Dear Mama Drama:
I have noticed recently that anytime my husband or I say “No” to our three-year-old daughter, a huge meltdown ensues. Even if we are saying, “No, not right now, but later,” she still throws a tantrum. We find ourselves in power struggles or giving in and are at a loss for what to do. (photo credit)
How can we help her handle not getting her way right away with a little more grace?
Three-year-olds are testing out their independent skills and continuing to figure out how to get their needs met. They live in the now, the present moment, and have a harder time understanding what something like “later” actually means. Consequently, when they hear “No” it sounds final to them and they don’t usually hear the rest of what you are saying.
One of the best strategies for handling the “no” inspired tantrums is to say “yes” as much as possible. Your probably thinking, “What?!” This doesn’t mean she gets her way all the time, but allows her desires to be acknowledged.
The trick is to say “yes” and then set limits about the when, where, and how of her want being met. Some examples are:
- “Yes, you can have dessert, after you eat your dinner.”
- “Yes, we can go to the zoo, on Saturday.”
- “Yes, your friend can come over. We’ll call and set up a time.”
- “Yes, you can use the play dough, after you clean up your dolls.”
- “Yes, you can use the markers, on the paper at the table.”
By starting with “yes,” your daughter feels heard and is then able to listen to the limits that you’re setting around her desire. When you start with “no,” she gets upset, begins to lose rational thinking, and doesn’t hear the rest of what you are saying. which results in a tantrum. Say “yes” if what she wants is at all possible at some point, then follow up with the limits.
Another angle on this perspective for redirection is acknowledging the intent of her behavior and teaching her to another way to meet that need or obtain what she is wanting.
- Your daughter grabs a toy from a peer. You say, “Oh, you want that toy. You need to ask him for a turn. If he isn’t ready to share, you can choose something else to play with while you wait.” She may need you to model the language of asking for a turn (“My turn, please?”) and to offer some other choices of things to play with if she needs to wait.
- She begs for another book to read at bedtime after you’ve read two more than you’d planned. Say, “I’m so glad you love to read books. I love snuggling with you and reading, too. Right now it’s time to go to sleep, but we will read more tomorrow.” Be firm and loving in your response.
- Your daughter is angry and starts tearing or throwing books. Say, “You look mad. Let’s go tear up some things in the recycling bin instead of our books.” The rule is that she cleans up whatever she tears up, so she may want to do it over the recycling bin. 🙂 Also, once she is calm, she needs to clean up or repair what she previously misused.
With any behavior we want to change in our children, we first have to change our own behavior. Setting limits and teaching (and reteaching!) children the behavior we want them to exhibit will pay off significantly over time.