Monday, December 17, 2007

3 ½-year-old Tantrums


I just entered the world of Positive Discipline and I love it. I feel like I can be a really great mother-even more than I already am.

I feel challenged with my 3 ½ year old! He is very specific about things. If he gets something in his mind, it must be that way, or he cries, sometimes until he falls asleep (up to an hour of crying)! For example, if I walk off the sidewalk to get somewhere faster, I get a tantrum. If I flush the toilet-not him–tantrum. If I get a spoon for breakfast–tantrum.

 Even more is when he wants me to do something a specific way, like picking up his shoes; he will stand 2 inches from the shoes and cry for me to get them while I’m holding the baby, a bag and we’re standing in the rain! This is so frustrating because I know he can do it. Is it right for me to be strict and expect him to do these things (my way)? How do I get him to want to do it himself? Is this just a phase because I have even looked up OCD online?

Am I right in understanding the only ways to help calm tantrums are Sympathizing, Ignoring and Hugs? Ignoring and sympathizing cause a tantrum to last even longer. Hugs work, but what if I’m driving, do I pull over? And will they work every time? I know you can’t answer that, but what I mean is if you use hugs all the time, does the child catch on and think, “I know what she’s doing and it isn’t going to work this time? Or do they just love the extra love.

Thank you for a new outlook to parenting. I am really excited to be a more loving mom-all the time, not just when we’re laughing. J


Dear J,

I’m getting a lot of questions with this theme, so I have to wonder what is going on. Not that it hasn’t always been a theme. I know that my seven children all wanted what they wanted when they wanted it. It just seems to me that the persistence is stronger in children today. I have a hunch that it is because their persistence works.

I keep wondering if parents are just a little too child centered these days. As you know, I believe that children should be treated with dignity and respect, but I think it is easy to go to extremes. For example, I think it is very sad when adults cause children to suffer through punishment, guilt, and shame. On the other hand, I think it is sad when parents don’t “allow” children to suffer.

There is a huge difference. When adults cause children to suffer, they impose punishments or guilt and shame. When they don’t “allow” children to suffer it is because they rescue, over-protect, or fix every problem. This robs children of developing their disappointment muscles. It robs them of learning that they can survive upset and end up learning resiliency and feeling capable. Allowing children to suffer doesn’t mean to be mean. Parents can be very supportive when a child is suffering. They can validate feelings, “I can see this is very hard for you.” They can hold a child on their lap for comfort, without saying a word. They can show faith in the child to handle problems—even when it is difficult. Sometimes showing faith is shown in your energy, not in anything you do.

Now, let’s see how this applies to your question. Here are some suggestions:

Let him have his feelings without thinking you need to rescue him or make him change his feelings. This can be difficult, but it will show in your energy even if you don’t do anything.
Validate his feelings. Try to mirror what he is feeling. “I can see that you are really angry.”

You know how much I like hugs. If he is willing, just give him a hug. The purpose is not to take away his feelings, but to give support as long as he needs it. Listen to a podcast on this theme The Power of a Hug.

Use your sense of humor. “Eeeeeek. I made a huge mistake when I flushed the toilet.”
He may be old enough to create his own positive time out (which is nothing like the naughty chair). You can also create a positive time out plan for yourself and let him know in advance when you will use it.

I am now working on a new theme for Positive Discipline that I think will take it to new levels. That theme is “Connection before Correction.” There is so much research that shows that we can’t really influence children is a positive way until we create a connection with them. Punishment does not create a connection, nor do lectures, nagging, scolding, blaming or shaming. So what does?

Before sharing effective way to create a connection with children, I want to point out that it is a mistake to think that giving children whatever they want is a good way to make a connection. Rescuing, fixing, and over-protecting are not good ways to make a connection. Effective connections are made when both child and adult feel belonging and significance--even though it is the adult who takes the first step.

Some of these steps to connection have already been mentioned in the suggestions above. I’ll repeat them here for this context:

  • Listening. Really listening—giving a child your full attention
  • Validating feelings.
  • Sharing your feelings when appropriate. Remember that children will listen to you AFTER they feel listened to.
  • Focusing on solutions WITH children after a cooling off period.
  • Taking time for respectful training during calm times.
  • Asking curiosity questions to help children explore the consequences of their choices instead of imposing consequences on them.
  • Teaching valuable life skills that help children feel capable. Just one example is helping them create their own positive time out space and creating routine charts with them, not for them.
  • Having faith in children to handle their own problems. (Offering support through validating feelings or just giving a hug, but not rescuing or fixing.)
  • Spending special time with children.
  • Hugs.

