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Q: I have a 3-year-old who will not listen to anything I say. I've tried everything and always end up getting both of us upset. He has difficulty following any direction, and I'm concerned that he will have a great deal of difficulty when he starts preschool.
A: It may not seem like it, but your child is working on becoming more independent and establishing control of his environment. He is testing you at every turn, and your job is to keep him safe and help him learn self-control and independence.
First, try to think about all the things he does that upsets you. Then choose the ones that you feel most strongly about. If it's a matter of him picking what shirt to wear, let him make that choice. If, on the other hand, he won't stay in his car seat, then ensure him that the car will not go until he's in the seat.
Be sure to praise him a lot if he does follow your direction. At the end of the day, talk again about what behaviors displeased you and ask again how you might help him follow directions better tomorrow. Be sure to remind him how much you love him.
Regarding your concern about preschool, children often behave better outside of their home and with a different authority figure. Toddlers are not quite as secure in new settings, and don't know exactly how another adult might respond to them. Finally, be sure to keep in close contact with your child's preschool teacher about his progress. —Linda Jonides, P.N.P.
Q: My 24-month-old daughter has started to hide in the closet, but no longer is it just for play. In the morning she goes there when I want to change her, and she cries if I try to open the door. Do you think I should take this seriously? I'm a working mom and she has started to go to day care. She is also recovering from the stomach flu, and we have resumed the "cry it out" technique in her sleep routine.
A: It sounds as if there's been a lot of stress in your daughter's life recently -- and in yours, as well!
First of all, I wouldn't worry too much about the hiding. It's probably a sign that your daughter is feeling overwhelmed. An illness can disrupt a child's sleep pattern, as can starting at a new childcare center.
Children this age are also extremely sensitive to their parents' emotions. If you're feeling frazzled, she'll sense your tension and become more anxious herself. This makes the cycle grow worse from day-to-day.
Probably the best thing you can do is spend some extra time with your daughter each day in calm, soothing situations. Have her take a bath as part of her bedtime ritual, perhaps. Spend time cuddling with her as you read her a story. Stroke her hair if she finds that calming. Once she feels more relaxed around you, she'll have less of a need to hide in the closet. —Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D.
Q: My middle child, age 4, seems to want all my attention. She takes toys from both her younger and older siblings. She has temper tantrums and knows how to press all my buttons. How do my husband and I stop this from happening?
A: This sounds frustrating, not just for you and your husband, but for all your children. It's normal for a preschooler to do all of the things you're describing. Most of the problems will go away with time. Meanwhile, there are a few things you can do.
Spend some extra time each day with your middle child. This should be time when you're completely hers and won't be distracted by anything else. (This is a good idea for each of your children, but is especially important for the middle one right now.)
Also, whenever possible, ignore her behaviors that you don't like and pay extra attention to her behaviors that you do like. In other words, catch her being good instead of being bad. This will help learn that she can get more attention from you for being good than for misbehaving. —Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D.
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