Three Days with a 3 YO

Three Days with a 3 YO

I went back in time recently to relive parenting a toddler. While my brother and sis-in-law were in Japan, I got to take care of my niece Emma.*

Since Emma lives in the US, I see her only once a year (not counting FaceTime). This was her first visit to my home in Hong Kong. The P.E.T. skills helped me to establish trust and mutuality and to deal with those big toddler emotions. 

CHILD OWNS PROBLEM: Sad her parents were gone 

At the goodbye, Emma cried pretty heartily. I quietly stooped beside her (Attending), waited while she continued (Silence) and then gently Active Listened her:  

“You’re so sad. You love Mommy and Daddy so much. It’s so hard to be without them. You wish they didn’t have to go away.”

After about five minutes, she calmed. 

Then I gave her a Declarative I-Message and opened the door to any future upset: “I want you to know that anytime you feel sad, it’s ok. You love them so much.”

Getting ready for bed that first night brought up tender feelings. When I tried to Active Listen her — “You seem pretty sad” — she pushed me away gently and rummaged through her stuff looking for solace. I pulled out figurines of Elsa and Ariel that were given to her as tokens during this trip and she placed them on her bed. Then she wandered out of the room looking dejected.

Part of Active Listening young children involves guessing their needs and providing ways to meet them. I decided to take a cue from Larry Cohen's Playful Parenting which recommends roughhousing to offer physical closeness and to help children express their repressed feelings. I let Emma and Grandma tickle me (which brought out the supposed-to-be-sleeping Claudia (12) who joined in gleefully). 

That shifted the energy. Afterwards, Ellen happily played with marbles and read books for a smooth bedtime. 


I forgot how fierce this need is for a young child. We had spent the morning at the beach and were on the boardwalk sauntering over to have lunch. Emma asked for a snack from Grandma. I said, “Oh, no. Let’s just wait. We’re gonna be at the restaurant very soon.”

The child changed visibly before my eyes. “No! I want a snack now!” She stopped walking and looked at me murderously. (I jest, but you know what I mean.)

Here’s when I recalled the undergirding tenet of P.E.T. that all children, like all adults, are only ever acting to meet valid needs. She wasn’t doing something TO ME -- defying me, engaging in a war of wills -- but trying to accomplish something FOR HERSELF.

Brought to my senses, I quickly Active Listened her and then provided a solution: “Ooooh, you are really starving! Sure, here’s what Grandma was going to give you!” as Grandma handed her a snack bag.

NO PROBLEM AREA: Let’s stay in this box as long as possible

We learn that making changes in the following ways can help maintain the peace:

First, I had cleared my schedule of all work so I could offer my young niece lots of one on one time for connection.

Not only was she my (bossy!) mommy whenever we played house, she also thrilled to being (bossy!) owner to my yappy dog. On the jungle gym, she was the taxi driver, gamely playing along when I hailed her -- “Mgoy, mgoy, mgoy!” -- and directed her in broken Cantonese. 

I also added things like crazy to my backpack before we traipsed around the city -- rubberbands, finger tattoos, bandaids, books, cards.

Playtime also included helping her experience some power. Each morning, as I rummaged through her suitcase, Emma got to choose her clothes by giving me the thumbs up or thumbs down. We had a good laugh as she kept rejecting my choices and I feigned indignance.

At night, I asked if we could talk about the day while I tapped on her (I’m into Emotional Freedom Technique). I recapped the whole day: 

“You were a little - no, really - sad this morning and we talked about it and played house a while. Then we went to the bird market; you didn’t like that so much, but Grandma did! We went to the playground where we had fun but you got an owie and it’s slowly getting better.” 

I also let her know what we had to look forward to in the morning. Every evening, this seemed to help her fall asleep peacefully. 

NO PROBLEM AREA: Declarative I-Messages (& Modeling) around Sand Play & Water in Eyes

Still in the No Problem zone, these seemed like the tools to use to share some knowledge and my value of resilience.

Emma wanted to run down to the bottom level at Hong Kong Park to play in the sand, but didn’t quite know how to do it. She took off her socks, put her shoes back on and then gingerly walked over to me.

“We can’t sit down,” she said, sounding unsure.

“Sure, we can." I countered, plopping onto my butt. "I think sometimes clothes are for getting dirty - we just wash them!” She followed suit and soon we were making the mess we were meant to that morning.

Later that night, I offered to get into the tub with her and did things her way, rinsing carefully so as not to get water in her eyes. 

Over the course of three baths together, though, I showed my niece that I could survive dumping water on my head and rinsing off with the shower head. Didn’t make a big deal of it, just modeled silently.

Gosh . . . I had A LOT of fun.

My mom and I got a kick out of the verbal confirmation that the P.E.T. environment was appreciated. Sitting on the balcony on the last night, Emma smiled and remarked, “I think I like this house.” We don't think she was talking about the actual apartment.

Come back soon, Emma! 

* I use pseudonyms for my kids and others who feature in my posts.