I Have Three Young Children and I Can’t Cope. Help!

I have twin 3-year-olds and a 6-week-old. I go to work in a week. I have been having difficulties trying remain calm with the twins, but I lose my temper really easily. I have tried different ways to tell them what's good and bad behavior, and have tried different punishments. Every other weekend, their dad, my boyfriend, goes to work overnight, leaving me to entertain and care for the kids four days in a row while he sleeps. I am at the end of my rope with ideas as to how to talk to them. It has brought on lots of arguments between my boyfriend and I. — Exasperated
Dear Exasperated,

Thanks for the question, Exasperated. You know how when you get on an airplane and the flight attendants give safety lessons? They tell you that if there’s turbulence and the oxygen mask drops down, put your own mask on first, then help your children. There’s a reason for that. You must take care of yourself first before you can take care of anyone else.

That’s why my first concern is with you. How can you take care of yourself? I have a few ideas, starting with making time for yourself. Even if it’s only five minutes, although I hope it’s a lot more, you need sacred time and sacred space that is yours alone, when you are not responsible for others. This might be anything, maybe a warm bubble bath when the kids are asleep. Or a trip to the supermarket, by yourself, for a s-l-o-w shopping experience. Or exercise, like jumping rope, or speed-walking the baby carriage. (When she was in her stroller, my daughter used to say, “Faster, Mommy, faster!”) Meditation and yoga can also be very relaxing. Find breathing time at work, if you can. Take your favorite or most longed-for activity and mold it to fit your circumstances.

When my kids were little, I worked full time and went to school at night. Some of those years, I was a divorced, single mother. I studied or watched TV when the kids were asleep, or I got up early in the morning to read. Did I yell sometimes? Of course. I apologized, too. Gradually, I learned how to control my temper and yell less; I worked on it for a long time. I told myself to count to 10, breathe deeply, and remember they’re kids. I would try to find the funny side. I’d ask myself what exactly was making me so angry, and sometimes it wasn’t the kids. It was something else, and the kids were just handy to scream at.

I made a game of things if I could. When I washed the kitchen floor, my son and I “skated” on towels together to dry it. Kids can’t do stuff perfectly, but they can be fun to work with. And the natural habitat of happy kids and their parents is a messy house. Also, both kids and adults need rewards, which can be as simple as taking a walk in the park or cuddling on the couch — alone or with company.

I’ve never had twins, but I’ve had two 3-year-olds one at a time, and they taught me that you need to keep it simple. First of all, it helps to take your child by the hand and, in a friendly way, look eye to eye to make sure he or she is paying attention. Long explanations don’t work well because kids don’t understand them, can’t process them, and won’t remember them, so keep it short. And remember your ABCs: Always Be Consistent. Keep the rules simple. You’ll have to repeat yourself a hundred times, but after a while it does get through. You can say, “No throwing in the house.” Or, “Use your inside voice,” while you speak with your own inside voice to give them an example to follow. Sometimes rhyming rules makes them easier to remember, like the well-known, “If you hit, you must sit.” That lets them know a timeout is the consequence of hitting. Ask your child to repeat the rule back to you, so you know he or she understands it. Repeating makes it easier to remember, too. Avoid power struggles. Rather than screaming, “Put your shoes on NOW!” to a struggling and negative toddler, it might work better to say, “Put your shoes on so we can go out and play.” Simple explanations of what happens next can avoid a lot of drama, too. So, for example, you can have the five-minute rule — in five minutes it will be time to brush your teeth. Then have a countdown. Four more minutes. Three more, two, one, blastoff! I think kids benefit from knowing the agenda, as in, “Now we are going to take your brother to school, and then you and I will go to the park.”

Make safety rules inviolable. Label them, “This is a safety rule, it’s important, don’t touch the hot stove.” They’ll get your serious voice and learn this a bit faster than other rules, such as don’t touch Mommy’s stuff. They want to touch everything that belongs to you because they want to be near you and to be like you. They are communicating their need to be in touch with you, and they will usually get you to react. Occasionally when kids need attention, they will do something they shouldn’t do so they get it. If you think this is the case, try to find a way to pay special positive attention by complimenting them on good behavior, or by sharing an activity.

What happens when your child does something he or she shouldn’t? Don’t ask young children why they did something; they probably can’t explain it in words, and maybe they don’t even know why. Instead, take them by the hand, squat down so you’re at their level, look in their eyes, and say, “Let’s talk about what you did.” Generally, setting things up to make the rules easy to follow has better consequences than resorting to punishments for bad behavior, which can become a negative cycle and establish patterns of anger, fear, resentment, and power plays between parents and child. Children respect parents who are loving and fair; they do not respect parents they fear.