Now to discuss correction. It is very important to understand that correction the Positive Discipline way is very different from conventional correction. The biggest difference is that conventional correction usually involves punishment (punitive time-out, grounding, and taking away privileges being the most common). In other words, conventional correction consists of adults doing something TO children. Positive Discipline correction consists of the many tools presented in all of the Positive Discipline books that show parents and teachers how to do correction that respectfully involves children whenever possible. It is interesting to note that all of the steps for connection also work for correction. They are things adults do WITH children, not TO or FOR children.

Other methods for correction, to name just a two, are family and class meetings and joint problem-solving. These are very powerful tools that respectfully involve children to learn and use their personal power in contributing ways. As you learn about the many Positive Discipline tools, notice that they are all designed to create a connection before respectful correction.


EHoward said...

I appreciate all your hard work and thought... however, this was absolutely useless information to a frustrating parent of a 3.5 year old. Nothing personal. Creating CHARTS?

Anonymous said...

The "kids these days are so spoiled" comment is only validated by how much you "feel" like you are hearing it, but do not forget that the internet has made many gripes more prominent. Women, in particular, never had a forum to discuss potentially embarrassing and difficult aspects of child-rearing. Before you accuse an entire generation of being weak and spoiling their children (while encouraging an open forum for the challenges of parenthood) perhaps you might give that some thought.

Anonymous said...

My 3.5 year old has started tantrum since we had a baby 2 months ago. He is seeking attention 24/7 I get it. I give him hugs and kisses and try divide my attention equally. But now he is throwing tantrums and hitting. Neither which are okay. How do I stop both behaviors? I do pick my battles and give choices that I choose when ever possible. He responds very well to positive reinforcement. But hitting is not acceptable. What is an appropriate way to teach him consequences for his actions without more tantrums? Help!!! I'm exhausted and sad because I feel like a bad mother!!!

Anonymous said...

To the comment at 9:50pm...
I have a 3 1/2 year old too and he has a 6 month old brother. My eldest was the perfect child until his brother started getting more active... he has now turned into a nightmare and I am exhausted from his tantrums which are very frequent. He is even hitting his brother. I understand that it must be really hard to suddenly see their previous undivided mummy attention be shared but I really am at my wits end. I am trying the naughty step and then big hugs after. I think it is so important not to turn soft and bypass the discipline or boundries will be pushed further.
I know what you mean about feeling like a bad mother but we must remember that that is not the case through the very fact that we care enough to research a solution!
I am hoping that this will pass... one thing I have done that seems to work is to say now it is babies time in a minute it will be your time and when it is his time give him all the attention for that period. Doing this as well as making sure we do things all together seems to be calming things a bit.
I think it's mainly all a reaction to life change so as long as we encourage them that they are still loved and as I say to my little one he is "my best friend in all the world" hopefully the phase will end and we will be reunited with our previous angels! (fingers crossed anyway)!

Anonymous said...

I am at my wits end, as well. I have my wonderful 3 year grandgirl on weekends and one day through the week. My son is a single dad with full custody who is in school and works full-time. My grand daughter has no contact at all with her mother, would not recognize her on the street. She has been with her dad and us since she was five months old. It takes a village and we are blessed to have her and she us. Intelligent, loving, really wonderful little girl, just a nice little person ... till she turned 3. The tantrums are awful. They are scary and make me cry - not in front of her - but they are heart breaking. She hits, scratches, growls, screams, pulls my hair, spits, throws things, and will last up to an hour. I have tried holding and hugging her talking quietly to her that I understand her frustration and anger - she tried to scratch my face - I hold her and do not say anything. I have walked away and let her go till she calms. I have put her in her bed and walked away. Time out, standing in the corner does not work. She LOVES books and I will pick up one of her favorites to try to get her attention to that and she will grab it out of my hands and scream NO. The neighbors have to think we are beating her as she screams "don't touch me" "PLEASE don't touch me" "Leave me alone" "I don't like you anymore," which is really heart breaking and more. It is something my three children(now grown) NEVER did and I am lost. I have read many articles and googled it till my fingers bled and cannot come up with a plan. She does it with us and with her other grandmother from time to time, not too much to her dad but every once in a while. Afterwards, sometimes, she will come hug me and say " I don't want to fight with you, I love you." WHERE THE HECK does that come from? She NEVER hears the word "fight" EVER. I just do not know what to do now. It can start over anything but it will absolutely do it every time I change her pull-up. She FREAKS. But, she absolutely will not try to use the potty and trying to get her to sit on the pot will throw her in to a fit as well. Please any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I feel like a horrible person and grandmother and it is tearing me up. NOT that I am the concern here, just need help. Something else, which may have nothing to do with anything, she was put under with general anethesia for dental work recently and it started the next day really bad. Thank you!

Unknown said...

keep her engaged with the activities she loves, like reading books etc. You need to be her friend and sometimes little strict when things go out of hand. there us no pill to handle kids. Its quite natural for a 3 year old. You need to feel like a 3 year old and manage like a CEO.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous are you sure she hasn't suffered any kind of sexual abuse? it seems strange that she would freak out that way every time you change her pull up.....

