In the throes of toddler parenting a 3yo

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!

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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 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: 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.