Emotional Three-Year-Old Breakdowns

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It's that time again--when I come to you, my readers for help. Help!

Lately, Sawyer has been having some trouble dealing with his emotions. He's three. This is par for the course. But this is my first three-year-old and I am struggling with the right way to handle some of his emotions. I'll give you some examples and then you can (hopefully?) offer some thoughts.

When things happen that are upsetting to him, he runs to his room (or behind a couch or chair) and cries. This is different (and yet similar?) to throwing the tantrums that kids start throwing when they're two. Except that his behavior isn't meant to get him his way--he isn't asking for whatever it is he wants, he's crying by himself. He doesn't want to be around anyone. It's not just for attention--he really and truly is upset and feels he has to leave the situation. Examples of when this happens: if he wants a toy that Lincoln is playing with or if Lincoln takes something from him; if his food isn't the right way.

Confused about that second thing? That leads me to the next part that relates.

Food. Sawyer has become a little OCD about his food. (I'm not sure I'm using that term loosely anymore--is he getting OCD? I don't know.) Yesterday, he wanted a cracker and the box was down to the dregs. He got a cracker that was almost whole but missing a tiny piece. This was devastating to him. He has really been into candy canes this season and I'm okay with that as candy to give him maybe one a day. But if it's broken...forget it. A whole one fell in the floor and shattered into three pieces and he hid behind a chair and wept. Lincoln drank out of his water cup and he cried. If his food is cut or NOT cut when he wants it, he doesn't want to eat it.

Now, if you're like me and don't want spoiled kids, you're reading this and going, "Well, duh. He just wants his way." Yes. We ALL want our way. And that is surely a part of what's going on. But I am also, as his parent, seeing more in these situations.

For sure, Rob and I can't allow him to have his way in every situation. Just this morning we had a talk about how we can't control everything in life, and there will be disappointments--like candy canes sometimes being broken. That's just life. He needs to understand that now because disappointment will be a part of every day! We don't want him thinking the world revolves around him and his wants. We also don't want him running from conflict and hiding when he's upset about things. He can't go hide in his closet and cry whenever something doesn't go his way.

Here's the but. But, I do see more in this. He is not using crying as manipulation in these cases. It's not the kind of tantrum where he's acting out to get his way. Yes, he wants his way. But he's crying and running away because these situations are more than he can emotionally handle. He isn't trying to get us to come in his room after him, soothe him and give him what he wants. He genuinely wants to be alone and cry.

The dilemma I'm having is how we can help teach and train him that he isn't going to always get his way and that life is full of disappointment. But I also do want to be sensitive and not squelch God-given emotions--I don't want to raise a boy that thinks he can't cry or that he has to stuff everything and pretend it's okay. I don't want him to remove himself from hard situations, but it's normal and natural to be upset about things.

And with the food it's kind of the same thing--he will not have a life full of perfectly cut sandwiches or waffles and unbroken crackers. He needs to know this now. But he also may have some kind of God-given penchant toward order, toward wholeness, in the same way that some people are naturally messy and some are ordered. I believe there is training involved--you can help train your messy child to pick up. You won't ever be able to train them to be a different kid, though. They'll be a messy kid who has learned discipline. Does that distinction make sense?

So I am wondering how to handle these situations in ways that do two things:

1. Teach Saw that life is not about HIM. It will not always--and, in fact, will not MOST OF THE TIME--be HIS way. (And also as kind of a part B to this, teach him that running away from hard things is not the answer.)

2. Teach him that it's okay to have desires that are specific to him and it's okay to have emotions.

I guess what I want to make sure I'm doing is not fostering a sense of selfishness in him that allows him to think and act like it all revolves around him. But I want to do that without teaching him that crying is something guys can't do or that there is something inherently wrong about desiring particular things to be a particular way.

This is a long post and I'm not sure I'm expressing everything well. Any thoughts? Suggestions? Stories from your life--whether your upbringing or in training your own kids? I'd love to hear from you!



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