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3 Year Old Demanding, Tantrums, Rages

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Dear Dr. Laura,
A year and a half ago I wrote to you regarding my son and some issues we were having with him hitting. I followed your advice and DS definitely responded and his behaviour really improved. Now I'm back with some more questions!!

DS is now almost 3 ½ ; he has always been an incredibly intense, bright, high needs kind of guy. He is very ahead of his peers in terms of vocabulary, problem solving, and has met all milestones extremely early, but he has always seemed socially behind. I have, at times, found his behaviour very socially isolating. I have at times restricted playdates because he screams the whole time if other children touch his toys etc.

My husband (DS's father) has always worked out of town for 3 weeks a month, if not more and we don't have any immediate family so it has always been just DS and me. 3 months ago we had a baby (a little girl). In preparation for her birth and afterwards, my husband has taken a paternity leave so he can be at home with us until the baby is 9 months old. Our intention is that my husband will find employment here so he can stay home with normal hours after the leave.

DS's behaviour just keeps deteriorating and I don't know what to do and I am completely burned out caring for this child. DS is not used to his daddy doing things (bathing him, brushing his teeth, putting his coat on, putting him in his car seat), and he will have massive tantrums if his father tries to do these things. MASSIVE tantrums, even after 3 months of my husband being home. I try to wait it out, but after 20 minutes of intense screaming, I will eventually do what needs to be done. The minute I go into the room with him and his daddy, DS calms down immediately and verbalizes his feelings.

It is so frustrating. If DS needs to pee in the middle of the night and his father goes to help him, a huge screaming session starts. I am so exhausted from trying to meet this child's needs. I fear he is turning into a bit of a spoiled brat. We try to empathise, console, and provide extra love, but nothing seems to work. I have one on one time with him several times a day when the baby naps and I go with him to a weekly to a science class. We don't have television and I try to engage DS in the work I do around the house. As stated earlier, I don't even have playdates anymore because he screams almost the whole time the other child is here-he is very possessive of his toys (I've tried putting away toys that he doesn't want to share etc, but that hasn't helped, I've tried using a timer and that hasn't helped either). He tantrums alot when we go to other people's houses as well.

I tandem nurse and I am so tired of nursing him-he has huge tantrums if I don't, but I really do not enjoy nursing him at all. He has also started hitting me when he doesn't get his way.

Please note that these behaviours were evident before the baby came, they just have intensified since she has been here. (He has been pretty good with her). My husband is also concerned that DS doesn't participate in his classes (parented martial arts, sportball) and that he doesn't seem to want to do things like other kids. (“Let's go tabogganing” “No” or that if they do go out swimming, yard work, he just wants to go home-he has always been this way, kind of a stick in the mud.

Please help! I'm finding it more and more difficult to bring out my son's good traits and I am getting really frustrated. Thank you so much.


Thank you for writing. I'm so glad that my advice to you in the past was helpful, and I'm glad you wrote to me now. You are in a difficult situation. The choices you and your husband make now are shaping both your children, and they are hard choices.

You have a challenging child. I hear your exhaustion. Parenting a three month old and a three year old is always a challenge, but in your case it is much more challenging than usual because your son is an unusual child. On the continuum of the behavior we normally see in three year olds, your son is definitely on the end of the continuum. Here's why I say that.

1. Social challenges.
Your letter describes DS as being "socially behind" despite the fact that he has met all other milestones early. He screams "the whole time" during playdates because other children touch his toys. He tantrums when you go to other people's houses. Your husband is concerned that DS doesn't participate in his martial arts or sportball classes.

Most three year olds love to be around other children, even if they don't actually play with them. It is not so unusual for a three year old not to participate in an organized class, but most like to go even if they do not really participate. That's because children learn from same-age and older peers. Even little babies can tell the difference between children and adults and are more interested in children.

It may be that DS has a deficit (something like a mild form of Aspergers, for instance) that keeps him from being interested in social interaction, and obviously I cannot diagnose that from a letter. I raise it because I would be remiss not to and I don't have enough info from your letter to rule it out.

Asperger's Disorder is characterized by significant impairment in social behavior including lack of interest in peers. Kids with Asperger's show normal language and learning, which would explain DS's delays only in the social arena.

