She Says… Hugging it Out

While we’re on the subject of my 3 year old being, well, “particular”, I’m going to let you in on the tug-of-war I’ve been having inside my head for the last few weeks.

Pulling In vs. Pushing Away

Owen is in the midst of a particularly difficult period. The mitten-based tantrums are one part, but he’s also been struggling to express his frustration in other situations. At school this shows up in uncharacteristically aggressive reactions to friends taking a toy from him, or teary meltdowns over things that didn’t use to bother him at all, like any answer to the question, “What are you makin’ for dinner?”. Being around him is a bit like walking a minefield. You never know when you’re going to step on a bomb.

He didn’t used to be like this. It feels like it’s not really “him”, but I can’t get him to snap out of it.

There are a lot of potential reasons why this behavior might be flaring up right now.

1. He’s 3 1/2. I remember reading somewhere that the “half-years” are often far more challenging than the time surrounding actual birthdays due to developmental leaps and struggles. I remember a chart of a spiral of child development that showed common behaviors for each year/half-year and the year behaviors were often “mastered” and the half-years were “developing”. And, on top of that, there’s the omnipresent dichotomy between being a baby and being a big kid — needing your parents while simultaneously wanting to do everything for yourself. Which is stressful for a kid. So there’s that. And to be honest, maybe I could just stop there. Because 3 1/2 is hard, no matter how you slice it.

2. Emmett. I know he’s been around for 5 1/2 months, but now he’s getting bigger, and cuter, and he’s beginning to do things that Owen does too (like eat food), which might make him seem more like a “threat” to Owen. I almost hesitate to add him to this list because Owen has never, not once, showed any frustration or anger or ill will towards him. He is the sweetest, kindest, gentlest big brother. Even more than I ever thought possible. His bad attitude has never been directed at Emmett. Still, I understand that realizing he is not the center of attention in our family all the time is a long and arduous process for Owen.

3. Increasing/high expectations. Owen recently night potty-training himself. His night pull-up had been dry for 5+ months, but I wasn’t going to pull the plug on the pull-ups just yet, as I’ve read that kids (boys especially) aren’t generally physically ready for night training until 5 or even later. I didn’t want to stress him out. As with the rest of our potty training journey, though, Owen was insistent, and once he decided he wanted to be dry all night, he was. So once we finished up the pull-ups we had in our house, we supported his decision to sleep in underwear. Boom. Done. In the mornings when his magic clock turns green, Owen LOVES getting up by himself, going pee, getting dressed for the day and coming in to our room. It’s glorious, and the best part is that he is so proud of himself. The kid can write letters and wipe his own nose and put his dishes in the sink and work the CD player on his own. He is so capable and eager that we just keep teaching and he just keeps learning. Accepting responsibility. Asking for it. But then sometimes he wants to go backwards. And NOT do all of those things. And it’s confusing for us, and sometimes we push him. “You’ve done it before”, “You know how”, “You’re a big boy”.

4. Illness. Acting out on the outside when he’s feeling bad on the inside has always been a common thread for Owen. It’s generally in retrospect that I can identify that an ear infection was to blame for his whiny tantrum or a brewing virus was behind a hitting rampage. Right before Christmas Owen had a nasty respiratory bug that coincided with the stomach bug. Then he seemed to get better. Then a few days later his fever resurfaced. He complained of stomach pains and a headache. I told myself I would take him to the doctor in the morning, but in the morning his temp was normal and he said he felt fine again. Then over the weekend his temp spiked again, all the way up to 102 even after a dose of Ibuprofen. Doc said if it was still high the next morning to come in. Next morning it was back to normal and he said he felt better. Since then no fever, but he’s still acting under the weather and complaining of his stomach. I know illness can’t account for bad behavior for months upon months, but it’s possible that there’s something going on health-wise that I just haven’t identified yet.

And then of course there’s always the theory that bad behavior is a cry for attention. For love. And that’s probably also the case.

Given that it has felt like these behaviors were getting worse recently, Benjamin and I scheduled a meeting with his teacher and the psychologist on staff at his school. She routinely visits the classrooms and knows the kids and I wanted to get her opinion (reassurance?) on if his behavior was normal or if she thought there was something bigger going on. The bottom line is that both his teacher and the psychologist feel that his behavior is well within the range of normal (which we were relieved to hear). He’s 3. It’s hard being 3.

They both offered solutions for dealing with his behavior, many that I had heard before and that we already use on a daily basis (offer choices, give him power when possible, praise good behavior and don’t give attention to bad behavior, help him verbalize his feelings, etc.). The psychologist also talked a bit about hugging it out, or pulling him in rather than pushing him away when he’s acting out.

