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Children / fatherhood / Mama Drama / Motherhood

Mama Drama: Direction Following Folly

Dear Mama Drama:

My three-year-old son struggles with following directions and becomes stiff and unresponsive when he doesn’t want to do what is asked of him. We end up either letting him get away with not following directions or having to physically force him to follow them. Neither strategy is really working and he tends to fight back when we try to force him.

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The behavior usually happens when he is being asked to stop something more interesting or fun (like playing) and switch to a task that is less interesting to him (like cleaning up or washing his hands for dinner). I think it may be a learned behavior as his dad also shuts down and won’t talk when frustrated.

I am struggling to support him and have no idea what to do.

~Stumped Mama

Dear Stumped:

It is fairly common for three-year-olds to prefer to stay engaged in play than stop playing to do something less interesting. However, the stiff and unresponsive behavior is less typical. If that behavior has been modeled by his dad, it could just be an imitation. If you notice it occurring in other situations, you should follow up with your pediatrician.

When giving your son directions get down to his eye level and make sure you have his attention. Give him wait time to comply with the directions. Count to ten in your head, slowly, to help you with this. Offer choices as often as possible – two choices at a time is good for his age. After you give the direction stay nearby to celebrate his successes and support him when he needs it. Resist the urge to walk away or continually repeat the direction.

Having a regular schedule or routine can help your son adjust more easily to transitions between activities. Use a picture schedule to visually show him the flow of your day. Then, when it’s time to switch activities, you can refer to the schedule to help him see what’s next. “Look, the schedule says it’s time to wash our hands for dinner.”

A transition warning will also help him shift gears. A good phrase to use is, “Two more minutes of playing and then it’s time for dinner.” This also incorporates the first/then strategy that offers a carrot of something interesting to do next. Set a timer for two minutes and come in to support him in moving to the next task. Say, “Oh, the timer says it’s time to stop. Let’s go wash our hands for dinner.”

Three-year-olds love to be helpers, so give him a job at dinner such as putting out napkins or silver ware. He could also help stir cold items or bring condiments to the table. Be creative, get his input, and make it fun. If the helping job becomes a power struggle, let it go for that day.

When he is struggling to stop playing, acknowledge his feelings by saying, “It’s hard to stop when you’re having fun.”

You can also reframe his non-responsive behavior by saying, “You’re taking time to think.” or “You’re taking some breaths.” Then give him wait time. While you wait, take a few deep breaths yourself so you can stay calm.

It may seem like a lot of effort at first, but with practice it will become second nature. Creating routines and supports for your son will teach him clear expectations and provide the foundation he needs for success.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential. Read more of Lisa’s parenting perspective at her Laughing Yoga Mama blog.


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  1. Doesn’t matter if they’re 3 or 7–this advice fits!

  2. My children are older than 3 but I can seem much of this advice working with them, as well!

    (And maybe a father or two out there!)

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