky between 5 – 7 PM. Any suggestions on what we should do to help the early evening go much more smoothly and peacefully?
FROM 5-6PM DO QUIET ACTIVITIES WITH YOUR CHILD. THIS MAY INCLUDE PUZZLES, BOOKS, COLORING, FINGER-PAINTING. BY 6PM YOU CAN BEGIN YOUR BEDTIME ROUTINE INCLUDING DINNER, BATH, PJ’S, BOOKS AND BED. THE MORE STRUCTURED AND EASILY ANTICIPATED THE EVENING GOES, THE CALMER YOUR CHILD WILL FEEL.
One of the things that I notice is that parents are always shocked when their “nice, polite, and calm” child becomes a tyrant at three years old. What is the proper way to deal with this behavior?
EMBRACE THIS. THE PSYCHOLOGICAL GOAL OF TODDLERHOOD IS TO CLAIM ONESELF AS A SEPARATE HUMAN-BEING THAN MOMMY AND DADDY. THAT INCLUDES SAYING “NO”, TEMPER TANTRUMS, AND OPPOSITION. INCIDENTALLY, THERE IS A PARALLEL PROCESS DURING ADOLESCENCE. THE GOAL OF ADOLESCENCE IS TO RESOLVE SEPARATION AND SELF IDENTITY. THAT INCLUDES HAVING DIFFERENT BELIEFS AND IDEAS FROM MOM AND DAD. YOUR TODDLER NEEDS YOU TO NARRATE OUT LOUD WHAT SHE IS FEELING AND WANTING. FOR INSTANCE YOU CAN SAY, “YOU REALLY WANT MORE TV VIDEO TIME AND YOU GOT SO MAD AT MOMMY WHEN I SAID IT’S BATH TIME! IT’S HARD TO STOP WHEN YOU WANT MORE. SHOW MOMMY HOW YOU CAN TURN OFF THE TV OR MOMMY’S IS GOING TO HELP YOU.” YOU WAIT A SILENT COUNT OF TWO, THEN YOU TURN OFF THE TV. WALK YOUR CHILD INTO THE BATHROOM AND DEAL WITH HER TANTRUM IN THE BATHROOM. IT GIVES HER THE MESSAGE THAT WE ARE ONTO THE NEXT TASK.
MOMS, GIVE YOURSELVES ROOM FOR ERROR. NO ONE IS PERFECT. THE MORE YOU CAN CUT YOURSELF A LITTLE SLACK, THE MORE YOU WILL BE ABLE TO DO THE SAME FOR YOUR CHILDREN. GOOD LUCK AND ALL BEST WISHES!
About Dr. Frances Walfish: Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is the foremost Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist. Her caring approach, exuberant style, humor, and astute insights have earned her a sterling reputation among colleagues and national media alike. A frequent guest on top-tier TV programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and KABC-TV in Los Angeles, The Doctors, CBS and often appearing in major publications such as Parents Magazine, Family Circle and Woman’s Day, Dr. Fran continues to lead the field with her expert insights and innovative strategies for parents, children and couples.
Her current book, The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child from Palgrave Macmillan’s/St. Martin’s Press, December 7, 2010, is receiving acclaimed reviews. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are presently collaborating with Dr. Fran to produce a television series offering therapeutic guidance and help to families in America. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at DrFranWalfish.com.
To order Dr. Walfish’s book ($11.56 on Amazon), click here.
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