She Says… A Rough Patch

I hope those of you with little ones survived the sugar rush of Halloween yesterday. I am excited to share pictures with you from our trick-or-treating escapades, but we’re still in the process of downloading and editing. I’ll post as soon as they’re ready.

In the meantime, though, I need your help.

We’re having a bit of a challenge with Owen that we are struggling to address.

He’s been having a bit of a rough patch with his behavior. Maybe it’s just being 3. Who knows. The so-called “terrible twos” were really not so terrible for Owen. Sure, some frustrating times and a little trouble learning how to use his words instead of his body, but nothing we couldn’t handle. In general he was a gem. Or maybe that’s just the wisdom of retrospection talking. Either way, we’re past those days.

But this almost-3 1/2 stage is a whole different beast.


I’m sure some of it has to do with Emmett joining our family (the bad behavior has emerged since Emmett turned 3 months, and, though I ignored them at the time, a few friends told me that it takes about 3 months for the “new baby” stuff to set in). But in our day-to-day life Owen ADORES Emmett. None of the bad attitude is directed at Emmett and he’s never verbalized anything about not getting enough attention or wanting to take Emmett back to the baby factory. In fact, Emmett is almost always the key to getting him to snap out of his bad attitude. Owen showers him with love, teaches him, talks to him and is remarkably gentle whenever we’re all together. Still, the psychologist in me knows that this huge shift has to have impacted him in some way.

Some of it likely has to do with just general growing up. He’s in preschool now and he has a lot more “responsibilities”. We expect a lot of him. He’s wearing underwear all the time. He is beginning to question some of the rules he has blindly followed for so long. He is smart enough to see through our language to the truth of what we’re saying even when we sugar coat it. Too smart at times, it seems.

And I think some of it comes from watching (and imitating) his peers like a hawk. Sometimes he’ll come home from school with a new phrase or a not-so-nice name to call someone and I’ll ask him, “Where did you hear that?”. So-and-so said it at school. He’s started getting up out of bed at night since he saw his little buddy doing that on our trip to New Hampshire last weekend. He’s figuring out how to push buttons or get a reaction, and he’ll copy behaviors he sees others doing to a T, for better or for worse.

He’s started talking back in a bratty tone of voice. “Nnnnnno!”, he’ll yell. “STOP IT, MOMMY”, he retorts when I tell him that’s not how we talk in our house. He demands things “now” and throws surprisingly emotional fits when I tell him that’s not a nice way to ask and I’m not going to give it to him until he asks politely in a non-whiny voice. His lifelong issue of “gentle hands” flares up when he’s angry as well. He throws things out of frustration. Pushes. Smacks my body. He’s just not listening the way he used to. He’s testing. ALL THE TIME testing.

Benjamin and I are standing our ground. Not giving in. I feel like we’re reacting the way we “should” but sometimes it feels like it snowballs until we’re all exasperated and angry (not to mention that I would prefer to just be rather than teaching lessons all day long). In general I’m really good at staying quiet and calm while he tornadoes around me, but it’s hard. It’s HARD.

We do give time-outs when warranted, but I try to save them for behavior that could hurt someone’s body (either his or someone else’s). Generally I’m a punishment-fits-the-crime sort of person (oh, you threw a toy? the toy gets taken away) and prefer positive reinforcement and rewards to punishment or taking things away. We’re all learning, right? But I’m at a bit of a loss when it comes to the verbal attacks and general not listening he’s doing now.

Time-outs and rest-your-body times are pretty powerless against vocal infractions or just not following directions. He can still yell and scream and cry even if his body is in time out (that’s why I usually save that tool for when his body needs calming). There isn’t a toy to take away or a logical punishment. I can’t yell back (or of course I shouldn’t), and it wouldn’t help anyway. I just want him to hear my voice (or his teacher’s!) and do what I’m asking him to do without saying “but” or “I don’t want to”.

