Responding to Limit-Testing While Staying Sane

Asserting themselves. Testing. Pushing the limits. Driving us crazy. Call it what you will, all kids have occasional stages that feel like never-ending parent versus child power struggles. We’ve been in a phase of limit-testing lately at my house with my almost-three-year-old. Every day feels like opposite-day.

“I want a bagel for breakfast, please.”

“Ok, here’s your bagel!”

“I WANTED CEREAL! I changed my mind! Make this bagel go AWAY!”

This is how most of our days have gone lately. He wants his banana cut up. As soon as it’s cut, he wants it whole. He wants a glass of water, no, wait milk, no, wait water! Each day takes every ounce of patience that I have in me. Why is this happening?

Well, there are plenty of theories on this subject, and just as many theories of how to react to it effectively. I am of the mindset that at three, he is suddenly realizing that he isn’t just somebody’s baby…he’s a whole person who can make his own choices and decide things for himself. This is exciting. It is also terrifying. It’s like a tiny revolution is happening in his head. He’s basically Peter in Office Space, and I’m Jennifer Aniston:

…except unlike a cubicle worker in the early 1990s, he has very little life experience behind his choices, and he is acutely aware that he does need me for his very survival, regardless of how much he may want to ignore me. This creates a major mental conflict, and it’s all pretty overwhelming. So what’s a parent to do?

Well, truthfully, I’m not 100% sure. There are options. First, a parent could ignore the child’s words entirely and simply press on with whatever the original plan was. While this teaches the lesson that tantrums won’t get you what you want, it also teaches the lesson that you should expect to be ignored when asserting your opinion. Second, a parent could listen to the child’s wants and needs and honor them. I like the idea of my child feeling validated and respected, but I simply can’t get past the idea that he’s learning to manipulate me like a tiny terrorist. Third, a parent could carry on with whatever the plan was while telling the child that you hear them, but we have already made a choice and we are sticking to it. I tend to try for the third option. “I know you want cereal now, but I have already toasted the bagel, and we do not waste food.” No more discussion, no more rationalizing.

My hope is that this will lead to the end of this horrible phase period of growth in a timely manner, and my three year old will one day be a reasonable person instead of the emotional basket case he has been lately. I am trying to keep in mind that it’s not only stressful for me, but he is also feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by this stage of development. And hopefully, just like everything else, this too shall pass. Until then, I will be drowning my sorrows in this:

mini-eggs and wine

4 thoughts on “Responding to Limit-Testing While Staying Sane

  1. I like the third option the best too, but I admit that sometimes if I’m really frustrated I go with option #1…

    1. Me too. Then I feel awful for having done it! I don’t think it’s really *that* detrimental if it’s sometimes, because sometimes in life, you just have to DO things, you know? But I also tend toward option 1 when I want to practice 3 more. It is HARD.

    1. I find tantrums to be the hardest part of parenting. It’s a constant test of patience and reaction on your feet while being tired from lack of sleep/physical demands/work. It’s exhausting. I wish I tended toward over-explaining and rationalizing– I think I tend toward door number 1 too often…I really want door 2 to be my norm!

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