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How to be a good mom to difficult 3 year old?

How to be a good mom to difficult 3 year old?

Thank you so much for your newsletters. I’m struggling with all of this right now with a very spirited and at times difficult 3 yr. old and an 8 month old and these help me put things in perspective.

I am trying to get a handle on my own frustrations as well my spouses’ reactions and anger that just comes pouring out of both of us that I’m trying desperately to redirect and figure out how to get a cap on for the sake of the children.

I just feel like when my child is out of control, I can’t do many of these techniques you suggest and he won’t stop yelling, hitting, screaming long enough for me to even give him moment to pause so that I can redirect him, empathize with him (which works when I can get him to stop) or figure out why he is angry in the first place.

He is worse when both my husband and I are home and does much better when he is just with me as he knows that he doesn’t have another alternative. I enjoy my son and we have fun together and I believe in creating moments that are memorable learning moments and to have fun and be connected.

My spouse and I are on not on the same page all the time and I find myself being overly critical of his reactions and parenting approach because of everything I read because he isn’t reading and coming to the same realities at the same time that I am and it is like I feel I need to educate him to get him to the level so we can both brainstorm different approaches together. In the meantime, he is doing things to the kids or using techniques that I have decided not to do in order to better connect with them as I have come to the realization that the screaming is only making him more aggressive and less responsive as when I’ve given more attention as to why he is whining or becoming overly distraught about something.

I have to put my foot down as he is constantly without warning hurting our baby girl. He came up to her out of the blue and hit her on the head or he will sit on her or try to grab her etc etc. When he gets mad at us he will hit us. I have used time outs consistently when he hits us or the baby and told him that is not acceptable that we don’t hurt others or push/hit. I have blocked him several times from hurting his sister only to hurt him by accident and I don’t want to ever hurt him.

My son is so taxing on us and our daily battles with him and each other are numerous. To top it off, he is also not fully potty trained (#2) and that has been a source of negativity for us unfortunately because I’m past feeling OK that he isn’t doing this when I know he can do it. I know it is a control thing now and I know I’m to blame probably for it all and honestly have done everything I can think of to positively reinforce the behavior we want to no avail… at this point I am at a loss of what to do about it except to let him decide when he wants to come around and deal with the mess all day every day.

My son is a wonderful and intelligent boy but doesn’t stop bouncing off the walls the moment we are all together. I’m sure that has a lot to do with the fact he does extremely well in daycare and is thriving there but has his own stressors that occur that he unleashes to us (the ones he most feels safe letting loose with)---lucky us.

There are jealousy issues there I’m sure that are making my already spirited 3 yr. old more needy of our attention and being a full time working mom with a full time shift working husband and already emotionally depleted from outside support (there are no villages anymore for some of us) it is all I can do to get through the weekend and stay calm….

I’m intelligent enough to know that I need to refuel myself to better take care of them but I have no consistent outlet to do that all the time. I’m relieved to go to work and I’m sure that I’m not the only mom to feel that way yet when I’m at work I am always thinking of the kids and what I can do better or do differently in the next situation. I feel like I am at least able to acknowledge what I’m doing that isn’t working and what I need to work on and try to find resources to help.

It kills me to think that I can’t fully enjoy them now as time is slipping away so quickly and that we could be making things worse for our relationship in the future as I have no relationship with my own mother and want differently for my own children. I have no idea how to be the parent who doesn’t yell….it is so deeply ingrained into me. I’m wondering if marriage/family counseling is where I’m at now or if I can just get through these hard times with two toddlers and things will get better….friends say things like it is a stage, it won’t last, he is all boy and all kids are like this….

but thank you because your work is speaking to me in part of how I would like things to be different…..


Dear K,
Thank you so much for writing. I'm so glad the newsletters (sign up on any page of this website) are helpful.  I hear your commitment to being a good mother for your son, and your frustration at the challenges.

It is so unfair that as parents we have to start with what we were given by our own parents -- often not much -- and figure things out as we go. It is doubly frustrating when we aren't on the same page as our child's other parent. And when we are gifted with a challenging child, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.

Some quick advice:
1. Don't leave your three year old alone with your baby, and when he is anywhere near her, get between them as much as possible.  It is not a permanent situation, but as my son once said about his baby sister, "I hate her.  I don't know why, I just do."  Now, of course, my kids are close friends, but at age 3, kids simply can't control those intense jealous feelings. 

2. Potty training- I trust your intuition that this is a control issue.  That means that if  you ignore it, and stop fighting about it, he will  start wanting to get out of diapers himself.  I assume he is still in diapers?  Because to clean up poopy underwear every day would make any parent resentful.  My suggestion if he is in underwear is to say to him, very matter of factly, that you made a mistake in moving him to underwear, because he is not quite ready to always use the potty.  When he is ready to always poop in the potty, he can tell you, and he will need to show you that he is ready to wear underwear by always using the potty.  Until then, he needs to wear diapers. (If he is in diapers, then my advice would be to sigh and put up with it for now.  That is the least of your parenting troubles, and as soon as you get past the power struggles, he will get out of diapers.)