BUT since it sounds from your letter as if DS is very related to you, it seems much more likely that he is simply EXTREMELY sensitive. He finds social situations so overwhelming, over-stimulating and threatening that he cannot bear them. He also needs to stay connected to you in social situations to keep his bearings.

So while he is on the difficult end of the continuum, there is every reason to believe that over time he will be fine with other kids. He needs to learn ways to manage his own anxiety, and he needs downtime, so he doesn't get overwhelmed.

2. DS has massive tantrums if his father tries to care for him, even after 3 months of your husband being home.

DS is able to verbalize his feelings to you and he is able to calm down with you. So it seems likely that what he is showing us is that he is not securely attached to his father.

The fact that when DS goes out with his father he can't enjoy himself and relax to participate in an activity supports the theory of a disrupted attachment. He doesn't feel safe, and his attachment drive is activated. It isn't that he is a stick in the mud, it is that he needs desperately to return to you to feel ok inside. This would be completely normal for a child with a disrupted attachment to his dad.

As we consider this, throughout DS's life his father has spent three weeks of each month -- 3/4 of his time -- away from you and DS. It makes perfect sense that DS might be have a hard time trusting that his father will be reliably available to meet his needs. After all, he has been gone more than he has been present. It may well have seemed to DS that every time he began to reconnect with his Dad, after he had been home for a week, Dad disappeared again. It would actually be surprising if there weren't some repair work to do.

What's more, it would be surprising if DS had not wondered if you would disappear. if I remember your earlier letter correctly, you wrote to me that DS was clobbering other kids on the playground -- unless you gave him 100% of your attention. Now that I have the full picture, that behavior makes complete sense. It may well be that while DS is securely attached to you, he always wonders if you might disappear as his Dad constantly did, and he needs to make sure of your presence at all times. When your attention is elsewhere, he gets terrified and lashes out.

SO where does this leave us? My job is to try to figure out from your letter what is wrong and therefore how you can fix it. We have three possibilities:

1. Aspergers- I have told you why I don't think this is what is going on, but you have more info than I do. If he shows any other signs of Aspergers (like repetitive motion), he should be seen by a neurologist.

2. Relational issues- In other words, insecure attachment to your husband and worries about whether you will be there. It may be that for whatever reason, DS also has an insecure attachment to you. (How could this be, when you have always been there? It does happen for some temperamentally difficult kids whose needs are hard to meet, and it is more likely if the mom has lost a previous child, or suffered a loss herself in her life.)

Even an insecure attachment to only one parent would explain (along with DS's temperament) his behavior. It may be that you will need some outside help to heal this, but there is much that your husband can do, which I will outline below.

3. Some other issue that I cannot diagnose from your letter -- Since you say things were already bad before the baby was born, and that DS's behavior was deteriorating, it may be that something else is going on. I would be hard to say what, without a real evaluation. I have seen difficult kids completely turn around once they were put on the Feinberg diet, because they could not handle salicylates, for instance. Here's a related link:

But given the information I have, I am betting that this issue is about temperament, exacerbated by attachment issues. If I'm missing something, all the advice I am about to give you will STILL have a very positive impact, given your son's temperament and the relationship issues I am hearing from your letter. Most likely, following this advice will really turn things around in your family. If it doesn't, I would advise you to seek more help, either from me via a counseling session, or from someone local.

First, temperament. If you don't already have Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's book Raising Your Spirited Child , please get a copy. It should be easily available at libraries or for a discount used on Amazon. You do have a temperamentally challenging child, and Kurcinka offers lots of ideas for understanding, coping with and even teaching kids how to manage their temperament.

Now, for attachment. Is this repairable? Unfortunately, kids draw a conclusion by the age of twelve months about whether parents are reliably there to meet their needs. I suspect DS concluded that his dad wasn't. But over time, with enough effort, his dad can gradually win his way back into your son's heart.

