Difficulty Parenting 3 & 4 Year Olds

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  • In the throes of parenting a 3yo

    (21 replies)

    Hi, apologies for this "list", but I would like any general tips for parenting a very sensory 3.5yo. At the moment, I struggle with the following:

    • Messy, messy mealtimes. Food is treated like play-dough and physics experiments, no matter how much we emphasize that mealtime is different from playtime. I value exploration and creativity, but mealtimes are exhausting because I sound like a broken record ("don't play with your food") and just want him to stop shredding napkins and turning his water bottle upside-down to make puddles.
    • Defiance and taunting. I don't like yelling, but he really pushes my buttons. Telling him 3-4 times to not do something (like have paperclips in his mouth) doesn't work because he smiles and runs away. Then when I yell and threaten him with timeout, he will spit out the paperclip and do some other obnoxious act like pushing a stack of papers off the table, just for good measure. If I sigh in exasperation, he copies my sighs.
    • Slooooooow morning routine. He has a 7:30 wake time, and preschool starts at 9. Every morning, we go through the dance of "I don't wanna" to everything. I'll admit; there is a lot of yelling involved because he just doesn't move. Because I am desperate to make mornings better, I have gone as far as to think- should I switch preschools because he just doesn't want to go? Is he just naturally a late riser? (We are lights out at 8:30, but he usually doesn't fall asleep until 9/9:15, and DST has made it so much harder to push back bedtime. His alarm is set for wake up at 7:30.) Do I set his alarm earlier so we have more lead time for mornings? (We actually trained both our kids to "sleep in" later to 7:30 so that we could sleep in ourselves... I would hate to give that up...)

    I appreciate any advice or even insights into the 3yo mind. I am just so tired of yelling every day. And I recognize it may not be very effective. Should I just resign myself to being "in the throes" and that everything I'm complaining about will pass (into something else)? Thanks!

    Hi there!

    I can only recommend a book that a friend recommended to me (her son is a very polite teenager and they have a great mother/son relationship). The book is called "Parent Talk" by Chick Moorman.

    The author used to provide workshops for parent groups (I don't know if this still happens), and my friend attended some when her son was little. I would be a good idea to attend something like this because other parents who probalby went through the same as you, could give advice, and you can also hear about other situations that you might face in the future and be prepared.

    I don't have experience on the efectiveness of this method because my son is very young, but the book is worth the reading.

    Good luck!

    Omg, Mama. My child is nine now, so I’m evidence this stage is survivable, but your letter reminds me how exhausting that period was. 

    How useful this is will depend upon who both you and your child are as individuals (I’m an actor, and my child loves make believe, so it was an easy go to for us),  but the thing that worked best for us to grease the wheels in ALL these situations was PRETEND. If she didn’t want to put on her shoes, we would make them try to sneak away from her while they whispered she’d never catch them—then she’d grab them right up and insist that they go on her feet! If she didn’t want to eat the broccoli we’d invite the broccoli into the party in her belly and make all the fun party noises once it was in there. Fingers would be pretend worms, characters that would distract her from doing whatever we didn’t want her to do…or distracted her while we put clothes on her body and shoed her out the door. That is, pretend play as misdirection. And so forth. Making up silly songs and poems about things while we do them also serves a similar purpose. All this constant creative output is no less exhausting than the neverending battle refrains of “don’t do that”, but it’s more pleasant.

    i wish you luck and fortitude. And sleep. And babysitters. Hang in there and try to be as loving and generous with yourself as you can be. This, too, shall pass. 

    I would suggest taking a parenting course for more guidance. I took a course through https://www.positiveparenthood.org/ and learned some really helpful tools. Also, I liked "How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen". Also, you could read Janet Lansbury articles. Lots of tools out there! On my better days, I use tools from all 3 of these resources but it takes lots of practice and sometimes I get it wrong. I have a 4.5 yr old and I feel like it's gotten better and then I imagine at a certain point it will get worse and then better and so on...

    All I can say is I sympathize. 3 was the absolute lowest for me as a parent and I currently have teens, so that’s saying something. 

    A few things: don’t continue to repeat yourself. He will tune you out. Paper clips in mouth? I always just gave one warning and then followed through. We saved timeouts for the worst offenses. Don’t overuse them. They lose their efficacy. Try not to show exasperation. He’s getting to you and he knows it. He’ll keep pushing buttons. (This works with teens as well so file it away for future use). Just stay calm. Have clear expectations and clear consequences and just know that it’s a phase. 

    First of all...solidarity! This stuff is hard. My daughter will be 5 in August, and while still very strong-willed (aka: challenging), age 3 was way more difficult to manage, especially 3.5-4. Every kid is different, but for me, it's gotten a bit easier as she's developed more self-awareness and empathetic capabilities. In terms of advice, one book that I found to be very helpful is called "How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen" by Joanna Faber and Julie King...helpful in terms of how to communicate with little ones to get more buy in and get to their level, which is generally PLAY. I'm now reading a book called "Setting Limits with your Strong-Willed Child" by Robert Mackenzie, which goes over how to get out of the "dance" of discipline and get down to firm boundaries and consequences earlier on in the back and forth. I'm still working on all of it, but nice to have some guidance and goals. In general, as you probably know, yelling doesn't work and generally aids in further destablizing the situation. Firm natural consequences are best, though not always clear what those are in the moment.

    With the food example, I'd say something like, "if you throw your food or dump your water I'm going to take it away", and then the next time he does it (not 4x later), do it. In the second example of the paperclips, I'd threaten timeout and then put him in it right away if he continues to not listen or escalate the situation. If it were a toy or something else that he really liked playing with, take the toy away for like a week, saying the toy needs a time out. The morning routine...ugh...I hear you. In the second book he suggests putting on a timer and telling the kid they have to get dressed before the timer goes off and if they don't you just leave the house without clothes on (in a bag). This is harder with littles, a) because they don't care if they're naked outside b) it's harder for them to do things independently. I don't think having him get up earlier makes sense though. An hour and half is plenty of time and sleep is precious!

    Best of luck!! Some of it gets easier : )

    I think you might benefit from some of the courses offered by Big Little Feelings. It's exactly for the age and type of dynamic you are describing here. Namely, your reaction is reinforcing the behavior - even if you react negatively this is attention, albeit negative but it's what their toddler brain does. I think you'll find this incredibly useful and you might feel less alone in your experience. I find their instagram helpful too. 


    3.5 is THE WORST age. My younger kid is 3.5 and sounds like our little chaos-makers could be best friends. I highly recommend the book "How to talk so little kids will listen." There's a lot there, but some key themes are:

    Hold firm limits. If you tell him not to do something, and then he does it, you remove the opportunity to do it again (take away the water bottle, remove him from the table, whatever) immediately, gently, and consistently. (This is hard!)

    Stay calm (also hard!), and no yelling or punishment. They don't work in the long run. When you take away the water bottle or remove him from the table, it's not punishment, it's preventing harm. If he throws a toy at someone, you say "it looks like you are in the mood to throw things, we don't throw toys at people (take toy away) so let's go throw a ball instead." 

    The book has lots of suggestions about how to address certain situations like getting out the door in the morning - make it a game (make the sock a monster eating your kids foot, pretend to be animals, etc.), use humor, put your kid in charge (we had some luck with a checklist with our older kid), etc. 

    These things are SO HARD though - I have read this book and others and I really believe these things work but I still don't enforce everything consistently and I yell and threaten sometimes, and when I'm frustrated I forget the silly games that work when I can find the energy for them. 

    We also struggle with mornings but the only thing I can offer is to eliminate as much as possible from your routine. Our kids put on clean clothes the night before and sleep in them (they just wear all stretchy cotton stuff so there's no difference between "clothes" and PJs"), everything is packed the night before, sometimes the 3yo eats breakfast in the stroller on the way to preschool. Doesn't really fix the problem but it helps if there are fewer steps to fight about.

    Good luck! He won't be 3 forever!

    Here's what we did for meal times. For a few months, our son used to eat on the porch with no shirt on and plastic or metal everything (no glass), so that if he threw stuff, nothing would break. And whatever mess he made, I can easily sweep it into the yard for the birds or just be compost. He got to wave hi and chat with the neighbors and people walking by, which was quite nice. It won't cut down on the amount of mess, but it cuts down on the amount of time needed to clean the mess! 

    The other two... I'd be interested in hearing others' suggestions since we deal with them too. 

    Try giving her small amounts of food, then adding more as she eats. Give the drink before and after the meal but limit what’s in front of her. Remember that she is in the pre operational stage of life so is too young to really get your feelings but totally understands how to get a reaction from you. Don’t react to her shenanigans, you will be amazed how much that changes the game.

    Some questions:

    - What kind of preschool is your son in? Is it play-based or more structured where the focus is on academics? How many hours a day does he get of outdoor free time? To me it sounds like he may not be getting enough exercise... My 3.5 yo is in a more academic Montessori where there's limited outdoor time. I notice on weekends and days when I make her exercise a lot (like scooting the 1 mile home, uphill) she seems to fall asleep easier. And on poor weather days when they have to remain indoors she REALLY does not go to sleep easily.

    Some tips we use:

    - No pajamas. Putting them in clean school clothes the night before = not fighting about getting dressed in the morning.

    - My kiddo likes brushing her teeth now because she gets to watch 2-minute videos. Look it up on YouTube, 2-minute "timer" videos are a thing.

    - We try to ask them to DO a behavior rather than NOT do something ("Let's use your inside voice" vs. "Do not yell".  "Eat nicely!" vs. "Don't play with your food".  "Only food, milk or water in your mouth-- is paper food?"). We also point out the behavior of others ("Does Mama have her feet on top of the dining table? Nooo. Does Dada?") 

    - Some books we found super helpful: Mealtime (Toddler Tools); the "Hello Genius" book series-- Penguin Says Please, Little Monkey Calms Down 

    Hang in there-- for my older daughter, things definitely got better around age 4 or 5. Good luck!

    +1 on "How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen." Our kids are 2.5 and 5 and it is basically the Bible in our house!

    It has been 30 years, but your lament strikes a chord!

    Messy mealtimes: provide food in small doses and remove the means of destruction immediately when the mess begins. "When you make a mess it is extra work for Mom and makes her upset."  If Dad can deliver this message, it may come as a revelation.

    If you are losing patience, definitely do not sacrifice your sleep time by trying to wake up earlier. Are you a morning person or a night owl?  Which is your child?  Our daughter was driving us crazy, prowling around at night even as a three year old; at age 30 she is still up at night, working at her computer.

    This is also the time to be sure that you get kid-free time off - either a full weekend day, and/or a daily two-hour break for enjoyable work or other non-Mom activity.

