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Our 3.5 yr old (will be 4 in July) son has a real difficulty handling frustration to the point that it is driving me and my wife insane. Hardly a day goes by where we don't both end up in tears, utterly exhausted and with no idea what to do.

The situation can come up at any time but here's an examples that describes the basic pattern:

It's time for bed, but he doesn't want to stop what he's doing (playing, watching tv, whatever) to get ready for bed. This is despite repeated advance warnings that bed time is coming up. He simply refuses to stop what he's doing and collaborate with us in getting him ready for bed. He appears not to even hear what we're saying to him. It will come to a point where one of us has to turn off the TV or start tidying up the toys or take some action to stop him from what he's doing that he doesn't want to stop doing. This is the immediate trigger for a huge tantrum. At this point nothing, nothing will work, he's totally beside himself. We have to let him rage for a few minutes and only then can we try to calm him down and soothe him. At this point he usually says he's sorry and then does pretty much whatever we want him to do. When this happens 3,4,5 nights in a row it's soul destroying, not to mention incredibly tiring. When the "it's time for bed" point arrives we already know that we have two choices: let him carry on doing whatever he wants (unacceptable), or set off a tantrum (also unacceptable).

This morning we had the same scene because he was playing on the iPad and it was time to leave for pre-school (for him) and work (for us). Anything can trigger it, usually it involves him having to stop doing something he's enjoying because something else has to happen (go to bed, leave the house, get out of the bathtub, leave the playground, etc). Sometimes it can be over something so trivial and ridiculous as "i wanted to eat the apple with the peel, but you peeled it, stick the peel back on". When we try to explain the impossibility of that he just blows up (that was a real example, not something I made up).

We never hit him. We've tried re-direction (not always easy), trying to empathise with him, trying to reason with him. Nothing seems to work. It's driving us insane.

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Welcome to having a three year old. Whoever coined the term "terrible twos" forgot about the "teeth-gnashing threes" and for that matter the "frustrating fours". –  Vicky Apr 19 '13 at 12:07
@Vicky So Five is fine, right? Right? ... no. –  deworde Apr 23 '13 at 7:58
@deworde: I can't speak for Vicky, but now that we've crossed over into age 5 with our oldest, things are suddenly getting a lot better. I say 5 is hands-down better than 3 and 4. –  Meg Coates Apr 24 '13 at 1:42
IME five comes with its own frustrations, but still an order of magnitude easier than 2, 3 or 4! They're just so much more able to express themselves at 5 that a lot of the causes of frustration are removed. –  Vicky Apr 24 '13 at 9:50

6 Answers 6

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Our son is 3½ now too, and this behaviour is all-too-familiar for us too- I have every sympathy.

It sounds like you're currently trying to sit-out the tantrums- I can totally understand why that is so emotional for you both. Plus, when it comes to bed-times, by sitting it out you're effectively giving in to his demand to stay up longer. I agree something needs to be done.

There are several techniques I know of:

Distraction can work sometimes, but for things like bedtime it's nigh-on-impossible. Basically there's no disguising the fact he's got to stop what he's doing and go to bed.

In our experience, reasoning won't help stop tantrums at this age (e.g. "You need to go to bed because you need to sleep to stop you being tired in the morning."). But I still think it's worth saying- if he understands, it might sink in at some level and make a tantrum less likely next time.

You could always resort to discipline, using the infamous "naughty step" or such-like, since tantrums are definitely naughty behaviour. But personally I would see that as a last resort.

For our son, he's now at an age where positive encouragement (a.k.a. "bargaining") works. (e.g. "If you come up to bed now, you can have two stories".) Of course you can only bend so far- don't bargain using anything you aren't actually prepared to do or is unreasonable.

But obviously all kids are different, so what works for one may not work for another.

All I can say is that it is very tough. But you do need to be firm. Kids like to test our limits, and see what they can get away with. But also, deep-down they love rules- they make them feel safe and help them put the world in order. When you're being firm, you're really being loving. Even when it doesn't feel like it.

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Sounds normal to me :)

Or rather, the behavior of your child sounds typical, but your emotional response ("it's soul destroying") does not. Kids learn to deal with frustration over time, but they are very bad at it for a while. What makes it more difficult is that throwing a tantrum has some benefits, namely, extra attention from the parents.

Sometime it's best to just breathe deeply and wait it out, then proceed as if nothing happened. Just calmly continue with the bedtime routine, or going out routine, or shrug and offer the peeled apple again. Only when you're sure you're not giving your child any incentive to carry on with tantrums, does it make sense to actually help them identify their emotions and deal with them in a calmer way. But for now, it seems to me that you need to practice to actively ignore and to learn to accept that this is a standard episode in the life of a parent.

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I agree with the "soul destroying" part. You can't take it personally. He's not doing it because you're a bad parent, he's having tantrums because he's 3 and that's part of what 3-year-olds do. Step back, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that you are a good mom/dad. You will get through this! –  Meg Coates Apr 21 '13 at 9:04

I really feel for you. It is clear that you and your wife are loving parents who only want what is best for your son and you are both working very hard at providing a loving home for him. But a part of that love will be letting him learn how to deal with things in his life that he does not like. How to behave himself in a way that does not upset or interrupt the people around him.

