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Toddler » Discipline and Guidance

Who's In Charge Here Anyway?

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Dear Dr. Susan:

I’m having a lot of trouble with my three year old son lately. (He turned 3 in December.) He’s constantly upset about something. He’s either whining, crying or angry most of the day. He’ll get upset if I don’t stop what I’m doing immediately and tend to his needs. He wants me to walk him into the bathroom when he has to go; he wants me or my husband to stay with him at night. He seems to get upset when he doesn’t get what he wants but if you ask him what he wants he doesn’t know. If we’re out driving and he drops something he’s playing with on the floor of the car he expects me to immediately retrieve it for him throwing himself into a tantrum. He gets terribly upset if he’s missed an opportunity; for example, if I point something out to him and my daughter in the car as we’re driving and he doesn’t see it in time he’ll have a tantrum. This is just a small sample of the situations that throw him into a meltdown. I’ve tried a lot of approaches with him including giving in to his requests, putting him in his room for a time out, trying to reason with him and just loving him when he’s having a meltdown. He’s an extremely sensitive, easily hurt, very loving little boy. He’s a lot like me so I try to show as much empathy as I can but I’m finding myself getting more and more frustrated and angry with my inability to help him.

Any suggestions?

Thank you,

Susie

Dear Susie:

Thank you for writing.

You and your son are in a “contest” that can only be described as, “Who’s in charge here anyway?” Actually, you know how the contest has to end, you just haven’t the right spin on it yet. You have to be in charge. No Three year-old can run your household, drive your car, make your home and family safe.

So relax and start thinking of ways to clearly communicate your expectations and rules. Yours, not his! He’s having a fun time getting your attention for either positive or negative behavior, and you are not getting his attention. Hello there! Start with family rules.

You and your husband decide on the best way to start. I suggest a family meeting and a “wake up call” that starts with, “we think this house needs to run on some rules. Here they are…no yelling, no biting, asking permission, saying yes, not no, and sticking to a schedule starting with getting up in the morning.” “You are a nice boy, but we expect please and thank you and we’ll remind you when you are rude or mean.” “You will have to do things over again and practice respectful behavior until you get it right.” “You will not get what you want until you accept the family rules and do them.” “When you yell or demand something I will tell you what you are doing and tell you to change the demand to a request and then we’ll discuss and talk about it.” “I am in charge, I am, the mother and I decide.” “You will learn to cooperate with me or you do not get what you want.”

These are different “speeches” and it will take time, but you will have to start small, choose your most important family rules and stick to them. When he trantrums, ignore it, talk to the walls, pick him up and remove him, but keep him close. Shrink his boundaries; limit his choices, set limits and wait it out. He has gotten the upper hand over time and its become a habit, so it will also take time to create a healthier set of habits and you will have to be firm, but kind.

Thanks for writing.

Susan H. Turben, Ph.D.

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