My least favorite age is three. Both Matthew and Emma were so much fun and enjoyable right up until they turned three, and then the trouble started. The whining, the defiance, the utter disregard for authority, the temper tantrums...all these lovely behavioral problems started at three. I've been in the thick of it with Emma for some time now, but a light is finally shining at the end of the tunnel. I've seen drastic improvements in her general behavior over the past couple months as I've learned how to maneuver her emotional drama. I thought that Emma was the most difficult to parent at this age, but Paul continually reminds me that Matthew was just as bad. It's funny how we forget things.
In an attempt to not forget the next time I have to go through this phase with another little person in approximately 16 months, I compiled a list of some of the lessons I have learned my second time through the Terrible Threes. Most of it is pretty common sense stuff but I've found that common sense goes right out the door with my parenting whenever emotions get involved - and a lot of emotion goes into dealing with a three-year-old.
1) Don't Threaten Unrealistic Punishment
All of us parents do this. We threaten our kids with punishments that we have no intention of actually carrying out. The one I hear Paul threaten Emma with all the time is: "I'll help you put on your coat and send you out the door to find another family to live with!" I'm the queen of the "I'm going to throw away all your toys if you don't pick them up" threat. Our kids aren't dumb, especially Emma. They are totally aware that these are empty threats and can call our bluff on it. In the end, we just get more angry, flustered, and defeated and no progress is made on behalf of their behavior.
2) Follow Through with Your Threats
When you do formulate a punishment that is realistic and appropriate, follow through with your threats. Make sure that you give the kid plenty of warning so that they are well aware that their actions have undesirable consequences. Then, be sure to follow through. Even letting a behavior go once can set you back quite a bit in progress, especially during this time. This "Terrible Three" phase is all about pushing boundaries and testing the limits. There have been several times with Emma that I have been too tired or busy to take the time to enforce the designated punishment for tantrums or back-talking, but if I don't I will pay for it the next day and the next. For example, we have a rule that if I find an unflushed toilet in the house then all the kids are punished with no TV for the day. This rule has been particularly painful to carry out especially during the kitchen remodel where there are times that Paul and I really need to focus on the project and could really use that TV to distract our kids from the buckets of plaster and nails strewn about. However, once I let it slack by even one day, I notice that nobody bothers flushing the next day. Follow through is key. If you say something, you better mean it.
3) Be Sure to Give Positive Reinforcement for Good Behavior.
Emma loves to be praised and I find that she is much more likely to repeat a good behavior if I consistently and enthusiastically praise her for it. For example, she always throws a fit in the morning when I ask her to get dressed, claiming that she is incapable of doing it by herself. However, I have noticed that if I have a "mini dance party" with her right after she finishes the task all the while telling her how proud I am of her, she noticeable glows and will willingly dress herself the next time I ask. It's ridiculously cute to watch her eat up the compliments. She beams and almost shrivels into herself, squeezing her head tight into her shoulders while giggling. Positive reinforcement is very important because it continues to reiterate to our children that our actions have consequences, reward for good behavior and punishment for bad! It can be difficult because it's one more thing you have to remember to do BUT the payoff is huge.
4) Yelling Gets You Nowhere
I don't know if most kids are like this, but mine do not respond well to being yelled at. They completely shut down emotionally. Matthew just tunes us out and becomes more defiant while Emma bursts into a dramatic crying fit. Not very productive since everyone just turns into an emotional wreck. You would think that knowing this would motivate us to yell less, but Paul and I really struggle with this since we both have explosive tempers. However, we have been trying to make it more of a priority to explain things to our children in a firm, but non-elevated tone of voice. My kids respond particularly well if I get down to their level, look them directly in the eye, and then speak. But yelling....it's just not good for anyone. Not for us, not for them.
5) Quality One-on-One Time Goes a Long Way
I think this is the number one thing that has helped heal my relationship with Emma. Even as little as 30 minutes of my undivided attention - to read stories, build a couple puzzles, play a game, or play with her dolls - goes a long way towards improving her obedience and overall attitude. Thirty minutes may not seem like a lot of time, but it certainly is very difficult to find any amount of time that I can focus on just one kid without distraction from the others (or the puppy). I have been trying to make it a priority to focus just on Emma the minute Lucy goes down for a nap, as difficult as it may be for me with a pile of dishes in the sink that need washing or a couple baskets of laundry in the bedroom that need folding. Time with my daughter is precious and fleeting. I need to establish a good relationship and rapport with her today that we may continue to strengthen in the years to come. Today, we made some chai tea together, colored some pictures, and chatted about whatever floated through her sweet little head. It was wonderful.
6) Remember that the Same Sweet Person is Under There Somewhere
Back when Emma's behavior problems began, I used to lament that my sweet little girl was gone forever. I would look through older photographs of her and think, "Look at that sweet and adorable little girl that used to live here! Where did I go wrong?" It might sound ridiculous, but it's true. The thing I had to realize was that this is just a small phase in her childhood, a period of time that we need to get through.There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it will be here before I know it. I just need to persevere, keep loving her even during her worst moments, and know that the same sweet little girl I've always known is in there somewhere. Between the bratty fits and temper tantrums, I still get reminders of that - she still says her funny little phrases, loves to give kisses and hugs, and is always the first to comfort someone who is upset. She's still sweet, she's still kind, she's still my Emma.
To drive my final point home, here is a quote from just a little bit ago.
Me, while giving Emma a big hug: "I love you, Emma!"
Emma: "I love you too, Mommy."
Me: "You're the best."
Emma: "I know that."
As a sort of post script to this post, I received many requests for a picture of Matthew's award-winning drawing described in my last blog. Without further ado, below is a snapshot of it.
Impressive, no? Just as a comparison, here is a picture that Emma drew earlier today (I added the captions per her request). Now do you see why I wasn't all that impressed?