    The less you yell, the better you feel - even if you don't have help for every meal.

    Janet Lansbury's articles/podcasts have helped me a lot: https://www.janetlansbury.com. She answers parent questions, and you can probably find ones that are relevant to your challenges. For me, it has also helped greatly to absorb the general philosophy/mindset behind her approach, so I get a lot of good even from articles that don't match my specific challenges. I think she shows a way to be respectful of children, to understand and accept where they are developmentally ("tiny people with incredibly low impulse control who are very easily overwhelmed"), to give them the sense of safety that comes from being accepted and loved exactly as they are, and to be confident in standing up for boundaries that matter to us, because our feelings and needs matter too. When my son was 2-3, I relied more on ideas from How to Talk so Little Kids will Listen, and there is a lot of good in that book too; but in my case (my temperament paired with my son's), it led to me trying to work ever harder to avoid/overcome resistance by making things fun, beyond what I could sustain. I think Janet's advice is what I needed.

    It’s unremitting, exhausting work. Hang in there! 

    Another recommendation for “How to Talk so Little Kids will listen” for avoiding power struggles which are so draining. 

    It is also not “giving up” or being a pushover to put some rules aside for a while. Maybe you work on the morning routine and you put a towel under your son’s chair at dinner and say “we’re going to take a break from the no food play rule.”  When you have more energy and built some goodwill you can come back to it. 

    "Terrible Twos" makes for a nice alliteration, but "Terrible Threes" is far more accurate, and I think it has been proven, but I can't remember by who, haha!  Just know that you are not alone.      

    For eating, perhaps for a short while, try a supervised small plates approach?  Don't put the whole meal directly in front of your child, just transfer a few bites at a time from their dinner plate to a smaller dish that is in front of him?  And giving sips to drink in between, in a supervised way so it can't be poured out.  And lots of positive attention during this time. My kid always did more mischief when I was trying to multi-task in the kitchen. 

    For unwanted behavior, such as paper clips in the mouth, etc, which of course is dangerous, say it once, and do a "time in" immediately before he can run away with a paperclip in his mouth.  For "time in" scoop him onto your lap, even better if you consistently have specific "time in" spots in your house, like consistently sit on the floor, or specific chairs for example. Talk calmly about the behavior.  Say a phrase that is easy to use every time, like "let's sit here together and take a breath for a minute so you can... (name positive behavior)"  and either sit quietly or calmly chat about the behavior you DO want (talking about what not to do  just reminds him of how much attention that behavior gets him).  Use this not as a 'penalty box' but more as a 'reset button' for you both.  The duration of this is usually around 1-2 minutes, maybe up to 3 minutes the first couple of times, but never longer than that.  You might have a couple of days when you have to repeat the process a dozen times, but later on, once will be enough. 

    One of the weirdest/ simplest consequences that worked around preschool age was something I read in a parenting book, and was floored that it worked.   Of course, if you say there will be a consequence, then there needs to be a consequence.  But this consequence is something like:  you walk over to their sock drawer.  Take out a pair of socks.  Say, you are losing this pair of socks, and you can earn them back by (correcting behavior).  Then they correct the behavior, you thank them for good listening, and do a show of putting the socks back in the drawer.  Somehow this works, and it is best using a random unimportant object, not something they care about like a toy.  I never thought that would work, but it was amazing. 

    When it comes to the morning routine, I won't pretend I ever mastered that one. 

    My son turns 3 next week so we’re not there yet, but reading all this is so helpful. I also wanted to add that I noticed a kid who’s a little older than my son at my son’s daycare used to wear what looked like pjs every day to school. I can only imagine this was because getting dressed was so difficult and that was their solution. Recently I noticed that she is now wearing regular clothes to school so she must have worked through it. Something that seems to work well for my son in the morning is to make sure he gets 1:1 time in his room before we start getting dressed and eating breakfast. He loves books so I think it helps him ease into the day and morning routine. 

    Honestly every example you gave sounds like your kid is trying to get a rise out of you. Once kids learn you will react, they will keep doing it. Not reacting is easier said than done. My kid is only 2.5, but I agree with some of the other posts that you have to know your kid to find the right solution. My kid is very stubborn and strong-will. Everything must be her idea or she won't do it. I haven't read any parenting books or taken any classes, so my strategies are all over the place. But this is what has worked for us in those examples you gave:

    1. My kid thinks eating at a restaurant is the best thing in the world. So every night we "practice" eating at a restaurant. I explain that throwing food on the floor makes more work for the restaurant and they won't let us eat there if we do that. The rule is that anything goes as long as it's confined to her placemat. But outside the placemat needs to be kept clean. This includes banging utensils on the table outside the placemat or spilling liquids, as of course the restaurant won't let us eat there if we did that.

    2. Defiance is a game to him. I started using time-outs when my kid started hitting me in the face as a game. Every time I would tell her to stop and that it hurt me, she'd laugh and do it again. She thought it was funny and the more I reacted, the more she wanted to do it. The only way I got her to stop was to start doing timeouts. I do 2 warnings and 3 is timeout. But they can't be a threat, you have to follow through. The first couple timeouts I did went well. She sat there and took it, but I think she quickly learned that she didn't want to ever be in timeout. Nowadays I can usually give her a couple warnings and she'll stop. But if we do get to 3, it's now the biggest tantrum in the world and she goes all limp fish on me. I have to sit with her in timeout. That being said, I save warnings & timeouts for special occasions. Hitting is one instance where I always use it. But otherwise, I try to use it sparingly. And never use it when they're already having another problem (hangry, currently having a tantrum, etc).

    3. This is a hard one because parents don't always have all the time in the world (gotta get to work, on with the day, etc). But my kid has become expert at stall tactics. I just try everything. One thing I do for sure is walk in with her morning milk (or drink of choice) in a spill proof cup. I find often she's thirsty or hungry right away and needs to drink while I undress her. I've also tried getting her excited by talking about seeing her friends. And I've played games while dressing, like pretending her pants are going to eat her feet or making weird noises every time a head, hand, or foot pops through the clothes. Also we typically walk to daycare in the morning, which she loves. So one consequence of taking too long is that we have to jump in the car. And I'm constantly reminding her of that, "if you don't put on your shoes now, we can't walk today", etc.

    Good luck. Take a parenting class or read a book. I probably should myself.

    I recently went through a tough period with my 3 year old with similar behaviors to what you are describing.  Just a horror show every day, and it was really negatively affecting everyone in my household. I had 2 online sessions with Jill Shugart, and it made a huge difference.  I feel like I had read ALL the books (how to talk to kids, etc) and followed ALL the instagrams (big little feelings, etc), and websites (lansbury, etc), but Jill gave me a very clear, simple strategy that helped me deal. The key point is that you need to remain calm and and remove all little "bells and whistles" that he is getting from you that is stimulating his nervous system, and replace it with super simple and calm choices.  I recommend you spend the money for even 1 hour chatting with Jill. $195.  It took some time, but the behavior has improved. Could it be because of the strategies or because the 3.4 year old is now 3.6? Who knows. But it is getting much more pleasant in our house.

    Either way, I feel your pain. 

    OP here, wow thank you so much for the collective wisdom and creative approaches! I tried the clothes-sneaking-away tactic today to huge success. (Of course he still tried to balance his breakfast plates on the edge of his high chair today.) I also found that using a 5-min, 2-min warning with our Google Home to be helpful for keeping him on task. Sometimes you just need to come up for air and hear words of encouragement and know that you aren't alone before going back in the trenches...

    I just wanted to add one more resource here. I've worked with Katrinca Ford and she's been just so helpful. She's a play therapist which means an actual therapist whose speciality is children. She takes appointments to meet with kids and their parents but she also does phone consultations. Maybe just call her. The situation with your three year old is very similar to the day to day challenges with my little one, but you'd get a few tools and a fresh point of view from talking with Katrinca. It's been a game changer for me. She also runs classes for parents online. 

    I don’t know what type of insurance you have, but I didn’t realize that I could get behavioral assessments through kaiser until someone told me. If you ask your pediatrician about it, your pedi will most likely send you a self evaluation questionnaire. Be as boldly honest as you can on it—a half hearted “well sometimes he does it” won’t get you anywhere. When we pushed through the paperwork my son finally had access to a behavioral neuropsychologist, OT and PT. Turns out he had a language processing disorder that made him SUPER frustrated with us because he couldn’t communicate. We ended up paying for speech therapy privately and it helped. He still has a language processing issue but I had a much bigger toolbox to help me and expert advice. So check in with your pediatrician first. 

  • I love my 4.5yo son, but he has a difficult personality a lot of the time. I don't know what I can reasonably expect from a 4yo. I know these might be totally typical of a strong-willed personality, but all the same, I want to work on this because if I let it go unchecked, I feel like no one will want to be around him. Some examples: 1) He does not acknowledge people with social niceties, despite the fact that we always model them. For instance, he won't even speak or look at his dad in the mornings or at pick-up even after his dad asks, "Good morning" or "How are you?", etc. A lot of times, he will flat out say, "I don't want you in here." 2) He always has an agenda and is opportunistic. For instance, over Thanksgiving, we had a fancy red box of chocolates. Everything that entire weekend became about that box of chocolates. He'd wake up, ignore everyone and just come to me and say, "I want chocolate." I would explain all the things about eating healthy, having breakfast, etc., and then he would say, "OK, but afterwards I get chocolate." This behavior is throughout the day because he is constantly trying to negotiate or wheedle something out of us (candy, TV, etc.). 3) He is very argumentative and ALWAYS has to be right. For example, we had this whole argument how it was "Saint Patrick's Day", not "Same Patrick's Day". He basically threw a tantrum and was screaming how it was the latter. But he will dwell on how wrong we all are and remind us of that throughout the day. 4) He is always competing with his little brother for attention. We feel we give them both a lot of attention and reassurances (I have read Siblings Without Rivalry), but somehow, it is never enough for him. He is also not affectionate, so while he wants to be showered with affection, he is not particularly "loving" back. I know it's OK to not be affectionate back, but he just seems to always want to be given things and not give back. Maybe I am worrying about very typical, age-appropriate behavior, which is fine - I just want to know what I can do as a parent to set him up to know how to be a good friend, kind, not a class-A jerk, etc.

    It sounds like you are having trouble dealing with your son's odd behaviors. I am a bit worried about how you are judging him and the use of the term "Class A jerk." When my son (who is on the autism spectrum) was four he did many things that are similar to those you describe. He was also very argumentative. We did not know he had ASD at that time, but I had a hunch he was not neurotypical. For example, the failure to greet people, the rigidity about how to say St. Patrick's Day, the tantrum, the fixation on the chocolate and the difficulties with reciprocity. These are very similar to the kinds of behaviors my son displayed at that age. The good news is that with social skills therapy, my son has eliminated/outgrown those behaviors and he is a very loving and polite young man. I encourage you to get an evaluation by a professional to find out what is going on with your son. He may need some supports around social skills, rigidity, and other issues. 

