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3 year old struggling- tantrums, accidents, new daycare & baby sister

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Hi Dr. Laura,
You helped me earlier this year with some potty training struggles with my then 2 yr old and I thought I would turn to you again as I am having some challenges with my now 3 yr old. to see if you can give me some advice as to how to handle this situation...please bear with me if this is rather lengthy, as I want to give you as much info as possible.

About a month ago I changed my son's preschool. He was going to a daycare that had a full time preschool program. He had been at this daycare since he was 10 months old and he had formed a pretty tight bond with many of the other kids as he had been in the infant room with many of them. I loved the program for a long time, but staffing changes really left me feeling he was not getting the best program possible about the last 6 months. When an opening came up with another preschool (where my daughter goes to daycare) I went ahead and changed him about a month ago to the new class.

I eased him into it as I was very worried he wouldn't adjust well. However he seemed to really take to it...I had no issues with him saying he didn't like it or didn't want to go. When talking to his new teacher she said he is a bit shy though and it will take a bit for him to warm up to the other kids before he starts playing with them each day. This is totally at odds with how he was at his other school. At the other school his class was primarily boys and they were all very rough and rowdy and all got along very good. He was always engaged and interacting with the other kids every time I went to get him. I am glad his class now isn't wild and unstructured like the other one was, but it does leave me wondering if he really likes it since most of the time when I go get him he isn't really playing with the other kids...he is usually sitting and doing something by himself(which breaks my heart as he is such an energetic little guy). I know it is important for kids to do things by themselves but it has me wondering if he is lonely or feels as though he doesn't fit in (do they feel that at 3?).

Anyway, about a week and a half ago he started really throwing tantrums and being super clingy and whiny all the time. Simple things like trying to take his socks off will leave him in a puddle of tears! I asked his teacher if he does this at school, and she said no, he barely talks at all...this floors me because he is nonstop talking at home.

However anytime I ask him if he likes his class, he answers yes, but doesn't elaborate. I ask him if he likes the kids in the class and his teacher and it is always yes and that is it. He always says he is ready to go in the mornings when I drop him off and doesn't throw a fit, etc. when I leave. He also recently started chewing his nails. I am not sure if it is a coincidence or not or if something is stressing him.

His almost 8 month sister started crawling about a week and a half ago and I wonder if this has upset him. She now is into everything and he does get very upset when she gets anywhere near his toys. She also started needing a few weeks ago breathing treatments for congestion and this does take up quite a bit of time where I am focused just on her. I do try to still do one on onetime with him because I know how important it is to him. Just this weekend I planned a special trip just with him to the zoo and he had a great time and he seemed to be back to his old self...but as soon as we got back to the house with sister, he resorted to the tears, etc. when something frustrated him.

Last week he started having accidents...which he has really never done since he has been potty trained. He pooped in his pants at school (which has not happened at all) and he had 2-3 accidents at home this weekend, which again, is really out of the norm. He has gotten to where he will refuse to go to the bathroom which has me puzzled because he usually is really good about it. He eventually will go with prodding and a bribe (candy--I know, not a good habit).

Do you think he hates his class and just isn't saying anything? Do you think that the accidents are even related to the class or do you think it has more to do with the fact that his sister is needing more attention and maybe he feels threatened now that she is mobile and into "his things"? He gets very upset anytime she goes near any of "his" toys and usually will run by and take whatever she is playing with and throw it across the room. He also is super-demanding anytime I have to give her a breathing treatment (which can be 4-5 times a day). He even wet on the carpet this weekend when I was giving her a treatment which he has never done.

Or do you think this is all normal for a 3 yr old who is struggling trying to deal with limitations and not being able to do everything they want to do? I do try to give him choices so he doesn't feel like his whole day is dictated, but maybe I am doing something wrong. Can you please help me?I feel like I am some how hurting my little guy and it just breaks my heart. I wonder if I did him a disservice by changing preschools even if I felt like it was unstructured and not a good environment, because at least he seemed happy there.

Any insight would be great, thanks Dr. Laura.


Dear Shell,
What a hard situation for you all! Your little guy is clearly suffering and having a hard time, given that he is suddenly having potty accidents, refusing to go to the bathroom, and biting his nails. His behavior in school is also indicative of stress, in that he is quiet and solitary, when at his last school he was loud and interactive. The fact that simple frustrations like trying to take his socks off trigger tears and tantrums is another indication that his internal resources are stretched very thin. He's clearly very stressed out right now, having a hard time coping.

Let's look at the things that may be stressing him:

1. A month ago he left his old, very comfortable school where he was quite attached to the kids and staff, and started at a new daycare center. He must be grieving about that loss, something he is unlikely to be able to express in words, but may still feel acutely. Kids see daycare as another home, and losing that familiar place and those faces he loves is a big blow. He now spends his days playing alone instead of feeling connected to his buddies. He must indeed feel lonely and out of place, although at this age he probably can't verbalize that.

2. Three weeks ago his sister began to require breathing treatments for congestion, meaning that 4-5 times daily she requires your undivided attention. He was already jealous, and it is asking a lot of him not to act out while you are so preoccupied with her. He certainly can't understand why you need to give his sister all this attention, unless of course you love her more. And if these treatments make her cry, that would increase his anxiety level.

3. A week and a half ago, his sister began crawling. This allows her to get into all his things. When babies reach the crawling stage is the MOST difficult time for older siblings, and the time they are most likely to regress or hit. This is a normal development, of course, but it comes on the heels of her breathing treatments and his being stressed over school. He must be enraged at her, and that would make him feel like a bad person, which increases the likelihood that he will act like a bad person, or at least a bad three year old. Three year olds don't have a lot of control over things, but they do control their own bodies. If he can't hit his sister, the next best thing might well be to regress in terms of toilet training. And if he feels anxious about his murderous thoughts toward his sister, that may well make him bite his nails. He may feel so guilty about his "bad" feelings that he concludes that this daycare move is a punishment for being so bad.

So, we can certainly understand why he's unhappy. Did you do anything wrong? NO. You clearly are trying hard to balance the needs of both your kids and to spend focused time with him, which deserves applause. You moved him to a new care situation that you thought would be better for him. Unfortunately, you didn't realize how stressful it would be, but you also didn't know it would coincide with these other stressors.

Don't give up yet, however. The fact that he is still adjusting, after a month, is not at all unusual. It's too early to conclude that moving him was a mistake. But you do need to share your concerns with the daycare staff. They can help foster relationships between your son and the other kids. It can take awhile to feel connected, and he can absolutely feel left out at this age. And if possible, it would be a good idea to set up a few play-dates on weekends with some of the other boys, just so he can begin to feel like he has friends in the group. That will go a long way toward making him feel better.

As far as his accidents at home go, definitely don't punish him. The more empathy and forgiveness you can give him about everything right now, the better. Bottom line, what he needs to feel like he is a good person and has a good life is that his parents adore him and want nothing more than to care for him and shower him with love, even if he is not always "good" and sometimes has mean, angry, bad feelings. If you can accept and empathize with the full range of his feelings, and keep extending your adoration, he will find the strength to pull through this in a healthy way.

And, btw, candy as a reward for using the bathroom right now is not a big deal. That habit can easily be eliminated once everything improves and his stress level drops. In the meantime, there is nothing wrong with him feeling that at least he gets something out of it.

Please do write and let me know how he's doing.
Dr. Laura

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