Q: My three-year-old son often doesn't take me seriously. When i try to dress him he'll lay on the floor giggling or if I try to brush his teeth, he'll say that it tickles and he'll squirm. My husband has no problem. When I change his diaper he'll screech or spit and do anything he can to annoy me. He loves to push my buttons. I'm stern with him and I don't give in. I'll threaten to take away a toy if he doesn't stop so often I have a whole closet full of his toys. What can I do to make him behave?
A: Most 3-year-olds test limits and this is, while frustrating, also a natural part of their development. On the other hand, it’s completely reasonable for your son to know what’s expected of him, and it’s completely understandable that it’s getting you upset. The more we pay attention to behavior (wanted or unwanted), the more it’s reinforced. Unfortunately, when we react to things like screeching or spitting, we may be inadvertently increasing the likelihood that it will happen again. When diaper changing, try giving your son a job (eg “Can you hold this for me?”). Also I would turn your head away when he is doing unwanted things that can be ignored and give him lots of specific praise when he behaves (eg “Thanks so much for being still when I changed your diaper.”). Taking away toys may make sense, but it may not have the intended effect—he probably forgets about the toy quickly. Immediate reinforcers like specific praise for desired behavior and even small rewards (eg stickers) might help. For example, tell him that if he can be a good listener and be helpful when brushing teeth, he can get a sticker—and when he gets a few stickers, he can get a prize.