    Honestly I feel for your child. He seems like a typical 4/5 year old. You use some negative descriptibe words about him, " opportunistic." It might be that he's acting out based on the expectations and possible disappointment that is cast upon him. I've learned a lot from the FaceBook group called Visible Child - there's also a rich website with a ton of blogs that would be helpful. Their main tenant is to have appropriate expectations of children. Any time a parent is let down it's almost always due to their idea that their children should behave a certain way or be developmentally older. I encourage you to try to spend more quality time with your child without expectation. He needs connection without bias.

    I'm sorry that you are dealing with this difficult situation. We had some similar traits in our older daughter (I remember my little one telling me I was absolutely wrong that the lyric from Frozen's "Let it Go" was not "the past is in the tast", and if there's something she wants and the answer is "no" she will just keep asking as if that will produce a better response) and I would suggest that you seek out child counseling or therapy for your son soon. Take a look at what your health insurance provides and try to find therapists that are covered by your insurance. We tried to do parent counseling to learn different parenting methods and while that could be effective, it's really difficult to work through this more or less alone. We worked with Parent's Place when we lived on the Peninsula, so I don't know who you should contact here in the East Bay, but I think there are a number of threads on child therapists in the BPN forums that you could search through. Good Luck!

    I would look at the Neufeld Institute of online classes / reading materials.  There are located in Vancouver BC, but the coursework is available to parents worldwide.  Such a good resource for knowing about children's brain development, and connecting with the child which is so important regardless of behavior.  Good luck

    Have you thought about getting your child evaluated for autism or just a general psychiatric evaluation? If these behaviors are not being learned at home and especially with not acknowledging your presence or being loving back, I would be concerned there was a deeper rooted issue. 

    I suspect you’re going to get this same response from many folks, but you should have him tested - this sounds like possible ASD to me. All the behaviors you describe would be explained by this neurological difference. With the right diagnosis, you’ll be able to interact with him more appropriately, have realistic expectations, and help him find an accepting community. 

    My son had a lot of these tendencies. We actually got him into a social speech therapy group and it made a huge difference, mainly with his peers but I find he has also grown out of a lot of this as he gets more into school and matures. So guess all I can say is be patient but also firm on expectations around niceties, he will slowly pick up on them

    Four-year-olds can be difficult, and you will need to pick your battles.

    For example, you might choose to ignore the tantrum around "Same Patrick's Day".

    Telling someone he doesn't want them around, IMHO, merits a response: "It hurts Dad's feelings when you say that; right, Dad?".

    Some rude behaviors can be modified with appropriate teaching technique. Some may stem from anger, perhaps over the presence of the sibling in his life.

    You might want to consider having your child evaluated by a developmental pediatrician. While he may grow out of some of the bad behaviors, the longer he persists in being un-likeable, the worse it will go for him socially.

    I’m ashamed to admit I thought my first child was a jerk until we finally had him evaluated and found out he was on the spectrum. He was 13, I wish we had known sooner, there was so much misunderstanding and miscommunication that could have been avoided. I recommend a neuropsych evaluation: sounds like he is rigid, super-focused, and over-stimulated by typical human encounters….good for you for seeking help!

    Your post reminded me of one I wrote years ago about my son! I wonder if your son has trouble w friends or teachers, or not? If he saves most of this stuff for family and is able to control himself out in the world, this may just be his personality! If he really has trouble interacting with others, I might take the next steps to get him evaluated. 
    We took our son to a couple psychologists.. to help him deal w anger and help us learn to cope. He was an exhausting kid - so stubborn, absolutely relentless when he wanted something, a class-A know-it-all. Mean to his brother, major temper tantrums when he didn’t get his way.
    After everything we did, I believe time and maturity is what “worked”. He’s now a wonderful 15yr old with a great personality, sense of humor and good friends. He knows exactly what he wants, but can laugh at himself and we lovingly tease him about these aspects of his personality. Wishing u all the best!

      I don't know how to respond to his not saying hello or good morning to his dad. Does he treat his father differently than he treats you? It may be something specific that underlies that behavior.  I am not a therapist but I would stop negotiating over chocolate or St Patrick's day. The fact that you have extended discussions might make your son believe he can persuade you to give him his way. A simple, neutral toned "nope" to chocolate and then drop the topic. When he gets a fact wrong, have him check it out..."look it up." and say no more. He's only 4 1/2 - and he's bright enough. Maybe you shouldn't respond when he brings up the same topic? He has your full attention when you go on discussing health, eating habits, etc. Disengaging with him may be totally inadequate as a response if he has more deep seated problems. Good luck.  

    Think Social in Oakland with Shelly Hansen helped our son to improve his social thinking. 

    You don’t say if this is a new relational style for your son or if it’s just bothering you more lately. Some of what you have written sounds a lot like the type of inflexibility one might see with autism or ADHD or SPD. Is this behavior showing up in school, too, or just with you?

    Hugs to you mom. 🤗  I can tell you're at your wits end and want to help.  I hope you found what you're looking for here. Sending love and light. 


    Sounds like you are struggling with some of your son's behaviors, we've had some similarish issues with our 4.5 year old son (like mini tantrums over his way being the right way and ours being the wrong way) and then we've had a bunch of different issues that are very much related to his being a "spirited"/strong willed kid. What has literally saved us was working with Rebecah Freeling at Wit's End Parenting. She's an amazing parenting coach who specializes in supporting families with spirited kids, and she really *likes* spirited kids which I think is important. She ran a preschool for 13 years and gained so much knowledge for how to work with children across a range of behaviors. Especially high energy kids, those with social difficulties, also hitting etc problems, defiant/oppositional kids, and also kids (like my kid) who can be really rigid and fixated on his routines.

    In zoom (or phone, but I recommend zoom because you will miss visuals) meetings she will come up with specific tools for working with your child. When we stick with Rebecah's tools things go so much smoother in our household. When we let them slide things start going a little haywire. 

    Rebecah is also super smart and wise from years of experience. If you have what feels like a problem with your kid, but it's actually totally developmentally appropriate, she will tell you! (she's also funny which makes the meetings more enjoyable). And I personally know at least 4 other families who have worked with her and had great success. Some people meet with her with the kids there, and some parents meet with her without kid. For us we did without kid and that worked for us, but everyone's different...

    So I'd recommend signing up for a free initial meeting with Rebecah where you can determine if it's a good fit for your situation!


    Seems like you’ve gotten a lot of good responses already. Your sons behavior reminds me very much of my 4-year old’s behavior. And while there might be an opportunity to get him tested, what would it change? Besides therapy. Hopefully, you’d see him from a different angle, and with more empathy.
    Children that age have very little control. Let him mispronounce a word. Let him feel he’s right. Make him feel the most awesome and smart person there is! In the real world he knows that he isn’t. Why did you have to be right in the example you mentioned? 
    If he doesn’t want to greet his dad (or anyone for that matter), don’t worry. Don’t force him, nothing good is coming out of forcing him. Instead, you can turn it into a game and it’s so much easier for a 4-year old to engage. And the connection is so much deeper because it’s genuine. His dad would love it, too.
    Don’t have high expectations on a four year old. He’s still experimenting with social norms. Just let him be in whichever way he is. You can’t really change him anyway, but you can make him feel supported and loved the way he is, even if you wished he’d be nice and politer, etc. 

    With our four year old spirited son, if we want him to do something he doesn’t, we make it into a game. Like I mentioned with the greeting, but that can also work with the chocolates he was asking for. We often hide things he wants so we can find it later. And maybe draw a treasure map. That way, he feels he’s in control but ultimately he’s not eating the candy when you don’t want him to. 
    we also love the Facebook group visible child that someone mentioned. And the Unruffled podcast by Janet Lansbury. 
    good luck!

    OP here- thank you for all your responses. It was what I needed. I will definitely look into some of these great resources you mentioned. Some answers to questions people have asked- it does appear to be at-home behavior as his preschool teachers sing his praises. As far as his attitude towards his dad- his dad is more strict, so that explains a lot of it. I love the idea of using games for connection. Thanks all for your support.

  • Defiant and very active 4 yr old

    (14 replies)

    I want to know if I am the only one who is facing this issue. 

    I have a 4 yrs old very active son. Very smart and energetic tot. We are having troubles with pre school transition from daycare. 

    As per his teachers he is defiant and wont follow through orders, he can be a challenge at time. He needs to be convinced to act and cant be forced. His day care teachers were doing great job but not without challenges with his strong emotions. 

    Now he goes to this pre school 2 days a week, and after 1 month, we are given 2 weeks notice because: 

    1- He wont follow through instructions 

    2- he argues a lot, says NO I dont want to all the time, even if he wants to 

    3- he wont nap or lay quietly for the quite time (around 2hrs) 

    I was under the impression that their job is prepare the child for school, so their job is to help him understand the difference between daycare and school. but it seems they want well behaved children ready. 

    I am not really sure what would be my next step here and how to find care that helps with the transition and adjustment! or what is wrong with the whole situation ! 

    My suggestion to you would be to avoid the temptation to brush it off and blame the school.  I also have a very rowdy and active boy and I realized that I was not holding him to high enough expectations for his behavior, and I was actually doing him a disservice by doing so.  I brushed off a lot of his behavior with, "He's still so young," but after spending time with other children of the same gender and age I was able to see that his behavior was out of line with the norms of that age and I could see that he would need correction before it started to negatively impact his ability to make friends and get along with his teachers.  

    If you trusted this school enough to send your boy to them, I would trust them when they say his behavior needs to be changed.  What worked for my boy was a lot of time outs paired with explanations for why he needed to listen.  His school also has a long rest time, and we explained that even though he doesn't need the rest, his younger friends still need it for their growing brains and bodies and he was preventing them from getting what they needed by being noisy.  We also explained that even though we allow a lot of negotiation at home, his teachers have to take care of more than just one child and they can't have long negotiations with one child because it means they can't take care of the other students.  With a lot of consistency and conversation he has greatly improved his behavior and I'm not worried any more about him starting Kindergarten next year.  

    You really will be doing him such a big help to help him get control of his behavior and emotions now.  My oldest child was just invited to a birthday party today, and she said that everyone else in class was invited except the three boys who are always getting in trouble.  It would be so, so painful for me to see my son excluded like that, so I'm glad we listened when we were told his behavior was out of the ordinary.

