3 Year Old Has Tantrums During Clean-Up Time

Dr. Laura,
My son is 3 years old and is very secure and fiercely independent. A curious behavior has developed during the clean-up time during his playgroup at the local community center: he becomes very anxious and agitated - not because toys and materials have to be put away, but because he MUST help clean-up. One particular feature was a slide set that gets dismantled and put to the side after use. As the slide was being dismantled, my son started to get agitated and 'slid' into a tantrum. I and everyone else assumed the upset was because the slide was being put away and perhaps he wanted another turn/more time to play. This was the first public tantrum I experienced and was a bit surprised, but I tried (perhaps even succeeded) to remain empathetic and compassionate. I must confess that it was fascinating to watch the ebb and flow of this storm. So I watched my son and really felt his pain (though I didn't understand it fully). I can't recall how long it lasted (probably much shorter than it felt!), but I finally convinced him to go outside to a park beside the rec center where he could go on another slide. It was here that the tantrum broke and he collapsed in my arms sobbing - it really was like the sun breaking through the clouds. We had a snack and were able to talk about why he was so sad/mad. He told me he was upset because he couldn't help put away the slide! I accept that this is him, but I'd like guidance about how to help him decrease his anxiety with play and clean-up. How do I get him to giggle about this? An aside note is clean-up at our house can be fairly lax; I've recently implemented a 'clean-up Friday' thinking maybe practice could help. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you!

It sounds like your son is pretty rigid about wanting to control the cleanup, which means that he thinks that will somehow manage his anxiety about the cleanup. So I think he might actually have some anxiety about the fact that the cleanup has to happen and his focus on controlling it is an attempt to manage his own anxiety. At any rate, I think you help him work on this by playing "clean up." Say "Let's play we're at school and it's time for clean up....your stuffed animals can all be kids at the school, okay?...Do you want to be the teacher in charge of cleanup?" Do what he tells you for cleanup, but mess up a lot, in a silly way that gets him giggling. Any way you can get him to laugh about this is great -- sing silly songs, put things away wrong, etc. And the idea for “clean up Friday” is great!
Dr. Laura

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