When I hear someone mention they have a 3-year-old I generally offer my condolences, because I get it. I’m currently in the trenches with a threenager for the second time. My 3-year-old son is a good kid, but struggles to follow directions. That’s mom-speak for, “He doesn’t listen to anything I say.” He questions my authority and pushes his boundaries at every turn. To say I’m exhausted is an understatement, but I know I’m not alone in this season of parenthood.
It may be easy to assume that my son’s behavior is a direct reflection of my parenting. You may think that I’m a lazy parent who lets my 3-year-old run the house. That I offer no discipline for negative behavior, or that I give in to his tantrums. You may think that, but you’d be wrong. The truth is, I set boundaries with my son, and I take away privileges when he misbehaves. I follow through with discipline, no matter how much it sucks, and I talk to my son about his behavior and what is expected. Some days are good, and some days are bad.
My son is as strong-willed as they come and has to learn everything the hard way. As frustrating as his behavior is, I’m not worried. In fact, I’m actually OK with it. Here’s the thing about strong-willed children, they may be challenging to parent, but they often grow up to be successful adults, many of them leaders. My son’s behavior isn’t malicious or devious. He isn’t out to hurt anyone, he’s just headstrong, spirited, or stubborn. Call it what you want, it doesn’t make him a bad kid, it just makes him a bit more of a challenge.
Traits like determination and persistence are considered admirable in adulthood, but those same traits in childhood are often labeled as rebellious or defiant. I suppose in some circumstance he is those things too, but what kid doesn’t have moments of rebellious behavior?
More than anything, my son just doesn’t know how to express himself and his emotions appropriately, because he’s three and still learning. His brain is literally still developing those skills. It’s my job as a parent to provide the direction and support he needs to become a well-rounded person. This means providing nearly constant redirection, helping him understand what he questions, and exercising patience. So much patience.
It’s not an easy job to parent a strong-willed child. There are times I feel completely lost. I question myself and my methods, but I will never stop trying to teach him right from wrong. My actions are more important than ever, and I know all this hard work will pay off, because I’ve seen it happen before. My daughter, who is now 6, was also a hot-mess, strong-willed threenager. She displayed all the same wild characteristics as her little brother. As a first-time parent, I was certain I was raising a deviant. I talked to seasoned moms, and read everything I could get my hands on, in an effort to understand what she needed from me. With consistent parenting, time, and a sh*tload of patience, we both survived. She has grown to be a sweet, well-behaved kid, who knows how to express herself appropriately.
If this is your story, take a deep breathe, you’re not raising a hellion. You likely have a strong-willed kid on your hands. I won’t sugarcoat it; it’s hard, and frustrating, but you can do it.
The root of all tantrums is one of two things, anger or sadness. Which emotion is driving your child’s behavior? How can you help calm them, or cheer them up? Learn to negotiate while still maintaining boundaries. Strong-willed children often struggle with a dictator parenting approach, because they want to choose their own path. Don’t engage in a battle of control. When possible give them options. Let them make decisions, and explain the outcomes of each decision. Respect their autonomy, because after all, they are just little people. Of course you will still need to set boundaries and tell them no, but relinquishing control over the little things can make a world of difference.
When your child is upset, imagine they are another adult who you’re having a conflict with. Ask questions and look for a resolution together. Raising your voice will likely only escalate the situation. Sometimes the best thing for both of you is to take a break from each other. I know when I’m upset, a few minutes alone to cool off is helpful. Then I can approach a problem with a clear head. My children are very much the same way.
Every kid is different, but your child likely shares similar traits with you and your partner. Ask yourself what would calm you if the roles were reversed, and try that. You will begin to find little things that work for you and your kiddo. There will still be days that absolutely suck, and there will be times when nothing works, but tomorrow is a new day, and this too shall pass. If you are trying everyday, then you’re an awesome parent. Hang in there, and know you certainly aren’t alone.