Struggles with Three-Year-Old

Dear Dr. Rene,
Our three-and-a-half-year-old daughter is very strong willed – a trait I share – which leads to a variety of difficulties. We are having particular issues over clothing and bathtime. She wants the same outfit everyday and refuses to take baths. I have tried offering choices and compromises, but every option is met with a complete meltdown. We are at a loss about what to do as she is otherwise a sweet little girl.
Thank you,
Ginny, Mother of One

Dear Ginny,
These are common stages for show-downs with young children. Getting dressed in the morning, getting ready for bath or getting ready for bed are often cited by parents as tough times of the day. Thankfully, there are several techniques to approach and help soften the struggle.

On the rare day that getting dressed or getting in the bath goes smoothly, gush a little. Notice her good behaviors, describe back to her what she did. Be sure this is behavior specific, something like, “wow, you got dressed all by yourself. That was helpful.”

Setting clear boundaries means letting them know up front what your expectation are and ways to be successful before the behavior happens again. If these are daily battles, there is no reason to wait for it to blow up. Be proactive, get in front of the behaviors. Talk her through before she starts to get dressed tomorrow.

If that doesn’t work and you find yourself in a struggle, it is good to think choices and contribution. Direct choices about where to get dressed or which piece of clothing to start with can be helpful. Contribution is giving her jobs through the struggle. This would be making her the sweater selector or the sock matcher for the family. It’s best to be a job related to the task.

If all that fails, you might fall back on consequences. Consequences are best if they match your child’s behavior. This means keeping the behavior in mind while developing your response. Matching in content is the hardest, but in this case it might be her having to get dressed alone or you picking the outfit.

There is a good book titled Kids, Parents and Power Struggles that breaks down the dynamics and walks through these steps in a more detailed way. Hang in there, strong willed may be a trait that serves her well in the long run.
Dr. Rene

Author: Dr. Rene Hackney

With a MA in school psychology and a PhD in developmental psychology, I founded and work as a parent educator at Parenting Playgroups. Somewhere in there I trained in the Developmental Clinic at Children's NMC and in the public schools. I have two beautiful, funny children who make me practice what I preach most everyday.

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