Hi Dr Justin.
I am having a really hard time with my almost 3 year old daughter. I have had a hard time since she was born. She is what they call spirited, high needs and has screamed since birth. Now if I leave her with anyone she gets really mad when I get back and says “I don’t want mama” for like a half hour and it breaks my heart. I cannot sit there and listen to it. She won’t pay attention to anything I try to tell her. I don’t know what to do any more. She is soo hard on me mentally, and almost 3 years its always something. The happy moments always seem so fleeting.
Dr Justin responds:
The terrible twos are undoubtedly tough. What most people don’t tell new parents is that the terrible twos can last right through until somewhere around age 4 or even 5!
There could be a number of issues creating your daughter’s challenging behaviour – either alone or in a combined way. Issues of temperament, development, and attachment strike me as the most obvious. We will consider each of these three possibilities below, and look at ways to improve things for your family.
Some children are ‘easy’ children. They’re happy to explore. They’re easily calmed. They like being near people. They listen to instruction and usually obey!
Some children are slow to warm up. They are a little clingy in novel situations. They love being close to mum (or dad) so they feel safe. But after a while they become happy, bubbly, confident children. These children are usually pretty easy to get along with but they can be really, really crabby if we get them at the wrong time.
Then there are the difficult temperament children. These children are often irritable, clingy, and even oppositional both in novel situations and even at home where we hope they would be happy and comfortable.
There are arguments that we can’t do much about temperament. However, if we are patient and compassionate (and very calm), it seems that difficult and slow to warm up children can become easier. Some research suggests that the degree to which we are controlling affects the temperament of our children. Increased behaviour and psychological control may lead to more difficult temperament in children.
Children in the toddler/pre-school age bracket are experiencing major changes. Their brains are growing at a remarkable rate. They are trying to make sense of the world. They are very, very ego-centric (which means they want everything done their way), and they have limited social skills.
Until about the age of five our children typically only see things their way. They struggle to understand why we want them to do something they don’t want.
Some researchers argue that children don’t really learn to regulate their emotions until around age 7-8 years, which helps to explain tantrums, tears, and other challenging behaviours. And our kids also have difficulties regulating their behaviour until they’ve developed well past the age of two or three!
In the 1970’s, a psychology researcher named Mary Ainsworth discovered something interesting about young children. Mary set up a scenario where a child (usually between 9-18 months) was brought into a room with mum. The mother watched (but didn’t really interact) as her child explored the room. A stranger (the experimenter) entered the room and chatted briefly with mum, and then mum quietly left the room. The child was observed to see how it reacted. Mum would then come back into the room, and the experimenter would carefully watch the child’s reaction. Mum would leave again, and the experimenter watched how the child responded, and how the child reacted to mum when she returned.
Children who explored when mum was around, were distressed when mum left, and were happy when mum returned were classified as having a secure attachment. Children who were not that fussed whether mum was there or not were classed as having an avoidant attachment. Children who were clingy with mum in the new environment, and then angry or resentful at mum when she returned were classified as having an ambivalent or resistant form of attachment.
Thinking about your daughter, each of these might be impacting her emotions and behaviours. Perhaps her temperament is a little more difficult. She is right in the middle of major developmental milestones. And it is possible that your daughter may not feel entirely secure. Certainly your email gives an indication that your daughter may be a little resistant, although it would be inappropriate to classify her attachment or temperament type with just this amount of information.
Is she always like this? Or only sometimes? What sets her off? Answers to these questions might provide clues to how best you might work with her to regulate her emotions a little more.
Here are some ideas you might try:
- Spend ‘time-in’ with her. You might read stories, play imagination games, or build things. Time in a relationship, and consistently being responsive to our children’s needs, can strengthen attachment security and relationships, and help children feel safe.
- Be understanding. When your daughter is struggling with her emotions, see it less as a problem and more as an opportunity for you to be emotionally close with her. Remember that most of the time our children are challenging because they have an unmet need. Is she hungry, angry, lonely, tired, stressed, sick, or frustrated? Give her emotions a name, and offer consolation and reassurance rather than being frustrated or stressed. Kids need us to understand, not reprimand.
- Set clear limits with her. Don’t just lay down the law though. “In my house you do as I say!” That doesn’t work. Instead, ask questions: “When you scream and hit, does that make mummy happy or sad? What can you do instead?” Set up strategies that can guide her to more effective communication and behaviour.
You can learn more about each of these ideas in my book, What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family.
This is a tough age. But with patience and kindness, you and your daughter can grow closer and understand one another better. The secret is that rather than doing things to her to make her do the right thing, you need to help her feel loved as you work with her to overcome her challenging emotions.