    It's hard, but so worth it.  Good luck!

    I also have a very strong willed child. I had to think a lot about the kind of environment she would do well in, and I picked a play based preschool with a lot of free play time and outdoor time. I noticed you mentioned he only goes 2 days a week. I have heard it's an easier adjustment when a child goes at least 4 days a week. At 4 years old many children no longer nap, so perhaps you could find a program with no naps? My daughter's preschool had optional naps (optional for the parents to decide that is.)

    I would move your kid into a different preschool.  Some preschools are better able to handle discipline issues and help children learn to behave and prepare them for schools, and some are more focused on academic and social learning but cannot deal well with kids with discipline difficulties or who are more active than others.  I would not try to force the preschool to keep your child since they obviously don't want him there and are not well equipped to handle his personality.  A move to a different preschool will be best.  Good luck. 

    I think it takes a lot longer than a month to transition to preschool. Where my son hasn't been acting out quite in the same ways you have mentioned, he is definitely going through some control issues specific to what he can and cannot do. We hit a rough period and I thought, too, we were going to have to pull him out of school and wait until the new year.

    We've had to start using different words and explaining appropriate behavior (vs. not) as well as framing school in a good light, rather than obligation b/c Mom and Dad go to work. The teachers have all told me to give it until the holidays as it does take a time commitment followed through with consistent behavior on everyone's part. Learn the words the teachers use at school and use them at home, what lessons are they teaching him at school? Can you reinforce those at home in any way?

    Where he does need to get along in school, I've also tried to introduce things that are within his control so he feels empowered every day to do his best. These are small things like pick his own clothing (even if it is the same thing, every day) and decide what goes in his lunch box. I don't love the idea of screen time, but if he behaviors appropriately during the day he can have 30 minutes of one of his favorite shows after dinner, etc. Believe me, my son won't be told what to do either. It's always a lengthy conversation into the "why" of things. But after he understands, he will do the right thing. It just takes time and a lot more effort than I originally thought.

    I was so concerned over our transition into preschool that I've begun reading The Minds of Boys by Michael Gurian. I haven't completed it yet but it's very enlightening. Don't discredit your instincts...ever! This school potentially may not be a good fit and if not, there will be one out there that is. We have to remember that boys learn differently than girls and teachers tend to reward the girls for good behavior and punish the boys quickly for behavior that is very normal for the age and developmental phase in life. It's OK to be energetic and it's OK to feel uncertain in starting a new school. It's also OK if he won't nap, he just can't disrupt the other kids that do - introduce quiet play. The other thing that turned a corner for us is making extra efforts in organizing play dates with his "new friends" on the weekend.

    I feel badly for kids mentioned in the other post that said the three boys weren't invited to the birthday party. That's really awful. It takes a village, a clan, a pack to help our children along. There have been plenty of instances where I've tried and tried on a certain thing and another mom has come in and shown us what their kids do and ...viola, my kid understood right away. 

    Give it a bit more time, reach into your empathetic side and don't let the teachers let you into believing there is something wrong out the gate - it's a perfectly normal reaction to a really big transition. 

    Good luck! 

    Great that you're asking for help here...and wherever else you may be drawn.  AND how wonderful that being 4 years old your son still has an opportunity to learn how to cooperate, how to be kind to others, how to respect others, etc.  It seems to me that what we're seeing unfold nationally is in part, due to men/women being raised without guidance, without healthy love, without an understanding of boundaries (theirs & others') etc.  Thank you for being a good mother.

    Find a new school. As a former preschool teacher I think the structure and expectations of this school and your son are not a good match. He might indeed have to learn how to change his behavior, but two days a week is not enough consistency, 2 hours of quiet time is unrealistic for a 4 year old who doesn't need to sleep, and clearly they don't have the skills to help him. You need a program where the teachers have training in social/emotional foundations of learning, effective methods of behavior guidance and where they have alternative activities for children who have outgrown nap. If after 1 month (which on his schedule is only 8 days of school) they are ready to give up on him, I would look elsewhere.

    Hello  I don’t know what district you were in but the best advice I can give you is the public school system you have him assessed and his home school district .Public schools have the resources to help you with this Situation. 

    My heart broke for you when I read this because it was EXACTLY what I worried about when I sent my similar 3 year old to preschool last year.  He had similar issues with his nanny, and then in daycare, and I had heard horror stories about preschools.  However, I found from visiting preschools and asking pointed questions about how they deal with discipline issues that there was a huge range in how tolerant they were.  It was clear to me within the first 2 minutes which preschools would likely kick out my kid and which would not.  FWIW, we chose to send him to Temple Sinai and it has been great.  Yes, he can be a PITA and he can be disruptive and defiant, however I always get the sense that the teachers truly care about him, recognize his strengths, and are doing their best to help shape him by leveraging his strengths to make him a strong leader.  I've been really happy.  I suggest you take him out of preschool and don't look backward, then start the search for a place that might be more supportive of his challenges.  Also, OT and developmental evaluation may be useful at hte same time in case there are mood or develomental concerns--talk with your pedi about this.

    I agree with the previous comment. You might want to contact Bananas, on Claremont Avenue in Oakland - they have referral service and might be able to connect you with a professional to help you with some of the behaviors that you are seeing at home. Sometimes the help of a professional can identify areas that you as a parent do not see and give you pointers. Do you see the same behaviors at home? Were you invited by the school to quietly observe his behavior (i.e without him knowing you were there)? Sometimes, it does help parents/guardian to understand the "at school" behavior. Regarding nap time, at this age, many kids no longer nap - however licensing requires that children are offered 40 to 45mns to nap time/lay down time, after that, they may be taken to another room for quiet activity. It is not reasonable for the school to expect your child to stay in nap room for 2 hours. Also understanding what "school readiness" is is part of the conversation you should have with his next school, so that expectations are clear and the educators should be working with you into meeting goals. Hope this helps.

    Have you considered getting him assessed by an occupational therapist for sensory processing issues? Our son had behavior very similar to your's, especially in his first year of preschool which was VERY rough from day one. After understanding his underlying neurological issues, I could see that the classroom wasn't a good set-up for him--it exacerbated all of his sensitivities. The OT assessment also helped us put many seemingly distinct behaviors into a framework and his 1:1 OT sessions help strengthen those areas where he needs extra support to fully develop. Now in his second year of preschool in a different classroom, he is much more able to self-regulate, interact with his peers, stay quiet during nap time, etc. What a relief, and a joy to see. I feel like we are setting him up for success in school and socially for years to come.

    We also worked on being consistent with our parenting styles so that 'no' means 'no'. However, this transition to a new style was much easier once we understood and were addressing his underlying needs, and rather than just seeing him as noncompliant or even defiant. Good luck with your journey! I am happy to provide more insight if you would like.

    You really need to get a second opinion.  Ideally, a professional from the outside needs to observe your child in his preschool to help you to figure out whether it's the school that's the problem (for example, maybe they don't use positive language or maybe they even use punishments?  Even in 2018, there are some "old school" preschools) OR whether your son has something going on that needs some help.  Or maybe it's both!  At the very least, you need to sit down with the preschool director and teachers and have a detailed discussion to begin sorting everything out.  Also, in my opinion, there shouldn't be a big difference between daycare and preschool at age 4.  My hunch is that the caregivers at your daycare were more highly skilled than the teachers at your new preschool when it comes to working with a slightly trickier child (or one who is slow to adapt and adjust to this new preschool from his happy daycare experience.)  Do you also struggle with him at home?  If you honestly don't, then it sounds like this preschool actually IS the problem.  Can you also ask family and friends and babysitters and your old daycare providers to be completely honest with you and tell you if your son exhibits behavior that is outside of the norm?  If you DO struggle with your son at home, make sure you read The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child (Kazdin) and Self-Reg (Shanker).  Positive Discipline may also be helpful.  Other things to consider: a processing disorder or ADD or SPD or ASD or anxiety or any number of diagnosable "disorders"....And one last thing: the teachers should be willing to accommodate a non-sleeping child for 2 hours.  Your son should be allowed to look at books, play quietly, draw, or even go outside.  It is completely unreasonable to expect him to lie down quietly for such a long period of time. 

    We have a 3 year old who is also very smart and energetic, according to his teachers. He was in preschool for a few months but we also had to pull him out.

    One issue that the school pointed out regarding our son was that he had trouble with transitions - going from one activity to another. He usually wants to keep doing the first activity and can't move as quickly as other kids to the new activity. Perhaps at the preschool they could've given him advanced notice that something new was coming to prepare him. It was only after the school pointed out the transition problem out that we saw the light. He doesn't want to stop circle time to do crafts (he loooves circle time, crafts is too girly for him); he doesn't want to stop playing to get dressed (which we mistakenly read as just he didn't want to listen to us); he doesn't want to leave home to go to school (he was having fun at home, he couldn't understand why we're pulling him away); he's done in the bath but he throws a fit when I try to get him out (he's still playing, he doesn't want to stop); etc etc. He is doing much better now that we mentally prepare him for what's coming up next, so he doesn't feel like he's totally out of control. 

    Another trick that has worked for us is that we avoid saying "no" to him. That doesn't mean we spoil him. Instead of telling him "No" or to not do something, we try to convince him something else is the better option.

    Instead of "don't pull the cats tail" we say "how about we leave the cat alone?" and quickly find a distraction; Instead of "No more play, you have go nap" we say "After your nap, you get to plaaaaay!!!" It takes a bit of mental work sometimes to figure out how to avoid saying the negative form of something, but our son receives the information much better and with less resistance.

    We present choices, A & B, knowing we are ok with either outcome, and let him chose what he wants instead of forcing one on him. For example, eat your broccoli or string beans? If he says no, he doesn't want either, then we say c'mon, if you eat the broccoli, you don't have to eat the string bean! If that doesn't work, then we say pretend like we're surprised that he would make such a grave mistake. But deep down we're ok if he skips both. 

    As for where to go from here, I feel your pain. We ended up finding a nanny and she takes him out all day, everyday, to play at the playground, storytime at the library, habitot, fairyland... He's not "learning" in the traditional sense in the classroom his ABC's, but she's teaching him life, how to count things (trees, cars, toys), they read a lot, and he goes at his own pace, transitions at his own pace. He is also able to run off all that energy and be happy.  Good luck to you!

