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Helping 3 Year Old Express His Feelings So He Can Manage Them

Dr Laura,

I have a three year old boy and 1 year old daughter. We have been using attachment parenting for 6 months now. Things have gotten better since we stopped using timeouts and the occasional spanking, but I can't seem to help my son feel safe enough to stop stuffing his feelings. My son and I are very similar and stubborn and it takes a lot of energy to keep little things like washing hands, or not touching a hot stove from becoming power struggles. He is really unhappy when his sister isn't napping and it comes out all the wrong ways. He's jealous if she plays with her own toys.

How can I keep everyone safe when he goes from trying to hit his sister to yelling at the dog and won't let the feelings out so it happens again.I try to stay close and he just runs from room to room. If I tell him I am here when he is ready, he's never ready. If I try to start a pillow fight, he says he doesn't want to play. He gets special time and bedtime with mommy and daddy. What else can we do? Thank you.

I'm so glad you learned more about parenting so that you knew to stop punishing.  And it's terrific that you see things getting better.  But it does sound like your son is still having a hard time, and thus is giving you a hard time.  I agree with your hypothesis that he isn't interested in feeling those stuffed emotions, so they keep driving him.  How can you help him "unpack his backpack" full of old stuffed feelings?

The good news is that the emotions will always bubble up in an attempt to heal.  The bad news is that most humans respond to the discomfort of those feelings by lashing out with anger.  That hardens our hearts, so we don't have to feel the fear, or the hurt, from those past emotions.  So when the emotions bubble up to be healed, what we see is our child trying to hit his sister, or yelling at the dog. 

In those moments when your son lashes out in anger, if you can respond with total compassion, and if he feels safe enough with you, the feelings behind the anger will eventually burst out.  He will cry and writhe and end up sobbing in your arms, and you will see him becoming a more connected, happy, cooperative child.  How can you help this process?

1. Work on you first so you can truly be compassionate with your son.  I find that the first step is always for us as parents to work on our own feelings.  It is so hard to be compassionate with our child when he tries to hit the baby, or is simply contrary and mean to the dog or to us.  So you need a chance to "off-load" your own feelings and worries about your son's difficult behavior, and your own reactions to it.  You will probably benefit also from a chance to talk about how you parented in the past, and your worries about how that might have affected your son. 

Write in a journal, talk to a friend or counselor who won't try to change you or advise you, talk to yourself and breathe through any anxiety or fear that comes up.   We all have anxieties about our children.  The more we can acknowledge our feelings and breathe our way through them without acting on them, the less our fears and worry will drive our responses to our child.

Finally, get in touch with your compassion for your son.  See it from his point of view.  You are the center of his universe.  He is terrified that you love the baby more. He feels like a terrible person, bad for having all the feelings he has, and for lashing out.  He doesn't know how to control himself.  He may seem huge compared to the baby, but he is a very small person, and very new to the world. What he wants more than anything is to feel fully loved and accepted by you, to know that he is good enough exactly as he is. 

2. For your son to feel safe enough to show you his feelings, you need to strengthen your bond with him.  You say that he gets special time.  Here's a link that gives very specific suggestions for special time.  If you aren't doing special time this way, I would suggest you try these suggestions.  They really transform your relationship with your child.

What's So Special About Special Time?

This article suggests ten minutes a day of special time.  That's a minimum.  Obviously, if you can do 20 minutes, that's even better. 

And throughout your day, look for ways to connect with him. If you have to set a limit, try to stay connected as you do it.

3. Play with him so he giggles as often as possible.  Your son is acting out because he is worried that you don't love him as much as the baby, and that he isn't a good enough person.  He has tears and fears he needs to let out. Luckily, laughter releases the same stress hormones as tears.  If he won't let you start a pillow fight with him, find other ways to get him giggling.  What makes him laugh?  The more you laugh with him, the more connected he will feel to you, and the safer -- and thus the more likely to show you his feelings.

Here are a few links with ideas for games.  And of course, just watch what gets him giggling and do more of that!

