julia1 asks:

My 3 year old is out of control & I don"t know what to do

We just moved from Virginia to Ohio and my 3 year old daughter hits me will not stay in time out, pushes her 1 year old brother around and torments the dog, she will kick the dog for no reason. I try to do time out but she says no and runs. I read 1 2 3 magic and tried that & She is still out of control. She flips out at any form of discipline, but she can be so sweet and loving when she wants. Please someone help me out I am ready to pull my hair out. Thanks
In Topics: Discipline and behavior challenges
> 60 days ago



Hand in Hand
Jul 10, 2009
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What the Expert Says:

Dear Julia1:

Good for you for seeking help--parenting is a rough go at times, and no one should go it alone.

123 Magic doesn't work well because when children are acting out, they actually, literally can't think. Their prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of reasoning, thinking, judgment, and impulse control, switches off when children are emotionally charged, and at those times, their behavior is then governed by their limbic system, the emotional and social center of their mind. During the moments when your little one is acting out, her limbic system has been flooded with powerful emotions. Only she knows what those feelings are, and why they are there, but two good guesses are the move--a set of changes that turn a child's world upside down, and unsettle their sense of safety, for sure, not to mention that grownups are working, working, working during a move, and have much less time to connect in with their children. Another underlying cause for her upsets could easily be having a younger sibling. The feelings of being pushed aside are there for every child, no matter how loving the parents!

Children need to be able to feel a close connection with their parents in order to function well. Stored feelings of upset--from the birth of their sibling, from missing your warm attention during the move, from other hard spots in her life--can get triggered by any tiny thing. By orange juice having "thingies" in it, by a piece of toast cut into triangles instead of rectangles!

Here are two things to do. If you do them, things will get better, I guarantee.

First, Special Time. Set aside a time when the baby is sleeping, or otherwise cared for. Early in the morning is a good time, before the day really starts, but any time will do. Tell her that it's her Special Time, and that for X number of minutes, you will do whatever she wants! Any kind of play is OK. Turn off the phone, tell others in the family that you won't be talking to them for the next x minutes, and devote your full attention to her, doing whatever she wants, and showering her with warmth, closeness, eye contact, and interest. Set a timer for this. When the timer goes off, tell her you loved being with her, and when the next Special Time will be. Don't make it dependent on anything--no saying, "When you get your teeth brushed, then you can have Special Time." She gets it because she's your precious daughter, not because she earned it.

This kind of time, done once or twice a day, can help a child feel more connected to you. It helps her feel more emotionally safe. But, let me tell you also, that after Special Time, the emotional tension she carries, that gets her into trouble time and time again during the day, will be closer to the surface. She  may throw a tantrum because Special Time ended. Or shortly thereafter, she may have an emotional crisis because jam is falling off her toast. That's when you use this second "Listening Tool," that does the work of helping her get rid of the stored upset that's in her way of being her loving, relaxed, playful self.

When she finds a way to get upset, move in close, put your arms around her loosely, and offer eye contact. If you have to set a limit, do it with warmth. "Sweetie, you can fix the jam on your toast yourself. I'm not going to do it for you." or "No, I'm not going to make a new piece and cut it into rectangles. I'm going to stay here so we can look at the triangle toast."

You move in, set the limit, and then, listen. Don't talk. Don't explain. Don't give a lecture. She needs to pay attention to the feelings she has that are erupting. And she needs you to connect with her, offer warmth and safety, and stay with her while she pours out all her upset. It will be "ugly,"--screaming, crying, stamping, throwing herself down, flailing , sweating, going wildly out of control. Contrary to everything you've ever been taught, this is GOOD. This is how bad feelings get out of children's systems. If you can hang in with her, and tell her, "I know it's hard, honey. I'm here. I'm going to stay with you while it's hard." and "I'm going to hold you so you stay safe. I'm not going to leave you while you are feeling so upset." and "I know you can lick up the jam." or "I know the triangle toast is good to eat."

She expels the feelings. You pour on the connection and the warmth. That's what her system needs for her to recover her ability to think. Her brain needs the bad feelings out of the way, and a strong sense that someone is keeping her safe and loved, to restore her ability to think and act with good sense.

We call this Staylistening. There's much more about it, and many anecdotes from parents who have used it, at the site listed below. It meets a child's deep inner need for closeness, and their need to have a big "emotional poop" often enough to keep their minds humming and their spirits cooperative and loving.

Hope this helps!


Patty Wipfler
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