    Ok wow... are you ME!??   I know I'm posting on this a bit late but I saw this and just had to reply.   My daughter was kicked out of two preschools for defiant behavior.   She wouldn't do anything asked of her, wouldn't nap, would have serious meltdowns that lasted a long time, etc.    The first school didn't even give notice they just said, "Your child is not welcome back here tomorrow."    Yeah, that was a kick in the pants for a single, full time working parent.    My child was defiance personified.  I felt like I was the about the worst mother on the planet and didn't know how or where to begin.  I was JUST like you:    I didn't know what why this was happening, what to do about it and everything I tried and all the books I read did nothing.  I didn't know who to turn to either.   Then, miraculously through a fate in the universe I found Rebekah Freeling at Wit's End Parenting.   Seriously, my life and the life of  my spirited child is 1000% better.  It's been work, but it's WORKING.   I have the control I need and she has her needs met a well - it's firm but kind.  I'm a better mom.  My kid is 100% happier.  Is she still defiant?  Yes, but it's so much better and has less reason to be defiant in the first place because she's now part of the process, she's getting her needs met now that I finally know what they are --  and I have very skilled ways of dealing with it and so do teachers.  

    The reason I recommend her to you is that, not ONLY is she genius with spirited children (my kid was drawn to her like a moth to a light - right from the moment they met)  -  she also works with the child, your child's teacher and school in concert with the parents to get you all on the same side so your child has consistency and the teachers are all on board too.  You don't have to try and teach the teachers - Rebecah is there every step of the way with all of you as a team.  

    Look, I rarely make recommendations on here but this is one I stand behind 1000%.  My daughter is thriving.  She made a real and extremely positive difference in our lives, I know she can make one in yours too.    Rebecah can be reached at (510) 619-5920. 

    I'm ridiculously late to this party, but this recommendation doesn't really expire.I wish someone had told me this when we were dealing with our very energetic youngest, We missed the interventions that would have helped, and spent time on things that were never going to work.

    Spirited/energetic and smart often overlap with giftedness in children.  Gifted  kids are often unprepared to take instructions from adults that haven't been justified-they don't really think that an authority figure says so is enough of a reason to do something. They often give up napping earlier. they more often have sensory issues that make their interactions with school more difficult. Not getting enough stimulation or learning is like being starved for them. If you child is highly verbal for his age, asks sophisticated follow up questions, and prefers to talk to adults rather than his peers, then I'd recommend that you start learning about gifted kids. The Summit centers website is one place to start. Also being aware of this as you are making choice for schooling is really helpful. Also finding some other families who are dealing with the same challenges will be really helpful to your kiddo and you.

  • How to stay patient with 3-year-old

    (13 replies)

    My 3-year-old daughter is going through a really challenging, bossy phase – and I'm finding it really hard not to lose it. It's really frustrating. Her mood changes on a dime from sweet to angry, and she loves to contradict *everything* my husband and I say – if we say the sky is blue, she'll insist it's green...and get mad at us if we don't agree with her. She insists on doing everything her way, which we generally go along with unless it's unsafe...but sometimes there just isn't time or it isn't practical or I start to resent feeling like everyone needs to go along with her every whim. Cue a huge stand-off. Combine that with a stubborn personality she's had since babyhood, and I feel like it's constant squabbling in our household. She also says stuff like, "I don't like you!" and "You're wrong!" and "I'm the boss of you and you have to do what I say!" that are just rude. (Her older brother had a hard phrase at 3, but nothing like this.)

    With all the sassy talk and disrespect, I feel like we need to draw the line somewhere – but I don't even feel like counting down from 3 or imposing time-outs are working. Well, they work temporarily to reinforce that she's done something wrong, but a half-hour later she's back to her old behavior. I've read a few blog posts that suggest that this is just a phase and I should try to ride it out until she's older. But sometimes I feel like she's intentionally pushing my buttons, and unfortunately it works. I've probably yelled more over the past 6 months than I did in the 6 years before that. I hate yelling at her, and I also feel like I'm just giving her license to yell at me when *she's* upset. (She's very observant and aware of hypocrisy...which will serve her well later in life.)

    Does anyone have any advice that isn't "more time outs" or "1 2 3 Magic"? Does this kind of horrible behavior really just magically go away after a child turns 4?

    I just wanted to respond to tell you that I could've written your post word for word. My 3-year-old daughter is exactly the same. She's always been stubborn but it's really coming out now. We are at the end of our rope too (see my post about her pooping from this same newsletter). In terms of what to do, I have no idea. We also do time-outs like you, which work for the short-term but not long-term behavior. We also have an older 6-year-old son who was nothing like this. So all this to say no advice, but if you ever want to talk about our bossy 3-year-old daughters so we can hope and pray that they turn out to be decent human beings, I'm always willing. :)

    Yes. I have some advice Stop yelling. She is loving that she can get you all worked up. Then, after you have learned to control yourself. the timeouts might work better. When doing time outs, make sure that you work on one thing at a time, and let the other stuff slide. 

    I empathize with you 100%. My daughter turned 3 last month but I honestly feel like she started with a lot of this bossiness and just general obstinance early into being 2. And it certainly didn't help to hear strangers remark that her sassiness was "cute" or generally joke how she must be a handful and add a chuckle. It almost seemed to fuel her sassiness. I also have a nearly 5 year old son and he also has had similar boundary-pushing period but like you and your children, the younger really seems to be trying to outdo their predecessor. 

    So while I'm currently in the thick of it (you're not alone!) I did want to offer that I've taken a hard line on enforcing the consequences I outline. I do it with both my son and daughter so they can see that I mean what I say. "We're leaving the park in 5 minutes" means, we are leaving the park in 5 minutes. Not 5 minutes and then let's do one more round at the swings. You don't listen or you throw a tantrum, you lose X privilege. Follow through! I once boxed up every last toy and book my son had in his room and locked it in a closet. I don't like being the bad guy but the follow through is the only thing that gives weight to your words and your authority.

    My husband and I make a very concerted effort not to contradict one another in front of the kids. He thought the taking away ALL the toys seemed a little harsh but he never said so to the kids. We show a united front because: Stronger together (not just a political tagline!). We also emphasize that we are the boss because as their parents, we are in charge of keeping them safe and healthy and if we fail at that imperative, they could be hurt or we could end up in jail. Neither are desirable. The exception here is we do tell her she is the boss of her own body. We've found that this is a good principle for explaining that she can not use her body to harm others. No one is making her hit her brother on the head but herself and she is responsible for those actions. And that goes both ways so she is entitled to protect herself if people are trying to harm her. (Operative word there being "harm" because washing that week old stamp off your belly from swim class is not causing harm - it's employing good hygiene :P)

    I've also greatly appreciated the evening skim I gave "The Happiest Toddler on the Block." I read that when my son was going through his difficult phase but seemed too young to grasp the 1-2-3 Magic concepts. 

    Stay strong fellow parent!  

    Hello there, I can totally relate to the frustration! I highly recommend you look up the parenting advice book by Laura Markham called "Peaceful parents, happy kids". She also has a website called "Aha Parenting" (http://www.ahaparenting.com/) which has a wealth of information if you don't want to buy the book. The basic concept is that kids misbehave and act out mostly because they feel disconnected from their parents... and that more/better connection leads to better behavior and kids end up actually "wanting" to cooperate with, rather than to oppose their parents. I know it sounds too good to be true but we've been following her advice since our son was about 1 year old (when he started discovering "no" and the power of opposition...), and all I can say is that Markham's advice really works for us. She encourages you to step into the shoes of your kids and empathize, no matter how silly you might initially think the tantrum or conflict is about... all the while setting limits (this is far from advocating permissive parenting). The idea is that the more trust our children have in us (trusting that we are on their side, that we've got their back, that we love them unconditionally), the more they will *want* to follow our lead. It sure is hard to keep your cool when these little humans push all the right buttons, but with the proper support from this method of parenting, it gets easier and easier, and when you start seeing actual results (happens quite quickly, in fact)... it is so rewarding! Good luck with your journey - you are totally on the right path by seeking out a practical way out of yelling. 

    Look into Hand in Hand Parenting!  I promise you it works.  It is a punishment free approach to parenting where fostering a connection with your children is the answer!  There are also great tools that help you to calm down as well, identify your triggers, and give you an outlet to the immense stress of parenting!!  Best of Luck.  

    This is the worst secret that nobody tells us: The age of three is a nightmare! Everyone jokes about the "terrible twos" but three is just the WORST. The blog posts are correct, in my opinion; I read the same thing in the Louise Bates Ames book "Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy." She basically said back off, outsource as much of the caregiving as you can manage, and wait it out. I know it's frustrating, and you worry that you're somehow spoiling her, but -- and I recommend the book for a deeper explanation -- basically, the thing you said at the end is what happens: The horrible behavior just goes away after a few months. I know it sounds insane and it's the kind of thing that makes child-free people roll their eyes at us, believe me, I know. But it's just a weird awful time. She WILL come back to you. 

    When she is being a behaving in a way that makes you not want to be around her, then leave! This is also called giving yourself a timeout. Tell her "I don't like the way you are talking to me right now so I am going into my room and shutting the door. When you are ready to be polite, I'll come back."  If your bedroom doesn't have a lock on it, go in the bathroom.  I'm not saying it will "cure" her of the behavior. I still have to use the technique on my teenager, unfortunately.  But it's a lot better than yelling, because that just makes you feel bad.  

    Hi I have a 3 year old son and a 4 year old daughter-- I feel your pain. I too go through phases of yelling at my kids and it does feel terrible. I know it feels impossible. I've even swatted my kids on the bottom a couple of times, which previously seemed unthinkable and something I swore I would never do before I had kids. (And for the record, it never helps. Makes everything worse!) 

    But what has helped me immensely is the book, "How To Talk So (Little) Kids Will Listen."  There's one for older kids and this one is for kids 2-7. It's been a life saver. It gives you tips and specific phrases to use for all manners of power struggles and undesirable behavior. It really works. It's based on active listening and appealing to the playful nature of small children. 

    I used to feel so guilty if I didn't follow the RIE or Waldorf style parenting. So at first I thought a lot of the book seemed like it was telling you to manipulate your kids. But it's not. It just puts you more inside the mind of a child so you can relate to them and actually help them and get them to listen. Instead of yelling, fighting, and threatening them, which is what I was doing. 

    There are so many relateable scenarios and suggestions for what to try. Including little comics that explain what the kid might be thinking. 

    There is even a section on kids who are especially spirited, or who otherwise don't fit the mold of a typical kid. 

    It has saved me and made me much more sane and less emotional dealing with my kiddos. Good luck! 

