Last Updated on February 26, 2024


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.

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  1. My grandson has been living with us since his birth. For brevity sake I will just give you the highlights. We have had temporary custody of Taylor from age 2. He has not seen his parents since he was 2 1/2 years old. He does remember them and the few times he has asked about them we always say that they love him but they cannot take care of him. He started calling us mommy and daddy about 2 1/2 years ago; he asked if he could call us that and we told him ‘yes’; that we love him, we take care of him and we provide for him so we are his parents. On May 7th, we will finalize the adoption. Taylor has always been such a sweet & extremely bright child yet very strong-willed and very verbal. We are a Christian family and he has been raised in our Church; knowing about God and Jesus. The past several weeks we have been having a very difficult time at pre-school; being very physical towards his friends by kicking, hitting, spitting; not listening to his teacher and being very argumentative. Time-outs do not work. We have spanked him always explaining why he is getting spanked and reassuring him that we love him. We have taken away privileges such as watching his favorite movies, treats, etc. I am at my wits end. I don’t know what we need to do. Can you give me some advice? Thank you.

  2. Janel Breitenstein says:

    Pam, my heart hurts for you. My deep congratulations on Taylor’s adoption and on your continued efforts toward raising him in the instruction of the Lord. It sounds like you are doing a lot of things RIGHT. I’ll try to keep my words few so that sin will be absent (!), but I can’t promise that it will be “new” advice–and of course it’s from a mom, not a professional!
    The verse that comes to mind:
    Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted… If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? … He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. (Hebrews 12:3,8-9,10b)
    You’re on such a long, hard road! And because of Taylor’s special position as an adopted child, he may have particular needs to be addressed (at the risk of sounding biased, FamilyLife’s Hope for Orphans [] may have very helpful resources dealing with those). But oddly enough, I wrote this post about a month ago, and when I reread it, was reminded of how hard it was then…and is not now. After a very long “two” phase, by God’s grace my middle has begun to understand who’s in charge (i.e. not him).
    Keep it up, Pam. At the risk of sounding trite (!), the battle is His, and He’ll give you what you need for life and godliness, (2 Peter 1:3), the grace you need for each day (Lamentations 3:22-24).
    Some more articles to check out: