Q: About a year ago, my husband and I underwent a major move with our three-year-old. Six months later, I gave birth to twins. Needless to say, our three-year-old is feeling deprived of attention and has become a real pain to live with. She has become very disruptive and disobedient. Do transitions of this sort require changes in one’s parenting approach?
A: First, you’re making the very common mistake of superimposing a psychological interpretation onto your daughter’s behavior. Because the psychological point of view—which, by the way, can never be verified—induces self-doubt and confusion, it paralyzes a parent’s ability to respond to a child’s misbehavior authoritatively.
If your daughter is simply being disruptive (the objective, verifiable point of view), that’s one thing. But if her disruptions are an attempt to compensate for having been displaced by the sudden, inexplicable arrival of two siblings (the psychological point of view), that’s quite another. Disruptive behavior in a child this age merits firm discipline; but if her behavior is the result of psychological turmoil, what do you do? Is she a perpetrator or a victim? Should you punish or sympathize?
The fact is, you don’t know whether she would be behaving this way or even worse if the twins had not come along when they did. Infants require a lot of attention. Beginning around a child’s second birthday, parents need to begin slowly withdrawing attention and transferring responsibility from parent to child for such things as getting snacks and solving minor problems. That’s when the process of helping a child learn to stand on her own two feet begins. If a child continues to bask in parental attention past her third birthday, he or she can become addicted to being the center of attention, and disruptive, attention-seeking behavior is the result.
As for a major move thrown into the mix, the word transition has generated much ado over relatively little. Children are very flexible. They adapt to major life changes far more easily than adults do. Perhaps the family move has been difficult for you, and you assume that your child shares your discomfort. In all likelihood, the move bears no significance to the issue at all.
The first step toward solving the problem is for you to stop analyzing your daughter’s misbehavior and assigning it unverifiable causes. Isolate the behavior problem in your thinking and deal with it. Begin by choosing one misbehavior that you can clearly define, such as your daughter saying no when you tell her to do something.
Using a magnetic clip, affix three “tickets” (2 x 5 pieces of colored construction paper) to the refrigerator door. Every time your daughter refuses to obey an instruction, say, “Telling me ‘No!’ means you lose a ticket and have to sit in time-out for ten minutes.” If she refuses to sit, simply take another ticket and move on. Begin every day with three tickets (and no more than five). When they’re all gone, little Miss Too Big for Her Britches must spend the rest of the day in her room and go to bed early. And no, this is not too severe for a child who is approaching her fourth birthday.
If you are consistent, I predict that she will spend most of several days in her room, at which time you will begin seeing a slow but sure change for the better in her ability to fit into her britches.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.