Tantrums: Can a three year old be manipulative?

My husband and I are both teachers. In the summer, I stay home with our three-and-a-half-year-old son, while my husband works. My son hates to have his father away. Whenever I scold him, he cries, "I want my daddy!" If I say it's time for bed, he throws a tantrum. It seems like his crying is orchestrated. Can he be using tears to manipulate me?


You have posed a difficult question. Yes, a three year old can be manipulative. Four year olds are even better manipulators, and your son is rapidly approaching that age. But it doesn't mean that he's lying about missing his father. More likely, it's a bit of both.

Another characteristic of this age is difficulty separating from loved ones, especially Mom or Dad. It is an age when children really learn to differentiate themselves from their parents. When parents leave, it is no longer a case of "out of sight, out of mind," as a younger child might perceive. Separation can be frightening to the child, especially when he is uncertain that the parents will return.

You can address this situation on two fronts. First, buy a child's book dealing with separation. My favorite is "Are You My Mother" by P.D. Eastman. The lesson in this book is that Mommy goes, but she always comes back. This is just as true for daddies, you might tell your son when he becomes frightened. Use the same message, like a mantra: "Daddy leaves but he always comes back." And have your son repeat it, so he has it ingrained in his mind.

Of course, you cannot ignore your son's outbursts, since it sounds in part like testing behavior. You must stand firm, although with kindness. You didn't mention whether your husband does any of the disciplining when at home, but he should do as much of it as possible. Also, you and your husband's disciplinarian styles should match whenever possible. If they differ much, it could contribute to your son's behavior.

When Daddy is gone, you have to hold the line. And stick to your guns. That's how four year olds really know they are safe -- when they are disciplined with consistency and love.

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