My youngest daughter Jamie is three. She is funny, charming and has the vocabulary of a thirty-year-old, which I think developed in order to keep up with her three older sisters. Being number four in the family takes creativity to get noticed. She has a baby face, which makes her seem younger than she is, although three is still so little. Her sisters have given her the nickname of “puffy cheeks.” Jamie has a serious, stoic look in most everything she does, which makes it a challenge not to giggle when you see her, especially with her “puffy cheeks.”
Jamie had been my go-to child. Loving, affectionate, easy-going and agreeable to do most anything and go almost anywhere. On days when my tweens are moody and complaining about almost everything and my six-year-old is non-stop energy from dawn to dusk, I can count on Jamie for hugs, kisses and an easy disposition.
I was smug in the fall, talking to my friend about how Jamie is so pleasant and easy. I spoke too soon. One day in October, Jamie changed. Jamie crossed the threshold into a new phase of child development. She began to develop interests, opinions and preferences.
Strong opinions, very strong opinions.
Jamie has ideas about how she wants her day to go. She has no perception of time or practicality. She wants to wear a bathing suit to school, shoes on the wrong feet and eat candy for breakfast. Dinner-time has become a stressful event, because she likes nothing I prepare and inevitability will fall from her chair to the floor within minutes of starting dinner. My husband and I secretly count how many seconds it takes for her to be on the floor during dinner.
Five, four, three, two and one; and she is down, on the floor.
Sometimes humor is the only way to cope. Of course, I work very hard not to laugh at her; not only does it make her tantrums worse, it hurts her, which is the last thing I want to do. So I have learned to bite the inside of my cheek to stave off laughing. Her sisters can’t help to laugh because they can’t believe their sister is going to pieces over a spec of pepper on her chicken, having to wash her hands after going to the bathroom and wanting to wear the same denim leggings, pink unicorn shirt and ruby-red boots every day, even when the clothes are dirty and the boots are falling apart.
I remind them they were once three.
I remind myself all of things I know about child development and three-year olds. Being three means having limited choices over your day and no sense of time, no abstract thinking and limited impulse control. Three is a very loving, curious and a verbal time of expressing emotions thoughts and preferences. It also is a very self-focused time.
What I feel, you feel. What I see, you see. What I want, you want.
When Jamie wants something, she wants it now. If she has to wait, she bursts into tears, drops to the ground, rolls on the floor. My sweet Jamie seems to have these outbursts all day. I thought something was wrong with my health one day when I could barely stay awake, and it was only 4pm. Then a light bulb went off-for the past two weeks I was spending most of my day managing Jamie’s moodiness, frustration and underdeveloped impulse control. I decided to count how many times Jamie had these outbursts. By her bedtime the next day, I counted sixteen irrational, impulsive and unpredictable outbursts, sometimes lasting a few seconds until she gained her composure, others lasting five to seven and upwards of twenty minutes.
I went to bed at 8: 30 pm that night. I was exhausted.
The next morning, I went for an early morning workout and came home refreshed and ready to start the morning chaos of getting three of my four children out to school. One by one they boarded the bus. The house was quiet as I finished my second cup of coffee. Guilt set in. Jamie was still sleeping. I should get her up-but I cannot do this again. The battles, the tantrums, and feelings of frustration and exhaustion. Before opening her bedroom door, holding the door knob, I took a deep breath.
Today will be different; Jamie will have a great day. She will not meltdown over wearing socks or a hat, she will eat her breakfast without a battle, she will buckle herself into her car seat in a timely way and play quietly when I make dinner.
Today I will have my Jamie back.
Instead, tears and tantrums at breakfast when the butter on the toast did not melt completely, getting dressed out of her pajamas into clothes was like wrestling a baby alligator, and not being able to walk the entire half-tire curb at her preschool caused a big meltdown. All before lunchtime.
Losing the predictable child I knew happened overnight, as quickly as turning on a switch. I have no idea when it will end. Even though Jamie is my fourth, I have learned that every child is different. I am not alarmed with her behavior, because I know she will eventually grow out of this phase and into another phase of development. I am just tired of the battles, the output of energy and moments of not enjoying the time with my child.
Jamie and her development teach me something about myself as a person and as a mother. Some days I handle it better, with compassion, understanding and perspective. Other days, my mood is inevitably tied to Jamie’s day-if she’s having a bad day, so am I. If she is in a good mood, so am I. On the days when I take care of myself with more intention, I can easily see her behavior in a detached yet loving way. I cope more effectively on days I take care of myself.
Her behavior is not personal to me; it is part of her development.
I repeat the mantra: It’s not persona to me; this too shall pass. I am hopeful she will grow out of this phase soon. Until then, I am reminded how hard it can be to grow up, physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively. She is doing what three-year-olds do, learning to discover who she is, explore the world and become more independent.
Jamie reminds me that as she grows up, so to do I as her mother.
How does your understanding of child development influence how you cope with the challenges of parenting? If you would like to read more about child development from Toddlers to Teens, please go here.
© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2014