A big part of that is that is a child he cannot be in control of every situation, he is not always going to get what he wants, and most importantly throwing a temper-tantrum will not result in the outcome that he wants. The reactions to temper-tantrums must be consistent and adhered to by everyone in his life. Tantrums are either ignored or have consequences that are not what the child wants.

In our house a tantrum at bedtime results in immediate teeth brushing and off to bed instead of the usually routine of milk, crackers, reading a story, and picking out a special toy to take to bed. It only took about 4 times for our 2.5yr old to understand what was going on and stop having bedtime tantrums, although we still struggle with him fighting us on the brushing of teeth.

Other times tantrums are dealt with by ignoring him if we have the time and patience for it, otherwise we take him to a corner and hold him in time-out for 3 minutes and/or until he is calmed down and has acknowledged his actions. The entire time he is in time-out I am doing my best to talk calmly and gently to him explaining what he has done wrong and why I am putting him in time out. When he calms if down, if it is appropriate, I ask him to apologize to the person he was being rude to and to give them a hug. Sometimes he wont do that so I hold him in time-out for a little longer than let him go.

Putting him in time-out while in a public place like a park, the mall, or at a restaurant can get pretty uncomfortable for me, a lot of people stare and make faces at us but it is only through being consistent that he will learn and adjust his reactions to things that he does not like. I have only put him in time-out for more than a minute twice, and it is brutal. But then again, he has not acted out in public since then.

Now if we can just get him to sit in a booster seat without getting up and running around...

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I like the apology aspect: an important part of helping kids learn how their actions affect others is making them confront not only what they did but also who was affected by it. And apologizing and getting forgiveness (and a hug) helps him recover and feel better as well as the "victim." Good advice. –  Erica Apr 22 '13 at 14:11

As others have said, you're kinda between a rock and a hard place here. Timeouts are good, ignoring is great, and yes tantrums do eat a bit of your soul because it can be painful to see your child in such distress.

Have you tried looking for triggers? You mention electronic media; our soon-to-be 5-yr-old used to have regular 'time for bath' tantrums because it meant no more media. So we instituted a no-media-after-x-o'clock rule, with the time being about an hour before bath. This gave her a chance to settle herself down with coloring or reading or something a bit quieter. We also pretty much cut out the iPad completely, from ages 3 to about 4.5. We're SLOWLY reinstituting time with it, mainly because they use iPads in her magnet school and we're working with some of the programs now. But we ration time on the iPad out in a rather stingy manner, and it still is part of the media-free zone. We noticed an improvement right out of the gate, both with bath and bed time, when the media was shut off. We also tried to improve bathtime by letting them pick bubbles and toys, and spending more time in there just fooling around post-wash.

We also had luck with eliminating dietary triggers. Sugar is turns the older one into a demon, bless her little heart, so candy is OUT. That was one we had to test a few times, to make sure we were getting the right items removed (a diary with foods consumed and tantrum commencement times helped greatly).

And there's a definite correlation in our house between growth spurts and tantrums. Boy is there ever! When she starts to eat us out of house and home, we tighten down on the other triggers, make sure she gets plenty of running around inside and out, and batten down our own emotional hatches.

I just can't WAIT until the younger one hits these times.

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Just one idea to add to the host of sensible advice above. With our own tantrum-prone 3.5-year-old, it is surprising how often (not always) it helps to set an egg timer for him, at the sound of which he is expected to come along on his own - be it to tooth-brushing, bathing or something else.

It may have something to do with feeling more in control and grown-up by reacting to the timer and coming along on his own, rather than obeying our call.

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Sometimes I don't understand parents. YOU ARE IN CONTROL! and as soon as you let your child think they have any say in the matter you are no longer in control. A 3 year old needs to be TOLD what is going on. Not bargained with. Or distracted. Or positive reinforcement, at least not when throwing a tantrum. You are obliviously letting your child do this. Adults can run huge company's, start businesses and all sorts of intelligent things. But they can't control a 3 year old. Children need guidance and boundaries. Not to feel in control. It's obvious by their behavior that it doesn't work. And distraction.....when in your life are you offered a distraction when presented with something you don't like? It's never too early to start teaching them about life. In a child friendly way of course. Everyone one these days wants to be philosophical and friends with their kids. We'll look how that's turning out. Our kids need us to be their parents. We are the only ones they have. Read the bible. Proverbs. There is some good parenting advice in there. TRAIN UP A CHILD THE WAY THEY SHOULD GO AND WHEN THEY ARE OLD THEY WILL NOT STRAY FROM IT. PROVERBS 22:6

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Bible references? Seriously? Religion (all religions) has, directly or indirectly, done more harm to children than pretty much anything else in history. –  mluisbrown Jun 16 '14 at 14:20

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