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My almost-3-year-old is a nightmare. All the tantrums, throwing things, hitting us, not listening. She used to go to daycare and had more structure, but now her grandparents have been watching her while my wife and I work and they let her get away with everything. Then at home, she’s terrible. I’m worried that the pandemic is ruining her and that I’m a terrible mother. Send help.

Desperate in Delaware

A photo of Caroline.

Caroline Cahuantzi

Caroline has worked in education since 2006, serving as a classroom and adult educator, teacher evaluator and coach, and school operations manager. These days, she’s EdNavigator’s resident operations and technology wizard.

Dear Desperate,

First of all, you’re not a terrible mother. So let’s stop that negative self-talk right there. And no, your child is not going to be ruined forever—not by the pandemic, not by your parenting, and not by her loving-but-possibly-overly-permissive grandparents, either.

Let’s break this down. For one thing, the three-year-old—like its close cousin, the two-year-old—is a notoriously challenging creature. There is so much development going on in these years, and it’s really exciting. (Language! Personality! Motor skills! Knowledge of the world!) But it’s also a lot for them to process. There are a lot of big feelings happening, and—here’s the good and bad news for you, Mom—these feelings tend to come out around the people your child is most comfortable with. If you’re seeing a lot of tantrums and emotions at home, consider it a weird compliment: Your child is totally comfortable letting all her feelings out around you. She trusts you to love her no matter what, and that’s a good thing.

But...it’s also exhausting. She isn’t a rational being yet, so she can’t really “listen” and process in the way we can as adults—her brain just isn’t ready for it. That’s why you’re probably seeing fits over small things that seem absurd to you (how dare you cut those strawberries lengthwise??). Toddlers long to control their universe, and there is just so much outside their control. What’s a parent to do? Here are some strategies to help you all cope:

Help her understand her feelings. Emotion coaching” can help her learn to name her feelings. This starts with being aware of your daughter’s feelings and talking about them with her. Using a calm voice, try narrating what’s going on for your child. “I know, it’s really hard when you want to go to the park but it’s raining outside.” Or, “It’s really frustrating when you want pasta for dinner but we’re having chicken.” Or simply, “You seem mad right now. It’s okay to be mad. I feel mad sometimes, too.” When she’s calm, it might help to read some books about feelings (here’s a good one) and talk about times she has felt these things. I also recommend checking out Big Little Feelings for more advice. While their full parenting courses are expensive, their blog and Instagram account offer useful tips for free.

Hold clear boundaries on destructive behaviors. When she hits you or throws something, she needs to know that’s absolutely not okay—but, related to the point above, whatever she is feeling in the moment is okay. So when she throws her favorite truck, try language like, “It’s okay to feel frustrated, but it isn’t okay to throw things. Let’s give this toy a break.” Take the truck away, and redirect her to something else. (You can also try offering a soft toy that she can throw and a place—like her bed—where it’s safe to do so.) With hitting, hold her hands and tell her firmly, “I’m not going to let you hit me because that hurts me.” It’s helpful to explain to her how the hitting affects you, rather than just telling her “no hitting” or “that’s not nice.” (And here’s a useful book about all the things hands can do other than hitting.)

Help her practice different kinds of responses. Try taking deep belly breaths with her, for example. Stroking a soft blanket or toy can help, so you might consider creating a “calming corner” with some comfort items and favorite books. Sesame Street’s Breathe, Think, Do activity offers a useful structure for helping her develop new skills of emotional regulation. (There’s also a free app available: Here it is in the Google Play and iPhone App stores.)

Set her up for success as much as possible. I often think of the expression ”kids do well when they can.” If you know your daughter struggles in certain circumstances, try to position her to do well in advance. If she has a hard time when she’s hungry or tired (don’t we all?), make sure she has a snack and a nap at roughly the same time every day. If she struggles with transitions, prepare her in advance by telling her what’s going to happen and then giving her multiple warnings so she isn’t surprised. Timers are often helpful tools for setting clear expectations: For example, if she struggles with sitting at the table to eat, set a timer and ask her to sit for just one minute per year of her age to start. Then be vocal with your praise when she does well.

Be realistic. Because she’s three. Tantrums happen. If you need to step away from her to manage your own emotions, do it and don’t feel guilty about it. She learns by watching you. Normalize feelings, including your own.

Oh, and regarding the permissive grandparents: I think it’s tempting to try to ask other caretakers to set the same boundaries that you do at home, but it’s hard to do in practice, especially when the caretakers are family, rather than a paid babysitter. Try being honest with Grandma and Grandpa about what you’re working on with your daughter at home, and ask them to help reinforce those behaviors, even if they’re not totally consistent about it. “We’re really focusing on ___,” and then giving clear examples of how you’re doing that, might help. And they’ll probably appreciate the permission to hold the line on not throwing or hitting, too. At the same time, if your daughter has a loving relationship with her grandparents, I wouldn’t worry too much about them spoiling her. She’s lucky to have them, and they’re lucky to have her, especially in these difficult times. It might be worth letting go of some of your expectations about how they manage her behavior when they’re in charge.

Above all, cut yourself some slack. These years are hard. (Sorry to tell you, but four-year-olds aren’t a walk in the park, either.) You’re doing great.

“If you’re seeing a lot of tantrums and emotions at home, consider it a weird compliment: Your child is totally comfortable letting all her feelings out around you. She trusts you to love her no matter what, and that’s a good thing.”