I am not the first person to say this, but age three took me by surprise.
Here I was, hanging out for the Terrible Twos, but they never came. Instead, soon after My Little Sunshine Girl’s third birthday, something ticked over. It was like fireworks went off. I’m sorry, but where did you put my little girl? One day, I was boasting about how I could take her anywhere, and about how kind and gentle she is, the next, I am stuffing wads of cotton wool in my ears to protect my ear drums from shattering.
We were driving down the highway when we first heard it. It was so piercing, my husband’s knuckles turned white on the steering wheel.
My previous response to behaviour I didn’t like was to ignore it. Within minutes, it evaporated. But I was told I needed to put clear boundaries in place to control this new brand of behaviour.
Make it known what you do and don’t like. It’s OK to be firm.
Being clear about boundaries, and using a stern voice, worked for my husband. The child, red-eyed and wild-haired with emotion, would lay on the floor, kicking and screaming. It was emotion so unrestrained, and so uncensored, it needed containing. My husband’s clear, strong voice worked, mostly. “That’s enough now!” he would say firmly. Usually so gentle, his sternness couldn’t be ignored. Although it wasn’t easy to do, my three-year-old scraped herself up from the tiles, and tried to Use Her Words to explain what she wanted.
Unrestrained expressions of emotion were one thing. There were public tantrums. There was defiance against simple tasks, like getting dressed. My little girl, usually so cooperative, began to master the art of resistance.
Most days she was her lovely self. But there were some days, being on my own with a three-year-old and a baby, which made me feel ready to hand in my resignation. Like that time a dandelion ruined my day. I just could not deal with her her flying fit of rage beside the road, while I was walking home encumbered by baby-in-sling and child-in-pram. “I’ve had enough!” I yelled once too often. Nor could I deal with the constant battle over what she was going to wear, or what she was going to eat.
I made it known what was and wasn’t acceptable. I was clear about the behaviours I liked and the behaviours I didn’t. But my stern voice began sounding like the mother I never wanted to be.
And it didn’t seem to be doing much good.
Like most things in parenting, and life generally, there wasn’t one single moment, but cumulative moments and a gradual transition which occurred.
On one hand, my daughter has grown into her emotions. She can now put the brakes on before the meltdown. As her cognition develops, she works out that being reasonable and cooperative works in her favour. She feels more in control of her situation, and more aware of how her emotions affect others.
One the other hand, I realised I don’t want to be Mrs Cranky Bags any longer. So I have rejected well-meant words of wisdom and ditched my stern voice. I’ve gone back to simply ignoring and down-playing behaviour I don’t like. If I have an emotional reaction, in any form, to behaviour, it just escalates the situation. So I try and remain calm.
There are no essential ingredients to surviving three-dom, and every child is different, with different needs. But here’s what works in our home:
Give it time
Three, like every stage, comes with its own characteristics. From what I have read, much of age three is about asserting will and forging independence. Tasks like getting dressed are a constant minefield because the three-year-old is exercising newly discovered autonomy. But it passes. With time, the game of running away from pyjamas loses its appeal, and the three-year-old tries a new game – cooperation.
With our Little Sunshine Girl, I have noticed that difficult periods come and go. Maybe they relate to hormonal surges. Dr Louann writes in The Female Brain about spikes in oestrogen which occur in toddlerhood as the small brain primes itself for fertility. This makes a lot of sense to me, as my daughter’s emotional outbursts do mimic prepubescent outrage or even PMS. They also seem to be correlated with growth spurts. Whatever is going on biologically, all I know is, the moment passes.
Acknowledge and validate feelings
In counselling, you are taught to acknowledge and validate a person’s feelings. At some point, I decided to apply my counselling skills to my three-year-old. They were extremely effective. I acknowledged that I heard what she was saying, and said things like, “I understand why you would feel that way.” It completely took the wind out of tantrums and erratic emotions.
Children, like adults, need to feel in control of their situation and their environment. I hate being told what to do. My daughter is the same. By giving her the freedom to make a choice about a situation, I am giving her back a sense of control, and difficult behaviour is minimised. Instead of telling my daughter what to do, I try to give her options, or ask her what she would like to do. For example, the answer to: “Shall we go brush our teeth now?” is surprisingly always: “Yes.”
At three, emotions seem to be highly charged. And that’s OK. Children should be entitled to feel what they feel. As parents, we can provide a safe and loving environment to contain wild emotions. If my daughter flies into a tantrum, I sit close by, and tell her that I’ll wait for her to calm down. People often use time-outs in response to heightened emotional outbursts, but I prefer staying close. Sometimes it’ll take five minutes. Sometimes ten. But eventually, when she’s ready, she seeks out the emotional support she needs.
Containment also refers to boundaries. Loading a toddler with rules and guidelines can have a negative effect, because the child begins to feel hemmed in, and out of control of their situation. But where necessary, a child needs to know when acceptable behaviour ends and unacceptable behaviour begins. In my home, I don’t tolerate hitting, or unkindness. If my three-year-old is unkind to her baby sister, I clearly tell her it’s not OK. Because she doesn’t run into a red flag every time she turns a corner, she is responsive when I make a boundary clear.
I’ve noticed that at three, it’s often a case of digging the heels in. My daughter will get stuck on a theme, like, “I don’t want to wear floppy pants!” Quite often, there is no point arguing. Her logic is of a different time and place, and negotiation is pointless. So I change the topic of conversation. “Have you fed the fishies yet?” always seems to work.
Psychologist Robin Grille from Heart to Heart Parenting talks about the parent-child connection being central to the well-being of the child. Since having a second child, I have less time to connect with my three-year-old. I can’t always meet her needs. But where possible, I try and reinforce our connection. We bath together, and lately, have been spending a magical hour before bed reading classic stories like Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. Throughout the day, she relives the stories, and we reenact the characters. It’s not without irony that stories have been our point of connection. Hand in Hand Parenting talks about designating Special Time each day to connect with your child. Special Time is one-on-one, uninterrupted time spent together doing child-led activities.
Letting go of anger
Anger and frustration are my stumbling blocks. I am quick-tempered and often react emotionally, whether it is to my daughter’s own quick-temper or to something stupid, like dropping the coffee beans. But lately, something shifted. I made a decision to let it go. I realised how much my anger rubs off on my daughter. When I stopped getting mad at her, she stopped getting mad. It was Just Like That.
Since having a three-year-old, I have to say I believe in magic. I’m not talking about applying magic ointment to the wound or waving the magic wand. But lately, my three-year-old and I have been weaving magical worlds while we tell stories, or play in the garden. My daughter’s imagination has taken flight. Watching her in her magical universe, I realise how much of her emotion and attention is redirected into a fantasy world. There is less focus on herself, and Big Problems like floppy pants, because why would floppy pants be a problem, when you are flying in a hot air balloon around the world? And when we do get into a pickle, I use magic as a tool to get us out. If my daughter resists teeth-brushing duties, I invite the Tooth Brushing Monster in, and without fail, the magic works wonders.
Have you got a three-year-old, or do you remember those heady days? What tricks worked for you?