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Belligerent 3-Year-Old Giving Mom the Silent Treatment

Question:

My fiancé has a 3-year-old stepson who, until now, was splitting his time between our home and his mother’s home. I was around when he learned how to talk, and he has called me “mommy” without any prompting from us. He tells us he has two mommies. We respond by telling him that he is lucky to have so many people who love him.

He is now staying with us full time, and he sees his mother only on occasional weekends and holidays. The problem we are having with him has slowly been building. The difference now is that I don’t have a break from it since he lives with us full time. He no longer listens; he yells “No” to everything; and he hits, kicks and screams if he does not get his way. Now he has decided that he won’t speak to me.  

I am very upset about his silent treatment, wondering what I did to deserve this. I take care of him as if he was my own child, and he wants nothing to do with me. My heart is breaking. My fiancé is frustrated with him for his behavior and with me because I am so upset. I don’t even want to pick him up at preschool, but I will keep doing it because I am committed to him and to my fiancé. Please help. I just want him to love me back.

Answer:

What you are facing is not unusual. Young children often go into a refusal phase when they become contrary and say “No” a lot. Things can improve. First, show him the power of “No” yourself by punishing him with time-outs. Send him to his room or a corner where he won’t have any toys to play with. Make this punishment common and consistent for tantrums and outbursts. Make sure your fiancé and his son’s mother (if this is possible) do the same.  

Consistency is very important. The more consistent you can be, the quicker he will learn not to throw tantrums. Once he starts to understand that his behavior has consequences, he may come around to learning the right behavior.  

Investigate his behavior at preschool. If he is throwing tantrums there, find out what form of punishment his teachers are administering. They might have ideas on what you can do at home. 

It is also important to take care of yourself. Ask your fiancé to take over more of his son’s care, especially if he can reinforce your discipline by saying things like, “Listen to your mother; she’s right” and “Both your mother and I love you very much, and we need you to love us back and show that by listening.” Ask your fiancé to help you rebuild your relationship with your stepson, even if it frustrates your fiancé.  

When it gets to be too much, take a break. Go for a walk, draw a bath or even just take a few deep breaths. When he gives you the silent treatment, parent calmly. If he won’t tell you what he wants for dinner, make him something. If he won’t tell you goodnight when you put him to bed, tuck him in and kiss him on the forehead all the same.

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