Q. I read and love a lot of [author and parent educator] Janet Lansbury’s stuff. I use her words to guide my interactions with my 21-month-old, to much success. However, I really struggle to use it with my 3-year-old. He’s in this phase where he hits, spits, kicks, is sassy and will do exactly the opposite of what you ask while looking you straight in the face. In short, I’m frustrated at him almost all of the time. I try to have positive one-on-one time with him, I make a point to connect with him as many times a day as I can (I work outside the home), and I try really hard to be firm and kind in the face of violence. I say things like “That hurts when you hit. I won’t let you hit me,” and take him to his room and sit with him. However, I can’t do that all of the time. I have the 1-year-old I can’t leave alone, and honestly, I’m too mad at being constantly provoked (I know it isn’t deliberate) to do what I know he needs, which is to be a calm leader who isn’t reactive. I need a few concrete actions, as does my husband — who thinks what I just typed is hooey — to use when he jumps on the couch while looking at me and laughing, or walks deliberately into his brother and pushes him down, or spits at me when I ask him to sit down at dinner.
A I can hear the fatigue and frustration in your letter. An almost 2-year-old and a 3-year-old in the house? That is full-on emotional and physical work, often with few breaks and little reward. Let’s . see if we can bring some insight and relief to this situation.
First, I also love Janet Lansbury. She is empathic, wise, a smart writer, and an advocate for both parents and children. I recommend her to almost everyone. But here’s the rub: Whenever we attach ourselves to a solution or a “what to do with this kid,” we begin to lose sight of the actual child. We begin to treat the child as something broken that can be fixed (or not). Generally speaking, this is not going to go well. So if you are only focusing on “fixes,” you will find yourself stymied.
Also, release the notion that all techniques work for the same children in the same family. As many of us know from growing up, children within the same families can be vastly different from one another. Gender can be a small part of it, but it is truly genetics plus environment that can create a dizzying array of different children.
And while I would love to use the same parenting playbook with all of my children, it is not often in their best interest (nor mine).
So, things are working with the 1-year-old? Great. Take that and feel good. The 3-year-old has a different set of issues and needs. So no more comparisons. This should bring you some measure of relief because it is 100 percent normal for children to find different things soothing.
If you reread your letter, the 1-year-old is the only person in the house not experiencing high levels of frustration most of the time. The 3-year-old has frustration that has now moved into aggression, your husband is frustrated not knowing how to stop it, and you are frustrated because you are trying to control the 3-year-old and manage your husband.
Frustration occurs when a human can’t change what they don’t like. It is as normal as breathing, and in children it can be just about as frequent.
Energetically, frustration needs to move. Every doctor can easily tell you what happens to adults who experience high levels of unhealthy stress and frustration that are not expelled: high blood pressure, sleep issues, ulcers, addiction, depression — the list goes on.
Adults, because of our somewhat mature brains, find both healthy and unhealthy ways to cope with stress, but 3-year-olds can’t. Their brains are too young, too little, too immature. Your son is experiencing and reacting to his frustration in real time. He cannot control it. So, stop expecting him to put the lid on this kicking, hitting, spitting and anger.
Not only that, but when you want it all to stop and you make efforts in that direction, you are growing the frustration. Think about it: If you have something roiling in you and you yell and cry and hit a pillow, you feel better. The attacking energy has left the system. If I came to you and kept saying, “Nope. Sorry. You can’t feel angry. You can’t act angrily. You have to be nice. You have to control it. Stop it,” two things would happen: You would attack me for a while, and then eventually, you would stop showing any emotion. The brain would shut the feelings down. And while that would be convenient, it is very unhealthy.
So, some ideas:
1. Allow that attacking energy to move. Trampolines, ripping paper, punching pillows, stomping, or throwing stuffed animals or soft balls — anything safe is allowed to happen. When he is punching something, join in and say, “Getting this frustration out feels good, doesn’t it?” This is not misbehavior. It is you kindly helping your child let out his big emotions. He needs your help.
2. Stop telling him, “It hurts when you hit.” Stop a lot of the talking. And unless he is doing serious damage to others or the house, don’t drag him to his room every time. I have a feeling that all of this talking and dragging is actually creating more frustration in you, and your son can feel your energy. He’s frustrated, you’re frustrated, he gets worse, you get worse. It is untenable. Focus less on controlling him and more on moderating yourself. Remember to breathe (count to three in, count to three out), and get busy with something else while staying close by.
3. Know that when he does the opposite of what you say that this is 3-year-old language for “I don’t feel connected to you.” And trust me, a little (actually, a lot of) counterwill and opposition is completely normal for 3-year-olds. In fact, when I don’t see some opposition in a
3-year-old, I think something is going on at home that is unhealthy. But if you have chronic opposition, you are having some attachment issues. I am not saying you are not attached to your 3-year-old. I am saying that you need to strongly focus on the good when your family is calm and happy. So, in the moments he is screaming, “NO!” stop asking questions or making demands and simply move the situation along. Pick up his shoes and carry him to the car. Give up the bath and get him into bed. Don’t force dinner. You cannot make any headway with a 3-year-old when forcing, pushing, bribing, punishing and threatening have entered the picture.
4. When the family is peaceful, connect with the child. Let him know that no matter how much he spits or kicks or hits, Mommy and Daddy love him. Tell him you understand and that it is normal to want to hit. Let him know you understand that life is frustrating and it can make everyone feel angry. Above all, keep communicating that, no matter what, you love him and you will always help him. Read books with him that support feelings moving (not books that promote covering up feelings or just making them positive). Above all, convey that you can handle these big emotions and that you are up to the job.
5. Take better care of yourself. Get more support if you can afford it. See your friends more. Plan a getaway. Watch comedies. Make sure your own sleep, exercise and eating are on point. Connect with your husband so you can support each other. You can’t give what you don’t have, so you need a safe place to vent all of your big emotions. You are doing some seriously emotional heavy lifting here, and what I am asking you to do is not easy. Be honest with yourself, and get your own encouragement. You deserve and need it.
Good luck. Believe that this will pass. It can.
Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Feb. 17.