Let's Get Physical -- Games to Connect with Your Child

Games to Connect and Bond with School-Age Kids

More Games to Transform Tears to Laughter

4. Be explicit about allowing feelings.  Acknowledge his emotions and give them a name, just as you would acknowledge that the sun is shining or it's rainy today.  "You are mad."  Do this as often as possible, but especially when you need to set any kind of limit: "You are mad, but we don't hit."  This will build his emotional literacy and keep him from stuffing feelings in general. 

You also can read him books that talk about feelings.  There are many good ones out today. Here's a link with some of my favorites:

Books to Help Kids Develop Emotional Intelligence

And you will also want to read him plenty of books about being jealous of the new sibling so he stops feeling so guilty and doesn't work so hard to repress his feelings. Here's a page on my website that lists a number of these books:

http://www.ahaparenting.com/ages-stages/pregnancy/books-about-new-baby-for-older-siblings

Finally, comment on feelings in general as often as you can:  "That boy is crying....he is sad and mad at his mom...you can love someone and be mad at them at the same time."

5. Sidestep power struggles. You say that it takes a lot of effort to keep little things like washing hands, or not touching a hot stove, from becoming power struggles.  The effort is completely worth it.  Power struggles take two people, so if you sidestep them, there won't be any.  This will take an attitude shift from you, of course. In each case, ask yourself if it really matters.  If it does, see if you can find a way to give your son some power in the situation. 

Let me give you some examples.  Let's say your son refuses to put on his shoes to go out the door and you do need to leave.  Sure, you could force him, but he will just be more contrary later.  The number of ways you can sidestep a power struggle are limited only by your imagination.  You could try:

Invitation to play:  "No shoes?  How will you skip?  I was hoping to skip with you to the car!"

Ask for his help to solve the problem: "Sweetie, we have a problem.  We have to leave right now; it's cold and wet outside; and you don't have your shoes on yet.  What should we do?"  Most kids can't resist being the problem-solver.

Competition:  "I bet I can get my shoes on faster than you can...Let's race!...1, 2, 3, GO!"

Give him something to move toward: "In the car, do you want to play that game where we make the lights turn green by counting? Ok, quick, let's get your shoes on so we can go!"

Choice:  "Sweetie, you need shoes, it's wet outside.  Do you want to wear your sneakers or your boots?  Ok, boots, let's get them on."

Connection:  "I think those toes need kissing before they can go into those shoes, that's the problem....I'm kissing all those toes....1,2,3,4,5...what delicious toes! Oh, they're talking to me...they're saying 'Put me in my shoe! Ok, in they go...Now the other foot!"

Trigger Autonomy:"You can't put your shoes on yourself, can you?  NO?  Really?  I don't believe it! WOW!  You can! Look at you putting on your own shoes!"

You'll notice you have to be in a good mood to do any of these things.  If we can stay calm and connected with our child, we can usually shift him into a more cooperative state.

6. When you can't really help him with his tears and fears by letting him vent, instead fill his love cup. 
It is hard to really help your son cry and rage when you have a baby there too. 

Instead, look at his acting out as a cry for your love:  "Are you out of hugs again?  Let's do something about that!"  Grab him and give him a LONG hug -- as long as you can. Don't loosen your grip until he begins to squirm and then don't let go immediately.  Hug harder and say "I LOVE hugging you! I never want to let go.  Promise I can hug you again soon?"  Then let go and connect with a big, warm smile, and say "Thank you! I needed that!"

7. Help your son feel safe by intervening playfully when he "misbehaves."  When you see your son trying to hit your daughter, or yelling at the dog, intervene in a playful way. Grab him up and say warmly"What's that?  Yelling at the dog?  (Or "hitting the baby!?")  Yes, yes, we can be mad, but No, we can't scare the dog!" ("hit the baby!")

Take him to the couch to roughhouse a bit (kissing him all over or tossing him around), or run around the room with him, chanting "We're mad, we're mad, but we can't scare the dog!"When you put him down, he may simply bask in your warm attention, in which case that was what he needed -- to feel reconnected with you. You've poured in enough warm attention that he feels truly loved.

