He was doing that distinctive wiggle on his chair, and he’d been doing it for 10 minutes. Rather than another last-minute dash upstairs, I hefted his still-yelling, now crying and squirming body, carting him physically to the restroom. Then it was “I DON’T WANT TO GO!” while he’s doing his business, and while we’re washing his hands, and seriously, for five minutes afterward. And certainly during time-out (or worse). Ah, three-year-old logic. This was one of our milder incidents, and it wasn’t isolated, or short-lived, either. Lately our encounters can take 20-30 minutes. Then we’re both worn out.

Do you have a problem child right now?

Mine go in seasons. Right now my middle child is making me tear my hair out — because he’s newly three years old, not quite out of two’s Big Question: Who’s really in charge here? The battle is daily, even hourly. At the end of the day I’m fried. But my youngest (for now) is watching him and soon entering two herself, so I’m getting signals she’s warming up.

Speaking of warming up, I can tell when the middle one is warming up to a fit, whether that’s in a nice store, or in front of his grandparents, or just because. My attempt is to deal with it swiftly, authoritatively, and without losing my own cool or some fruits of the Spirit in the sheer madness and occasional embarrassment of it all. The latter is often the biggest challenge.

But here are some things I’ve had to remind myself of, or just learn:

  1. In all of my attempts to correct behavior, heart change will be the lasting, meaningful change. He’s not one of Pavlov’s dogs, even though I do feel like consequences are part of the avenue to heart change. Yet I have to equip him to make the right decisions when no one sees (or punishes).
  2. If it’s heart change I want, I have to continue to not only seek the “how” of fixing the problem, I need to seek the Whom. For me, praying through the first few chapters of Proverbs, asking God to fill this child with wisdom and cause him to love it and seek it, has helped me continue to see that God’s grace will be what ultimately changes his heart.
  3. And for that matter, this trial my son is going through is nearly as much about his parents’ hearts as it is about the his! (Sacred Parenting by Gary Thomas is a great book to check out on this idea.) God has purposes for our whole family in conflict, and it’s an opportunity to glorify Him, truly love others, and become more like Him. God orchestrated this for my life as much as He did for my son’s.
  4. I’m having to ask myself, am I setting this kid up to fail? For me, that can look like escalating the situation with my own emotion, choosing a battle that doesn’t need to be one, or not meeting some of his or my basic needs of sleep or hunger. It doesn’t excuse my child’s sin.
  5. When my middle son starts challenging me, my older son covers his ears and shuts his eyes; he knows there’s about to be an altercation. I’m making special efforts to make sure my middle isn’t branded as the black sheep, both in my mind and in the way I act. I mean, I don’t have a rebel, I have a three-year-old! If he were older, I’d probably need to allow my other kids to talk out their own frustrations or thoughts on the matter (and I’m still doing that to a small degree). I’m just realizing that they are watching how I am loving him, and often taking their cues. I am trying to praise him in front of the family, and give him big hugs and silly moments that make us all laugh.
  6. I was also reminded that I am able to discipline him effectively because I have rapport with him. That, and the Holy Spirit, give power to my discipline. And I want him to hear my love louder than my discipline – actually, when I discipline. After all, that’s how and why God disciplines me. So I guess I am trying to make extra displays of love right now, reminding him of his deep worth to me considering he might interpret discipline as a withdrawal of his value. Hopefully not if I discipline well, but even in the rare instances that I am disciplining without fault, minds are sinful and leap to making incorrect judgments.

I would love your feedback, because pretty much all kids go though difficult stages. May God give us each the grace to love our kids well in these times.