It feels uncomfortable to say out loud, but that’s not my knee jerk reaction when my kid is acting like a wild animal. My usual response to that behavior is “I can’t hear you when you talk like that” or “I don’t want to listen to you cry. If you need to cry, go do it in the other room” or “Come back and talk to me when you’ve pulled yourself together”. It’s not necessarily pushing him away, but it’s a general avoidance of his emotional outbursts. To be honest, it’s treating him like an adult who has the capability to pull themselves together without help. Which a 3 year old doesn’t necessarily have. And, while we’re being honest… it’s not really helping. While shutting down and closing the door to him might feel like the right thing to do to me (“I’m teaching him a lesson!”), it might not be what he needs to get through it.

The psychologist made a very strong case for the fact that, during these outbursts, Owen probably wants them to stop as much as I do. He wants to pull himself together. He wants to stop crying. He’s not manipulating me; he’s sad. And he needs help. And when she said it like that… well, then I just felt like a jerk.

So we’ve been trying this tactic recently. Instead of walking away from his tantrum, I take a deep breath and hug him. I just hug. Eventually I talk softly and try to put words to what he’s feeling, but it starts with a hug. (Benjamin is way better at this than I am, but I’m working on it). It’s not all rainbows and unicorns — sometimes Owen REALLY doesn’t want to be hugged. Sometimes it backfires. Sometimes, even when it helps, I feel like I’ve giving attention to bad behavior and it will turn him into a spoiled brat.

So I’m still figuring things out, like when and how to use this. And I’m still learning how to reconcile bringing him in vs. pushing him away. And to make it my instinct rather than something that’s difficult for me to do. But it certainly feels nice to have something in my parenting toolbox other than ignoring my kid until he can get his emotions under control.

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13 responses to “She Says… Hugging it Out

  1. Oh yes I know this all so well… My five year old has always been hard so the terrible 2s and 3s and 4s was not such a shock as it sound like it has for your dear guy, but still SO hard to deal with.

    I try, try, try to pull in because I do think that’s what she needs (so very often) but I don’t always manage to do it. Something that helps is physical play, it helps get aggression out and gives kids a chance to feel powerful and in control which is so big, I think. There’s this great book called, Playful Parenting that I clearly need to reread 🙂 Which gives great game ideas for rough housing and reconnecting.

    Good luck and hang in there… It’s hard stuff for sure.

    Oh and the sibling stuff is definitely still a factor! That comes in waves, I think…

    -Dana, mom of an intense and creative 5 year old girl and a 2 year old boy, who was such a sweet easy muffin until he started imitating his sister 🙂

  2. Oh, and big props to you for seeking out new tools for your toolbox. That’s love.
    -Dana

  3. I am really scared to have a 3 year old! Ha. I have another year at least. I try the pulling in with my 2 year old – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But the times when it does – oh so worth it.

  4. That is a hard one, I have the same reactions as you do. Go away and deal with it. I can see what the shrink is saying, but I think I would modify it a bit to feel more natural for me, and be able to not only teach a lesson (i.e. not pay attention to the bad behavior), but also to be there for the kids. I would do a time limit type of thing. So if he kicks off and is crying or tantruming give him 3ish minutes. let him scream and cry and get it out of his system. Then I would approach, get down to his level and bring him in to a hug, talking softly, and talking him down etc.
    That way you have time to take a deep breathe, and he has time to just get it out of his system.
    My little one is not even 2, but oh boy is she a sweet, sassy, tough cookie. I’m really really firm with her, but do always do a hug and kiss after a time out, or give her a second chance at eating dinner if she won’t touch anything the first time etc.
    Dude, this parenting this is TOUGH!!!!

  5. Wow, I could have written that post myself, ecept I never knew about the pulling them in approach. My gut reaction is always to walk away (or yell… oops) when he’s being difficult. My little boy is nearing 3 and a half and he’s certainly reaching a challenging patch! I also have an almost 2 year old and a 7 month old so it’s hard to share myself around!

    You’re definitely not alone, and thank you for sharing the advice you received, I’m going to try it. Anything parenting is really hard when it goes against instinct isn’t it? But this makes sense to me, no child was ever damaged from too much love 🙂

  6. Such an interesting post, Kate. My instinct is always to pull in (at least until my patience reaches zero). I truly believe that’s often what he needs; I can see in his face that he’s desperate for his distress to end. I am very aware however that on the spectrum of discipline I’m fairly soft and I do worry about reinforcing bad behaviours.I still choose to pull him in because I knew he is very like me and that is what I needed as a child.

