Q My three-and-a-half-year-old son is worrying me. He wants to do a lot of things himself and if I try to help him, get him dressed for bed say, he will go crazy and I mean crazy.
He slaps his face, screams and gets very frustrated. If I tell him "no" he will get very upset again and start shouting and screaming. He gets very red in the face and nothing seems to calm him down unless one of us gives in to him. Maybe it's bad habits on my part and I've been spoiling him, but his reactions seem extreme!
David replies: It does sound like your son's reactions are very intense, and probably very upsetting (or frustrating) to witness. I can understand why you might be worried about him.
It is not unusual for three-year-olds to want to be fiercely independent. Developmentally, they are still experiencing a process of individuation, or a move to recognise that they are separate beings rather than being simply an extension of you, and this can lead them to asserting that independence forcefully.
In many ways, they can be a little bit like mini-teenagers in the intensity of their emotional responses to what they perceive as injustice, over-involvement or being overpowered by parents. I think this might be at the root of your son's reaction to your efforts to help him and when you have to say no to him. Like most pre-schoolers he still needs adults to help him regulate that intense emotional response.
Despite his protestations, it is still important that you are available to help him and that you do continue to manage, direct and place limits on his behaviour when needed. You must remain in charge. Instead of having to say "no" outright, you might like to give him choices from two options, or suggest doing something else first, or let him know you'll think about what he wants, while distracting him with something else in the short term.
You might also like to be prepared, when you know certain situations trigger him. For example, you could ensure he has extra time available in the morning or evening to allow him the chance to try to dress himself. Sometimes being able to hide temptation means that you don't have to say "no" because often "out of sight" means "out of mind" for pre-schoolers.
When showdowns become unavoidable, you have to use lots of empathy to let him know that you can understand he may be upset, frustrated or disappointed that you have had to intervene.
There is usually little point in attempting to rationally explain why you had to intervene, so focus more on connecting to his emotional distress and less on persuading him why the intervention was required.
Calm and understanding responses from adults usually help children to regulate the power of their emotions and so, if you can respond warmly, but firmly, over time, I would expect that his outbursts will reduce in frequency and intensity.
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