    Wow, that sounds tough and definitely reminds me of my strong-willed boy. I think the main thing is to remember your child is calling out for help, empathy and understanding and is absolutely not trying to torture you. It is literally not about you. It is about the phases your daughter is going through. So, when she is acting out in some way, remember to take a deep breath then enforce boundaries calmly and consistently. When she is melting down, hold her, sit with her listen to her. Don't try to make her stop. Don't argue with her when she wants her way, just repeat back to her "you wish we could do it that way" then calmly enforce the boundary (for example if it is a car seat struggle, repeat to her that she wishes she didn't need to buckle in then when she is calm and feels heard, proceed to buckle her in). I highly recommend the book "how to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk". Good luck mama. 

    honestly I don't really have any magic insight except to say a lot of what you described above could also apply to my daughter. I will say that things seem to be getting a little bit easier as we pass the 4 mark. Honestly it's been a really tough year (I have twins and her brother is tricky too but does not push my buttons in the same way). 

    The book "How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen" has a lot of tools and ideas for working with this phase. My son isn't there yet but I've seen the approach applied with my nephews (2 and 5) and it really seems to help. The philosophy is the same as Faber and Mazlish's classic "How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk," but in this one all the examples are for younger kids. 

    All I can say is that I empathize with you as my 3 1/2 year old son is going through a similar challenging phase. I have found Hand in Hand Parenting to be a very helpful resource, and I have seen his behavior improving, especially by using their "Staylistening" technique. It takes a lot of time and patience, but I have seen progress.


    My family saw Rebecca Freeling in Berkeley. She was able to help us work through our difficulties in a way that really worked for our family. We still contact her for advice when needed even though we no longer go regularly. I highly recommend her! Below is her number 

    +1 (614) 769-3563

    Best Wishes


Archived Q&A and Reviews


3-year-old takes a contrary position to everything

Am writing to ask for advice--be it books, tips, empathy, etc. My three-year-old daughter, who is bright as a button and as charming as little girls go, is also extremely stubborn. My son, who is almost six, was nothing like this at his most defiant. I realize that all children go through a stage wherein they must assert their independence and saying no is a sign of healthy development. But I have a sense that in my daughter's case, we may have more going on than just toddler independence. She simply takes a contrary position to nearly every rule, request, suggestion, or order. If I say it is time to get dressed, she strips. If I ask her to eat, she gets down from the table. If all the other children are standing up to sing, she sits down. If I give her one ponytail, she wants two and vice-versa. I say pants; she says dress. I say pink; she says floral. And so on.

My mother-in-law says I should pick my battles and only fight the ones I can win. That sounds good at first blush; the color of her underwear doesn't much matter and she should certainly have a say. But beyond the simple things, the advice isn't at all practical. I cannot be her personal chef, hairdresser, etc. There is not enough time in the day to cater to her like that for the sake of peace. I cannot let her go naked and wild and eat only sweets. At some point, I must have some control. And further, it seems like I'd be doing her a great disservice in the long run if I gave ger so much power over me. I believe three-year-olds should not run households. I haven't lost control yet, but am feeling exhausted. Lately I find myself having negative feelings about her when our personalities clash. (The guilt level about that is high.) I don't much care for other people kids who act like mine does sometimes (though I am starting to have more insight and compassion).

It is not a function of her being tired, she can be contrary when she's well-rested. She is simply an independent force. I value this and dread it at the same time. I don't want to break her little spirit, but at some point, she has to learn to mesh with the household. I don't want to fight all the time. I'm preganant with our third and hope to have improved my relationship with my daughter before I am distracted with new, additional responsibilities.

I may not have expressed this too well, but any insights or suggestions will be appreciated. I have a thick skin and so can take criticism if warranted.

Three year olds: first, the sympathy. My grandfather always said about my brother at this age that he could wear out an iron horse and aggravate a fly to death.

I have a stubborn kid, too, still stubborn at 7 although better than he was at 3. Your daughter does sound like an extra handful though. First of all, see if you can get a book (from your local library) called Your Three Year Old. This is part of a series written some years ago by a couple of psychologists and I have found it very useful in dealing with the psychological changes that happen as children grow older.

In the case of my son I am a single parent with no other support, so I really had to choose my battles to avoid getting totally flattened. If my son wanted to eat cereal every night for dinner for two months, that's what he ate. When we got into a fight in the morning about getting dressed warmly enough, I took him outside to feel the cool air, then he was usually good about dressing warmly enough.

The only advice I can offer you is to try to give your daughter a choice as much as possible, but not an unlimited choice. And as much as possible you make her decide, in a timely manner. So when you are fixing her hair, ask her how many ponytails she wants. When it is time to get dressed (and don't, by the way, say Time to get dressed.) ask her to choose between pants and a dress. For dinner, you might offer her what the family is eating, or give her one other easy to fix option, such as cereal, make her decide, then stick with it.

Hope this helps Dianna

For a start I advice that you read Raising Your Spirited Child. I forget the author's name but it is a valuable book for parents of children who have strong personalities and sensitivities. You also may want to join a support group for parents of spirited children. I attended had a campus group that was meeting last summer. We organized through the parents network. I've found that Robi Carmack who organized the group last year is no longer on campus and the group hasn't met since last September. If anyone has info on the status of the group I would also like to know because it is beneficial to talk to other parents who share similar experiences.

I empathize with you because it is difficult to deal with her type of temperament on a daily basis. You become worn down by the constant battles. I think it will get better if you and your family members recognize what is happening and make the necessary changes. Your daughter is really not out to get you although it may feel that way. She has her own reasons for her behavior. The key is finding what works for her and you and that takes time, energy and searching. It is an on-going process. You are beginning a journey that you didn't expect to take so the best thing to do is to educate yourself about temperament issues. You've taken the first step by asking for help. I wish you the best.


Your daughter sounds like she should be my 5 year old daughter's little sister. I would like to tell you that it gets better, but I can only tell you that it does get a little different, a bit more sophisticated, certainly more theatrical. Every event is a potential battle, and I have not found the magic words to diffuse these situations. I did find some comfort from the book, Raising Your Spirited Child, if only from knowing that there are other children out there with similar personalities (the book talks about temperaments). I also try to enjoy the wonderful times when she is being charming, clever, entertaining, loving, and remember them when she is in bed with the covers pulled over her head, refusing my every suggestion for the day's outfit, threatening to drive off without her, knowing I'll be late for work (again). I have an 8 year old son, and like your older son, he is not an angel, but is infinitely easier to deal with. Good luck, try reading the book, and know that you are not alone!


On the issue of the 3 year old stubborn streak, I have one of those kids too, but she's eleven now. One thing I learned early on is to veer away from giving her only one option. For instance, rather than say put on the pink jeans, I might say It's time to get dressed - would you like the pink or the blue pants? It's harder for her to fight you if you are giving her the option. We did form a spirited child group on campus to try to see these children as special rather than awful and there is a woman at Kaiser, helen neville, who spoke to us and does counsel families dealing with this issue. I can look up the information for you if one of the other spirited members doesn't respond to your message.


Yikes! I certainly can sympathize with this as I currently go through many showdowns with my 3yo son these days. I really do think it's the age in combination with strong (& bright) personalities, and control (you've hit it right smack on the head because ultimately that's what it's all about!).

And while, yes, it's true you need to pick your battles, it's hard because you do have to be the parent. We've tried to provide our son with as many choices as possible but even that it hard (a really basic and even lame example: You can wear these shoes or those shoes, but you cannot go barefoot. NO! I want no shoes! Well . . . Here are your choices, you wear these shoes or those shoes. All of this repeated ad infinitum and nauseum.) Sometimes, I have found it comes down to who will cave in first, but since we're BOTH stubborn it can go on for too long. And it's frustrating. Then it becomes more of who will win then what shoes, or clothes or whatever. Yuck!

Just remember these kids are working really hard to establish order and some control in their lives (not that you don't provide any, but they need to own something). A new baby will add even more pressure, but I'm sure you know that already! :-)

Unfortunately, many, many, too many times we have even had to resort to threats, albeit calm ones: Ok, listen to me, if you do not cooperate with me on this than that means I won't read you a story tonight/take you to the park/whatever we know he might be keen on doing. Actually, I think he's beginning to understand this . . . it's working! Though sometimes it takes 5 or 6 tries. We're trying to emphasize that we're all in this together. It's been real important to keep the follow-through, whether it's the punishment or reward. When the calm reasoning tact doesn't work, and he's screaming and kicking and hitting, then we banish him to his room or to go sit on the couch until he can calm down. It's hard on the ears and psyche for us. Sometimes I have even had to sit on the floor forcibly hold him in my lap when the tantrum gets out of hand and wait, blocking out sound as best I can, until the storm subsides.

We keep repeating to ourselves that this age will pass. He's a bright and charming kid. And he's practicing for adolescence. If we can successfully deal with this, then we've got some practice for what may come ahead. A side note: my brother was exactly like this as a child and extremely intellectually combative as a teenager; now upon reflection he says that he never really learned how to deal with his emotions and he's had a hard time as an adult in learning to give up wanting control and running everything around him (our parents always gave in).

Remember we're trying to prepare our kids to survive without us. Sometimes we have to be unfair, but we're the only ones who can really show them. And, of course, each one is so different. I know it's hard. We love our kids, just not everything they do or how they do it. Good luck! You will make it.


I'm sure you will get lots of sympathetic and helpful responses on this one -- it brings up LOTS of memories for many of us, I'm sure!!

First, don't forget the most important fact that you slipped in toward the end of your e-mail: you're about to have another baby. Your son remained the first-born when your daughter was born. She's about to lose her baby status and being the middle child just doesn't offer much cachet. Particularly if #3 is also a girl, it's going to be hard for her to find a new place and she needs huge amounts of reassurance and attention -- more, perhaps, than seems reasonable or evident from her not-very-attractive way of asking for it.

Second, remember the One True Comfort of Parenthood: nothing, NOTHING, about your children doesn't change. It WILL get better, though it sounds as if you'll always have an independent thinker in this one.

Beyond that, it sounds to me like both you and your mother-in-law are right: you can and should give on the little things but there are many big things that you can't give on. When my now-9 year-old went through a phase like this (also when she was adapting to a new baby in the family), I did use three approaches very consistently. First, I almost always spoke rationally to her, no matter how crazy she got. I continued to treat her like a small person with a mind, even though all I was getting back was irrationality and emotion (not an easy task of course!). Second, I was very, very firm on certain things (can't go outside naked, must sit at the table at mealtimes) and always explained my behavior in the same way: that my job as a Mommy was to make sure she was safe and healthy, to teach her how to be the person she can be, and that NOTHING was going to get in the way of my doing that job, that I would be a bad Mommy if I didn't do it. (In other words, I tried not to make it about what I wanted versus what she wanted, but rather about our roles: that my job was to set certain limits and enforce certain rules. Her job was to figure out how to live by those rules, including expressing her discontent if that was what she needed to do. But that in the end, my way would win because I was the grown-up and it was my responsibility.) Last, I always reminded her that she had a choice about her own behavior and reaction to these situations: a choice that came to be known in our family shorthand as the hard way or the easy way. If she refused to sit in her chair, I would explain the consequences: Ellen, you are going to sit in your chair. We can do this the hard way or the easy way, it's up to you. You can kick and scream and cry, in which case I will pick you up and put you in your chair and hold you down if I have to. Or you can get up yourself, and sit in the chair on your own. It's up to you. Of course, you have to be willing to enforce this, which seems cruel sometimes, but must be done. And it does have an effect, particularly if you're very consistent--almost ritualistic--about your language. I think they learn to say to themselves as soon as they hear certain words oh, this is one of those and they stop on their own, which is of course what you're trying to teach them. One wierd side benefit of this is that years later, if the words we can do this the hard way or the easy way slip out of my mouth (which they rarely do), they have an almost supernatural effect -- the kids stop dead in their tracks and re-evaluate their tactics!