But there's a good chance that his feelings are too big for him to ignore, and he will take your playfulness as "permission" or a dare, or what it really is -- an invitation to light-heartedly acknowledge his feelings.  In this case, he will immediately head back towards the dog (or the baby.)  That's good!  Your goal is to help him feel safe enough to show you his feelings; being playful defuses the tension.  So as soon as he heads for the dog or the baby, you grab him up and repeat your playful exuberant running around and chanting.

After a few rounds of this, your son may relax and snuggle up to you.  If so, great!  He giggled a lot, and now he's feeling deeply connected. 

Or you may notice that your son is getting a bit frenzied, which means that his feelings are reaching a fevered pitch. Or you may just have had enough. That's a good time to take a deep breath and change your demeanor to one of calm compassion instead of playfulness. 

At this point, stop and put him next to you on the couch or the rug (away from the baby)  and look him in the eye, and say compassionately and seriously, "Ok, Sweetie, no more playing...I won't let you scare the dog...(hurt the baby.)" 

Almost certainly, you will have built up enough of a sense of safety that your son will begin crying.  Move in close and hold him.  If he begins thrashing or kicking, keep yourself safe, obviously.  Get in touch with your compassion for this little person.  Reassure him that he is allowed to have all his feelings and that you will keep everyone safe:  "Sweetie, you are so upset...you are really hurting...I will keep everyone safe...."

8. Experiment with your language.  Some kids need explicit permission to cry: "Everybody needs to cry sometimes...You can cry as much as you want...I am right here."  But many kids get self-conscious when we mention crying, and it works better just to help them feel safe and let them get on with feeling whatever emotions are coming up.  So you can try just saying "I am right here....I will keep you safe."

9. What if he runs into the other room?
  He's leaving because it's your warm, loving presence that's allowing the tears to bubble up.  Naturally, he doesn't want to feel those feelings.  So he runs away.  But if you don't follow him, he thinks you don't care. The message you need to give him is that you will always be there for him, even if he tries to push you away with his anger.  So let him regulate the distance between you by saying  "I hear you want me to leave...I will step back just a little, to here."  But then reassure him that you're not going anywhere: "I'm going to stay right here, Sweetie."   Even if he shouts at you to leave him alone, he doesn't mean it.  He desperately wants to reconnect with you. 

10. Welcome fear. 
Your son may well have some fear to express, from past spankings or punishments, or simply because small children are afraid many times daily.  When kids feel old fears, they usually writhe and sweat and get red-faced.  They may seem to be struggling more than crying.  They often like to push against you, and that is fine.  Try not to push back, just to provide resistance.  If he lashes out, obviously keep yourself from getting hurt.  It is fine to let him push against your hands, or to grab a couch pillow to hold in front of you for him to push against.  Stay connected by using a warm, compassionate, soothing voice, but don't analyze or even say much, except to reassure him that you are there and he is safe.  Usually, after kids get some of their fear out, they collapse in your arms and want to reconnect.

11. Keep the tears coming.  Your goal is to help your son surface his most vulnerable hurts, which are accompanied by tears.  To do this, you can gently remind him of the thing that brought on his upset: "I'm sorry the baby upset you, Sweetie."  You will probably notice him sobbing more when you remind him. That's a good thing, since this is the way into that snarl of emotions. You're helping him loosen them up, feel them, show you the feelings, and let them go. 


The good news is that you don't have to do anything to make your son "feel" his emotions.  All you have to do is embrace him with warm compassion and adore him, messy, contrary feelings and all.  With that unconditional love, he will open up to healing, and he will blossom.

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Janelle commented on 30-Mar-2012 01:32 PM
This is such a helpful post! Everything you describe makes absolute perfect sense, and when I do the things you describe it goes exactly the way you say it will! My son will let out the rage, and then want to reconect (for us its with breastfeeding). Time
outs and punishments really do not work!

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