Ages and Stages
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 19 No. 2, March-April 2002, pp. 70
"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.
People always talk about how challenging two-year-olds are. My toddler was no problem, though, until she turned three. I talk to her respectfully and give her options, but I still hear “No!” and get lots of tantrums. It seems the suggestions for dealing with stubborn two-year-olds don’t work with the older child. Have other mothers had these problems with three-year-olds or is it just me? What did you do?
When I read your question, I wondered if I had sent it in! I am in the same position as you are. My daughter was so easy until she turned three. Literally the day of her third birthday, she changed. She became much more vocal about what she did or did not want to do. She also decreased nursing and weaned six months later. At the time, I took all of this to mean she was just going through a rough patch. Well, she is almost four and things have steadily gotten worse. She is currently stomping around when she does not get her way, challenging everything, refusing to do all sorts of things, growling, and hitting me or her daddy. This behavior is not constant, but it is daily.
Now to the positive side of this! I truly believe this is a time of emotional and mental growth. There is so much flying around in that little mind and some of it just comes out in negative ways. Are we as adults able to control our behavior all the time? I know I am not. She is only going through something that is natural. It is my responsibility to help her get through this time and not to take all of her behavior personally. Better said than done sometimes! This bad behavior is not excused, but understood. I am not advocating that you just sit by and let her continue to exhibit improper behavior.
What to do? Discipline and teaching better behavior are important. Also, remember to pick your battles. Fighting over socks (something I did last week!) is just a waste. I continue to respect her, but there are consequences for her actions. If she hits, talks back, or does something really inappropriate, we take away something she loves, such as television time, a play date, or a toy. Sending my daughter to her room for time out works well for us. Above all, be patient. Give her the freedom to become what she is. I look at my daughter as a butterfly wrestling her way out of her cocoon. My job is to help her emerge as the best person she can be. Good luck!
This situation really struck a chord with me because I, too, marveled at people talking about terrible twos when my children were so much fun as two-year-olds! And then three hit! Wow! Tune in to the things that cause your three-year-old to dig in her heels and/or melt down. Watch for the clues of an impending blow-up and do something to distract the child. Offer two alternative suggestions for her to choose from rather than saying “No.” Using positive feedback and affirmation can be helpful. If your child is about to melt down because you don’t have her favorite cereal, affirming her disappointment and then offering a couple of alternative solutions, perhaps something you wouldn’t normally offer at breakfast time, may help. “I know you wish we had your favorite cereal. I wish the Chunky Chocolate O’s could be delivered every morning at 8 am by helicopter! But since all the helicopters are busy, would you like to try oatmeal with marshmallows or pretzel sticks dipped in yogurt?” Some children are really intense and it’s hard to nip tantrums in the bud. Holding them, rocking them, and affirming their frustrations seemed to help at least some of the time for my children. Whatever you do, don’t feel like a bad mother if you can’t always have sunny days with your three-year-old. It isn’t you, it’s a stage, and though some children will continue to be sensitive and emotional throughout their lives, most won’t continue this behavior this intensely forever. You may also find reading How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlisch a helpful book with many practical suggestions.
Two was nothing compared to three with my daughter; I have commiserated with many mothers who share my experience. As a two-year-old, my daughter went through very normal times of testing limits and exploring boundaries, which were easily dealt with by talking through rules and feelings. After she turned three, my husband and I had many a day and night where we were close to tears thinking we had spawned a demon child. She had tantrums, would not follow directions, seemed uncaring and unloving, and had a very low threshold for anger/rage. I looked at many aspects of our lives (what we might be doing wrong), but came to realize that this was normal for her age and that we had to adapt to her changing coping skills and limit-testing. It helped tremendously to talk to other mothers and see other children with similar negative behavior. We used a combination of “sit down time” where my daughter sat on our laps with her arms crossed, especially if she was having a tantrum (the arm crossing helped her to stay safe and prevented her from hitting us). We also spent a lot of time talking about what constitutes appropriate behavior. My husband and I were very open about our own negative behaviors (such as when a bad word slipped out or we spoke to anyone in an ugly manner) and we apologized for any of our transgressions to role model remorse and accountability for our actions. It seemed to be very helpful to our daughter to see that everyone makes mistakes...but the important thing was to correct them.
The most important thing we did was to be consistent. It was very hard to tell her no and remove privileges but we hung in there and the rewards have been great. Plus, there is always room for negotiation and my daughter has learned she can earn privileges as well as lose them, which is how the outside world works. Best of luck! Keep attending La Leche League Series Meetings. I learn something at every meeting.
That’s me living with my son, Steven! The day he turned three there was a total change in his personality. He started having tantrums, screaming, head banging, spitting, and biting. I have found that he can’t cope with a fast-paced life. When we slow down and spend lots of time at home, reading books, drawing, and pretend play, he has fewer tantrums. Giving him only two choices (two we would be happy to live with) and letting him decide helps. Moving slowly and allowing plenty of time in our day for tasks and activities keeps tantrums at bay. He functions much better if he has a schedule that doesn’t vary much, for example napping at the same time, using the toilet at the same time, and having meals and snacks at regular intervals. Sometimes I tie in activities that he wants to do with tasks that he needs to do. When he wants to eat lunch, he must go potty and wash his hands. If he starts to fuss I give him the choice of going by himself or having Mommy help him. When he doesn’t make a decision, I simply walk him to the bathroom and we proceed so that he can eat. When he misbehaves, he is asked to stop or is redirected to the task at hand. When he continues in his misbehavior, I remove him from the activity and hold him in my arms to calm him if necessary. Sometimes, he bites and kicks so he is placed in a room where he can’t hurt himself or others for a few minutes. Telling myself that this will pass and giving hugs and positive interaction as much as possible make for loving days with a calm little boy and his mother!