Finally, don't worry too much about breaking her spirit. I used to hate forcing my daughter and felt like a monster sometimes (though reminding her that she had the power to stop me, by changing her behavior, helped me at least as much as it did her), but I definitely did NOT break her spirit, as those out there who know her will testify! It seems clear poverty and injustice break the spirit, firm limits imposed consistently and rationally by loving parents do not.

Oh, and don't forget counting (I'm going to count to ten and then you will put on your dress. one, two...). I never figured out why this works but all my friends agree it seems to have some mystical effect.

Good luck with this one and with #3!!


Regarding the 3-year-old Stubborn Streak. -- first, my sympathy. Been there.

In the single-parents support group now going on through CARE, the facilitator lent me a book entitled something like Parenting Your StrongWilled Child (I will try to send you the exact title and author's names next week ... ) Anyway, the book is GREAT! It is very very pragmatic. It has all the theoretical rap, but, much more useful is the five-week practical program for learning new parenting strategies.

I have found this program helpful. Not a cure-all ... nothing will change the fact that my daughter (and yours, it sounds) are very strongwilled. This will help them a lot later in life -- being strong-willed is a very useful trait for adults, for succeeding in business, athletics, finance, etc. ... but a little SHAPING of it is needed! Get the book, really, I bet it will help! :-)

Mary Carol

I completely sympathize with you! You could've been describing my son when you wrote of your daughter's contrary behavior. From 18 months old to 4 years, he exhausted us with his contrariness, to the point that NOTHING ever got accomplished easily and everything was an issue. Even if you bypass the battles, it's still draining to be opposed on every single thing every day. I even tried reverse psychology on him, but somehow he always knew when I was doing that and didn't take the bait!

I too began to feel terribly guilty about the fact that, although I loved him to death, I couldn't feel that I LIKED his personality very much. It was just so exhausting.

It often seemed like he acted that way out of habit, and I wanted him to be more aware of how he was behaving. So, I tried talking to him about: 1) how big kids need to act (very effective because he took great pride in being a big kid); and 2) how he didn't HAVE TO be so contrary (like the time that I told him at 2 yrs old that he didn't HAVE TO cry every time he woke up in the morning--it was like a revelation for him, and he never did it again.) I know I shouldn't expect a three year old to be very introspective, but it was worth a try.

I don't know if it sank in, or if he just outgrew his contrariness, but I do have an encouraging outcome. Somehow things just got a lot better when he turned four. He became much more reasonable and AGREEABLE! (Part of that might be due to a desire to outshine his little sister.) Now that he's five, his Kindergarten teacher reported to us that he's doing great and he's a leader in class discussions! Plus, I have newfound pleasure in his company.

So, take heart and be reassured that your little one's independence could be the beginnings of a future leader. Good luck!

Chen Yin

I think from what I have just read, a support group on this issue wuld be really beneficial! My daughter will be turning three in August, and already she is well on track with each and every comment I read! She is very independent, strong-willed, intelligent, emotionally erruptive and sweet as sugar (when she wants to be!). She's like a ticking time bomb, and I have no idea what to expect from her on a day-to-day basis. I need HELP!!! Does anyone have any suggestions? Let me know if anyone is interested?


>My mother-in-law says I should pick my battles and only fight the ones I >can win.

Actually I'm prone to agree with your mother-in-law. Let her pick her own clothes and how she wears her hair. Give her choices (within reason) as to what food she eats but be firm on the order she eats it -- real food first, then sweets. No real food, no sweets. Be firm with safety issues of seat belts, etc. Our son has always been included in decisions about his life as well as ours. We also have been clear in that there are some decisions that adults have the final say so but he is welcome to give in put. It wasn't easy to give up control over him especially when we were in a rush and doing it for him was faster and easier and explanations as to WHY things needed to be done a certain way were difficult and time consuming. The hardest part was letting him suffer the consequences of inappropriate decisions like not wearing a coat when it was cold (and we told him he needed one but he chose not to take one). But at almost 7 yrs old, he is much more responsible than a lot of his peers seem to be and makes surprisingly good decisions the majority of the time about his life.



I've just read the summary of other suggestions (which are terrific) and would like to add a few games:


  1. Get your clothes and come over to my room so we can play a game while we get dressed. Which one do you want to play today?
    a. Race. Who can get dressed first?
    b. Can you put on something.....blue? Put something on your right foot. Put on something that will be covered up. This works well to sometimes get very silly: Put something on your ear, backwards, etc.
    c. Put something on and I'll try to guess what it is. (Guess silly!)
    d. You tell me what to put on.
  2. Opposite game. You say, sit, she stands. You say, open eyes, she closes them. Then let her have a turn to give you directions. Get silly.
  3. Let her be the boss, perhaps at the playground and she tells you what to do. Eventually, you behave the way she behaves at home: tantrum, run the opposite direction, not doing what she tells you to. Then you model changing your mind and cooperating with her. Verbalize what you are thinking and show her a way to back down.

    Another advantage of this game is that she has your full attention. With a baby coming, she needs that. Also talk to her about what having a new baby will mean to her life.

I also talked to my kids (when not in a situation) about why they were behaving the way they were based on their lives at the time and their development. (Two year olds are supposed to be contrary. That's your job.) Then I tried to give them another way to express it (words, code). And then the magic: When you get bigger you'll .....

Any lastly, minimize the problem situation by focusing on the coming activity. After we're dressed, we can go to the park. What are you going to do the first thing?

Sometimes it seemed as if I played games all day. I still remember when my son caught on and named them, Mommy tricks, but they worked for years.

Having fun, being silly, enjoying each other, time will pass. Good luck.


One other book recommendation: _How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk_ by Faber and Mazlish. When I first picked it up I thought they were stating the obvious and patted myself on the back for already doing a lot of what they said; but, after reading the examples and doing the exercises I must admit that even I! had something to learn.

The basic premise is that kids just want to be understood and that the best thing to teach them is how to best express their feelings. I've been putting it into practice with my stubborn 2-yr old and I see it making a difference. For example, one afternoon, while running from one store to the other, getting in and out of the car, being in a rush, and hearing no, you can't have/do that for the nth time, my son lost it when I refused to let him climb out of the shopping cart by mysewf. So I scooped my screaming child off the parking lot pavement and forced him into the carseat, something I really hate doing. Anyhow, as we pulled away and he was crying, I started to say, You wanted to climb out of the cart yourself, didn't you? Crying turned to sniffles, Yeah!, You wanted Mommy to get you a gumball and she said No! You're _angry_ that Mommy said you couldn't have a gumball! More sniffles, much calmer, Yeah! And we continued like this all the way home. A few minutes later, Elie approached my partner and very emphatically said, Daddy, I wanted a gumball and Mommy wouldn't let me have it! Daddy was shocked to hear this kind of talk coming from a little one, but I explained to him what happened and noted that he was much calmer and had been charming and cooperative since the point where his feelings were acknowledged. We also averted a major tantrum.


A friend of ours has a very contrary 2-1/2(?) year old and one strategy they sometimes use with apparent success is to ask her to do the opposite of what they want: e.g., It's dinner time for Mommy and Daddy but you can't have any spaghetti We're going to school now but you'll have to go in your bathrobe and slippers


Two things I didn't really see discussed (so far) in this discussion were: time-outs and playing with power. Time-outs were recommended by the pediatrician; I must say, I have to present it as an option anywhere from 3 to 8 times a day, which seems quite tiresome. But it does seem to work. It usually goes like this: You cannot put your feet on the table during dinner. Your feet belong under the table. See where my feet are? Pause. (sometimes that's enough) (if not) I'm sorry, but if you can't keep your feet off the table, you will have to leave the table and have a time out. (usually that works. Sometimes an actual time out has to be implemented)

ON a more cheery note, we also play around my daughter's need to be the one in control, in very structured ways (e.g. NOT EVER around meals, getting dressed, leaving the house, taking a bath). Remember the old game of statue where everyone has to freeze in whatever odd pose? Well, Alicia saw this on TV awhile ago and even at 22 months, she got it. We put on the radio and I dance and whenever she pushes the off button I have to freeze (with one foot in the air, or one arm flung out or some other silly pose) while she laughs and laughs until she turns the music back on. If she doesn't do it right away, I yell help! help! in a goofy way, while staying frozen This makes her laugh even harder.

We also play with tickling ... where I say I'm going to tickle your neck (or belly, or knee) and she either lets me or says NO. If she says NO I stop. Then she laughs and says OK. ( I think, BTW, this is good training to help kids know that they have a right to set limits around being touched)

Also we sing. That is, I sing. She names the song. Often, I'll be halfway through the first verse and she'll name a different song. I change songs. This can go on for like 15 minutes, with her calling the shots. It's kind of aggravating, actually, but I go along with it goodnaturedly. These little exercises in allowing her a sense of power seem, in some odd way, to make her more amenable when I say, OK. Please go to the table and sit down. Time to eat. or whatever.

Does anyone else out there do this kind of play with their kids?

Mary Carol

I'd also like to suggest looking at the book about spirited children. When my child of this type was younger there was a book I found helpful called The Difficult Child. (Notice how the adjective has changed! Both words accurate, I think.) And the parent meetings last fall and the workshop with Helen Neville (private practice and at Oakland Kaiser) were great. I found that connecting with other parents infinitely reassuring. We didn't get (in any organized way) to strategies for dealing with these kids, but I came away with new insights about my child (and myself and my spouse and my other children) that have helped me out a great deal.

I was particularly struck by your comment about other parents and other children. I always say that my child of this type has made me humble. I had thought I was a great parent, my kids were models of adjustment, naturally a result of my sensitive parenting. They were normally independent, stubborn, and willful, but they grew out of it, they responded like the parenting books said they would (should). And, of course, I took credit. Once I began to become unglued by my third child, I naturally despaired of my parenting skills. However, over time, I have come to believe that there really is this temperment difference between kids (and people).

