Three years old is the pinnacle for the “I world”. They very clearly start to play with their autonomy and sense of self and generally don’t’ have awareness beyond self. This is what makes it so freaking hard!! Our compliant and pliable baby and toddler, now turn into a raging, defiant pre-schooler and we can feel stressed to the max about it!
The beauty of this stage is that we really start to hit our own wounds and find our own boundaries. It brings up lots of ‘stuff’ around them and us as individual identities, they are no longer the compliant a baby and they no longer do exactly what we ask or behave in a way that is predictable or socially acceptable. So they ‘push’ us into new ‘edges’ and we are ‘forced’ to find a new parenting toolkit.
So here are my top 5 tips when dealing with 3 year olds!
1. Provide clear boundaries, as well as warning for change and time for transition.
A boundary is like a non-negotiable for you – what is it that you need to keep yourself feeling balanced, aligned and congruent with who you are? What do you need them to do in order to feel like ‘you’ve got this’?
It is not a child’s job to know and honour your boundaries. YOUR boundaries are YOURS to maintain and uphold, not theirs to live up to. So don’t set them up for failure and you for frustration. Be clear, be congruent with your ‘rules’ (ie. Make sure they’re yours and not injected from an outside pressure you feel you should be doing) and know that no matter what, you won’t let them step over this. There is safety and security in understanding the rules and expectations for a child. There is freedom and love in a gentle but firm boundary, especially when it is upheld and allows that child the safe-space in which to vent and role-models how you want them to treat themselves ‘when they grow up’.
Toddlers and pre-schoolers need a lot of time to transition through spaces and change. They need warning to prepare themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. So set this up and be willing to leave/move on etc when that consistent warning is given, but make sure you’ve allowed yourself enough time to potentially hold this space! Don’t leave this so late that then you’re stressed, frustrated and feeling pressure to move on or leave.
You might consider:
· 10 minute warnings
· 5 minute countdowns
· cooperative pack up time before we go
· shoes and socks on, saying goodbye
· “one more, no more”
2. Offer choice, but limit the choice to options that work well for you.
As your little one is building their sense of autonomy and identity beyond ‘mum’, they are craving opportunities to take back their own power and discover the world for themselves. Young children spend most of their day being largely ‘powerless’ – they don’t get to choose very much at all about how their day rolls, so power struggles are common at this age. There are two ways to handle this, 1) offer choice, but limit the choice to options you also are content with and 2) PLAY with power-reversal games.
· Offer choice, for instance:
“you can have 1 or 2. Which would you like?”
“you have a choice now, ‘x’ or ‘y’ – which are you choosing?”
If they don’t make a choice, then you make it for them. Be willing to ‘captain the ship’, to guide the way and hold the space for the fallout (tears, tantrum). If they have a reaction to your decision, it was already brewing, looking for a ‘way out’ and by standing firm (but gentle) in your “no” you offer the chance for them to release all the feelings they have pent up inside them.
Sidestepping or avoiding ‘the fallout’ is avoiding the underlying emotions and these emotions don’t disappear, they don’t evaporate, they just continue to stack and ‘boil up’ in one or many ways….enter the constant tantrum phase….
A continuous tantrum is really just an ‘incomplete’ emotional outlet. When they are really provided the opportunity to let it all out, it doesn’t need to keep bubbling away.
· PLAY power-reversal games.
Games designed specifically to meet their need for release; kids can release emotion through laughter AND crying, but NO tickling allowed! Tickling is a feeling of powerlessness – as the person being tickled you have no control over your body and its reactions that can be ‘paralysing’.
Games where they win is the aim! So play with something they’re into; wrestling and they overpower you, you are the animal catcher and ‘no way’ can they escape (but they do!), they run and push against your hands and topple you over etc…let them feel the power they are trying to find a place for in the rest of their day and a chance to get out the frustration from feeling powerless.
Our children are inherently kind and cooperative beings. It is the stored feelings inside of them that have them feeling disconnected from themselves, from you and from the family.
