Terrible Twos? Threenager? What more does the developmental continuum have to throw at us?
Just when I thought I had safely navigated the storms of my two-year-old it seems a tsunami of burgeoning independence and inability to emotionally regulate was brewing.
It had almost got to the stage where I was able to look back fondly at the meltdowns. That one time – where he repeatedly whacked me with his strawberry mini-milk for not letting him take it on the soft play – hahahaha, oh how I laugh. It had culminated in me marching him out of ‘Kidz Kingdom’ writhing like a minion from hell under my arm. Oh those tricksy terrible twos. It had taken me a hot shower to wash out the strawberry stickiness from my matted locks and a stiff gin to deal with the humiliation.
But those days had passed. My son shone once more.
Lockdown had eased us in to being three with a false comfort blanket. He had the undivided attention of not one but both parents. He was surrounded by his things: his trains, his choice of TV, his snacks, his world around him lacking in social challenge. Being an only child in isolation did him no favours in the development of that most demanding skill – sharing.
I’m not saying his third year has been all blue skies and rays of sunshine. It wasn’t without its… moments. However his return to preschool and to the social arena, the gladiator ring that is the playground, has highlighted some behaviours that could be described as challenging.
To suddenly be required to share with other littles, who are similarly learning to ask nicely, share, use manners and not insist that everything is “mine, mine, mine!” is no mean feat. There have been instances of pushing, of angry meltdowns and of pure frustration culminating in wails audible from outer space.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not using covid as an excuse for poor behaviour. And in fact I’m not labelling it as poor behaviour. It’s age-appropriate behaviour. It’s symptomatic of an under-developed pre-frontal cortex. He doesn’t, aged three, have the brain development to self-regulate when he goes in to fight or flight mode.
The fact that it’s a phase doesn’t make it any less mortifying as a parent. It doesn’t stop me wanting to be swallowed up when I hear he’s had an outburst at preschool. And it doesn’t stop me losing my cool at home when we’ve had defiance, refusal and screams that would be better suited to a low-grade horror movie over something that to me would be inconsequential.
Despite knowing I’m not alone in experiencing this, I’ve felt alone. Despite knowing it’s a phase, I’ve beaten myself up for feeling like I have no control. I’m an ex-teacher… surely I can control the behaviour of one little person. Surely that’s what everyone else is thinking? Errr…. No. And, ummm no!
When I found myself sitting on the kitchen floor sobbing because I was tired and frankly had had enough of the mini dictator pushing my buttons I knew I had to pull myself together and come up with a plan.
Losing my marbles – literally
Firstly, I know the only way to up-skill a student is to model, model, model. It’s key to have clear expectations. This wasn’t going to be a quick-fix (the pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed until adulthood) but everyone singing from the same song sheet was what was needed.
I needed positive reinforcement. We’d got in to a negative spiral no matter how hard I had been trying to remain positive and calm. I’d tried sticker charts when I was working on potty training but they just weren’t motivational enough.
A few times he’d asked me “are you happy today mummy”. That broke my heart just a little. The impact of his meltdowns were taking their toll on my mood… or was my mood impacting on his behaviour? Chicken and egg. Either way, we needed to push for the positive. Our goal was decided: things that make mummy happy!
Sadly there’s no beach holidays in Bali or Cartier on the list but we tried to come up with things that were applicable to both home and preschool.
But what’s in it for me, I hear you cry, you savvy little sausage. Marbles! I may have lost mine over the preceding weeks but we created a jar for him with the aim being to fill it. And we all know points win prizes! What does a full jar of marbles get you? It was agreed that if he could fill the jar then we’d take a family trip to the ice-cream farm!
Now we all know that mixed messages only lead to confusion. So it was really important that I spoke with his early years provider to let them know what we were doing. Every setting has their own strategies and systems and I didn’t want to make extra work for anyone but I was really keen that the same messages were being reinforced by all adults.
I am so lucky to have a nurturing and supportive preschool team who were happy to work with me. I wanted the aims to help them as much as me, hence the ‘kind hands’, ‘following instructions’ and ‘blowing the angry away’ (yep… the only positive I’ve ever taken from Bing!). Marbles rolling around a preschool setting screams health and safety nightmare but his key worker has been amazingly supportive, sending me home stickers that he can swap for marbles.
Scores on the door
The proof is in the proverbial pudding. How has it gone?
He’s filled his marble jar four times over. This has scored him a trip to the ice cream farm, a rollercoaster train, a crabby crab monster machine and now Stripes from Blaze.
He has willingly sat on the toilet on numerous occasions to do a “massive poopy”. This is nothing short of monumental after eleven months of potty training.
He is still having his maximum decibel wailing fits but he’s quicker to calm down and will listen.
He has started taking his plate out to the kitchen after attempting more of what I put on his plate (this may have something to do with ice lolly leverage)
The things I was battling daily that were leading to stand-offs (get dressed, brush your teeth, get out the bath, have a wee before we leave the house etc etc.) are less of a battle. I’m still like a stuck record but there is more motivation to follow instructions.
Things have been calmer. The storm is subsiding.
Progress not Perfection
I won’t lie, I’m really proud of my little man. He’s done so well and although there’s still work to be done, he’s show a willingness to try and pride every time he drops another marble in the jar.
There’s something about the sound of them clinking together. The feel and weight of them in your hand. The physical act of dropping them in the jar. It really has been a tangible and concrete recognition of him demonstrating positive behaviour.
I know they’re not solely responsible. But it’s been easy to be consistent. It’s been flexible when things have changed e.g. going away to visit family for the first time in 11 months, moving from a cot to a bed. And it’s given me positives to work with, shifting the dynamic between us.
So… the terrible twos: done. The threenager: tamed. Please tell me it’s just plain sailing from here on in? Who am I kidding, right?
What’s been your most challenging phase? What have I got to come? Any other strategies that have worked for you?