Unfortunately, just when Dad arrived back on the scene to stay, the new baby arrived. So instead of gradually beginning to trust his dad again, DS was thrust into his dad's arms. This is usually the case when a baby arrives, but usually the child is more used to the father, so Dad has always done these things for him (feeding, bathing, napping, nighttime wakings, carseat) even if mom did them more regularly. In DS's case, Dad rarely did them, so he doesn't do it "quite right." What's more, every time Dad steps in, DS is reminded why -- because Mom doesn't care about him any more, she was so disappointed with him that she got a replacement, a new baby. All big siblings have these feelings of rejection and jealousy, but in DS's case they are magnified.

Why? Two reasons.

First, DS is a very sensitive, intense child. He feels deeply and he doesn't give up. So all feelings are "bigger" to him and he tends to get stuck in them. This is not something anyone, including DS, can do anything about. He inherited his intense spirit from someone, and it will be both a blessing and a trial throughout his life, just as being unusually tall would have been. Let me say again: this is not something he is creating, it is something he was born with. As parents, the most you can do is enjoy his intensity when you can, learn strategies to live with it, and teach DS skills to manage himself.

Second, DS's reaction to the new baby is bigger than many kids because of your own exhaustion and frustration. You are overwhelmed by parenting your new baby and your challenging three year old. You resent DS's possessiveness, his stubbornness, his demandingness. You're also frightened by what you fear is this spoiled monster you have somehow raised, who throws tantrums if you prevent him from nursing, and who hits you. Three years of embarrassment and frustration have taken their toll on you. Not only did you have an exceptionally demanding child, you didn't have the support of a partner for three years. Now, exhausted and resentful, with a tiny baby, DS doesn't look like your baby anymore. He doesn't even feel like your beloved child. All you can feel is how burned out you are caring for "this child."

Except that he's your son. And he's responding completely normally, given his intense temperament and what is almost certainly an insecure attachment to his father, to the situation. In fact, I'm relieved to hear that he's pretty good with the baby; he could easily be taking his anger out on her.

What DS is experiencing is the loss of his beloved mother, who resents him and doesn't want to care for him anymore. He's being cared for by this guy he doesn't trust, who doesn't know how DS likes things done. In the middle of the night when DS awakens, needing to pee, and is disoriented and insecure, who of all people shows up, but this guy? Why isn't Mommy there? Has she disappeared and abandoned him, as Daddy always did? She has certainly acted lately like she doesn't even like him anymore, like she just wants to get away from him. Naturally, he panics and has a massive tantrum, until you appear.

I'm not judging you. You're only human, and DS has always been challenging. A less intense child might have formed a secure attachment to Dad, even though he came and went (although that would have been a tall order for any child.) A less intense child might begrudgingly form an attachment to Dad now, since he is the one there caring for him. A less intense child might have been less possessive and demanding for the past three years. It's natural for you to be exhausted and resentful and burned out.

It's easy to see DS as the problem, even though, in fact, he is not creating the difficult situation, but has been thrust into it by a combination of temperament, his father's constant absences, and a new sibling. He is not choosing to be a bad kid. he's not trying to make your life difficult. He's doing the best he can, given the difficult hand of cards that he's been dealt.

What's more, you chose to have another baby. Again, I'm not judging you. I can well understand why you wanted another child, and why you thought you had the perfect solution, with the change in your husband's work schedule. But adding a baby to the family always stresses the older child, and exacerbates any attachment issues. So while you did not really understand how making the choice to have another child would worsen things, it was indeed your choice, not DS's.

But here you all are in a tough situation. What choices do you have to create a positive outcome? I think that each of you is being asked to step up and grow in a different way.

1. Your husband needs to repair his relationship with his son. That means going overboard to meet DS's needs, even to the point of babying him. This is probably contrary to your husband's inclinations, which may well be that DS should toughen up and get over it and let dad do things his way and stop being such a spoiled brat.

Actually, DS needs to revert to babyhood with Dad in order to rebuild a bond of trust. That means that he has to be convinced that his Dad really cares about DS's perspective, really wants to meet his needs. This would be a lot ot ask of any dad in this situation; because naturally your husband is feeling rejected, wondering if his kid is abnormal, wondering if you've ruined him, wondering if his being gone ruined him.

But your husband has to get over all that and really try hard to meet DS's needs as DS is expressing them, because that is what will convince DS that his dad truly cares. I know he is difficult and demanding. I know that often he will make your husband feel like a failure, and your husband will just have to soothe his own wounded pride and love DS through his tantrum.

