Ask D+D: My three-year-old is a terrorist.

Our longest “Ask the Doctor (or the Dad)” question to date comes from a shell-shocked guy named Gar:

My three year old is a terrorist. He cries to get what he wants (e.g., toys, a bathroom chaperone, cookies). Lately, we have started fighting terror with terror, putting him in timeout or threatening his beloved stuffed animals to force him to obey us and stop crying. As in the Middle East, This usually escalates the conflict and results in more crying before we exhaust him or a settlement is reached (sadly we do negotiate with terrorists). All of this feels wrong, is it?
– Gar

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Yippee-ki-yay, mother and father.

Newsflash, Gar: All three-year-olds can be terrorists.

But the good news is that if you resist the urge to age profile your kids, and instead choose to treat them like they’re the upright, peace-loving citizens you want them to be, you may just find that they are able to every once in a while, kinda, sorta, even if it’s only in some small way, live up to your expectations.

At least a little bit.

Here are a few ideas for dealing with the inevitable conflicts that arise in any home that harbors an adorable, yet DANGEROUS, element:

Give him exactly what he wants – in wish form.

Here’s an actual example from a recent conversation with our three-year-old daughter who was approaching freak-out mode when we told her she couldn’t sleep in our bed with us:

“I know how much you want to sleep with Mommy and Daddy. If I could have any wish in the whole wide world, I would wish for a giant bed as big as our whole room so that we could all sleep in it together,” Amber said, feigning utmost sincerity. “But Mommy and I don’t have any wishes,” added Andy, obviously feigning great disappointment, “so our bed is only big enough for Mommy and Daddy.”

This seems like it would never work. But it did. We know – crazy, right? We can hardly believe it ourselves, and we were there.

But notice that before we made our wish, we let her know that we understood how much she really wanted it. Kids want to feel listened to, understood and supported. And this strategy works because feeling like somebody really “gets you” is often more important than any other thing that a child may have originally thought that she wanted.

Offer him choices.

So maybe he can’t have a cookie right now. But maybe he can have other options, like an apple or a book read to him. If that doesn’t work, try giving him a choice between something that you approve of and nothing. He may initially balk at this (cry, scream, kick, drive you out of your mind, etc.). But if you stick to your word (i.e., don’t cave and give him the cookie, but do deliver on whatever else you offered), over time he’ll understand that while he can’t have everything he wants, he can sometimes pick something else that is also pretty cool. Think of this as a new way to negotiate with your terrorist – one where you always win, but he feels like he won just a little bit too.

Because young kids have very little actual power in their lives, giving them license to make some choices (even if they’re prescribed, pre-approved, not-actually-independent choices) can make them feel autonomous, and in control of something. This strategy can work not only when a conflict comes up, but also at other times when the actual choice is inconsequential to you. So try letting him pick the shirt he wears, what he eats for lunch from a couple of options you’ve already narrowed down, or which presidential candidate you’ll vote for.

You know, the little things.

Explain your rationale to him.

During a conflict, hearing the real reasons that he can’t have something may be difficult, but explaining the “why” behind your actions will (at least eventually) help him be more accepting and willing to comply with your decisions. And in the long run, taking time to explain stuff to your kid serves to make him feel like a more valued member of the family.

So get in the habit of explaining lots of things to your kids – where you’re driving and what you’ll do when you get there, how brushing teeth prevents cavities, the difference between moths and butterflies, and the FASCINATING new rule changes your fantasy league is considering instituting before next year’s draft party.

(Because seriously, nobody else wants to hear about that last one. Nobody.)

In summary, a good battle plan for the war on your little terror includes:

  1. Acknowledging your child’s feelings
  2. Letting him have a little power
  3. Talking to him like a competent conversation partner who is capable of understanding the boundaries you set (even when he’s acting like he’s not)

Conflicts are inevitable, but research shows that parents who follow these guidelines have children with better emotion regulation, higher levels of self-control, greater academic achievement, and fewer behavioral problems both at home and at school.

And if none of this seems to work for you, at least the kid will be four soon.


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