And it’s not just at home either. His teachers have noticed it at school as well. And while it’s all incredibly, totally, positively age-appropriate, we don’t want to let it spiral out of hand. So we had a meeting yesterday to discuss potential strategies for helping him through this rough patch.

We currently use a sticker chart for “good days” at school. In the past this meant keeping his hands to himself and recently it has been expanded to listening to his teachers as well. Over the last few months this has worked brilliantly. Stickers have amazing powers over the 2-3 year old set. Over the last few weeks, though, he hasn’t gotten very many stickers and it seems like not getting stickers breeds more not getting stickers. We may stick with it or may institute another positive tool like putting pompoms in a jar for good listening or nice words/attitude. Has anyone instituted something like this at home?

One trigger we identified for this bad behavior seems to be his morning routine. Instead of fighting the same fights every morning, we’re going to try using this little chart that Benjamin and I made:


I put it in a picture frame so he can use a whiteboard marker and check off when he’s done each thing. Each night we’ll wipe it off and start again the next morning. Our intention is that we will essentially leave him alone to do all of the morning steps, and hopefully at night it will help us get from flossing to brushing to bath to pajamas without fussing in between. I’m hoping the physical act of using the marker will help move us between steps and will also act as a little reward (hey, we all like checking things off of our To Do lists, right?).

What are your tricks for helping your little person do the things they need to do without a lot of reprimanding on your part?

Don’t get me wrong, Owen is still SUCH an awesome kid. Most of the time he listens and responds in hilarious and adorable ways. Most of the time he is in control of his body and is so much fun to hang out with. Most of the time he is sweet and funny and precious. It’s just the other times that I’m learning how to react to in the best way.


22 responses to “She Says… A Rough Patch

  1. Have you read any of the love & logic books? We’re not exactly to this point yet- our guy is 2 and he’s not very mature for his age. But I have read some of the book and it seems like they would be super helpful. Do you give him choices through out his day? I know giving lots of choices between 2 options (that are both agreeable to you) can help them feel in control, etc. Like when we’re at the park and its getting time to leave I ask do you want to leave now or in 5 minutes? Do you want the blue floss or red floss? etc. etc. Throughout his daily routine. Then when it comes time where he doesn’t get a choice, you tell him he’s made a lot of choices today and now it’s mommy’s turn to make a choice. Anyways, I believe consistency is key no matter what so it may just take some time. Good luck!

  2. I have no advice! But I agree with you that when I get angry and frustrated with my Owen, it only breeds more anger, frustration and stubbornness in him. One night, I had a talk with him about how we need to treat each other nicely and he needs to listen to my directions, because neither one of us likes to get angry and frustrated with each other, and we don’t feel good with ourselves when we are mad. So I promised that I would listen to him better if he would do the same. The next day was so much better for both of us! It was kinda crazy that just talking about our expectations for behavior helped. Your Owen is really bright, so it may help a little bit as I’m sure he would understand what you’re telling him.

    Now I have a favor to ask you. I love your chart! Can you email it to me, so I can copy your idea? My Owen has the same name, so I can use it without making any changes. lol.

  3. I have a 3.5 and a 1.5 year old (both boys)…and I hear ya on the 3’s being waaaaay worse than the 2’s. What you’re describing sounds a lot like our house. We talk a lot about consequences and privileges…sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. Otherwise we’re just trying to stay consistent and hope we make it through this phase soon!

  4. I hate to say it but I think two is a breeze compared to three. I noticed it with my first and now am noticing the same thing with my second. I use a policy of I ask you to do something once and that’s it. If you do it, I give lots of praise and thank yous. If they don’t do it, it’s a time out. I think consistency is key and it sounds like you’ve already got that down. I think one of the hardest things about parenting toddlers is the monotony of discipline. Sometimes I feel like I spend my whole day disciplining and just praying it will all pay off one day. I can say with my 5 year old I can already see that it has. Good luck!