I found with both my children that three-year-olds were more of a challenge than two-year-olds. Their emerging personalities are getting stronger and stronger at that age! The single thing that made our relationship easier was looking for common preferences—things that we would both be happy with. It was not enough to just give a number of choices and expect my child to pick one. I took a step back and examined whether the situation was something so critical that I really needed to have some level of compliance—this calls for a lot of creative thinking. An example may serve to demonstrate: You are going out and your child is wearing a pair of underwear and nothing else. You might approach the problem by picking out a number of outfits and asking your child to choose which he will wear; but if he refuses, you are in a classic power struggle. We would examine the situation, talk with the child about what he wants, and question the underlying assumptions. Does the child really need to be dressed? Does it have to be right now? Can it be later, in the car for example? Would he like to put on a super-hero cape and be “flown” to the car? Do you really need to go out right this moment? I found a good book about non-coercive parenting, Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training. Good luck with finding solutions to make all of you happy.
The preschool years bring a new dimension to our children’s personalities. They’ve begun to get a real grasp on their individuality and enjoy exploring boundaries. I too have a child that was an easy toddler, and around the age of three seemed to have become a whole different person. Like toddlers, preschoolers need to learn what boundaries are acceptable in their environments, and have begun to be more influenced by peers. In our home, we find that we have to really examine outside factors when we see a lot of tantrums. Sometimes it has to do with the usual suspects such as tiredness, hunger, and over-stimulation, but we also see a connection between behavior and boredom, how much television has been used, and what friends she has been spending time with. I think watching our children struggle with their emerging independence is both challenging and rewarding. We have raised them to be aware of their own needs and feelings. As babies, they used their body language to tell us their needs, and now they’re finding voices for their feelings. Knowing what is age-appropriate behavior is also helpful. Sometimes they seem to be getting so big and sophisticated with their skills and language that we forget how really small they still are. It can be hard to keep these things in mind at times, so I enjoy going back to some favorite books to refresh my outlook and skills. Some of these books include How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and Kids Are Worth It! by Barbara Coloroso. You too may find these books helpful. Above all, remember to breathe deeply and give them extra kisses when you’ve had a difficult day.
No, it is definitely not just you! I also never understood why people used the term “terrible twos” when my son was so wonderful at that age! Now that Reuben is three, he is still wonderful, but what worked before does not necessarily work now. You do not mention whether your three-year-old is nursing or not. I believe that part of our culture’s obsession with the “terrible twos” has much more to do with parenting style than age. The two-year-olds I see in our circle of children raised with attachment parenting are much more content than others. Nursing can still cure a world of hurts for a two-year-old! Perhaps the reason three-year-olds raised in an attached family are such a challenge is because they are often in the process of weaning themselves? I think that some of my difficulty with my son stemmed from my own changing expectations of Reuben. Within weeks of his third birthday, he made friends with the potty, asked for his own bed, went happily by himself to Sunday school, and began preschool. I couldn’t believe all of the changes happening so quickly! He can open the refrigerator himself, wipe his own hands, and “read” quietly for short periods of time while I nap. I am sure that I unconsciously began treating him as an older child because of what his behavior seemed to be telling me.
However, he is still only three! He still nurses to sleep and has dimpled hands. He still behaves better if he gets a nap and has a hard time making transitions. When he began whining and yelling “no” more often than he ever did when he was two, I thought it was time to step back and see what had changed in my behavior. With my husband’s help, I noticed that I was making eye contact with Reuben much less frequently. Instead of getting down to his level and making sure he understood when making a request of him, I would call to him from across the room or even the next! As I discovered, this simply does not work with a three-year-old! (It rarely works with me!) Also, with the changes in his routine, I was sometimes forgetting his snacks, or forgetting to let him know ahead of time when he needed to prepare for a change in activity.
When I was able to make changes in my own behavior, things began going much more smoothly again. Not that every day is perfect. But we are back to having more good days than bad. I have found that at each of my son’s stages, I need to remind myself that parenting does not get easier, it just gets different! My job is to remain sensitive to my son’s changing needs and meet him where he is. Bless you and your little one as you continue to grow and learn together. Enjoy!
Cheryl P. S.
First of all, I am the mother of a just-turned three-year-old and I can sympathize with you completely! “No” seems to be my son’s favorite word as well. I have heard the same concerns about these behaviors from lots of mothers with three-year olds. What I do is continue to give options. For example, if I ask “Do you want eggs or oatmeal for breakfast?” and he answers “No!”, I restate the choices and let him know that those are the options. He can either choose or say “No” and have me choose for him. Then I follow through despite tantrums.
The other thing I do is tell him “I need you to use a nice/quiet/polite voice” and simply refuse to respond further so I don’t yell back, which is hard, but at least slows down the power struggle. The best advice I have gotten and try to follow for this stage is to remember that testing limits is a three-year-old’s developmental job. Pick your battles, decide what your priorities are, and let the rest go when you can. I also try to ask myself why I say no to my son to decide if it is completely necessary, as his “no” to me often comes when I say it to him too much!
Remember that you are already doing a good job, that your respect for your daughter will make an impact on her, even though it doesn’t seem so now (as a teacher I can tell you it will show up in her behavior later!). Pat yourself on the back for dealing with a hard job and doing it well. Keep your sense of humor alive and well, get together with other mothers who have children in this stage for support, remember this is a stage that will pass, and pamper yourself whenever possible, because this is very hard work!