Everything with my three-year-old is becoming a battle. How do I fix it?

It’s a common tale. A child, who just turned three, is smart, fun and lovely, but just lately everything has become a battle, no matter how much connection you have and how many choices you give.

How can you help with transitions? What about things that have stopped working? How do you move things along?

Dealing with children who push back on everything can be exhausting.Credit:iStock

First of all, congratulations on having a typical three-year-old: fun, smart, defiant and strong-willed. Transitions are typically tiring with many three-year-olds, so I find it odd when parents tell me that nothing is hard or untoward with their little one. Don’t get me wrong: There is the occasional three-year-old who is easy like Sunday mornings, but they are the exceptions. More important than having easy transitions is understanding the developmental stage of your preschooler. When you understand that your child’s brain is under construction, and when you understand the individuation process, your lens will change when you see these behaviours.

The essential needs of preschoolers are rest (from separation, as well as physical rest), play (this is how they learn) and tears (to cry about what doesn’t work for them). When your child can rest in their connection with you and you don’t threaten them with separation or send them away, then your child is free to grow and mature.

Unlike the three-year-old who took all of their cues from you (the minute countdown used to work), remember that the three-year-old takes this and says, “Hey, it’s time to mature!” Having opinions, being willful and doing the opposite, while tiring, are how children establish themselves in this world. And let’s step back: Your goal isn’t to raise an obedient robot; it’s to raise your child to meet their fullest potential. For preschoolers to grow, they must push against boundaries, find their voice and experience the world.

Although children are meant to challenge, you are pivoting to find your new parenting role. You are moving from caretaking a growing toddler to loving this evolving person. Their language is exploding, and their bodies are obeying more of their demands, but their brain is years from being logical, so you are balancing these powerful growth spurts with tremendous emotionality. And holding boundaries is loud, violent and exhausting, so we try various techniques: counting, giving choices, offering stickers, creating charts. We want to sidestep this drama, but we can’t. I’m not saying that choices are problematic; they can be powerful tools for gaining cooperation and growing new skills, but if you use them in hopes that a three-year-old won’t be emotional? Failure is guaranteed, almost every time.

Young children have to push the boundaries in order to learn, as frustrating as that can be for parents.Credit:

First, accept that your three-year-old is meant to change, grow and push. This is their developmental work. Ignore anyone who says it isn’t because that’s the old way of understanding children. Second, choices should be used when you truly don’t care about the outcome.

“Do you want to brush your own teeth or would you rather me brush them?” Accept either answer, and prepare that your preschooler will say no to both. If the child says no, you can say: “Got it. We will do it in the morning.” Then move on to the next task. By dropping your end of the rope, you are making clear that you aren’t going to argue, cajole, bribe, yell or fight, and frankly, I would rather see some dirty teeth than the epic meltdowns that happen before bed that can hurt your relationship and keep the fights going.

As you stop your end of the argument, your child will quickly pick up that this is not a place to connect, and they will simply brush their teeth. Seriously. No one believes it, but once we stop all the behavioural shenanigans, our children want to be cooperative, helpful and kind. Again – our culture will tell you differently, but unless your child’s life is on the line, you don’t need to fight about everything. Boundaries exist to keep you and your child safe, as well as the routines flowing. But see their tears as the necessary outlet of frustration, not a behavioural problem.

To help you, pick up Deborah MacNamara’s book Rest, Play, Grow, as well as Mona Delahooke’s Brain-Body Parenting. Both books will steer you toward understanding your child better and, because parenting preschoolers can be so tiring, please look into joining a group (online or in person) that can support you, make you laugh and maybe make you cry a little. Good luck.

Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters and the author of Parenting Outside the Lines. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education and a master’s degree in school counselling and is a certified parent coach.

This article first appeared in The Washington Post.

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