This repair work is essential for DS's well-being, for peace in your house, and for your husband's relationship with his son for the rest of his life. If your husband wants some help in how to do this, one good source is Heather Forbes, who deals with kids with attachment issues. I also do counseling via phone or skype, and could help your husband with the nuts and bolts of this. There are also lots of articles on my website that relate. Here's one,_Yells_at_Parents_to_Shut_Up:

You husband also may need some help with DS's tantrums. How he handles them will make all the difference in the world to whether the tantrum brings them closer. Because DS is showing you both how he feels. Your husband's ability to "hear" DS's feelings is the magic salve that will help them bond, and help DS adjust. Think of this as "emotion coaching." There are many articles on my website that explain more about how to do this, including:

Teaching emotional intelligence

Handling Kids' Anger

Many of my articles give specifics on how to handle tantrums, which is essentially to listen, stay connected, stay close, hug as soon as you can. Your child will be able to express those big scary feelings in your safe presence and feel heard, and will emerge feeling closer to you (or, in this case, to his father.) Another fantastic source of information on this approach is Patty Wipfler at Hand-in-Hand Parenting; they have great little videos and pdfs to help you become comfortable helping your child with his emotions. Because your son is an intense kid, he particularly needs the kind of help she describes. It is critical that you offer him this now, both to improve the situation and because you don't want him to get a couple of years older and have hardened his heart. This is the window to intervene.

2. DS needs to understand better what's happening inside him.

He needs to reflect on his feelings about his dad, which are, after all, preverbal. "Dad used to go away and then come back, all the time. That was hard for you. You always worried that someone would leave. I wonder if you thought I might leave?" The more he can access those scary feelings and bring them to the surface, the less they will control him.

DS also needs to learn ways to soothe himself. He gets anxious easily. He needs ways to notice when he is getting anxious, and to calm himself down. You can help him with this by empathizing with him and soothing him whenever he expresses emotions, including tantrums.

It would also benefit DS greatly to have a very predictable schedule. Some things you will do. Other things his dad will do. That way everything isn't always a battle. For instance, pick something smallish (for instance, NOT who goes to him at night since that is huge), and have Dad ALWAYS do that. Something like feeding him breakfast. If DS cries and rages, his dad needs to take an empathic approach and reassure him, but not back down. You need to not intervene, no matter what.

3. You need to repair your relationship with DS.

You need to vent your frustration, get some rest, and rediscover your love for your son.

You are the center of his universe, and he worries about losing you. He needs to learn that you will always be there, will always come back, that people can have rifts but repair them.

You would like DS to change, and he will, but only if his environment changes. That means his dad has to change the way he parents. It also means you have to let go of your resentments. I know I'm asking a lot. Any mother in your shoes would feel the same depletion you feel.

And it will take getting more sleep and feeling less depleted. I would give the baby to your husband whenever you can to get a break yourself, and to spend more unstructured, peaceful time snuggling with DS. So instead of it being you with the baby and your husband with DS, try to make sure that your time is evenly divided and that sometimes you just get to be alone and luxuriate in that free feeling of no one hanging on you.

You need to do some healing inside yourself to find the love you need to give your son. He may be difficult, but he is your son and he deserves your love.

How can you do this? Any way that works for you. Personally, I would ask for help. Whether that is something outside you, like a higher power, or something inside you, like your deepest wisdom, doesn't matter. The interesting thing about asking for help in this way is that, at least in my experience, it always works.

Visualize yourself hugging DS, and him beaming back at you. Let the infinite tenderness of your love for him wash over you. Ask for help to let go of anything that gets in the way of being close to this little person, who is so precious to you. Ask for guidance to be the best mother you can be to him. You may find that pictures or words pop up, that is how the subconscious communicates. It may be that no real answers come, but you feel better. Keep doing this little practice as often as you can. I have heard from parents over and over that it helped them.

I hope this is helpful. If you would like more support throughout this process, please do consider registering for a session with me.

In any case, I send you blessings and wishes for healing. Things can get better in your family, they really can. That healing needs to begin inside you.
Dr. Laura

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