  5. My first two are the exact ages apart as Owen and Emmett. Like Owen, #1 was a fairly easy two year old but when the new baby came along, although he adored her and had asked for a sister, he began acting out at about the time that Owen is. I started instituting time alone with him without the baby, leaving her with my Mom or a friend while #1 and I went for a walk or an ice cream cone. Then I would begin a conversation by telling him how I had felt when my baby brother was born . . . . That I loved my baby brother but had sometimes felt a little sad or angry when my Mummy spent time with the baby. Sometimes I even wished the baby would go away for a little while, just a little while, so I could have my Mummy all to myself again. (To be honest I don’t know if I felt like that or not because I was too young to remember – but I probably did.) Astonishingly, I clearly remember him turning to me and saying, “You felt like that TOO?” Then I realised that he had feelings that he was too young or too afraid to articulate. Once he realised that it was okay to feel like that and I would not be angry at him for feeling like that he became more willing to express what he was feeling although I sometimes had to guess and then try to articulate it for him by telling him how I used to feel – or thought I might have felt. Getting a new sibling is traumatic, no matter how much they love them, but often they are too young to articulate or even identify all the feelings, or may fear they are “bad” for feeling those things so they act out, instead.

    Just a thought.

  6. Sarah,
    I’m glad to hear from someone who has made it through! There is hope!!! 🙂

  7. We’re going through the same thing! We’re still in the process of figuring it out, though.

  8. Oh, I’m with you. We are in the trenches with you–our “threenager” as I call him. And with the new baby…and for us, being a middle child. Similarly, it’s the verbal things he says–screaming, emotional breakdowns. it’s INTENSE. We are trying to use some of the techniques of positive discipline. It’s like love and logic, but from my perspective a little more tuned into connecting emotionally to the child–(slightly more love and less logic). google it. (like you have time!). What I can say that we do, albeit not 100% effective, is “connect before correct.” we try to acknowledge his feelings/struggles, etc before we work toward solutions together. And for us, something we learned was that time outs INFLAME the situation. It makes us feel better because it feels like we are “doing” something, but he is thinking so much with a “fuzzy brain” when in the throes of a tantrum, it really doesn’t do much but contain the noise, and in fact, throws some more kindling onto the fire. Of course, this is just how our son is–not all kids are like this. So instead, we go into a quieter place with him and HUG IT OUT. Many times he isn’t into it, but most of the time hugs and book distractions help. For us, the not nice things are lots of “poop” talk. It drives me bananas! So, the boys know that if you need to say that word, go to the bathroom and say it as much as you want. yeah, isn’t working great, but I have no other solution outside of us saying it isn’t polite. we also have a lot of “I hate you” to the older brother and to me/DH. I don’t take it personally, but there is a part of me that is sad he says that to his brother! he also says “you are the baddest brother in the whole wide world” when, say, his older brother doesn’t share. And I’m not going to lie–most of the time I just want to scream back “that’s MEAN! you are a bully!” But I don’t…always. I did buy the book “when Miles gets mad” (or something like that), and think that helped for a bit. Okay, this was an epic comment with not much direction, BUT some validation it’s totally normal, frustrating, and will pass.

  9. One trick that’s worked for us is using a timer. It was getting difficult to get him to do things that he didn’t really want to do just by asking. For instance, during tubby, he’d throw a fit when it was time to get clean… or he wouldn’t want to leave his toys to go get dressed in the morning. Whatever it is that he doesn’t want to do seems to be completely appeased by a simple timer. We just say that we’re going to set the timer for five minutes and then it’s time to get clean or lets set the timer for three minutes and then it’s time to go get dressed. I use my phone and let him pick out the sound the timer makes when it goes off and I usually let him push the “Okay” button when it does go off. *Usually* he’ll go do whatever it is we’ve asked him to do. It takes the power struggle out of the equation because the timer is now in charge. It’s been awesome for us and may work well for Owen too? Good luck.

