My daughter just turned three and mostly things are fine, but her neediness is draining on me. It feels a bit like there’s a hole in her bucket, and I can’t fill it up somehow. I’m not sure why there is so much whininess, such a fanatical emphasis on perfection, such passionate insistence on being carried around the kitchen or down the stairs, such a persistence at still wanting to nurse; it is as if she both excited and afraid of some new desires to grow up a little bit. I know there are probably changes afoot, but the drama does tire one out.
It seems like the question is how you can meet her need for connection, in ways that aren’t draining to you. I think that sometimes kids (not to mention the rest of us) get stuck in only knowing how to ask for connection in one way. It becomes exhausting for those around them, and at the same time they never feel like they’re getting enough. So honor her requests for connection, but try connecting in different ways. Physical fun (in addition to carrying and snuggles) can be wonderfully connecting: time outdoors together, swinging her around, jumping and dancing are all great. I’d also encourage you to use imagery with her, especially when things can’t go exactly how she wants, or you’re getting annoyed. Here are some examples you might try:
“You STILL want to be up? My, my. You’re like a baby possum clinging to its mama’s fur while she goes about her day. At least I don’t have five babies clinging to me, like a mama possum does!”
“You wish I would carry up the stairs? Do you see how full my arms are already? Let’s climb up together like mountain climbers on Mount Everest. We can see snow all around us, and the air is so thin that it’s tough going.” Start pretending it’s really hard to take each step, panting loudly.
“You wish you could sit on my lap for this meal, but today I’d like you to sit in your own chair. Today you and I will each be a like a queen, sitting on our thrones at court. My throne is made of gold, with rubies all down the sides. Let me look at your throne and see what it looks like. Oh… that’s a good throne for you, your majesty! Shall I describe it to you? Sit down and I’ll tell you what I see.”
This type of imagery can give her something to focus on other than the fact that she’s not getting what she wants, and imagery in general is very connecting for most kids. Don’t feel bad if it doesn’t come very naturally to you, or feels awkward at first. The more you do it, the easier it gets, so give it some practice. You might want to sit down sometime when you’re well-rested and come up with four or five ideas for situations that come up frequently, so you don’t have to come up with them on the spot when you’re tired and cranky. Also, once you get in the habit of it you can ask her to start contributing to the imagination too. At age 3, I bet her imaginative forces will be starting to blossom and this might be great fun. Making her an active participant in creating the fantasy will help her learn the skill of making the best of things and moving on, which will be a wonderful balancing virtue for her.