Dear David Coleman: I thought my son would be past oppositional behaviour now that he's three. How do I cope?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My three-year-old boy is impossible to communicate with at times. He will always say "no" and throw some sort of a tantrum. I thought the "terrible-twos" was bad but it's getting worse. I feel like I have no control with him. I do go down to his level, and speak to him calmly, but it doesn't make any difference. He has also become very rough with his younger brother, constantly pushing and knocking him over. Now his little brother is copying his actions so we feel we need to get his behaviour under control.
David replies: Three-year-olds live entirely in the moment, experiencing and reacting to the world on a minute-by-minute basis. They are also learning about the world by "doing". They have to taste, touch, hear, see, feel and experiment with everything. So, as a consequence, they are usually very active, very engaged and very "on-the-go".
Also, however, we have to remember that three-year-olds are very self-absorbed and are unlikely to have learned social niceties like sharing, turn-taking, empathy and consideration of others' needs or feelings.
Lots of parental time is taken up with trying to keep them on track and out of trouble. They need adults around them to make sure they don't create too many problems that they won't be able to solve, or do too much accidental damage in their exploration of their world.
Your son's increased use of the word "no" is also probably linked to his developmental stage. He is in the process of individuating. Individuation is the stage at which children realise that they are separate beings from their primary caregiver (usually their mam). Saying "no" becomes a way of experimenting with this individuality and separateness. It is a way of showing that they have a separate desire to you in that moment.
We have to be patient with their opposition, while also gently, but firmly, showing them that we are actually the people who are in charge and who make the decisions.
Many parents make mistakes in their desire to be powerful; they may become more punitive and somewhat harsh with their children, believing that discipline is about being strict and punishing their child.
Three-year-olds don't need punishment, but they do need discipline. Discipline, however, is about firm, clear guidance. We need to tell our children, and show our children, what we need of them, what we expect of them and what behaviours are okay or not okay.
So, be very firm with your three-year-old about what he can and can't do, but stay warm and kind in that firmness. It is fine to show him who's boss, just do it kindly.
What we actually need to show our children is that there is inevitability to the decisions that we make. We need to show them that even if they resist, we will prevail. We have to be even more determined than they are.
Within that determination, however, we can be warm and understanding that our three-year-old may not like the decisions that we make for them. So the tone of our voice and the words we use need to be empathetic and understanding, while also staying firm with the rule, the decision or the limit that we set.
We often have to back up our words with action too. There is little point in simply telling your three-year-old to stop a behaviour, like pushing his brother, for example. You may need to ensure that he stops, by intervening with him, physically, to make him stop.
So, for example, you may have to take him by the arm and lead him away, while reinforcing the message verbally too. You need to be firm with him; stating clearly that pushing is not allowed and then only allowing him back to play with his brother when he is willing to play nicely.
Staying calm, ensuring you have his attention by making eye contact with him, is definitely the way to go. But it sounds like you need to show him too, that you mean business, by ensuring that whatever you decide is what then happens.
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