Toddler Angst

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    My 3 year old for the last 4 mos or so has been really acting out. Everything is a power struggle. I know that I should have limited rules for toddlers, but I am unsure which to enforce and which to let go. Just observing other parents I feel that I may be more rigid/OCD-ish and may expect more than my 3 year old is capable of. But there has been a change in his behavior more acutely and everything transpires into an argument. He refuses to go to the potty, he refuses his meals, he refuses the clothes I pick out, refuses wearing his raincoat in the middle of a storm, etc. I am just so frustrated. He never use to be like this! I try my best to give him choices of things that are appropriate because I know he is exercising his independence at this age, but he refuses the choices I give and goes for something inappropriate– for example instead of the 2 long sleeve shirts that he can wear he wants to wear a short sleeve shirt that is not appropriate for winter. The list goes on and on. I have tried to give him more attention and more one on one time together, but his behavior really doesn’t change. I have tried time-outs and bribing with outings out of the house and his favorite tv show for good behavior but this does not seem to work at least consistently. Sticker boards, etc for doing his tasks, etc– it works for a limited time and then he loses interest. There has been a couple transitions in his life lately but I feel if his behavior started changing prior to that. A couple moms have told me that age 3 & 4 are just difficult in general. Maybe this is just a phase I need to brace myself through.


    Independence is not necessarily a bad thing. Natural consequences are not a bad thing, either. If he chooses the short-sleeved shirt, then he may (or may not) get cold and will learn from that. You can always bring a backup sweater. If he chooses not to wear his raincoat, then he will get wet and will learn from that. You can bring a dry change of clothes if you are worried. Or maybe he will enjoy being wet and it won’t be a problem. Refusing meals may mean that he gets hungry and will learn from that. He will not refuse meals forever. Or maybe he wants more of a choice in what he eats, which is not unreasonable. Anyway, that is my perspective from the other end of the parenting spectrum. 🙂


    I’m with sahmd. These all sound very normal and developmentally appropriate to me. (I’m also on the let-it-be end of the parenting spectrum.)

    Regarding refusing meals, personally I would not police this – he can have more at the next meal, or a healthy snack later if you are OK with this. Same with the short sleeves. My kids go to school in short sleeves all the time (granted we live in CA), we just send sweater and jacket along with. Same with the raincoat. He may decide to wear it after spending ten or twenty seconds in the rain, or he may not in which case he won’t melt.

    For non-negotiables like potty before leaving the house, I have learned a lot from my husband on this – he is the master of distraction. He basically will completely avoid talking about the topic of conflict, instead engaging on something totally different (what’s your dolly’s name? Is she being a good girl? etc.) while gently walking kid to toilet, helping with underpants, etc. It’s like magic. The kid is completely distracted by the conversation and just goes along with the potty routine without thinking about it. This also works for refusal to get in carseat, and for meals too if you are against snacks and don’t want kid to have to go to next meal without eating. I admit to using TV for this but conversational distractions could work too, though more labor-intensive.

    The thing is that once you get in a power struggle with a toddler, nobody is going to win. There is going to be a tantrum, and everybody is going to be unhappy, and there’s just no good outcome. So avoiding getting into the power struggle in the first place is the best strategy IMO. They do grow out of it eventually.

    One more thing – didn’t you recently add a new baby to your household? If so this could be a cause of the behavior change, one other thing to try would be to make sure and set aside some time for the three-year-old so he doesn’t feel replaced, and also be careful that your expectations for him haven’t been unconsciously elevated because he looks so big and capable next to the baby now (this is really easy to do!).

    Good luck! Three is a tough age. Four is much easier I think!


    Agree with the above posters! Reading your initial post, I had the same thoughts (I have an almost 5 year old and 2.5 year old). I don’t fight clothing choices. And we live in New Hampshire – they’ve gone outside in shorts in 30 degree weather and then, guess what – they are cold and “choose” to change into warmer clothes. Don’t want mittens or a hat? Fine, but they’re in my pocket for when you ask!

    I’ve noticed that when I’m more stressed/ in a bad mood I tend to get into more power struggles, especially with the 2.5 year old who is stubborn (and a toddler!) and it never ends well.

    The distraction thing is also perfect (we ask our son’s favorite stuffed animal if he needs to pee, take him to the potty, make it very silly, and then our son goes on the potty if he’s in a “mood” and will likely fight us to pee). We also try to stick to a routine. Our nanny does a better job of this, and she has such an easy time with the kids! They always eat all their lunch, put their shoes and coats away, etc. I’m not as good at a routine and they tend to argue more with me.

    Good luck! 4 has been really wonderful in general so hopefully there is a light at the end of the tunnel 🙂

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