This is a question that comes up frequently in my local groups and in my email inbox: what to do with children of three and a half or four who have very strong wills, where everything is a struggle?
One thing I find interesting is that this question typically comes from parents about their first-born child. It also comes from parents who have had all one gender of children and now have a child of the other gender approaching three and a half or four. Just an interesting side-note I have observed over the years.
First of all, take a deep breath and step back for a minute and evaluate. I have often talked about the shift in parenting that occurs (or should occur) at this age, which can be very challenging to attached parents who felt they were essentially one with their very small child. Suddenly, the child has their own ideas and their own will, and for perhaps one of the first times the parent really has to figure out how to set boundaries as the child begins to exert some will and push against the forms of the day and the rhythms you have crafted. This can be a hard task!
It very well may feel as if your child is pushing against everything and anything. So please take out a piece of paper and answer these questions before you read the rest of this post. I think one of the essential questions is: is it really and truly everything, or what is it specifically? Is it transitions? Coming in from outside? Or eating? Or clothing? What is your rhythm like, and what are you doing to take care of yourself? If you are not a single parent, is your partner or spouse stepping in to help as well? Does that change up the energy in a good way? How does your spouse or partner feel about your child’s behavior? How is your environment structured so you have thought about things ahead of time and your child can’t get into things you don’t want him or her into when you are not right there supervising?
What are the boundaries, how are you guiding this child toward those boundaries and what happens if the child is not working within the boundaries? A strong, strong rhythm and unhurried life is really key with the three and four year old. Even a five and six year old will get completely out of character when their rhythm is off and the family is doing too many things and going too many places and being outside of the home too much. Try this post: https://theparentingpassageway.com/2010/10/07/back-to-basics-how-to-do-gentle-discipline/ and this post for help: https://theparentingpassageway.com/2010/12/15/gentle-discipline-connection-plus-boundaries/
The second thing I want you to do is to write down what language you are using when you are talking or thinking about this child on your piece of paper. Are these words that are making you feel loving and connected to your child, words that make you feel like you can set boundaries for this child and guide this child toward those boundaries or are they words where you are creating a battlefield where you are one side of the line and your child is on the other side? Many of you long-time readers know I have a particular aversion to the term, “high needs child” for older children…You can read my small rant about that here: https://theparentingpassageway.com/2009/08/05/parenting-the-high-needs-older-child/
But, perhaps for you to really take a hand in this situation, your language must change. Here is a back post on that: https://theparentingpassageway.com/2010/05/23/changing-our-parenting-language/
Okay, now that you have some thoughts down on paper, let’s go on to some of the developmental hallmarks of three and a half or so….Three and a half is very, very little…I wrote a post about the three and a half year old awhile back and am including part of it for you here, take what resonates with you:
“AGE THREE: Three is very, very little. According to Waldorf parenting and pedagogy, the first three years are for the establishment for walking (which takes about two and a half years to be a very mature walker without needing the arms for balance, being able to run, etc); the development of speech and the development of thinking as first seen by use of the term “I”.
Typical developmental things about the three and a half -year-olds include (this is according to the Gesell Institute, not necessarily my personal opinion!):
- Turbulent, troubled period of disequilibrium, the simplest event or occasion can elicit total rebellion; strong and secure gross motor abilities may turn more into stumbling, falling, at this age; new- found verbal ability such as “I’ll cut you in pieces!” and lots of whining
- May refuse to do things a lot, or howl and scream, or say a lot of “I can’t” I won’t” kinds of things
- Three and a half to four may be the height for the most “WHY?” “WHERE?” “WHAT?” kinds of questions
- Demanding, bossy, turbulent, troubled but mainly due to emotional insecurity
- May refuse to take part in daily routine – expect some pushing against what you do daily, and have some distraction plans at hand.
REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS: I think one important things, especially for parents where this child is the first-born or an only child, please make sure the expectations for this age are reasonable. Many times parents whose three or four year old is the oldest child in the house are expecting an awful lot. Here are some realistic expectations from a traditional physical therapy/occupational therapy perspective -a three-year-old may most likely be able to:
**At three and a half to age four, may use a spoon for liquids; may use a fork with some spilling; may refill his or her glass from a container that holds less than the glass does; can drink from a water fountain an adult turns on.
**Can distinguish between a bowel movement and urination; around three and a half may or may not go to the bathroom at regular intervals
**Can turn off water in bathroom when you ask; may be able to put toothpaste on toothbrush and wet the toothbrush; can put comb or brush in hair; can pull pants up; can get clothing out and put it on by around three and a half, although the average age for complete dressing is age 5. Can pull off shoes and unzip and unsnap clothing.
**Probably knows own name and names of siblings, may know if they or their family members are male or female.
**Can string large beads; roll clay or other modeling material into a snake shape, probably can match objects, cut paper with scissors, may know primary colors, may be able to roll clay into a ball.
**May be able to play a game with another person, such as rolling a ball back and forth; they can usually talk about a game that just finished and start a new game; can take turns in a game at least 25 percent of the time
**Can sit quietly for at least one minute; this moves up to five minutes at three and a half
**Can say please and thank you; request help when needed
**COMPLETES 10 PERCENT OF A TASK WITH ATTENTION AND REINFORCING BY AN ADULT; will start a task only when reminded at around three and a half and at that point may be able to complete 10 percent of the task with little input from an adult. Carrie’s note: Waldorf expectations and ways of working with a child’s will is often more in line with this than mainstream methods we see out there!
**May sing parts and phrases of familiar songs.
(These milestones came from the Hawaii Early Learning Profile for Children ages 3-6).
I think the main thing to remember is that the consciousness of the tiny three and a half year old is completely different than older children or adults. They do not mutter under their breath, make faces or say things you perceive to be rude to be disrespectful or defiant….
Some things that may help:
- Sit down and make a list of animals and how they move, so you can pull out some creative animal games to “hop over here like a kangaroo” or other animal movements you will need to get something accomplished. Think about what appeals to your boy or girl with moving objects or occupations so you can round up blocks like a shepherd rounding up sheep (clean-up) and other tasks.
- Think about how to structure your environment so less toys are immediately available without your help; this avoids much clean-up.
- Think about setting up play scenarios; at three they are just learning how to start fantasy play and making believe and they may need your help to get started!
- Expect some struggles around bedtime perhaps; think about how to shorten your bedtime routine and how you will handle things when they are not going well and everyone is just tired.
- Think about less choices and less words all the way around for this age.
There are many posts on this blog regarding how to stop talking and less choices.
- Figure out how to be strong and carry the work and rhythms of the day even if your child does not participate!
- Most of all, you have to be strong, peaceful and centered. Breathe, give the child a moment before you jump in, do things WITH the small three and four year old and don’t have the expectation they will do things with only a verbal command. Three and four year olds are really tiny; they need constant supervision and structure.
- Double check nutrition, media, sleep and food allergies…All of these can contribute toward making behavior better or worse. Many children whose parents have reported were “out of control” ended up being diagnosed with food allergies. Media is another culprit, as is lack of sleep. Double check, double check, double check.
- Boundaries are so important; there are so many posts on boundaries and respect and authority in parenting on this blog. Please go back to those and re-read and see where you are and where your spouse or partner is and where your child is. That could be a key piece to the whole thing.