The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My 3-year-old says everything is ‘scary’ — including his chores. Is he manipulating me?

(Washington Post illustration/Prisma filter/iStock)

Q: My 3-year-old son has entered a stage where everything is "scary" — from cartoons he's seen a dozen times to new experiences. He's always been adventurous, so this is new. How do I react when I think he's genuinely afraid vs. when I think he's playing the "scary" card to get out of something he doesn't want to do? (He has said picking up his toys is "too scary.") Should my reaction be the same in both cases? Or is it okay to be more dismissive in the latter case? I don't want to minimize any real fears, but sometimes I'm not sure how to react.

A: This is a typical issue for preschoolers, and I feel for you. It can be confusing when a happy-go-lucky child begins to have seemingly irrational fears. It can also feel like manipulation, so let’s see what may be going on in his mind. You don’t mention it, but many preschoolers’ fears come at bedtime, which I will also address.

Developmentally speaking, a ­
3-year-old is beginning to grasp that bad things can happen. Add to this stage any extra sensitivity, transitions or traumas, and you are facing some tough nighttime (and daytime) routines.

What to make of this? First, let’s dispel the idea that he is “playing the ‘scary’ card” to get out of doing something. When we assume our young children are manipulating us, we enter a parenting path filled with resentment, suspicion and callousness. We will not give our loving best when we assume our child is a liar.

Will a little girl’s lies become a lifelong bad habit?

And although your son may be conditioned to say, “I am scared, Mommy!” when the light clicks off or it’s time to clean up, this doesn’t make him a manipulator (I know, I know, but stick with me). So, the light clicks off or it’s time to clean up, and the images that scared him that day pour into his mind. Within seconds, his nervous system has sent a message to his body that he is not safe. His pupils dilate, his heart pounds, his breathing quickens , and before he knows it, he blurts out, “Mommy!” or “I can’t do it!”

Our bodies are built to react like this, and 3-year-olds are not mature enough to calm themselves down. When I begin to panic and I rationally know I am safe, I can say, “Meghan, breathe. Everything is okay.” A ­
3-year-old cannot do that. In fact, I know many adults who have poor self-regulation in the face of panic, so we must cut children some slack.

What feels like manipulation is that your child has learned (unconsciously) that when he screams out for you or says “no” to cleaning up, you make strong eye contact with him. You probably say something like, “Ralphie, everything is fine. You don’t need to be scared.” For your son, your words don’t mean that much; what he wants is your eyes and physical presence. This instantly (and again unconsciously) relaxes him because you are his primary attachment. There is no one who can bring safety like you. Hence, you have unknowingly created a cycle where he yells “no,” you engage with reason, he gets what he wants (attention), and on it goes. Again, your son is not planning this; it is a behavioral cycle.

Am I suggesting that you create a routine that has you running to and from his room every night? Or that you abandon cleaning up? No, that is a quick train to exhaustion town, and it won’t help him sleep or clean up.

Instead, work with what makes a 3-year-old feel safe: his senses and you. As a parent, you can create a bedtime routine that is full of sensory reminders . Anything with your smell, such as your pillowcase, can help your son relax. I also love rubbing my children’s feet with a drop of lavender oil mixed with perfume-free lotion or coconut oil (make sure your child doesn’t have allergies or reactions to essential oils). With continued use, the smell triggers the child’s mind to get ready to sleep.

After smell, you can investigate the other senses to see what clicks for your son.

● Sight: pictures of you next to his bed or a little light he gets to click on and off.

● Sound: white noise machines or a music box.

● Touch: special loveys that you have slept with or your nightshirt (you can also use smell with these).

● Taste: a glass of warm milk before he goes to bed or a cup of camomile tea (make sure he’s not allergic to ragweed).

These are just ideas. Use whatever seems to soothe your child.

In terms of him playing the “I am too scared to pick up toys” card, I would use gentle agreement and some humor. “Yes, this plastic alligator is a little scary, huh?” and then see what your son does next. Pretend to talk to the alligator, “Hey, Mr. Alligator, you are a toy and I am not afraid of you; I am cleaning you up!” See if being silly and a bit casual can move your son along. If he doesn’t seem to be budging, you can clean up the scary toys, and he can pick up the non-scary toys. If he agrees to this, celebrate it: “Hey Ralphie, I really like this clean-up plan. This is awesome. We are sticking with this.” Do not push a 3-year-old out of his irrational fears; he will get there on his own as long as we remain consistent and loving.

Here are strategies that largely don’t work with preschoolers and fears:

● Telling him “there is nothing to worry about.” Your son’s fears are not rational, so using rational language not only doesn’t relax him, it adds frustration and panic.

● Locking him in his room (to get him to stay there or for punishment). Beyond being cruel, this act panics a child, and if he stops crying, it is only because his mind goes into such a frightened mode that he simply shuts down.

● Bribing, rewarding, threatening or punishing. Even if he promises to stay in bed or clean up toys for a treat, his nervous system overrides his best intentions and has him popping out of bed or running away from the monster the minute you leave.

It is hard to know the inner workings of a 3-year-old; but if you stay calm and consistent and keep a sense of humor, this will pass. In the meantime, I recommend “Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers” by Deborah MacNamara for a deeper understanding of your 3-year-old. Good luck!

More from Lifestyle:

How to raise a happy kid in the digital age

Three ways to ease your child’s back-to-school jitters

I know I should stop spanking my child, but then how do I stop the tantrums?