Kids love their parents and want to please them … most of the time. Rewarding good behavior with smiles and praise or a special treat is more effective than punishment, which is defined as 1) a penalty inflicted for an offense, fault; or 2) severe handling or treatment. While punishment may reduce the frequency of a negative behavior, it often hurts the quality of the attachment between parent and child. So how do parents reduce or extinguish negative behavior in children if punishment causes more harm than good? The key to changing behavior is praise or positive reinforcement, as already mentioned, and the use of logical consequences. Logical consequences are rationally connected to the problem behavior and are intended to teach the child, not punish. These consequences are considered logical because they “fit” the problem behavior. Some examples of negative logical consequences include: If your child refuses to clean up his or her board game, then the board game is taken away for a couple of days. If your preteen rides his bike without his helmet, then he’s restricted from his bike the next day. Parents can also provide positive logical consequences, such as rewarding a child for doing chores or getting good grades. Rewarding positive behavior will increase the likelihood of positive behavior.

Babies. Wow, babies! They just need to eat in the middle of the night, at any and all other times, and they need to be held, sung to, and have their diapers changed 24/7. Do your best, and remember: The baby will outgrow babyhood.

If you haven’t already, start a series of conversations with your boyfriend about how you can work together to be better partners to each other—and better parents, too. When he comes home, he’s tired and needs to sleep, but after he’s rested, how can he make up for the times that he is away? Can you find a neighbor or friend and trade babysitting? Ask for help when you need it—I hope it is forthcoming—and try not to get discouraged. Can you find alone time to be with each other to relax? Plan some treats to look forward to.

Laugh at yourself and with everybody else. You don’t have to be Supermom, by the way. Being Mom is super enough.

Here are some books that you might like:

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

The Pocket Parent by Gail Reichlin and Caroline Winkler

And a personal favorite: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Kind regards,

Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT is a Manhattan-based, licensed psychotherapist with more than 30 years in private practice. She is also a yoga teacher and student of Ayuveda—the Indian science of wellness. Her main interest is in helping people find healthy ways of living, loving, and working in the particular combination that works best for them, connecting to their deepest energic source so their full range of abilities can be expressed. Lynn's specialty is understanding and alleviating anxiety and depression.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Nan

    December 8th, 2012 at 4:22 AM

    I had stair step kids too so I kind of feel your pain. In your case you have three whereas I only had two, but any number of young children at once can be a challenge. I hope that you are able to find help and support from other people outside of the home because that was something that always helped me. Even if I had my mom come over and watch the kids while I took a walk around the block sometimes that was all I needed for a little recharge to the batteries and to make me feel rejuvenated for a while again. I also took advanrage of a couple of Mothers Morning out programs a few times a week, and again, those little times alone were precious for me. It lets you do little things like take a shower without a child screaming at you. I feel your pain, I know it’s hard, but you can get through it! :)

  • Maggie W

    December 8th, 2012 at 11:38 AM

    I am sure that you are in a committed relationship otherwise you would not now have 3 children together but I can’t help but think that being married would help.

  • Yvonne

    December 9th, 2012 at 9:26 AM

    Honey- I have been there and done that, and I don’t think that there is a mom anywhere on the planet who can’t relate to the stress that you are feeling. The best thing that I can recommend that you do is to find a way to take a little bit of time for yourself every day. You have to get that man of your involved, because the way I see it, you didn’t make those babies together. Yes he works outside the home, but you have a full time job too and everyone who works, in the home or out of it deserves a little bit of a break from time to time. This has to be a joint effort to make the most of it, and I think that now may be the time to have a little heart to heart with the man.

  • Ashley

    December 10th, 2012 at 1:19 AM

    One thing I would caution against is maintaining stereotypical gender rolls in the taking care of household chores. You and your boyfriend both have your plates full with work to begin with. Chores need to be divided evenly so that no one becomes resentful. And, I really like the advice of your boyfriend making up for time he’s been away once he has rested. It isn’t like he’s going out with the boys every night, but we ALL know that staying home and entertaining children for four days straight is easier than pretty much any other job on the planet.

  • a coone

    December 10th, 2012 at 1:21 AM

    Well, I have only praise and admiration to give. I can’t even pretend to be qualified to offer any advice. My hat is off to you!

  • ari

    December 10th, 2012 at 4:02 AM

    Is there anyone else in your life that you could ask for some help? I mean, I know that it might be that you don’t like to have to ask others for help, and I get that, but if it means that you can have the chance to maintain some sanity, then I say got to some other people in your life and tell then that you need some help. I would be willing to bet that if you did this with some friedns and family, there would be people lining up to help you. I think that many times we sell our friends and family short and think that they are too busy with their own lives to help. But most of the time I think that you will find that they are simply not wanting to butt in and would love to help out if given the chance. It’s worth a shot, right?

  • Lynn Somerstein

    December 10th, 2012 at 6:19 PM

    What a wonderful series of comments- sounds like folks are on Exasperated’s side. Me too.

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