  10. For me the threes have been much, much worse than the twos. Kids are really starting to be their own person at this point, but they don’t always know how to handle it. The major problems I’ve had to deal with are lack of impulse control (this is still a major issue with my 6-year-old) and angry outbursts. When they’re two, they have you to monitor them much more, but at three, they are learning to be responsible for their own behavior, which they’ve never really had to do before. I always tell people that as they get older, the low moments get lower but the highs are higher. Three is great, and adorable, but it is TOUGH.

  11. I actually work in a Behaviour class. We get all kinds of Behaviour, some of which what you’re having issue with. I am a MASTER at this. This is what I do.

    K. In dealing with the yelling, here is what I do. At the first sign of bossy or defiant Behaviour, I say something like, “I’m not talking to you if you’re going to yell at me. When you’re ready to TALK, you calmly let me know.” And WALK AWAY. That is key!!! It shows you’re in control, you’re the boss, and he isn’t going to get his way by yelling. Sometimes the child will need me to approach them after ten minutes or so and quietly ask if they’re ready to talk. If they yell, I give them another 10 minutes. With older children, this could go on for an hour. Not sure about a three year old, but stick to your guns, and leave him be. If he throws things while you’re out of the room, after your talk, gently ask him to tidy it up. I say something like, “Throwing things was a mistake, so you need to make it right. What can we do about that?” Make it right, make it right… It works.

    The talk that follows is the most important part of all. It shows that you don’t hold a grudge, but you clearly remind him of expectations. That his words hurt mummy’s feelings (that usually hurts the kid worst of all). Talk about strategies he should do next time to get your attention, and explain that sometimes mommy has to say no, but its not because you’re trying to be mean. Review what’s acceptable Behaviour for when feeling angry or frustrated (punching a pillow, quiet time, listening to music, etc)

    The sticker thing has a shelf life, for sure. Kids go through phases. Every now and then they need something new. It might just be that you’ll go out and buy the teacher Thomas stickers, or whatever. Suddenly, he’ll be interested again. It may be that he needs a reward at the end of the day for getting so many stickers. Keep the reward mommy and daddy based, not food or toy based. Like extra cuddle time, or an extra book read at bedtime. One-on-one time where he is the star of the show.

    Hope this helps!

  12. Oh, I also forgot this strategy. I use this all the time with everything I’m asking them to do that gets a “I don’t want to!!!” reaction.

    Offer up a choice, making one considerably less appealing than the other. This is great. Like, “Own, you have a choice. You can clean you your toys like Mommy asked, or you won’t have dessert tonight after dinner. I know which one I would choose… What do you think? What’s it going to be?” Quite calmly and in control is also key. He may test you on the first one, so be prepared. After, he will learn that you mean what you say. Never ever EVER make any threat that you aren’t willing to do, because that’s the time they’ll test you, and if you back down, they know you’re full of it.

  13. As someone who works in a daycare, I deal with the yelling and temper tantrums similar to how Lizzy mentioned. If I see that a fit is about to happen and the screaming start, I calmly say, “I’m going to wait/sit right here until you’re ready to talk to me.” Once they get it out of their system and begin to calm down, I usually say, “Are you ready to talk with me about this?” And if they say no, then I usually just say, “Okay, I’ll wait.”
    As for not listening when asked to do something, I would definitely encourage you to continue the positive reinforcement. In the instances when he wants to do something that he is not allowed to do, I always try to avoid saying “No.” as that can be a trigger to a tantrum. For example, if he says, “But I want to play with the trucks!”, you can respond by saying, “You may play with the puzzles or with the blocks.” as opposed to saying, “No, you can’t play with the trucks.” Keep up with, “You may ______ or ______” (if multiple options are available)

  14. Oh, honey, we’re right there with you. Three is hard. Really hard. Time our is actually a very effective tool for us. A lot of times, it is most useful because, by the end of the time out, he has calmed down enough to change his behavior. We always give a warning first for small infractions (the next time I hear you whine/you don’t listen/you don’t follow directions/etc) you are in time out. If he gets out of time out, or starts talking to us while there, we start the timer over. For big infractions (hitting, throwing, etc) it is straight to time out.

