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I have three children, a five year old, a three year old and a 10 month old baby.

At the slightest thing, the three year old will get annoyed and storm off in a sulk. It could be anything from being told that he can't do something (such as take a hard toy onto the trampoline) or it could be something like his food is slightly too hot to eat. Sometimes there doesn't seem to be any particular reason, something will upset him, his face changes into a sulky face, then he will run off. He will often scream and slam doors on the way out. I guess you could describe it as kind of a tantrum but it's more like a sulk.

Other times it will manifest as a rebellious sulk in a public situation, like today in the park, he refused to slide down a big slide halfway down, for some reason - holding up the other children. I have no idea what was even the problem. I feel like in many situations he often chooses to not conform.

I've tried various ways of dealing with it:

  • I've tried, going to get him, being nice and carrying him back - he will just run off again.

  • I've tried being playful, laughing and tickling him in the room he's stormed off into - but I think he quite likes this, now if I go into the room, he goes all giggly and silly in anticipation. But it doesn't really solve the problem.

  • I've tried asking him what's wrong, he just "growls" at me and won't say anything.

  • I've tried ignoring him completely. He will usually come back into the room, and maybe open and re-slam the door as if to make us notice him. This isn't always possible, e.g. in public he might be in danger if we let him walk off and we're not supervising properly.

  • For the last two days the thing I'm trying is to bring him back and really trying to settle him by hugging/holding him very firmly, until he calms down - which does kind of seem to work, but he gets SO angry and exhibits more of a traditional tantrum in the meantime, and I'm having to hold him quite tightly. Even though it's not aggressive in any way and it's not done in anger it does feel like I'm using my size and strength to control him, and I'm not sure my wife would be able to do the same because he's very strong.

  • The thing that usually always works is trying some kind of happy distraction, like for example once when he stormed off about not wanting the dinner I'd made, I made a face out of the vegetables, and he came back happily and ate it then. Or today I pointed out how much his runner bean that he's brought home from pre-school had grown. But it's not always possible to do something like this, or to think of or have the means or time to do something that will get his attention.

His vocabulary is pretty good, but when he goes into this mode he seems unable or unwilling to articulate what the problem is; instead he just goes into this silent sulk and won't say anything. He will sometimes explain afterwards what the problem was.

I really don't know what the best thing to do is. Should we ignore him completely or should I continue with the holding method to get him to calm down? Or should I even try to punish him, by putting him on the naughty step? I'm trying to not do the naughty step (positive punishment) at all now and only use positive reinforcement instead (a star chart).

Please help.

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3 Answers 3

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I see two main components here to address.

The first is that he's getting upset easily. This doesn't seem too unusual for a three year old, especially if getting upset like this sometimes results in his getting one-on-one attention some of the time. With a 10 month old in the house, it is possible some of this is jealousy, and deliberately attention-seeking behavior.

You may want to consider setting aside some special time just for him each day (if you aren't already doing so)... but not in response to one of these sulks. Perhaps a story time, or time for you or your wife to take a walk with him, or some other activity to show that he still gets undivided attention even with the baby.

The other component you've described is how he chooses to express himself when he's upset. The deliberately disruptive things he does when he us upset (e.g. the slamming of doors... and re-slamming them if he's ignored, causing a disruption on the slide by blocking the other kids, etc.) makes it seem even more likely that he's looking for attention. However, I'd address these things a bit differently.

Deliberately disruptive behavior like that should not be tolerated, and you should work towards putting a stop to it.

I'd suggest that you combine "time-outs" with calm verbal explanations as to why those behaviors are not okay.

Note that by "time-out", I'm not talking about punishment. Rather, these time-outs should be clearly identified as time for your son to calm down.

Explain to him that you understand he's upset. If you know why he's upset (e.g. because he couldn't bring a hard toy on the trampoline), explain why it had to be that way (e.g. "I know you're upset you couldn't bring your tractor onto the trampoline, but it is hard, and if you jumped and fell on it, you could get hurt.") If you're not clear why, ask him to explain. If he can't explain, you can try guessing, but you may have to just say "I don't really understand why you're so upset, but I see that something is really bothering you. Why don't you sit here until you're feeling a bit better, and then you can come tell me what made you so upset."

Once you've gotten him calmed down a bit, point out that it is okay to get upset, but that it isn't okay to make poor decisions just because you're upset. Slamming doors isn't okay. Preventing other kids from being able to use the slide isn't okay. Deciding to do those things because you're upset isn't okay.

Making bad decisions like that could have consequences, and you can describe some of these possible consequences in ways he can understand.

Slamming doors and screaming is loud and disruptive, and could wake the baby, or damage the doors, and if it keeps up, you may have to put something on the door to keep it from closing so he can't slam it anymore (there are stoppers that can be hung over the top of the door to prevent it from closing all the way).

Blocking the slide could make the other kids at the playground upset, and they might not want to play with him anymore. If it happens enough, it may wind up that he might not get to go to the playground as often, or at all, until he learns to make better decisions.

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This is pretty common at that age, although to different degrees with different children. The basic approach to take is validate the emotion and correct the behavior.

Validating the emotion means to communicate that their feelings are being heard and acknowledged. This article explains many different ways to do that. Usually with a small child, it takes the form of, "You feel ______ because of ______." For example, "You are sad because you couldn't take the toy on the trampoline."

The validation step is important because children that age often feel they will not be understood unless they make a big scene. You need to teach them that they will be understood even without the tantrum. Remember, it may be a minor incident to you, but to children that age, everything is major.

Make sure to give your full attention during the validation part. Children won't feel understood if most of your attention is on your smartphone or something.

The second part is to correct the behavior. This is saying the emotion is okay, but the way you expressed it is not. Don't just say what not to do, make sure to teach what to do instead. For example, instead of saying, "Don't stop in the middle of the slide," say, "You're upset because you don't want to come down the rest of the way, but you need to come the rest of the way so the other kids can have a turn, then you can come talk to me about why you stopped, if you want."

Sometimes the child is way too emotional to stop a tantrum, and you need to wait until they've calmed down in order to do the explanation part. In those situations, I usually say something like, "I know you're sad, but it's not okay to make other people be around your tantrum. If you want to sulk, you need to do it in your room, then you can come out when you're ready to be friendly."

Since that takes away the attention part, it's often enough incentive to stop the tantrum right away, but I was surprised how often my children choose to go to their rooms to calm down.

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It sounds to me like you're looking for something to make him happy when he's acting poorly. Bad move. Anything you do that rewards this behavior with encourage it.

If a child has a tantrum or goes off on a sulk, you should leave them to sort out their feelings and come back when they can behave appropriately. When it's not possible to leave him, take him out and wait with him, ignoring him. Bring a book so you can pointedly ignore him. Boredom and isolation are a powerful incentives for members of a social species like us. Minutes will do wonders.

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