Q&A: 3-year-old freakouts

Continuing with the theme of aggressive behavior...

In the past couple of weeks I've gotten half a dozen emails from parents concerned about 3-year-olds and truly agressive behavior, from screaming fits to hitting and attacking other kids and adults, to self-mutilation.

Now remember that I'm no expert. I only go by the things I've tried and seen work or not with my kids and all the other parents I talk to (including you all in the comments and by email). I do believe that you know your own child best, and that careful observation is a parent's best friend. So let me break down the things that I've observed seem to make 3-year-olds into strange tantruming fiends.

Stuff they're ingesting. Occasionally I'll get an email from a parent describing a child who seems to be completley unable to contrl his or her out-of-control behavior. Discipline and even outright punishments don't work, and the child seems to be held a prisoner of his or her outbursts. It's as if the kid has no ability to stop.

To me that indicates that there is something physical going on that is making the child act this way. (If you've ever been in pain for a prolonged period, you get what I mean. So much of your energy is going into dealing with the pain that you just have no control over the rest of you, adn you can be pretty vicious with other people.) SInce it's doubtful that your child has suddenly developed some strange illness, I'd take a look at what's going into your child's mouth.

By the age of 3, most kids are not under their parents' control at all times anymore. Any hope you had of controlling everything that goes into your kid's mouth is completely out the window. Either they're at daycare or preschool eating who-knows-what, or with a babysitter or adult relative (who may be feeding them candy or other treats) or at playdates with other kids. That means there's plenty of opportunity for your child to be eating things with artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, and MSG. You're going to ahve to be a real detective to figure out if your kid's eating this kind of stuff. If s/he is, enlist the help of the other adults you child interacts with to go cold turkey on that stuff for 2-3 weeks to see if it helps. For some kids it seems to be a huge factor in negative behavior, and ocne their systems are clear of the chemicals they gain control of the actions like any other 3-year-old has (which is to say in a limited by improving way).

Transitions. Normally we think of transitions as being a problem for young toddlers ("Say goodbye to the trains"), but it hits 3-year-olds, too. Maybe even more so, because now they're able to really be absorbed in an activity, and also to know what's going to happen next. If you have a 3-year-old who's having problems with transitions, try to build more time into your schedule to cushion the transition time. Maybe get to preschool/daycare pickup a few minutes early so you have time to sit down and play for 5 minutes with your child before it's time to put on coats and go home. Develop some ritual that the child can look forward to as soon as you leave school, so there's something positive to go toward. Talk about how hard it is to leave or switch activities. Whatever you end up doing, validate your child's feelings, because that will help him or her feel more open about talking to you about what's making him/her so upset. More talking means less acting out.

Loss of control. It's still such a big issue for this age. Hey, who am I kidding? It's still an issue for most 50-year-olds I know, so how could it not be for a 3-year-old? They still ahve no control over most aspects of their lives, from when they wake up to where they go to whether they have to share their parents with a younger sibling. It's enough to really just piss a person off and make her want to throw something or bite someone. Giving kids as much choice as you can (with what they wear, what they eat from two or three options, what music you listen to in the car, who they invite over to play, what games to play after supper, etc.) the easier this will be for them. That might cut down on the tantrums.

Problems dealing with scary emotions. This is just a variation of loss of control, but it's different because the loss of control is coming from inside themselves. Kids (yeah, adults, too) have problems managing and processing big emotions. It's good for your child to have big emotions, even negative scary ones. You'll help your child accept and manage those emotions by giving them the vocabulary to talk through them. Keep on talking your child through the tantrums and feelings, even if your child seems to be verbal enough to do it themselves. "You're feeling really angry because you couldn't stay at Jack's house. It makes you mad!" Helping them give a name to the feelings is going to validate those feelings and also release some of the need to use violence to express them. Eventually you can help your child think of ways to feel better, like making a plan to go back to Jack's house in a few weeks, or playing with Play-Dough when you get home, or something like that.

Those are the big things I can think of for this age. Anyone else either in this phase or past it who's noticed something else? Anyone just want to commiserate about how challenging 3 can be for both child and parents?