Help! My daughter is driving my wife and me insane!
August 16, 2005 7:12 AM   Subscribe

ParentFilter: What do you do about an almost-three-year-old girl who screams excessively?

My daughter will turn 3 in October. She's a great kid about 70% of the time, and smart and adorable, and my wife and I love her more than life. There are two (probably related) aspects of her behavior we would very much like to change, however.

She has serious sleep issues. She yells and screams and fights going to sleep in as many ways as she can think of. She will yell for "Mommy!" at the top of her little lungs, but when one of us goes in, she doesn't know what she actually wanted in the first place. We've tried letting her yell until she falls asleep, figuring she's just looking for attention, and sometimes that works, but sometimes it gets to the point where we fear she'll either make herself hoarse or wake up her older brother (who's four-and-a-half). She will also wake up in the middle of the night, as everyone of all ages does, but instead of just relaxing and going back to sleep she immediately starts screaming. She doesn't need anything, but she'll scream her head off just because she's awake. Needless to say, this does not contribute to a restful sleep for my wife or me (especially my wife, who's a lighter sleeper than I am anyway).

She is also one of the most stubborn children I have ever met. Try to brush her hair, or get her dressed when she doesn't want to get dressed, or tell her she needs to eat more at dinner so she doesn't wake up hungry in the middle of the night, and nine times out of ten you'll precipitate a screaming tantrum the likes of which you wouldn't believe. This morning she threw a major tantrum while my wife was getting her dressed, and ended up knocking stuff off her dresser and kicking my wife a few times. She got herself so worked up that she couldn't calm down without my help (my wife also needed some calming down, but people over 30 usually require less help in that department). It's not as though we give in to her when she throws these tantrums, ever, so we don't know why she keeps throwing them. Our son went through a phase where he threw a lot of tantrums (and he still throws the occasional one), but he realized pretty quickly that we wouldn't do what he wanted us to do just because he was getting so upset, and changed his behavior as a result. Our daughter isn't doing this, and it has us seriously worried.

Please help save our sanity! Any constructive suggestion is welcome.
posted by cerebus19 to Human Relations (23 answers total)
Get her an evaluation for Sensory Integration Disorder; she sounds like my daughter was before she had physical and developmental therapy (we couldn't get ours to wear clothes, go to bed, stay in bed, and when she melted down, she pounded her head- and kept pounding her head, until she had to be physically restrained.) In the meantime, get a copy of The Out of Sync Child and The Out of Sync Child Has Fun- they are full of advice and proprioception exercises that might help.
posted by headspace at 7:25 AM on August 16, 2005

(Also, the bedtime issue specifically: we resolved our daughter's by creating a strict routine before bed- always a bath at X time, always a story read by Y, always one last kiss from Z, then goodnight- which helped get her *into* bed, but what helped keep her there was the weighted blanket. These blankets give SID kids the sense that they are fixed in place and not just floating around, completely out of control. We used a very heavy afghan lined with fleece for comfort rather than buying one like in the link there, but if you're not handy with sewing, buying one may be easier.)
posted by headspace at 7:30 AM on August 16, 2005

Age three has to be the most frustrating time for a kid, the ability to know what they want, without the ability to express it.
Here's the advice that helped me raise two willful and determined kids into delightful and productive adults.
1) Encourage the traits in your children that you admire in adults. Curiosity, determination, a sense of humor, a sense of fairness, sensitivity, all the things that can lead to battles and frustration with your kids are the things you love in a coworker or a friend.
2) This is not the finished product. (This advice will be especially helpful when you have teenagers.)
3) Reward what you want to encourage, and ignore what you want to discourage. For kids oftentimes, any reaction is viewed as reward, and they're masters at sussing out cause and effect.
Those are the general suggestions. For bedtime specifics, let her brother know that you are going to be working on bedtime for sis, so if he wakes up to her screaming he won't freak out. Then, stick to your guns. Turn out the light, kiss her goodnight, then close her bedroom door and let her scream herself to sleep. It'll take four or five days, but she'll eventually accept that it's bedtime and she needs to sleep.
My daughter had Night Terrors, which was terrifying at first, but with understanding became an inconvenience.
posted by Floydd at 7:43 AM on August 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

Why not let her sleep with you guys?
posted by delmoi at 7:49 AM on August 16, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far.

headspace: That's an interesting idea that we haven't considered. From Googling SID, I don't think she's got it, because she's never had any problems with light or sound, but it might be worth asking her pediatrician about it.