    We also offer Bug choices. Often he’ll whine about the choices… and then it becomes, “Ok, then, if you whine about it you don’t get a drink with dinner.” That usually snaps him out of it.

    One night, he made such a whiny, screamy big deal about wanting me to feed him dinner (this was before the baby, too), that we actually didn’t let him finish… warning him that was the consequence first, obviously. He’s been really good at dinner ever since.

    For us, I think that part of the three year old thing is being overtired. Like you said, we are expecting a lot more of them than previously. Bug is stimulated all day at school and he doesn’t nap every day anymore (though we make him at least rest). I keep hearing 4 is easier… 🙂

  15. I’m so with you in this.. I also have a three and a half year old boy who has a 6 month old sister.. Twos were a breeze but holy are we ever experiencing the trying threes.. Everything is a big deal.. He so sensitive to everything I say..he doesnt normally have big tantrums (expect at bedtime) but even if you gently tell him to stop doing something, he stomps off and pouts and tell me he doesn’t like me.. Ugh.. Nice to know that I’m not alone in this!! Hopefully we get through unscathed lol

  16. I just want to re-echo all the folks who are noting the three is much worse than two and in fact two wasn’t that bad for us. We have an only child; so for whatever it’s worth, we went through this at around the same age with no sibling arrival to look to as a possible instigator. I think their brains are making a lot of physical leaps right now, leading to a lot of mental stuff going on, not all of which they can entirely control. There were two solid months of 4.5 that were the worst of all and I think it had to do with the same thing plus a change in sleep needs.

    We were more strict than you with the time-outs. But I don’t think that necessarily helped, per se. I think consistency and adults presenting a unified front is key. We tried to get Miss A’s teacher on the same page with us, but she was one of the ‘too nice’ kind.

    I will say this and I don’t know if it is relevant because I haven’t had a second kid to try it on: With the two months of 4.5 year old troubles, we think, in the end, what we discovered was that she needed more sleep. We added one half hour and she became a different person. I, personally, think there was a brain development leap and it made a change in her sleep needs. Now she’s in kindergarten, which starts at 08:00, and her body’s *requirement* for 11.5 hours of sleep makes our evenings feel a little rushed. I am so glad every single day that I have a job where I can be flexible with my work hours and I can telecommute. I’m now, basically, working a split shift — completing my work day after the kid’s bed time.

  17. So, I’ll admit to not reading all of the other comments so I apologize if I’m repeating what others have said but 3’s are (in my personal opinion and experience), the hardest age I have hit so far. Every single day I woke up and felt like I was on a battlefield. With Maeve, 3 1/2 seems to be a bit better but still…oof! My mother bought me “The Happiest Toddler on the block” and I did find that it helped a bit. I believe you were a fan of “Happiest Baby on the Block”? I know 3 doesn’t quite seem like a toddler anymore, but there were some very valuable lessons in there…mainly how to speak what he calls “toddlerese” and the “fast food rule”. Basically, getting down on their level–or lower, matching their tone and acknowledging their feelings. There were times when Maeve was throwing a massive tantrum and I would get down on the floor and start saying relatively loudly, “you’re mad, you’re mad, you’re mad! Maeve is mad! you want candy, you want candy!” (or whatever it was that she wanted at that time) And do you know what? She was so surprised that she stopped the tantrum and actually gave me a hug. It seemed she was so relieved to hear that I was actually listening to her that it completely stopped her in her tracks. It was hard work to do this every time and many times I just didn’t have the time or energy, but I did find it to be very helpful. So I would highly recommend reading the book–if you can find the time! Good luck Kate–all I can really say is..this too will pass!