3. You don’t have to listen ALL THE TIME in order to provide your child with loving connection.
Parenting is not as black and white as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘connected’ or ‘fucked them up’. It is a case of ‘majority rules’; whatever you do most of the time, is what sticks. So relax your perfectionist version of parenting, release that unobtainable bar and let go of the self-flagellation that has you feeling guilty most of time.
When we are unable to hold a connected, grounded and unencumbered space (not triggered by our own inner child stuff) we’re not able to really create a safe-space in which our children can release; they are experts at knowing on a gut-level when they are safe and when they are not. If you push yourself into holding this space when you yourself are not in alignment, one of two things will happen; you will lose your shit, or they will incompletely release and the stored feelings will come out another time.
You CAN be clear in how you are feeling and if a boundary of yours has been overstepped. You CAN verbalise to your child if you are unable to hold the space right then and there – say what emotion you are feeling and role-model how to come back to balance, say what you need to do right now and that you will come back to them. This too is teaching them respectful parenting and guiding them in how to be tuned-in to your own needs and honouring of self; this is something we want for all our children and it starts with us doing it for ourselves.
4. Your children are setting you up to feel just like they do!
You don’t have to guess how they’re feeling because when you take a breath to check-in with yourself, you’re feeling it too! This non-verbal dynamic is so instrinsic in the parent-child dynamic that instinctively our children will do and say whatever they ‘need’ to in order to ‘provoke’ the exact feeling in us that they themselves are experiencing – it’s really pretty amazing!!
When you are feeling emotions bubbling in reaction to your child’s behaviour, just take a second to ask yourself – “what am I feeling right now?” – name it to tame it! SAY IT OUT LOUD! This takes the sting out of the emotion and often gives you a sense of control or power over your trigger. It also gives your child the opportunity to learn how to connect the dots between body feeling and emotional language, which stacks up to build their emotional intelligence.
“Gosh, I’m feeling really…..”
“I wonder if you’re feeling…..right now?”
5. Pre-schoolers behaviour is all about ‘see me, hear me’. Hence it is for us too. What a dynamic hey?!
This is part of the Universal Law of the ‘the mirror’ we often discuss. Whatever your child is displaying, is in part, for you too. Our children’s behaviour is never separate from our own and so intricate is this parent-child dynamic that in any moment they are getting what they need for growth and providing us with exactly the same opportunity! Talk about little Buddha’s….
So it is always wise to take some time-out and ask yourself why your child is displaying what they are to you. Where you are not feeling heard or seen and understood? What can you do to ‘step up’ and shift this for yourself, so your child no longer needs to display it to you?
Children are always looking to be heard, seen and understood. When they are repeating themselves they don’t feel heard, seen or understood and our job becomes to reach out and let them know we do. We can do this through paraphrasing back to them what they are saying/feeling and stating the emotion they are feeling in response to any decision we make. We don’t have to change the decision or the situation, we just need to acknowledge their feelings in response to it and start stacking a toolkit with them for processing those feelings.
“You look really…..sad/angry/frustrated…..withme/my decision. You don’t like that I said…..and you really want to……yeah, I get that, you really want to…..”
TONE is really important with 3 year olds, you can match their tone/energy to convey you understand their standpoint. If they are feeling intense, then match their intense tone with your paraphrasing. If they are feeling soft and quiet, match that tone too.
We can help our children learn feelings, empathy and how to grow through these challenges. We don’t need to fix it, change it, or have the answer – so breathe, relax your body, relax your mind – you don’t have the pressure of finding the solution, only of listening to how you are feeling, holding space for the same feeling within them and showing them the way back to balance THROUGH this emotion.
Our Aligned Parenting 2-week online program is designed to provide you with a parenting toolkit from infanthood right through to adolescence.
We believe in finding your authentic voice as a mother, understanding the emotional triggers your children bring up and having a toolkit to help both you and your child develop a strong and connected relationship.
Julie Tenner is Co-founder of Nourishing The Mother and is The Pleasure Nutritionist. Julie is a Naturopath, specialising in women’s and children's health, with specific focus on awakening women to their full potential – health for the mind, body and soul – creating lasting life change for you and your family by “coming home” to your magnificence.
Photo by Charli Marden Photography and Design