  7. I have found the half years to be the toughest. Ethan struggled at two and a half with ridiculous, out-of-character tantrums, and we thought we wouldn’t survive – then three and a half rolled around and we couldn’t believe it could be worse than before!!! Because, as you said, a 3.5 year old CAN do more and WANTS to do more…until they decide that they don’t! Miles hit 2.5 recently, and it literally feels like he flipped a switch and I do not recognize my sweet, cuddly boy anymore. I know it won’t last, but I also know he’s ramping it up because of the truly fantastical example he has seen in his big brother. That’s the part that’s been the most interesting to me – watching Miles do the exact same things he’s seen Ethan do and realizing that this is just the beginning! Can’t wait to see what Stella has in store for me! 🙂 I have done the pulling in with Ethan when he reaches “the point of no return” and I know I need to help him pull himself together. And actually, he’s gotten pretty good at telling me when he needs my help; he’ll say, “I need help calming down”…. through his hysterical tears, usually. But at least it’s something! It’s a tough time, but we survive!

  8. I just kind of stopped reading at 3 1/2 because that’s when P. just was absolutely crazy – I mean she’d have these tantrums like demons were trying to claw their way out of her. Then she turned 4 and all was sweetness and light. SO weird, but apparently normal.

  9. I kind of like that O is a year ahead of S. They are totally different kids but always a good reminder of what is coming. I have the opposite problem, my instinct is to hug him through the tantrum (when I’m not standing there laughing because there is nothing else to do) and have been working on putting him in a different room to cool down. Rob is MUCH better at the separate and walk away. I think there are times when both approaches are useful. Good luck as you keep working through this.
    I’m still not sure if I’m more excited or terrified about the prospect of adding baby brother to the mix in a few weeks.

  10. I have an almost five year old and have gone through phases of the same, and really remember the extended phase during year three after the arrival of his brother. I have high expectations for behavior and have the same reactions as you. I *try* to ask “Would you like a hug” in the midst of those situations and I am always surprised at how much that does for both of us. Somehow we’re able to muddle through the rest of the situation after that deep breath. I also try to say things like “I understand it is hard to…whatever the issue is” to help validate those feelings because the reality is the current situation is the absolute biggest disaster they’ve ever experienced. It IS that big of a deal that whining and crying are appropriate. Sigh. I will say it does get better. They gain a little more reason but then there’s the little brother fast on the heels to keep things interesting. And my experience is that the second pushes it far more than the first! Ah, good times. I am smiling as I type this, because we’re currently in a sweet spot, but I know it can turn at any minute. Good luck, Mama.

  11. Wow, Kate. It’s like you’re in my head this week. I could have written this, almost word for word. I’ve been so frustrated with R’s growing aggression and tantrums. We tend to be “that’s unacceptable; go to time out; you lose that toy; come back when you can speak nicely” sort of parents. But frankly, we’ve been doing that for over a year and it’s not working. If anything, his behavior is getting worse. I finally decided that maybe he needed my example of extreme patience and love and understanding. Instead of yelling at him and punishing him when he hits, I need to recognize that he’s headed down that road, calmly remind him to tell me what’s bothering him rather than use his hands, and model to him that 1. I care about how he is feeling and 2. I do not lose my cool in the midst of every frustrating episode. This week has been so.much.better since I really tried to be consistent in this. I worry about coddling him or spoiling him, like you said. I want him to know some behaviors are absolutely not ok and won’t be tolerated. But the way I teach that needs to change. Anyway, thank you for writing this. It gives me hope that we’re on the right track.

  12. Oh, one other random question …. Maybe this is TMI for you to answer, but how does Owen pee by himself? Does he sit? Use a stool to stand? Ryan still needs help and I have struggled with how to make him more independent with this. He likes to stand but is too short if he’s standing on the ground and is scared of the stool (thinks he’ll fall), so he needs us to sort of hold him.

  13. Angie All The Way

    I think it’s great that you sought outside perspective on how to handle it. Sometimes that can be really helpful and you can take from it what you want.

    We haven’t had this “particular” challenge with Cameron with mittens etc., but I do understand the “minefield” analogy as we have had our battles of particularly that you simply cannot anticipate. Crusts on or off? Do.not.dare.assume. ALWAYS verify. I once had a situation where he wanted just ONE side of the crust cut off and all hell broke loose when his sandwich came entirely void of crusts. 🙂

    My approach has always been to get down to his level, connect with respect (with a loving/concerned face) and verbalize which I know that you already do or have done with Owen. If things get heated, I always hug him after – always. And tell him I love him. I guess it kind of reassures that love is not conditional on behaviour? Not that you are suggesting otherwise at all, but in a young little mind, I suppose it’s important to be abundantly clear.

    I guess my overall philosophy is that he doesn’t need me to “teach” him everything and as long as he knows that “unconditional love” is solid without a doubt, his intelligence and confidence will spring him forward at the pace he is most comfortable with. It’s hard to articulate this the way I truly mean it because I am not at all suggesting that the other approach does not display unconditional love! I guess I just mean that in the mind of a 3 year old, you never know what part gets confused, know what I mean?

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