Floydd: I appreciate the advice, but we already try to do all of the things you mention. Our son had night terrors very frequently when he was smaller, so we're very familiar with them, but that doesn't seem to be what's bothering our daughter. Our concern regarding her waking up her brother is mostly that, because he's a really sensitive kid, he'll want to help her feel better, and will try to do so, which will only result in perpetuating her behavior. Plus, he'll be tired the next day from having lost sleep.

delmoi: Our kids both know that they don't sleep with us unless they're sick. If we start letting her sleep with us just because she wants to, she's going to want to every night. And then we'll have to let her brother sleep with us, too, or be unfair to him.
posted by cerebus19 at 8:07 AM on August 16, 2005

Sounds like her attitude needs shaping. If she's stubborn, then this will be almost impossible. If you are not 100% consistent, and I don't mean 99%, you will fail. My younger brother was like this, and my parent not being the most consistent would let him exploit the kinks in their arguments. Grown up now he's a jerk. I bet if he learned boundaries as a kid he would be more responsible now.
posted by parallax7d at 8:38 AM on August 16, 2005

The flippant answer is let the almost three year old become an almost four year old and things will resolve themselves, the things you describe are identical to what my twin daughters went through, time sorted it out.
posted by Keith Talent at 8:40 AM on August 16, 2005

We just got a copy of The Sensory Sensitive Child from our local library and it cover this topic well. Whether your child has sensory integration problems or not, it is an elightenling look at why some children behave the way they do.

From the two-paragraph description, it sounds like it could be a possibility. Note that integration disorders are not all-or-nothing. Most kids will have various elements of it. I would suggest reading the book as it was a real eye-opener for us.

My son also had a hard time going to sleep when he was 2 or so, but now he falls asleep so fast it worries me at times.

What helped him was me falling asleep with him. He didn't sleep with us, per se, but at night time I got into his bed with him, lay down and fell asleep myself. Some nights I had to put my arm over him to keep him from getting up, although I kind of disguised it as a cuddle. I think it took a few months (maybe several) of this, but eventually he got used to falling asleep and didn't need any help. He falls asleep in about five minutes every night, even if his sister is screaming up a storm.

My son is 7 now and while he is also a great kid, when he has a big meltdown he also has trouble calming down. Your description of your daughter sounds a lot like my son a few days ago.

Kids develop differently and a lot of these behaviours are (in part) developmental. My mantra has always been "no one I knew in university wasn't potty trained" - things may seem frustrating at times, but the odds are that your child will grow out of their undesirable behaviour with a little support.

Anyway, you're not alone. The problem will get better eventually. Good luck!
posted by GuyZero at 8:51 AM on August 16, 2005

Oh, also... in TSSC the author describes her own child's problems. She got very little insight from doctors or psychologists - even though she's a child psychologist herself. When she took her kids to an occupational therapist (OT) she was totally surprised by a whole parallel model of child development and disorders.

Sad but true, but a pediatrician may shrug where an OT has a lot to say. Not that I want to get down on pediatricians; just don't be surprised if he/she isn't familiar with the concept.
posted by GuyZero at 8:55 AM on August 16, 2005

Best answer: It SOUNDS like at some point she learned that this kind of behavior works. And by "works" I may not mean that she gets exactly what she wants, but perhaps manages to postpone the inevitable/gets some modicum of attention. I don't mean to make it sound like it's "your fault", I've got 3 kids and the first one was a freaking nightmare the first 3 years of his life. You've got to just hold steady and steadfast and unwavering in certain situations. Bedtime has got to be one of those, I know way too many parents who's toddlers completely control the night ritual and the family is a wreck half the time because of it.

The tantrums are very hard, believe me I know. It can be scary and daunting. You've got to stay firm. If this continues to not get better I'd seek some therapy if I were you. It might just be a mid-point between toddlerdom and the fully communicative sentient being she will transform into around age 4 creating frustration in her. Good luck!
posted by glenwood at 8:56 AM on August 16, 2005

Dr Tanya Byron works wonders with this kind of problem on her TV show "Little Angels". You might try some of her tips. The time out one does seem to be amazingly effective from what I have seen on the show. It seems like she has a book out as well which I bet would be worth reading.
posted by teleskiving at 8:56 AM on August 16, 2005

I've gotten good results using a "sticker chart" in these types of situations (turns out that's one of the tips in teleskiving's link as well). Basically, you draw a grid on a piece of paper (and decorate the paper so that it looks fancy and appealing to a 3-year-old), and every time she goes to bed without throwing a fit, the next morning she gets to put a sticker in one of the cells of the grid. If filling the grid isn't motivating enough, you can tell her she'll get a treat when the grid is full. My daughter is now 5, and the sticker charts still work like a charm.
posted by nixxon at 9:20 AM on August 16, 2005

Perhaps The Omnipotent Child has some advice, too. Especially if this is a learned behaviour, not one generated by a neural disorder.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:39 AM on August 16, 2005

I have one totally compliant and one totally non-compliant kid. In my experience, what works with one will not work with the other. For the sensitive, stubborn one, it just took waiting it out, as another commenter said here. Two books were comforting during a particularly rough 3-year-old time: the book "Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy" and "Raising Your Spirited Child." I read the second one on the advice of a friend, thinking for sure I would be reading about her bouncing-off-the-wall, can't-sit-still kid, but was surprised to recognize my own child in some of the descriptions of the sensitive, "spirited" child.

