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Teaching "Strong Willed" 3 Year Old
the Value of Cooperating

QUESTION: I am the mother of a 3 year old and a 3 month old. My question is about my 3 yo. She is a wonderfully bright and outgoing little girl. The issue is with her behavior around me. She gets out of control with frustration. She gets so mad that she will throw herself down and start screaming at the top of her lungs. We continue to attribute it to anything external, i.e. changes in her life, the terrible twos, whatever.

We have watched this beautifully strong and independent child develop over the last several years. I very much want to help her to keep her strong will and assertiveness, but I also want to help her to use it to her advantage. (I have the same type of personality, but my spouse, also a woman, has the opposite!) I want to help her to set appropriate boundaries, but I am tired of always having to hassle over every little detail. Occasionally, I would like her to just say, "OK, mommy, I will put on my shoes." Is this too much to ask? Am I having unrealistic expectations again? I could appreciate some advice.

Your daughter's capacity for asserting her needs has no doubt blossomed with the loving support she has received from both of her parents. Your willingness to nurture and value her "strength of will" has likely resulted in a hardy sense of entitlement.

She is now having to share the spotlight with a new sibling at the same time that you are adjusting to increased responsibilities for your new family member. The combination of her increased needs and her parents' decreased availability naturally leaves a gap which she fills with heightened protestation!

The good news is that you have successfully nurtured her self-esteem. Now is the opportunity to teach her the value of nurturing others. She has learned to "speak up" for herself at an early age and this is just what she is doing! It will take a similarly determined effort on your part, to teach her the beauty and strength of cooperation. It will take a bit of time for her to accept that even her parents have needs that she must learn to accommodate. And that accommodating can be a "good" thing.

It is not too much for you to expect more cooperation from your daughter, and no doubt you need it right now! It is too much to expect it to occur instantly. Do not use her sibling adjustment as an "excuse" for non-cooperation, but realize that her strength and ability to oppose you may be the tools you nurtured in her to deal with stressful situations! Her first adjustment will be to express herself strongly to let you know what she wants. The next step is to teach her that she does not always get what she wants. Your responsibility as a parent lies in teaching her how to take care of her relationships as well as herself.

Set aside separate time for activities with her on a one-to-one basis. Let her know that she will get to be the center of your universe at a particular time each day. Reading children's books together about sharing and cooperation might help. Stories which depict other children (or animals) working through natural feelings of sibling jealousy may open the door for productive expression of these emotions. Separating her feelings from her actions however is key to her development at this time. Show her that you understand how she feels. You may even suggest she draw pictures of these feelings. But remain clear that her behavior needs to change.

Unlike previous messages, in which you may have nurtured empowerment based on her feelings, you are now telling her that she is not to always act on these feelings! Be clear about your expectations and your confidence in her ability as a three year old, to achieve the ability to meet specific behavioral goals. You are not giving her double messages here, you are helping her develop a new ability to empathize with the needs of others, which must sometimes come before her own.

Do not shy away from expressing your needs to her when you are not under stress. Explain the needs of Mommies who must care equally for two very special children now. Let her know you need her help to put her shoes on, pick up her toys after dinner or learn how to "wait patiently" for you when you are tending to her younger sibling. Express absolute confidence in your belief that she can learn "patience" and "cooperation". Just as she has learned the value of expressing her wants and needs, with your clear support, she will learn the values which will make it easier for her to develop and sustain healthy relationships.

Our job as parents is to teach our children to care about themselves and to care about others. Your daughter has developed a strong and healthy sense of her own needs. Now it is time for her to develop empathy for the needs of others and the impact she has on her relationships. Cooperation and empathy are necessary for her to achieve rewarding adult relationships. She will fare better learning limits from those who love her, rather than from strangers.

Your daughter's "spiritedness" is not merely independently generated. In fact, it is at least in part, a result of your own very strong beliefs, from which she has no doubt benefited. It is likely that you wanted to be certain that your little girl would have the ability to "stand up" for herself in the world. You may have found it difficult to do so in your own childhood or within the context of "femininity" in our culture. You are right to be concerned about the possibility of her "losing her voice", but you need not be. You have already done a great job of promoting her self expression which will always be the foundation of her personal power.

It is time now to teach her the pleasures that can be found in "yielding". She will benefit from developing an ability to accommodate the needs of others. And you will be available to her for many years to help her learn a healthy balance of "give" and "take" in a variety of situations and relationships. Remember that her capacity to love is based on her ability to "accommodate" as well as "assert". Under your clear guidance and role modeling, she will learn that the value of "cooperation" is also in her own best interests!

Wise words came from my 6 year old son when I was "teaching him patience". I admonished him for having "no patience". He corrected me by explaining that he did have patience, but he was not "using" it. I realized then, that I also needed to develop my ability to "use" more patience! Perhaps your daughter will join you in brainstorming ways she can "help" in producing the overall focus on teamwork that is now necessary in your expanded family.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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