Our family is still not predictably successful in dealing with my now nine year old spirited child. He brings incredible drama to our lives in many ways, not all pleasant. However, I am trying not to take it as my parenting failure (even though it is often embarassing) and I am trying (with more success than not) when I am at the end of my rope to remember the great joy and pleasure he brings us. This seems simple, but it has de-escalated some of the stress around this stuff for me.

(I think the the choose-your-battles issue is what separates these kids from the others: they make EVERYTHING a battle. Even when you let them choose.)

Good luck! (And maybe we can all get together again for lunch time support and stories.)


4-year-old refuses to get ready in the morning

Nov 1999

I need help with my four year old daughter. She is Stubborn! She balks like a mule at every request or suggestion that doesn't involve candy or Dragon Tales. I feel frustrated, out of control, and at a complete loss. This morning she refused to get out of bed. After thirty minutes of reminders, promises, threats, I just left without her (I was 40 minutes late for work) and had her dad deal with it (even though day care is ten miles out of his way).

I have in the past resorted to physical force on such occasions - picking her up and dressing her kicking and screaming, leaving us both exhausted and miserable for the rest of the morning. I'd naturally prefer a less stressful approach. I have used bribery, the promise of positive reinforcement (a good hug, Trix for breakfast, Barney on TV), and other less effective forms of manipulation. I feel like she's in complete control of me. What works? Will she grow quickly out of what I pray is another unpleasant stage? (she's a very bright, clever, and often sweet child, really!). Or was this morning just a Halloween hangover?

I suggest reading the book Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. It has helped me in many ways. It gives you different ways of thinking about your child and keys to help in everyday life.

You don't mention time-outs. We don't use these very often, but when we do they really work. The idea is to present them as time to calm down, not as punishment. Also to use a timer, one minute per year old, and sit somewhere where there is nothing else to do (we do it at the top of the stairs). It's hard to get our child to stay, but we persist in taking her back, and she has so far yelled and stamped her frustration out within the three minutes, and made it possible for us to then hug her and talk calmly with her, and move on.

Four year olds are notorious for drawing lines in the sand; four is two with attitude. They swing wildly between remarkably reasonable behavior and irrational and arbitrary demands. My older son tested to and beyond the limit with great frequency, and sometimes just needed to make a demand that couldn't be met so he could blow. (My personal favorite: I want our house to be on the OTHER side of the street!) I think he was struggling with his desire to control his world, the enormity of what that meant, and his need for us to set limits. Things we found helpful: give as much notice of plans as possible, and as many choices as possible without making your own life crazy. So, for example, if your daughter is having trouble with transitions (like getting out of bed) you might try starting on the problem the night before: telling her what time she will be getting up, having her help set her alarm on a digital clock in her room (a good thing for kids this age so your timing decisions do not seem so arbitrary), writing a list (with her input, coloring, stickers or whatever) of what things she will have for breakfast, and picking out her clothes. Put her list on the fridge and her clothes in the place she chooses. We also find that getting an affirmative agreement -- the child's handshake or verbal repetition of the program -- helps. The next morning, she may just get up and surprise you. If not, you might try telling her the race to the kitchen starts in two-minutes, and setting an egg-timer so she can see the time pass; then say (getting her to say it with you if you can) on your mark, get set, go and run to the kitchen. My boys never could resist a race. An alternative is a hide and seek game: Mommy is going to hide in the kitchen. Come find me.... Above all, keep a sense of humor. These four-year-olds really are funny little creatures, and unless we are pressed for time or their behavior is unsafe or unkind, laughter sometimes can be the best detonator. What, you're not getting out of bed? The cereal is getting lonely on the table all alone. The sillier you can be the better; four year olds just love being silly. But in the end, you will have to be the grown up, set limits, and not cater to every unreasonable whim, or you all will be miserable until this stage passes. And it will pass. My older son, now eight, is a great responsible kid, who would think it absurd to demand that the house be moved. Good luck!

I think it's a mistake to label this issue Halloween Hangover -- I think stubbornness is just the fact of life with a four-year-old. I was talking with another mom recently and we were remarking on how popular culture talks a lot about the Terrible Twos but has not a word about how awful the Fours can be. (My own mother used to say that the Fours are parental training for the Teens, not just because of the stubbornness but also the surliness, snottiness, and sarcasm.) I'm sure someone will comment to the list about the dynamic of exploration vs. need for security; I can't remember the whole psychological explanation, just that it's been hell for us.

We use incentives *a lot* and also disincentives, e.g. no Dragon Tales if such-&-such is not done -- but you can't use (5:30 p.m.) Dragon Tales for a morning motivator, it has to be closer in time. I do allow a 1/2-hr video in the morning if my kid is dressed 45 min before time to leave; this means breakfast is eaten in front of the video with 10-15 min following for teeth-brushing, putting on shoes & jacket, etc.

My basic advice, which I only sometimes manage to follow, is to keep yourself in control by using bodily force if necessary but keeping your cool to the greatest extent possible. So, for example, on some especially balky mornings I've had to dress my child entirely by myself -- with him fighting me -- but if I can managge to do it without actually getting mad, at least it doesn't ruin my morning. We do talk about the easy way or the hard way of doing things, meaning: You will be dressed whether you like it or not; if I dress you it will be the hard way and if you dress yourself it will be the easy way.

I also happen to believe that a single pop on the bottom does not constitute child abuse (nor do I believe that this teaches the child to solve problems through violence, what a crock), and I use it in conjunction with time-outs. I seem to be in the minority on this issue, however, so I'll just remind the moderator here to keep me anonymous.

My best advice is to read Children, the Challenge by Rudolf Dreikurs, which is available at Cody's. I've mentioned it on this newsgroup several times in the past and can't recommend it enough for how to deal with young children who have you under their control. (And bright, clever, sweet children are often the most capable of putting parents under their control.)

One thing that caught my eye was your use of promises. These also sounds like bribery to me. Positive reinforcement is best used without the child knowing or expecting they will get it.

I know a preschool teacher who once brought her son to preschool in his pyjamas, with his clothes in the bag, because he refused to get dressed. Sometimes picking up and carrying a child or leading them by the hand (without words or show of emotion) is the best way to deal with a situation where they have to go somewhere and they refuse.

My four-year-old angel exhibited the same type of behavior and I found it very upsetting. You feel like such a parenting failure. We had quite a few show-downs and happily now, we seem to be growing out of it after about six months. For us, the hardest times were when she was sleepy or hungry or when her routine was changed so that she felt out-of-control in some way. I really felt like we had regressed and found that I had to slow down and let her scream/cry/yell it out every once in awhile. I kept repeatin which behaviors I appreciated and was proud of and what I felt like when she had a meltdown (we had the discussions after every had cooled down). It actually seemed to help to explain why the tantrums were hurtful; almost seemed like a light bulb went on a couple times. I believe it's just another one of those darned phases, because the sweet little kid is returning to us little by little. Whew!

I gave some more thought to my reply. Dreikurs doesn't actually say much about rewards, except in the sense of You can [do what the child asked to do] after you [do something the parent wants done]. This isn't considered a bribe because it is in response to a child's request for some special thing, such as eating a candy bar or watching TV. In contrast, I often let my son knows he can have some special treat as a reward for good behavior on errands with me, which I guess can be thought of as a bribe. But I let stand my statement about positive reinforcement: at least in the Dreikursian sense, it is an unexpected reward for good behavior. The idea behind it is that a child will behave all the time if they never know when the reward will come. Dreikurs also mentions a different tactic: when the child is misbehaving, unexpectedly give them a big hug. Dreikurs thinks a misbehaving child is a discouraged child (in some sense -- I've known other parents to get upset at this idea) and by giving them a hug, you're giving them some encoragement. I actually do this with my son from time to time when he's refusing to do something and it's become a match of egos.

My now 12 year old daughter showed the same behavior, and she did not change. That is her temperament, but there are ways of working with it. We also have the complication of ADHD and it can be difficult to separate from the temperament issues. Getting up in the morning and going to bed at night are still two of our most difficult times of day, but any transition is difficult. Threats, yelling, peer pressure, didn't work. Bribes sometimes worked, but not in an ongoing way. We have used a behavior chart with some success, with clear expectations, incentives, and little room for negotiating. We work on one behavior at a time, and we started with getting up in the morning. We relaxed out standards on morning grooming also. I am currently reading a book called Your Defiant Child by Russell Barkley and wish it had been written when my child was younger. Check with your pediatrician, Bananas, the Family Forum, or any other referral source for parenting classes for recommendations on classes on managing temperament Kaiser's classes are often open to non-members also.

I don't have any kids yet, but I have babysat two girls (1-1/2 and 4) once a week since they were born. Their parents don't dress them in pjs after their baths on weeknights--they just put them to bed in their clothes for the next day. Seems like this might be a good way of avoiding one of your morning battles!

I, too, have a 4 year old who fancies himself in control. His manifests itself in refusals to get dressed (still a problem), as well as potty training(now accomplished - finally). I agree and appreciated reading the other responses to this issue. What has worked for me:

a) with potty training - a sticker chart with special treats if he got 5 stickers in a day. The best part of this system was that it immediately converted a power struggle situation to a positve reinforcement situation; from my issue to his. The special treats included such things as - play blocks, play legos, blow bubbles, computer time etc. The best treats were those that we could do together in the evening of a 'successful' day - one in which he got a certain number of stickrs - not necessarily that he was perfect. The goal was set low enough so that he obtained a special treat almost every day. It worked.

b) with getting dressed - sometimes just counting eg. you have until I count to 20 to get these clothes on; when this doesn't work at first, sometimes if I then turn my attention to something else he'll startt to get dressed and ask me to count.

The key for him seems to be providing some direct structure, and avoiding the power struggles for as long as time allows.

Regarding power struggles with young children, this is an issue that almost every parent has. Young children are egocentric and unpredictable, which makes them very hard to live with. Please have hope--things will get easier as they grow up.

Getting ready for school is a classic struggle. At the preschool where I teach, I let parents know that all they have to do is put some clothes in a bag and the children in the car seat and drive them here. We will see to it that they get dressed, and we provide breakfast. This takes the pressure off the parents and makes it clear to the children that the real reason to do these things is not to satisfy their parents, but to meet the expectations of the larger society.

Interestingly, only one child has actually shown up at school in her pj's (yes, she refused to get dressed). I had her stay in an area away from where the action was and told her that when she was dressed, she could play. People at school don't play in pyjamas, I told her. She got dressed pretty quickly and hasn't had difficulty with dressing at home since.