  18. Oh hunny, yes and yes and more YES. Ditto every word of this. Ryan has become so defiant in the past couple of months – not listening, talking back, telling me to “be quiet!”, etc. it is frustrating and somewhat embarrassing when it happens in front of others. It’s been an issue at school for us, too, and we’ve got sticker charts at home and school going right now. I think it is helping, but like you said, on some days no stickers breeds more no stickers. My main concern right now is Ryan’s hitting. I’ve tried everything I can think/read to try and I feel as though it’s gotten better recently but sometimes I think that and then it gets bad again. Here is what I keep telling myself: he is three. The way he is acting is not ok for an adult, but I can hardly hold him to that standard. It’s my job to model positive methods for dealing with emotions. He is past the stage of learning the very basics of language and relationships … Now he’s ready to start figuring out how he fits into this world. How his wants/needs compare with others and where he stands. He’s got to try to figure all that out with virtually zero life experience and someone always telling him that he can’t do this and he can’t go there and he can’t eat that. That’s got to be exhausting. Of course, it’s exhausting for us, too, because they are figuring out exactly how to push our buttons – and it’s probably a little satisfying to them, ha. I sometimes feel like I say the same three sentences over and over all day long (“get in the car seat,” ” sit down and eat,” and “no shows right now”). I want us to be happy and have fun, dammit, but I also will not ignore rude behavior. So some days feel like a 12- hour struggle to be patient. I know without a doubt that my son is a sweet soul. He is empathetic and smart and funny. That’s his core. This other stuff is age 3. You’re doing everything right. I hope I am, too. At the very least, we’re doing our best. I love that checklist you created. I think Ry could benefit from something similar. Right now I feel like I’m trying to do too much and change too many behaviors with one sticker chart. Ok, I did not mean to ramble so much. I just haven’t read another post on this issue that so perfectly described what we’re going through and how I feel, so …. You’re not alone.

  19. Angie All The Way

    I never experienced the “terrible twos” with Cameron either and it is only in the last few weeks that he has started to throw fits and test me. Doesn’t help that my husband works away ALOT, so it’s just us for a 5 wk period. While you do have the “2nd child” variable to consider, it sounds a lot like our challenges of late. I panicked a little bit at first wondering what was going on, almost like I naively thought I had “skipped” the terrible twos and was lucky that my kid never threw himself on the floor in utter upset over a tiny thing at the end of a long day. Hi Mommy, reality check, there he was crying on the kitchen floor when we get home from work/pre-school over something small. He also has definitely learned a lot of unpleasant things from other kids at his school and comes right out and tells me.

    My plan of attack was to (try to) keep my cool, be strong, firm and consistent. After all, I had to respect that the kid was testing me. While I initially wanted to shut it down, I decided that it’s important for a kid to “stand up and fight” because I don’t want him to go through life always accepting what he’s told to do, even if yes, I want him to listen to his parents and his teachers etc., so I’m telling myself that this “phase” has a positive side of development. I am likely fooling myself 😉

  20. I could have written this post word for word! (Except for the new sibling part). 🙂
    You are not alone – the 2s have nothing on the 3s!

  21. YOU GUYS ARE AMAZING. Thank you all so much for your comments. I read each one and you have so many good ideas. I wish I could sit here all day and respond to each comment individually, as they each deserve a mighty “YES!”. I am so lucky to have all of you wise mamas on my side.

  22. You rock. (And re: most recent update, glad things are looking up for you guys already!)

    I just want to add one more comment about the sleep thing. As I said, with Miss A, adding a half hour sleep changed our *world*. You (generic “you” out there on the Internet, no accusation here!) might think this does not apply to you because your child seems to be popping up easily at their usual time in the morning and so on. And you might be right about that, too. You know your kid. But, that was the case with our girl. She was bright and cheery in the mornings, and definitely wanting to stay up past her bed time in the evenings. Nevertheless, it appears she *needed* that sleep because, once we gave it to her, all behavior problems went back to an normal frequency and level of intensity (I mean, they are just little kids and we did not expect perfection or anything!). Honestly, we only even tried adding sleep as an experiment and out of desperation, because we really weren’t sure what else to do at that point. At this point, we keep it in our back pocket and pull it out when significant behavior issues are consistent for more than a couple of weeks. We figure a couple of weeks means ‘growth spurt’, ‘brain changes’, or some other normal development thing.

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