Basically, what I learned was to pick my battles, and that in a battle of wills, I was not going to be the victor. It's very easy for other people to spout the "show her who's boss!" stuff and say "who's the parent, here?" In fact, if I only had to parent my easy-going, compliant child and I didn't have the other one, I'd probably be one of those people who pass judgment on other parents whose kids aren't as easy. What worked for us was NOT me being the tough guy and having a battle of wills every night. It was compromise, and patience, and really trying to get to the underneath part of what my kid was trying to express in these freakouts.

For instance, the agonizing meltdowns over too-tight shoes or shirts with sleeves just a hair too long -- often these happened just before leaving for preschool, and after a while I realized it wasn't just about issues of being comfortable in clothes, it was also (and maybe more) about being stressed out about the leaving the house/going to school transition in general. I began working to help my kid cope with what I realized were stressful transitions, and I also tried to pre-empt them, or at least give a heads-up about them, as much as possible.

With bedtime, this meant starting at least an HOUR before bedtime saying, "You know, in a little while, we're going to be going to bed." And then piping up with reminders about bedtime's imminent arrival as we went through our bedtime routine and got closer and closer to lights-out. Also, what worked for us was me laying there during the falling asleep time. This helped calm things down.

With other things, especially the meltdowns/freakouts around transition/change (which, when they happened just as we're about to leave, totally triggered all of my I-don't-like-to-be-late anxiety), I realized my reactions were contributing to an awful cycle of freakout - parental anger/frustration - more freakout - more parental anger that didn't help any of us feel better. So I tried to make an effort to pre-empt, and rather than get angry at my kid for not being able to be "normal" and just leave the freaking house without a tantrum, find a way to make the scary experience a positive one.

One way I did this was, before we'd begin the awful socks and shoes process, I would let my kid hold something of mine that was "special" -- we have these rocks with words on them and that my kid had her eye on, so I told her I had something really special for her that would help her stay calm. We looked at the rocks together and picked out one with a word she liked, and we talked about taking deep breaths and holding on tight to a special, special rock while I helped her get her socks and shoes on. Mostly, this was a way to help her focus her anxiety on something external; but it was also a way to help her cope with her temperament, empower her to find a way to deal with the world around her, and, most importantly, reward her instead of punish her. This was also all with the understanding that if there was any kicking or freaking out or tantruming, the rock would have to go back to its special place, because the rock was special and you have to respect it, etc. etc. Most of the time this worked very well. (Note that giving a two- or three-year-old a rock is not the best solution for all kids, but it's one of the things I remember vividly that worked for us in a tough time.)

This is getting long, so I'll stop here...
posted by youarejustalittleant at 10:47 AM on August 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm going to chime in and agree with Keith Talent. Tantrums are pretty age-appropriate. We recently went through the same thing with my 3 yo daughter and it seems to have gotten better with time.

Putting her in "time out" never seemed to work for us. Just another battle of wills as she kept getting up and I kept making her sit back down. What did work was putting one of her favorite toys in "time out." Just grab it and stick it on top of the fridge.

The other thing that seemed to work at night/nap time was simply saying, "Do you have everything you need? We're going to be down in the family room and we won't be able to hear you if you call." She's a practical kid and this made sense to her. No use yelling if no one can hear.

In the quiet times, when she wasn't worked up, we'd go through what happened. "Why is the tugboat in time out? Did throwing a fit get you what you wanted? Does it EVER?" And we'd practice taking a deep breath and calming down. I didn't think any of that got through, but recently she's started stopping herself and saying, "I think I need to take a deep breath and calm down." It doesn't always work, but she's trying.
posted by jrossi4r at 10:58 AM on August 16, 2005

Assuming she is a healthy child, I have some advice. My older son (I have two boys 3 and 4), was an absolute nightmare to put to bed when he was 2-3 years old. She sounds a lot like my son, very very stubborn.

What worked for me was routine. His mother and I created a big poster sized chart with times, and pictures of what the clock looked like at that time, and what activities were going to occur at those times. We hung a clock next to the poster.

6:30 Dinner (picture of food)
7:30 Bath (picture of bathtub)
8:15 Stories
9:00 Bedtime

And we followed this schedule religiously for 4-6 months,
and I mean RELIGIOUSLY. And it was very very rough at first. But no deviations. This was a year and a half ago. And now we still follow this schedule, but it's just a rough outline. And we can have movie nights and other things, which we never did when we started this. Luckily my younger son is a dream to put to sleep. Both boys go to bed easy.

