Whole Parenting Family

Helping the Emotional Little Boy Find His Voice, and His Listening Ears


If your almost 3 year old is anything like mine, he’s emotional. He’s adamant. He’s sweet. He’s unexpectedly helpful. He’s obsessed with his little 1 year old sister. He’s a terrible listener. He’s a great listener. It’s a whirlwind of ying, yang, up, down. Every day I feel like I’m navigating the rain forrest of his emotions with no compass, no map, and very few provisions. That’s probably why sometimes SweetPea and I take shelter in her room while he’s raging in his.

I’ve written about tantrums before {Three Key Steps to Taming Your Tantruming Toddler}, {Two and a Half Year Old Terror, That’s My Kid}, {Big Boy Battles, Loving Discipline for Your Preschooler}, {Parenting 101: Don’t Borrow Trouble or Ask Leading Questions}, and a whole section on Toddler Behavior.

BUT I’ve learned a few ways that–at least for now–can assuage his terrorizing heart while still being a firm boundary for him. Without spanking. Without losing my temper and fiercely wanting to make.him.do.it.now.and.listen!!!!

I’ve identified three phases of emotional meltdown: a) the whine, b) the defiance, and c) the all-out freakout.

1) The whine.

When I ask him to do something, if he doesn’t listen right away, there’s an immediate consequence. “Please stop pushing your sister down” or “Please do not swing the bat near your sister’s head.” Generally, whining for him is related to me asking him to stop a behavior he knows he shouldn’t do. It’s not requesting an affirmative action on his part, more like an omission or cessation.

If he doesn’t listen, he has to sit on the time-out step in the kitchen. For a few imaginary minutes on my imaginary timer. If he talks, time gets added. If he whines, time gets added. This has been an effective threat that’s non-emotional for me, and provides an expected and understood boundary. If you don’t listen and stop doing something, you have a break from what you want to do on the step.

2) The defiance.

This comes out when it’s time to change our trajectory. Maybe it’s time to leave the kitchen and go have quiet time or nap time, or maybe I need him to stop playing in his newly minted playroom (fewer toys!) and help me make dinner. Maybe he doesn’t get to pick out a new pair of pants just because he awoke from his nap. Basically, the defiance comes out when I have to ask “Who’s in charge?” and I get the improper response of “Me!!! I am!!!!”

This is my hot button. When he’s rude, mean, or deliberately not helping things. Or screeching. Or fussing at his poor sainted sister. I take three deep breaths when I feel my anger swelling. I remember he’s a little boy who needs guidance, not squashing.

I outline the consequences quickly: if you don’t do X, then you lose Y. Maybe it’s listening to the baseball game. Maybe it’s playing baseball with Dada. Maybe it’s going outside. If he’s being rude while going down for his nap and not being a good listener, then he doesn’t get a story. Oh! Now he doesn’t get a song from the door. I repeat the same things over and over–driving home that this is action–>consequence. His choices, not mine.

This generally results in a better attitude. But when it turns into an emotional trainwreck, instead of being sharp and severe with him (which for his temperament simply is not effective), we go to part 3.

3) The freakout.

So he’s totally out of control of himself. He’s crying and can’t stop. He’s repeating himself over and over, professing truly madly deeply what he wants. And the above two measures aren’t in play or are no longer effective. Historically, this would be the ultimate isolation time–time out in his bedroom with me holding the door shut, or me losing my temper and trying to exert control over him and make him “stop” having this reaction.

Here’s my new approach: we go to the listening room, which could be any room in your home that’s not the child’s playroom or bedroom. I put SweetPea in her crib with some toys (she is not happy about this). It’s just he and I. We sit on the couch, but I don’t forcibly hold him there. He’s free to move around. He generally wants to sit on me and scream. I quietly repeat what I hear him saying he wants. Until he calms down enough to affirm it. And I take a very lowkey approach. Once he has stopped the shakes & screeches, I make sure he knows I know what’s going on for him. Then I hug him. Then I say, “Mama listened. Now SuperBoy listens.” I proceed to say very basically and minimally what needs to happen. “Mama needs you to be a good listener. Mama needs to be polite.” Those two are most common. Sometimes it’s a bit more elaborate, but I stick to basic needs Mama has.

Once he feels like his voice was heard, and then his listening ears were found, we continue the day in any variety of ways. Sometimes he does get to read the book or do the activity he wanted, sometimes he doesn’t. But once we’ve heard each other out, I pretend like I’m not still mad, like life is normal, and like we’re moving on. Occasionally, if the consequence was a long-term one, like no baseball when Dada comes home, I’ll remind him when he asks for it at night why he doesn’t get it, but I resist the urge to go on and on and relive the earlier scene. Other times, we just move forward, with the understanding that God put me in charge of him to help him become a saint.

That’s why Mama’s in charge, and not him. Of course, I feel like God gave me two kids to help ME become a saint because life is now replete with opportunities to see my shortcomings and failures, and have real challenges to my naturally self-centered personhood!

These three distinctions may not be the same your child goes through, into, and out of, but hopefully they can provide you with some comfort to know you’re not alone going through the travails of parenting an emotional little person!



  1. Nancy on May 5, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. Little Gus has been having lots of melt-downs lately and we are trying our best to find an effect way to deal with them. It was nice to read your approach–and the honesty about how you feel in the moment. We have an extra challenge in that Gus doesn’t speak yet…so we really don’t know what he wants… He’s frustrated, we’re frustrated. Oh, parenting!
    Hope to see you soon,

    • Natural Mama Nell on May 6, 2013 at 2:15 pm

      Oh Nancy, that’s so tough. When SuperBoy was pre-words melting down, we did lots of holding and hugging. I’ll offer up my frustration for yours today! Lots of prayers. It is a loving and challenging vocation–this parenthood thing!!

  2. Kate on May 6, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Great work Nell! I think the decision to stay with him while he has his big ragey emotions is really really great. Those big feelings are scary to him and he needs to learn it’s ok to have them (but not ok to hurt others), that he can survive them, and that Mama won’t leave him. I get a little teary almost thinking of you doing this for him. It’s such a critical gift for a mother to give.

    And it’s so brave of you to recognize and share your own emotional reaction, and your desire to change or control his feelings. As mothers it’s natural to feel that our babies are extensions of ourselves, and it’s so hard to recognize where our sphere of influence ends.

    • Natural Mama Nell on May 6, 2013 at 2:17 pm

      Thanks for your support, Kate. Ironically after posting this early this morning, today proved to be one of our most challenging ones with no clear way to help him learn his boundaries and feel supported at the same time. Every day is a new challenge with kiddos!

      It is hard to not want to control their reactions/emotions/everything. And to feel like we should just be able to “make” something happen or not happen. Respecting the dignity of their human persons is a tall order!

  3. Andrea on May 7, 2013 at 9:17 am

    This is great, Nell! I’ve also found that repeating to L what she wants helps her calm down enough that I can then tell her why we aren’t going to do/have it now and she is generally ok with that and can move on (granted she’s not at full-blown toddler tantrum age yet). I’ve read that this is an empathy thing, that if they know you hear them they will be more accepting even if they don’t get it… which makes sense to me! It seems to work anyway 🙂 It’s sort of the Happiest Toddler on the Block approach but sans neanderthal voice, which I just can’t bring myself to do… calm voice seems better!

    • Natural Mama Nell on May 8, 2013 at 8:39 pm

      Empathy is such a big part of relating to them! While also being the boundary they’re seeking. I’m sure that as she grows you’ll continue to find the right way to talk with her.

      I tried the Neanderthal voice & Happiest Toddler on the Block approach–it just didn’t work. It really upset SuperBoy even more, and his verbal skills are high enough and have been for a long time that the simple basic early human sentence structure just seemed to confuse him! I’ve heard it work wonders with others, though!

  4. Ches on May 9, 2013 at 7:37 am

    Oh mama, I am three years on from where you are and when this post was suggested to me on Facebook I was ever-hopeful of a wonderful and creative way of helping a sensitive soul share what’s going on in his head and heart instead of drawing on the negative behaviour that gets our attention every time. I don’t want to fill your blog with negativity or tell you You Are Doing It Wrong, because I don’t even have the answers for 3yo behaviour and I don’t know your child. So instead I will try and be positive and give you a challenge. You are reacting to negative behaviour in your approaches above. You are managing it well and in a way that gives safe boundaries, but unwittingly, you are still reinforcing that negative behaviour gets attention. Our wee sensitive soul had state moves and a slew of new schools between 3 and 4.5 yr when his new baby brother arrived and he finally just lost his mind. It was bad, awful, terrifying, because we got there through reacting lovingly to negative behaviour and the more we did it, the worse it got. I am certain this won’t happen to you, because your family has stability, but what I want to challenge you to do is find ways of turning your approach on its head and reacting to positive behaviour so that your sensitive wee man learns to express his feelings to get his mama’s attention when his world is upside down.

    • Natural Mama Nell on May 10, 2013 at 11:43 am

      I appreciate hearing your insights! It is so important to approach behavioral shaping from affirming the positive and responding to that, I completely agree. What I’ve discovered is that sometimes with our son, I can’t ignore the negative behavior because it affects our daughter too–things like he can’t push her, or snatch things from her, or be rude to her. It sounds like you had an equally challenging journey with your own little man. I really appreciate your encouragement! And your wisdom. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Theresa on May 16, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    you are a saint, Nell. thanks for helping us all get to heaven! Leo (17 months) has just started the tantrums, throwing himself on the floor crying. Lucy and I usually just stare at him, bewildered. boys and girls sure are different! and so are first born, second, and so on. God bless us mothers of lil ones who are learning along with them 🙂

    • Natural Mama Nell on May 17, 2013 at 12:32 am

      Tea, you’re hilarious! I can’t believe Leo is throwing himself on the floor. Love it! God bless us, one and all, and keep us laughing and bewildered!! XOXO