Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How to Parent a Three Year Old

Advise for myself, mostly. 

Here's a few things I've learned about parenting 3 year olds, as I have one for the third time.

Three year olds scream.  They also reinvent reality. 

I tell the other kids "Don't argue with a three year old."  You'll never win.

I keep telling myself "she's three and that's what three year olds do."  Which is true.  It's also really important for me to remember that it's not personal.  So I just let it go most of the time.

Until I didn't.  Over the last few months, the occasional suggestion of a more polite way to phase something became a frequent suggestion, then a correction, then a barked order.  "Don't scream at me!" 

So much for modeling.

This too shall pass:  Three is a trying age for me.  I think because it's a transition between babyhood, and really getting to know their personalities and preferences as they change and grow.  I was reading an old journal the other day and ran across an entry about L when she was 3.  L is usually the most easy going kid, but three was tough with her too.

It's been a challenge for me with all three kids so far, but one thing that makes it easier is remembering that it will end.  Whatever stage they are in, at whatever age they are, can't last forever.

It's not her, it's me: She's doing what 3 year olds do.  Your kid is doing what kids that age do.  They are doing it because they don't know a better way to handle their emotions.

And sometimes neither do I.  Sometimes neither do you.

Which is why we are screaming back at them or avoiding them or tuning them out.  At least, that's why I do it.  I don't want to handle the emotions that crop up when I connect.  Being needed and the feeling of responsibility that comes with that.  The guilt when unconditional love is being poured out on me, even though I just screwed up royally 20 minutes ago.  Wanting to crawl out of my skin, because everyone is touching me and talking to me.  Overwhelmed.  Tired.  Scared that if I try to connect I'll screw it up, so I don't try.

Identify the need behind the feeling and meet it:  For me, one need is to be alone to process all the other needs and feelings.  Maybe for you it's getting a shower or getting outside or reading your book or talking with adults or counseling.

Some people champion getting those needs met no matter the cost.  "It's ok to leave him crying with a baby sitter for a few hours.  You NEED this.  You'll be a better parent when you come back."

Some people champion never trying to meet that need away from your kids.  "My child was never away from me until he was 12.  I just found ways to (insert need getting met) while he was with me."

Get your needs met.  I truly am a better parent when I get to be alone for a little while.

However, I don't do it at the cost of my kids needs not getting met.  I don't have to leave for hours.  I can catch 20 minutes while they are happy playing together or watching a show.  If I'm practicing awareness, I can notice those moments while I'm doing dishes or folding clothes when they aren't in the room.  And I can breath.

Sometimes I do leave for hours, but I'm fortunate that my kids are usually happy with D or their grandma.  That wasn't always the case, and sometimes I left anyway and I regret it.  Other times I didn't have anyone to watch them, and I got my alone time while they were sleeping or busy.

Get creative and find ways that work for everyone to meet their needs and yours.

Connect:  Surprise, surprise, when I connect with Z, the screaming, the "NO!", the neediness, all lessens.  Poor baby is going through a lot right now.  I was pregnant and having some health issues and solo parenting, and I didn't have the energy to do as much with her.  Now she has a new baby sister.  Her dad has been out of state for work since April, and she misses him so much.

She doesn't have all the words to express how sad and angry she is about all of that.

When people know better, they do better.  But even more than that, when people feel better they do better.

I said three is a time of transition.  That transition seems to last until about age five.  My goal is to smooth that transition.  To make it easier and more peaceful for her.  She's just barely starting to figure out who she is, what she likes, and how to relate to other people.  I want to explore that with her, and learn more about her and how to relate to her.

Take a minute to celebrate how far you've come:  I can really beat myself up sometimes over my parenting.  So I took a minute this morning to think about when E was 3.  I was struggling not to spank.  I was literally digging my nails into my hands or holding my own hands behind my back to stop myself from hitting sometimes.  And I didn't always succeed in resisting the impulse.

That's not a struggle any more.  It took years of personal work, but I've come a long, long ways.

Maybe you're years into this gentle parenting journey and need to look back and celebrate how far you've come.

Maybe you're just starting out and feel like there's nothing to celebrate yet.  Did you do better today than yesterday?  Did you do better this afternoon than this morning?  Celebrate it!

Or choose now, right this moment, to do better.  Whatever your child is doing, right now, think of two ways to respond to it and choose the better one.       

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