Try not to get mad, just when she/he is yelling just walk into the bedroom and say 'No talking', you can't make your child go to sleep, but you can tell them to be quiet. Don't listen to what they have to say, just walk in say 'No talking' and walk out. If they're out of bed, put them back in bed.

Also one thing that helped is waking them up in the morning. My son will sleep until 9 if I let him, but I wake him up at 7:30. Also he sleeps a lot better at night if he doesn't have a nap, of course this will depend on the child.
posted by patrickje at 11:00 AM on August 16, 2005

Just another note on the time out thing, the technique I have seen used on Little Angels for children who refuse to stay in time out is to shut them in a room for the same period (one minute for each year of their age). Rather than locking the room, you hold the handle in place to prevent them from turning it which lets them know you are there but other than that they are not acknowledged until the time is up. I am not a parent but I was amazed at how well this works on the show. Needless to say this is a last resort when all else has failed.
posted by teleskiving at 11:43 AM on August 16, 2005

My daughter had similar issues. At this point (8 years old) she has a diagnosis of mild ADHD and ODD. We are able to completely control it with behavioral management. It comes from learning her triggers as well as figuring out what environment she is able to do well in. Sometimes, it means leaving her to scream on her own until she is through. She eventually outgrew a lot of the worst behaviors...and I learned to manage things better.

This is not to say that from reading your post, this is what I think your daughter has too...but here are a few things that I have learned that work for my daughter:

Keep my emotions out of it. Whenever I get upset, scream, yell, whatever, it spirals the situation completely out of control and just scares the heck out of my daughter. She reacts better when I do not get upset. (I'm not saying this is easy.)

Keep things as consistent as possible. Really look at what you are doing. Do you sometimes give in to her demands? Or sometimes get angry, other times not, put her in time out one time, another time just remind her? (Again...this ain't easy either.)

Keep a tight schedule. That doesn't mean there isn't any play time or down time, but my daughter deals best when life is scheduled and she knows what to expect.

BTW, my daughter does have some sensory issues too but I don't think she qualifies for a Sensory Integration Disorder diagnosis. But it certainly does affect the way life is lived. Tags, certain fabrics, sensitive scalp, smells, sounds.

Three is a very tough age. My son is 3 1/2 and is similar but I think having lived through my daughter I am able to parent him in a more appropriate way for him.

Good luck.

-the wife
posted by sacre_bleu at 1:49 PM on August 16, 2005

If filling the grid isn't motivating enough, you can tell her she'll get a treat when the grid is full. My daughter is now 5, and the sticker charts still work like a charm.

This worked on me when I was a kid, where a child psychologist couldn't help. I had some irrational fears about burgulars or fires or murderers or whatever piling in through the window, and nothing worked (including the psychologist, who I sure as hell wasn't going to talk to) until I was promised a nickel every day that I stayed in my room. Think it cleared up in a few weeks after that, and I eventually forgot about the nickel-a-night promise (unfortunately so, because i'd have built up nearly two grand by now).
posted by fishfucker at 2:42 PM on August 16, 2005

Have you considered speaking with someone who specializes in early childhood development? Several years ago I worked for a graduate program in child development and we got phone calls all the time from parents who had concerns about their kids. Faculty often provided referrals or lent an ear. You could try contacting the department at your nearest local university or your pediatrician may be able to refer you to someone.

This could be a learned behavior, a response to her environment, a symptom of a disorder, or something else entirely. It might be helpful to talk over your concerns with someone trained in early childhood development to help you tease out the causes and come up with some solutions.
posted by Sully6 at 3:06 PM on August 16, 2005

Just another note on the time out thing, the technique I have seen used on Little Angels for children who refuse to stay in time out is to shut them in a room for the same period (one minute for each year of their age).

I don't have an answer different from what other people recommended, but this suggestion sounds terrifying and awful for the child. The kid probably isn't stopping because he's realized the parent is "in control"; he's stopping because he's incredibly scared and wants out of the room.

I dunno. Being told to go to your room is one thing--it forces the kid to on some level voluntarily obey the parent. Being locked in your room--especially for a toddler--the adults have gone from parents to jailers.
posted by Anonymous at 3:48 PM on August 16, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the thoughts. My wife and I have talked about it some more, and we think that she's probably recalling the year or so we spent living with my parents (when she was 8-20 months old), when we had to go up to her when she yelled at night, because if we hadn't she'd've kept everyone up, including my folks.

We've also just found out from her preschool that she has never, not once, had a tantrum at school. Given our perception of her personality, this means the stubbornness is obviously mostly for our benefit. So we need to deal with the behavior, but it seems like that's all it is.
posted by cerebus19 at 5:38 PM on August 16, 2005

My son used to do this. I found spankings *very* effective. There seems to be a nerve that connects the bottom of a toddler to the toddler's attitude.
posted by kc0dxh at 5:28 AM on August 17, 2005

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