3. The fact that you have daily battles with your son is another reason he has potty accidents.  He must feel like he is so powerless compared to you, but the one battle he can always win is to be in charge of his own body and its functions.  So if you can move past power struggles and into cooperation, you will probably find that he toilet-trains himself.

4. Many three year old boys do "bounce off the walls."  However, what you are describing is a child who is unhappy.  Often, when we use conventional discipline methods with an extra intense child, we get into power struggles and make the child more difficult.  When a kid has a new sibling and is jealous, and we yell, he gets even more insecure and angry.  I am attaching a small gift for you -- the Discipline Workbook that I sell on my website. I hope this is helpful to you as you think about discipline for your son.

You've already noticed that screaming at your son makes him less responsive to you and more aggressive. I am sure that changing your discipline methods will make your son less angry and difficult, less likely to hit his sister and you, and less prone to having meltdowns.

I wish you and your family every blessing.
Dr. Laura

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Anonymous commented on 24-Jun-2011 11:06 PM
Wow - this sounds so much like my family! Except that I now stay at home. And, fortunately, my husband managed to round out the potty training during a week off work. Otherwise, identical situations. An intense 3 yr old and an 8 month old. I am torn between
protecting the baby and trying not to alienate the 3 yr old. I too realize that what I am doing is not working. But I feel total desperation because I just don't know what else to do. I get tired of hearing the "it's a phase" blowoff. I have seen phases go
and I don't think this is one. I feel like there is something going on that our child does not know how to express and we do not know how to extract. There must be some way to meet in the middle and resolve these issues for everybody in the family. Thanks
for helping me to finally feel like there is someone who has felt as helpless/clueless as I feel. L
Frustrated mom commented on 30-Sep-2011 10:36 PM
I am extremeley frustrated with my 3 year old son who has begun to act out severely at home, school, church, tae kwon do, and at his aunts house. However this only happens when I, his mother is around. He kicks, screams, hits, throws himself down, and
cries uncontrollably when I want him to behave or listen. This has begun to happen over the last 4 months, his father and I are not married and live in separate homes. He is constantly asking for his dad who he sees everyday and enjoys being around. The terrible
part is that I am a licensed counselor and I work with kids 8 and older on a daily basis to help improve their behaviors, however I can't even control my son. I find myself getting extremely embarrassed when he acts out in public and begins to cry and fall
out. He has been sent to the directors office at his preschool for not behaving after I drop him off. However he is fine throughout the day, but its just the morning drop off when I take him. If his dad drops him off his wimpers but does not act out at all.
I feel like im losing my mind with him and I really need help. Any recommendations would really be appreciated. He has also begun to wet himself more and is potty trained but often regresses when he gets upset. Coping and behavior tools really appreciated.
Anonymous commented on 05-Nov-2011 06:09 PM
I have a very strong willed nearly 3 year old, but lots of the above sound so similar , he has been clean for over 6 months very reliably, now as a control thing he is refusing to go to the toilet, so on day 3 of this I did say to him ok, I don't feel
you should wear undeys today as you are not a big enough boy to go the toilet, he looked shocked but all day with his pull up on kept going to the toilet, that night he said I did ok today so undeys tomorrow. It's discipline I am struggling with, he will not
take the word no, he is almost becoming a recluse at party's play centre he just wants home, he just is not his happy self. He is very happy with his own company and very good if you let him do what he wants, plays by him self will watch tv, but it's when
you want him to do your thing, he says over and over again No Home, then if you do not he starts crying. Help as Christmas is coming.
another frustrated mom commented on 26-Nov-2011 08:28 PM
Frustrated mom, I am also a licensed counselor and a single mom with a three year old that has tantrums and hits. I feel so not alone and I am starting to see that this behavior may be normal with three year old boys. It's tough because other children
my son's age do not have this severe behavior challenge. I think that we need to continue to teach our children what type of behavior is appropriate. Have the child display appropriate behavior and teach manners. Our children should be able tob say sorry,please
and thank you in appropriate situations. My son is developing in other areas so I often am perplexed about his angriness and tantrums. I am not going to worry. I will just help my son to continue to grow and develop naturally with love.
Greg commented on 28-Dec-2011 03:50 PM
I too am at my wits end with my almost 4 year old. Everything you have all said sounds so familiar. I also have a 7 year old who was, for the most part, a very easy toddler and pre-schooler so this is uncharted territory for us. His tantrums, hitting of
his brother (and us from time to time), and all out stubborness have led into him being very destructive when he gets angry. He recently got angry at my wife and went into his cousins room and ripped up many of her school pictures. On Christmas day he went
into the living room with his cousins, grabbed a pair of scissors, and cut through a lamp's electrical cord. How he did not get electrocuted I am not quite sure. He can be a very sweet, polite, and kind little boy. Unfortunately the other side of him is so
hard to deal with that we are often overwhelmed.

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