Wits End

I am at my wits end with my 3 1/2 year old son! This year he has progressively gotten worse with his behavior. He seems so unstable most of the time. He cries over everything! And it seems now he is digressing in his behavior. Like if we are at the store he will ask for something and I say no and now he will cry and throw a major fit. He already knows the answer is no, it always has been. But now he cries, pouts, whines, etc. all the time! Why? And what is the best method for my response?? Ignoring, time-outs, take away privileges?? I do not know what to do!

I am so glad you asked this question, because I remember feeling in this same place before. I really was out of ideas...it was almost as if everything that had been working so well stopped working at all.

First, I just have to say this to get it out of the way, make sure he is sleeping well and he is well fed (I feel like three year-olds grow a lot and need a little snack in between meals a few times a day). I know its a silly thing to say, but sometimes the solution is simple - so I thought I'd start at the beginning.

Second, I'll say from personal experience, that if you really are in a period with a lot of tears and breakdowns - I would actually dispense with a lot of the more traditional discipline ideas. I wouldn't ignore, or take away privileges, or even do time-outs--these are too emotionally confusing.

This is what I think, from the very beginning, babies grow in stature and intelligence. It sometimes feels like you can watch them growing - you know when they figure out how to do a puzzle or drag a chair over to the sink. But, then around three there is a new factor, EMOTION. And for every situation there seems to be an emotional factor. Its not about getting dressed in the morning, its about how they feel about getting dressed. Because once you've conquered putting on your own pants, its a lot less fun. So, I would suggest that you deal with your little guy in an emotional way.

What do I mean? Well, instead of helping him see how his behavior is wrong when he cries at the store, I would try to help him feel better so that he can behave better. Here's the best analogy I can think of at the moment...you know when you are cooking and you accidentally put too much salt in your spaghetti sauce - so to try and fix it you add a little bit more Italian seasonings, then a bit more tomatoes, then maybe a bit more garlic to mask the flavor, and you keep adding until you have a disaster. Well, I feel like sometimes we are trying so hard that it is just complicating things. Like, maybe if I say this or do this it will just solve the problem. When the truth is, that a lot of parenting is modeling good behavior -- the one thing that takes a lifetime to demonstrate.

So, I would scoop him up in your arms, and hug him. Try to just give him extra love and patience. I know that this is the ONLY thing that works for me when my kids are at their hardest. And it takes about three days of unending patience, and then I start to see a difference. They are just happier. I can get back to my discipline tools in two weeks, but right now, I can just love them.

But, a tool would be a nice:

Telling stories.

1. Kids love to hear the story of when they were born. You could tell them everyday and it wouldn't be enough. So, pick up your little boy and in a quiet voice right in his ear say, "I'm sorry that you are sad. I'm sad too sometimes. But, I remember a time that I wasn't sad. It was the day that you were born..." And then launch into the story. You'll see the tears will end fast.

2. Kids love to hear stories about when you were a child, especially the toys you played with. Again, in that quiet voice, hug him and say, "I'm so sorry that you feel like you need to hit right now. Sometimes I feel so frustrated I want to hit too. But, I always try not to. I remember one time when I was four years old. I was playing in my back yard and I wanted to dig a deep hole..." Just tell any story.

3. Imaginary Stories are great (I thought I couldn't tell them, but I you get better and better with practice). If you are going somewhere that is high stress, like a grocery store, I would do a Preemptive story. Start the second he is in the grocery cart. "Once upon a time, there was a hungry monster. He was purple and had polka-dots. But, every time he ate something, his fur changed colors." And then everything you add to the cart, let it be monster food. And when you pick up green beans and put them in your cart, tell him how the green beans turned the monsters toes green - or whatever. Just turn the painful ordeal into an adventure.

Good luck! It isn't easy.

Painting: Henri Matisse, Jazz: Icarus, 1943

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