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Three-Year-Old Cries All the Time
Q: My 3-year-old boy tends to cry a lot -- usually at home and occasionally at day care, when some boy takes a toy away from him. I have looked in several books on how to address this issue but many seem to address only crying for babies. In the morning, we have to approach him very carefully so as not to upset him, or he will burst out in tears. When we ask him if he wants to go potty, he may either say OK or start to cry. Sometimes the slightest thing will set him off and we never know what that will be. Depending on his mood, he may just accept our response without crying. He cries so intensely and so loudly, that we can't understand what he is saying, so we have been putting him in time-out until he has stopped crying and is able to communicate to us. We tell him to stop crying (and many times yell this in order that he can hear our words over his loud cries) and that we will not listen to him when he is crying. I am sure that this is not the right way to approach his crying fits, but we just can't let him run his own life without any regard to our intentions. Please recommend some techniques for helping him to control his emotions. Thank you.
A: I applaud your efforts to help your son as this situation is a very frustrating one. Wouldn't it be nice if 3-year-old's were able to use words at all times when they are angry, frustrated, or frightened. Your son's crying (and exaggerated crying at that) has become almost a generalized response to all things that are uncomfortable for him to deal with. Truly, at three he does not have the available sophisticated emotional/social/verbal responses to react in ways that are much more easy for you to take.
I find it encouraging that you mention he cries only occasionally at day care and then usually when some child takes something from him. It appears that this generalized crying behavior occurs, ,for the most part with you at home. Time-outs are not going to accomplish much; they tend to be overused in situations like yours and no real alternatives really get developed. Yelling at him so you can be heard sounds rather futile also.
Right now, the three of you are locked in a behavioral pattern that needs to change; continuing your same responses and expecting different results from him is not logical. I think changes in his emotional responses will come far more readily if you change some of your responses. He is receiving considerable attention for his crying; this behavior has given him too much "power" and he doesn't know how to relinquish it. Unless he has some truly deep-seeded fear(s) that keep him on the verge of tears, he is having a difficult time breaking out of this secure crying pattern.
I would begin a change in your behavior pattern by focusing on two fronts. First, I would find many occasions when you are together with him or alone one-on-one to show your appreciation of him, physically and verbally; create situations where it's easy for you to praise him. Second, act in a rather paradoxical manner if he begins his crying. Here are a few paradoxical responses that can begin to break his rhythm: (1) When he begins to cry, ask him if he could cry louder right away because you have something nice you'd like to do with him and you don't want to wait too long to do it. (2) Tape record his crying and have the tape cued up so that when he begins you can press the button and hear him cry on tape; when he cries, play the tape and leave the room saying, "I wonder if we can tell which crying is (son's name) and which is the tape crying." (3) Designate a crying chair or cushion or spot on the couch or floor and say to him at odd times when he isn't crying, "You can go and cry there now if you want or you can do it later." All these suggestions may seem odd but I have used paradoxical techniques often in my practice with kids and seen their locked-in habits change. With changes from you he will change in time.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.