Anon said...

Once she has calmed down have you tried asking her if she is upset or worried about anything? Go through her daily carers and ask if she is happy with them and if they are nice to her. I did the same with my little girl who rarely has tantrums, but when she does it is a mixture of tiredness and emotional stress such as having to be on best behaviour with her grandmother, (not a dig at you-just her grandmother is very old school).
I tell her how lovely she is but that her behaviour is not acceptable in our family. (There is only myself and her but making family rules are positive).
It is odd that she does it when her pull ups are changed. Perhaps she feels under pressure with toilet training - i think you need to have an honest talk with her dad and find out how he approaches things with her.
Good luck. She is very lucky to have such a caring grandmother!

Anon said...

Once she has calmed down have you tried asking her if she is upset or worried about anything? Go through her daily carers and ask if she is happy with them and if they are nice to her. I did the same with my little girl who rarely has tantrums, but when she does it is a mixture of tiredness and emotional stress such as having to be on best behaviour with her grandmother, (not a dig at you-just her grandmother is very old school).
I tell her how lovely she is but that her behaviour is not acceptable in our family. (There is only myself and her but making family rules are positive).
It is odd that she does it when her pull ups are changed. Perhaps she feels under pressure with toilet training - i think you need to have an honest talk with her dad and find out how he approaches things with her.
Good luck. She is very lucky to have such a caring grandmother!

Anonymous said...

Annonymous grandmother: You posted last year. I really wish I knew if your granddaughter's tantrums passed. My 3 1/2 year old daughter acts very similar to what you described and I have no idea why. I honestly think the potty training/diaper issue came from her last daycare (who kicked her because of her severe tantrums); I think they were putting her in time out for going pee/poop in her pants. Otherwise, she tantrums just like you described you described. I honestly have no idea how to handle it and ever old blog I come across, no one ever posts a resolution, leading to the assumption that 1. either the problem passed and no one thought to update how or why or 2. it never got better. PLEASE tell me there is a rainbow!

Anonymous said...

Totally useless long winded article. I am a dad and when I am standing watching my son in a full blown Tantrum hitting his mother, I have a problem trying to sit and hug him. For one thing he wants me to be nowhere in sight and two he won't let you near him. Talking to him softly and trying to hold his hands just makes him angrier. We don't spank or hit our child, but sometimes my voice raises, which does not help. I try to change the subject quick by washing the car or feeding the fish, but it does not always work. I think some of the people who write these articles have either only dreamed of having kids or forgot what it's like. Come out of the clouds back to earth and stop smoking whatever it is that makes you think writing an article like this would be helpful

Anonymous said...

1. A strict schedule. Children behave better when they know what to expect and when to expect it.

2. Don't engage your child unless they are calm. When they settle down give them attention. They throw tantrums again, put them in their room and just let them have it out. When they calm down, give them attention again. No comments or anything. Just make sure they're safe and ignore it.

3. All tantrums that are not because of illness or abuse, are for attention. Many kids throw tantrums when you change their pull ups. Let them try to do things themselves. If they make a mistake while trying, that's okay. Just show them again, as if you're explaining to a 'big kid'.

4. Remember, they are at a threshold from baby to big kid. Allow them to make that transition and praise them for their accomplishments on things like...flushing, taking off their pull ups, emptying their plate after dinner, etc. They want that attention more than hugs and charts.

5. You ARE NOT a bad parent. I know it's frustrating and makes you sad. I understand. However, the fact that you're here discussing it, proves how worthy a parent you are. Don't coddle, correct. Don't spank, speak. Don't argue/engage in bad behavior, ignore it.

Hope this helps :)

Me said...

My 3 year old son throws the worst tantrums about 3 times a day every day for the past 2 weeks. He throws anything in sight screams yells huts me scratches me I just don't kniwbwhat to do and if this is normal. These just started he has thrown fits before but nothing like the last 2 weeks I am about to have a break down please help.....

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I enjoyed this article. I have a 3 year old son who is currently going through these tantrums almost daily and anything can trigger them. He has an additional complication of only seeing his dad every other weekend due to custody.
There was a lot of negative feedback in this string and I want to say this is helpful to know that what I'm doing might be right. The points you pointed out are all the things happening when he's at his father's and I am back starting all over with every return. It's heart breaking to see his frustrations and the articles and literature or verbal suggestions I offer my son's father are just reviewed as trash. I wish he would read something like this to consider changes he could make to help make life growth easier for our son.
Again, thank you for your post and glad to hear that I'm not alone with a son going through these struggles and the steps I'm taking to help him are encouraged.

Lakshmi said...

Thank you!