Unmet Expectations

Twitter_PhotoIn June, I had Dr. Deborah Gilboa–aka Dr. G–here as a Sluiter Nation Recruit and to answer a question I had about Eddie’s Listening Ears.  She is back today by popular demand…mine.  I had another question that I thought maybe other  moms of kids Eddie’s age would have to.

This was my question:

Eddie is a very kind, smart boy. But he has a hard time handling anger and frustration. Instead of just getting pouty or huffy, he screams and throws things – and sometimes hits.  If we try to talk to him when he is like this, he just screams at us and will not use his words. When we send him to timeout for things like throwing toys, he screams the whole time. We ignore it and let him sit there for the 3 minutes (which he does). Is this a good consequence, or should we be doing something else?

And here is Dr. G’s answer:

Well, Sluiter Nation, this is a familiar story in the houses of three year olds everywhere.

I understand why you think he has a hard time handling anger and frustration, but I disagree. The fact that Eddie sits in time out the entire three minutes is incredibly impressive! He is demonstrating an amazing amount of self-control that he doesn’t get up, run away, or hit during that time.

So let’s talk about the development of a three year old and emotions.

He has transitioned out of the baby and young toddler age, and both you (his parents) and he have higher expectations for your interactions now. You expect him to ask, wait, listen, learn from the situation around him at any given time. He expects you to understand exactly what he wants and how he feels. And, he still expects his desires to be met right away.

What causes most kid melt downs at age 3?

  • Delayed gratification. We want our kids to wait to get something they want and they don’t want to wait.
  • “No.” This is actually harder for Eddie now than it was a year ago. Why? Because now he believes you. He understands that “No” means that he will not get the thing he wants, but he doesn’t understand (nor care about) “Why.”
  • “It’s not fair!” Three year olds (and 13 year olds) think “fair” means “equal.” So if you drink a soda, he should get to also. If his friend has 68 trains at his house and a Wii, he wants the same.

Why is it harder to handle 3 year old melt downs than it was a year or more ago?

  • He’s bigger! He is more coordinated, stronger and louder, and a little less cute when he totally loses it.
  • He regresses. Your three year old actually loses his listening and self-control skills that he had ten minutes ago, and you feel somewhat betrayed.
  • He can’t figure out what is happening. He can’t actually use his words, he doesn’t know why you don’t get what he needs or why he isn’t getting it (just like when he was a baby) during that meltdown.

So what can you do?

  • Exactly what you are doing is great. If he hits, time out. If he throws stuff, time out.
  • Separation. If he is not throwing or hitting, but needs to scream, he can choose to go do that in his room. This is not a punishment, just (like picking your nose) not something it is polite to do in front of other people. Screaming mean stuff, however, means a time out.
  • Mirror. This doesn’t work all the time, but occasionally can be really effective. If you catch Eddie at the beginning of a meltdown, you can mirror his words or emotion in short, declarative sentences (act like a mad 3 year old). Then, if he stops to stare at you, laugh a little. You might be able to break the cycle and find a more relaxed solution. This probably won’t work, though, if you were the one that made him mad in the first place.

Remember, before you know it he will be in a new developmental phase. He will handle “no” differently, and have some different challenge for you!

In the meantime, every time you put Eddie in time out (and ignore his freak out) you are teaching him he can trust you. You do what you say you’re going to do. You take care of him no matter how he behaves or what he says. He can count on you to keep your word.  You work with teenagers Kate, you know that they need, more than anything, to know that their parents will stand up and enforce consequences, right?

Thanks, Dr. G!  It’s good to hear we are on the right track.

So tell me friends, do your kids stay in time out?  Do they freak their freak while they are there?

Check out Dr. G’s website, twitter, and facebook for more great advice!

About Katie

Just a small town girl...wait no. That is a Journey song. Katie Sluiter is a small town girl, but she is far from living in a lonely world. She is a middle school English teacher, writer, mother, and wife. Life has thrown her a fair share of challenges, but her belief is that writing through them makes her stronger.


  1. PHEW this makes me feel so much better. I thought mine was the only one screaming through time-out. I used to try to do “time-in” but I coudln’t sit there with her screaming at me the whole time. She actually calms down better if I leave the room and come back after the 3 minutes or so. Then we talk it out because the heat of the meltdown has passed even if she’s still crying.

    Sometimes works, and sometimes I feel like I have my own tantrum. A story for another time :-/ Three is hard sometimes…but you already know that!

  2. *filing this bit of wisdom away*

    From a mom of a nearly 3-year old.

  3. This post makes me feel so much less inadequate than I felt last night (bedtime was rough). When my 3yo acts out like Eddie does, I try the same things (time out, alone time). I’m glad to know I’m at least trying to handle it in the right way because sometimes it feels like I’m doing it all wrong. Thanks to you and Dr. G for sharing. Your blog is always a great read.

  4. Most of the time my daughter will stay in time out. And yes, she screams much of the time. But sometimes she decides she wants to test me, and will get up repeatedly and try to run away. It is the.most.frustrating.thing. But, no matter how upset I am, I calmly pick her up and take her back to her spot. However many times it takes. I don’t yell. I usually don’t even speak. I just put her back and make it clear her time out is not over simply b/c she wants it to be.

    Separation works really well for us in certain situations. Like Dr. G said, it’s not punishment. It just gives SB time and space to work out her emotions. Sometimes she is just overwhelmed. She’s not acting out; she’s just trying to process things. I put her in her room and tell her to call for me when she has found her smile. She might start out crying or yelling, but eventually ends up playing in her room. And when she calls for me, I go up and give her a hug and we move on with our day.

    Letting her play alone in her room for a bit has also done wonders for her imagination!

    • Way to go! We want our children to learn (early and often) the value of separation. This will help them in many conflicts in their lives, not only the ones with us!

  5. I never had an issue with time outs. In fact, the problem was, neither did he. After about 10 seconds, his demeanor would change and he would begin to entertain himself.

    He’s 8 now, and we.are still searching for an effective punishment. Most he doesn’t care about after the first couple of minutes. He adapts and ceases to care about it. But that doesn’t change his behavior. It’s rough.

  6. THANK YOU for this. I really thought I was doing something wrong because my just-turned-4 year old screams through his timeouts. Actually he just screams. A lot. Its starting to get better, and Ive been sticking to my rules. My only question is what do I do when he wont apologize for his behavior? After time out I try to explain to him what he did and get him to apologize. About 7 times out of 10 he will, but when he doesnt do I leave him in timeout or let him get up? Id love your insight on this Dr G!

  7. Thanks for bringing Debbie back! She is so down to earth and practical with her advice!

  8. My 3.5 year old sobs her heart out during timeout, or even just alone time. “I’M SORRY, MAMA!” or “I WANT MY MOMMY!” are frequently heard. If it was her transgression, she goes to her room for timeout and regrouping. If WE are having a failure to communicate, I will often turn off the tv and go to my room for a few minutes. In order to resolve the conflict, we must be as clearheaded as possible. If one round doesn’t get us back to a happy place, it is highly likely that one (or both) of us needs food or a nap. She is a LOT like me… 😉

    However, figuring out how to convince my 9mo to not hit, bite, or pull her sister’s hair is an entirely different issue.

    • Erin, it sounds like you understand your 3 1/2 year old very well! For the 9 month old the answer is to firmly say “No!” (as much for the sake of the child whose hair she pulled) and then redirect, redirect, redirect! This is will pass!

  9. So what about when an 8 1/2 year old still does this?? He’s such an angry little boy but so sweet at times, too. He just can’t handle being told No or getting punished. It’s so frustrating.

    • Hi Amy,

      I’ve worked as an Elementary Para Professorial for about six years (some regular ed, some special ed), worked in a couple child care centers, and was raised by a preschool teacher.

      To me, it sounds like he is having trouble learning to properly express his anger, and understand that he can’t always have his way. I think the second will be easier to learn after he learns the first.

