A frustrated, exhausted mom wants to treat her 3-year-old more gently and less punitively. Ironically, the way to do that may be to become a stronger leader.
The freedom we all feel deep within ourselves comes once we understand where we stand in the scheme of things – Magda Gerber
On a day when I felt like I have failed as a parent, I found your blog. I have read and read and read — article and entry after entry after article — on gentle parenting, and I just don’t know if it is going to work.
I have a three year old daughter who on most days is difficult, to say the least. She screams, yells, hits, constantly interrupts, tantrums, tells us ‘no’, throws toys, refuses to listen….. There are shining moments when she is well behaved, listens and is wonderful, but it seems like they are few and far between.
I get frustrated. Very frustrated.
We also have an 8mo old son who demands my attention, and my daughter hates it. She is always saying that I HAVE to take care of her first then him. She loves her little brother until I need to give him attention.
We have done time out, toy taking, early bed time, spanking…. Everything that is “normal” to me having come from an authoritarian home . . . but it doesn’t work. Nothing works. The only thing that it does is make everyone involved feel like poo.
My house is chaos. My beautiful girl is not only miserable, but acts like she is scared of us because she hates punishment… our son senses the tension and it causes issues with him. And I feel like a failure as a parent.
I know you are probably swamped with e-mails, but I hope that you get a chance to read this and possibly help enlighten an exhausted momma, because I just don’t know what to do anymore.
I’m sorry for all you are going through, that you are doubting yourself and getting discouraged.
It’s admittedly challenging for me to dive in and understand a family’s dynamics from the information in an email. So when I read I look for clues, and then I try to figure out why those things stand out. In your letter it was this: “she is always saying that I HAVE to take care of her first then him.” That statement, along with her being “miserable” and the fact that she “screams, yells, hits, and so on,” indicates to me that the balance of power between you and your daughter might not be as healthy as it could be. She seems to be under the impression that she can exert control in areas that aren’t hers to lead. She sounds unsettled and uncomfortable, and your responses, interventions, and disciplinary measures seem to be unsettling her even more, rather than easing her mind, addressing her need to test her power, and helping her to feel safe, nested, more comfortable and free.
So, how can we help?
Be a gentle leader
Children need to know without a doubt that their parents are their leaders. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get a little confused in this area, especially with a strong, bright and verbal child (I’ve been there).
Sometimes a reticence to set clear boundaries stems from being raised in an overly strict home. Perhaps there is a fear of being too authoritarian and repeating patterns of response that our parents modeled — responses that felt unloving, disconnecting or even abusive. Or, sometimes the parent is simply inexperienced at establishing healthy boundaries.
But when we don’t make it clear that we are the loving leaders of the house by setting reasonable, consistent limits and taking control, our child has no choice but to feel out of control.
Believe it or not, your daughter isn’t comfortable being in the position of saying, “you HAVE to take care of me first” (which is very different from saying, “I want you to take care of me first!”) She doesn’t want the power that implies. It makes her feel unsafe and uneasy to be 3 years old and making those kinds of statements, but this isn’t something she’s consciously aware of, so it’s difficult for us to see, too.
This out of control feeling leads to more out of control behavior, hence the screams, yells, hits, etc., which then make parents feel out of control. Rather than leading confidently, we might react out of anger, frustration and desperation. We might resort to trying to regain control through punishments like spankings and disciplinary tactics like time-out that result in even more rebellion and disconnectedness. This makes us feel like failures.
Family life is easier and less chaotic for everyone when we are all clear about our roles. So, how do we do that?
1) Set limits calmly, firmly, gently, early
By setting limits early, I mean making situations as clear as possible for your daughter before she even begins to act out. This clarity helps parents, too, because those well-defined boundaries keep us feeling on top of the situation and prevent us from reaching our wit’s end — getting frustrated and angry and resorting to punishments. Here’s an example:
You say to your daughter, “I’m getting ready to feed the baby and put him to bed. I’ll be busy with him for the next half hour. If you need something, I can get it now.”
Then after getting her what she needs (a book from the shelf, a snack, whatever), give her a choice. “You can sit in the room with us very quietly or go to your room and play.” You might even ask, “What will you do in your room while I’m busy?”
Let’s say she chooses staying with you quietly, but doesn’t end up being able to manage it and she’s whiny. “I know it’s hard to wait while I’m busy with the baby, but I need your help. I want you to go to your room and play or look at books until we’re finished. Then I’ll have time to be with you.”
Then let’s say she tries to hit you. You hold her hand. “I won’t let you hurt me. I see you’re upset. You can go to your room and hit your pillows, but I won’t let you hit me.”
As strong as your daughter sounds, I imagine she has (and will continue to have) intense negative reactions when you set limits. Don’t be uncomfortable with that. View the yelling, screaming and crying as healthy and positive releases for her. It’s hard being a toddler and really hard also being a big sister and having to share your parents with someone small, adorable and needy. Acknowledge her feelings whenever possible. “I know it’s hard for you when I’m busy with the baby. It’s so hard and upsetting to have to wait, but I know you can do it.”
Try to relax – or, at least, seem relaxed — and maintain composure even if she’s exploding. Eventually, when she knows you mean what you say and she’s unable to rattle you, she’ll settle into a routine of occupying herself when you are busy with the baby.
I went through something similar with my intense and assertive eldest daughter after my second baby was born. She was 4 years old and would complain, cry, scream and howl when I needed time to feed her sister and put her to bed, which used to take me a whole hour. It was a scene for several days. Finally, she discovered on her own that she could spend that time playing in her room with her dollhouse, and that became her self-chosen routine while I was focusing on her sister. I’ve no doubt that a lot of wild things happened in that dollhouse!
2) Acknowledge her point-of-view, but don’t argue it.
When your daughter expresses her disagreement with the situation, especially if her statement begins with “you have to”, acknowledge it calmly, look beyond it to what she’s feeling when there’s time, but don’t argue (‘no, I don’t have to’), negotiate or otherwise give it power. Your short answer might be something along the lines of a sincere, “Thank you for your opinion, but here’s the plan…” A longer response might delve deeper into acknowledging her feelings, which with a new sibling can include anger and grief over the loss of the one-on-one relationship with the parent. Still, make it clear that you hear her feelings, but that you are making the plan. She needs empathy, but not the kind of “poor baby” sympathy that makes us go soft on behavior limits. In fact, for a child in transition, consistent, firm boundaries are even more vital.
3) Ask her to help.
Help fulfill her healthy needs for autonomy, competence and participation by asking for her assistance with the baby (and anything else) whenever possible.
4) Give reassurance, one-on-one attention and gratitude.
Assure her that her needs will always be met, even though it won’t always be in her perfect time. And don’t forget to provide periods of undivided attention that she can look forward to regularly. Most importantly, don’t forget to thank her for the “shining moments when she is well behaved, listens and is wonderful.”
Hopefully these suggestions will help your daughter understand that her opinions and feelings are always welcome and understood, but family decisions (like whose needs are being met when), will always be made by you, no matter how much she objects. This should help ease her mind (and at least some of the chaos you’re dealing with!).
Please keep me posted!
I offer a complete guide to gentle leadership in my book: