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  Parenting Advice Column
  Subject: Three-year-old refuses to potty train/throws tantrums 

Question:

My daughter is three-years-old and will not potty-train. She throws tantrums about everything from getting dressed to not getting what she wants. I am at the end of my rope. We have tried everything - spanking, time out, sending her to her room, taking toys away - and still she acts the same, repeating the same bad behavior. What am I doing that I can't get her in control? I feel like the worst mother. I hold to my guns, I never back down after I say "no", so I don't understand this behavior. Please help.

Thanks,

Jill


Jan's Reply:

Hi Jill,

Good for you that you are looking for answers that work!  

The main thing is to "get it" that children behave as well as they are treated (just as we adults do). Punishment just doesn't work, and if you've been using punishment, there will be a time period for those negative effects to wear off. Trust your child! This can be difficult for any of us, because few adults have had the childhood experience of being trusted and understood. I will soon add an article to the site on alternatives to punishment. 

As to "never backing down", why not? "Never backing down", no matter what the circumstances, teaches a child that maintaining firm control over others is more important than gaining insight into another person's point of view, apologizing for mistakes, or showing compassion. We parents are only human. There are many mistakes we can make: we can misjudge the child's true intentions, we can misunderstand the circumstances, we can be acting out of personal immature needs, we can be overreacting due to current stressful events in our life, or we can simply underestimate the importance of a particular need the child has expressed. 

Children learn most of all from their parents' example. Surely it is more important to show an example of love, compassion, flexibility, and a mature willingness to apologize when appropriate, than it is to illustrate stubborn steadfastness. As the educator John Holt once said, the three most important things to learn in life are being able to say "I'm sorry", "I was wrong", and "I don't know." As parents, it is our responsibility to teach our children by example the ability to acknowledge, value, and express these important statements to others. 

It might help to rethink the goal here. Instead of wanting to "get her in control", it might be more humane and effective to get her into a mutually trusting relationship. Punishment will make this impossible, because it is human nature to feel anger and mistrust toward those who deliberately cause us to suffer, regardless of the situation or the parent's "good intentions". However, recognizing that you need a different approach is the first and largest step toward establishing a better, more loving and mutually trusting relationship with your child. 

Please read these articles: 

The Parenting Golden Rule: One Size Fits All

Children: Do We Get It?

See also these replies to previous letters: 

"Hitting and tantrums at preschool"

"Angry 4-year-old"

"Temper tantrums" 

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