      Try finding an appropriate story, or writing one yourself with your son as the main character (and in the end the hero for succeeding) that talks about how to properly express anger. If You’re Angry And You Know It! by Cecily Kaiser and Cary Pillo is a fun one. Read it after he has an incident. Read it as a bed time story. Read it when he is bored. Have him read it in the car.

      If you decide to write one, he is old enough to help. Start with “When I am starting to get angry I can tell because I…” have him help you fill in the blank, try to get him to tell you the physical signs he can feel when he is getting mad. Then go on to “I can show others I am angry by…” have him tell you appropriate ways to show he is angry. The next page could be “Then we can talk about how to make things better.” Or more fair. End with something like “When I show my anger the right way, we can move on to something fun faster!” Then have him draw pictures illustrating each page. Add what you feel is appropriate, but try to stay away from the negative, don’t focus too much on what will happen if he does it wrong. You could add a page about how you can tell he is getting mad.

      Play games acting it out. Model the behavior, let him see how you are feeling, and how you are dealing with it (sometimes kids don’t learn to handle certain emotions because parents don’t show them how to do it, because they don’t want their kids to think they aren’t always in control). Kids need to see that grown ups have bad days, get mad, and are sad sometimes too. They learn from us how to deal with it, if they never see us angry, how are they supposed to see how to express it properly.

      If at some point he is making you angry and he hasn’t reached tantrum stage yet (is still listening), cross your arms, stamp your foot, frown, and say (in a voice that shows a little of your anger) “I am getting angry. I think we both need a break. I’m going to set the timer for 5 minutes (or whatever you feel is appropriate and with fit into what you are doing). I’m going to sit in this chair and read my book until it goes off. You need to leave me alone, so you may read or color at the table. We will talk about this when the timer has gone off.” You will have just shown him how to physically and verbally express his anger, and giving him a suggestion of how to deal with it. If you know he is getting mad and he ever asks for a break, try to respect it, even if you are pressed for time. Even a one or two minute break can make a difference. Teach him how a break is different from a time out. A break is something you choose to do when you are getting upset so you don’t lose control, a time out is something someone else makes you do because you lost control.

      I admit that I have gotten so upset a few times (as an adult) that I needed to hit and/or scream. Sometimes when feeling totally out of control and misunderstood, that is the only thing that helps. So I locked my self in my car to scream, or went to my bedroom and punched my pillow. I didn’t exactly feel better, but it helped me feel calmer and more ready to think rationally. If he throws things, hits, or screams set up a place that he can do those things safely and in an appropriate way. Sometimes you just have to burn off some of that anger. If he throws things, have him throw cotton balls or balloons (something light that won’t hurt anyone or anything), or have him shoot hoops until he is tired of it. Same with hitting and screaming, you can get a punching bag, or have him hit balloons or a pillow, or bang on a drum or cardboard box. If he is screaming put him in a room by himself to scream (bathrooms work great, they get a lot of feedback from the scream), go to another room, turn up some music, and have a piece of candy (unless you have done something wrong too, then take a time out ;).

      If the tantrum is caused by having to wait, try assigning numbers. Get clothes pins, number them with a marker clip them to the side of a container sitting on the counter. If you are doing something he needs to wait to finish put the “1” clothes pin beside that, then if he comes and wants something and you are in the middle of your task he can take the “2” clothes pin and put it on the bottom edge of his shirt and take a “Waiting activity” (such as a book or a puzzle) from the container to do while he is waiting for his turn.

      And keep in mind, not giving in to the tantrum, and teaching him a better way to deal with his anger will make him a better person.

      Good luck. And sorry about the length.

  10. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one concerned that my child turns to violence when frustration happens. I mean, I’ve done the research, and I know it stems from a feedback loop of not being able to communicate, and failing, and not being able to communicate that, and failing.

    Simply – it helps to know that I’m not the only one. I just wish there was an easy way to say “this is how to best go about proving delayed gratification works,” because the “wait one minute before I do x or y or z before I do this other thing for you” just causes a complete meltdown. Often.