He’s no longer just crying – he’s on the ground, screaming at the top of his lungs, tears rushing down his cheeks and his face red. But he’s clearly not hurt.
Or is he?
Next to him, a little friend is sitting on a toy motorcycle, holding a doll, and just stoically looking at him.
Naturally, you go and bend over the two of them, trying to squeeze in a question here or there, wondering what happened. The screaming gets louder, and now the other little girl starts to cry, and of course all the grown-ups nearby are looking over. You feel like you’re being judged by their silent stares, and feel even more pressure to fix this little situation.
Calling out their names with a kind soothing voice is useless. Gently touching them on the shoulder to get their attention just leads to them slapping your hand away. So what do you do? You lovingly look down and tell your son that it’s ok that his little friend is sitting on his motorcycle pressing the buttons, and that it’s ok that she’s holding his doll. After all, it’s just a doll right? And he can play with the motorcycle after she leaves, right?
He’s 3. She’s 3. It’s his birthday party. Everyone is on his turf, in his backyard, playing with his toys, and “celebrating” his birthday. She has had to “dress-up” for this event, is at someone else’s home, completely overstimulated by all the new things she sees and hears, and all the attention so far has been on this little boy. Neither has napped, they barely ate lunch and both had a field-day at the sweets table. Are you expecting them to act like reasonable three year-olds?
So what now?
Your son needs you more than ever right now (and so does the little girl, for that matter). Let me put it this way: he needs his rock, his pillar, his spare pair of common sense, and his safety net. That’s you. The parent / caregiver / grandparent / grown-up etc.
Stop what you’re doing, forget about the guests, and literally tune into their frequency.
It’s actually easier than you think to reach attunement with a 3 year old, but you have to literally and physically get down to their level. When we tower over little children, our well-meaning behavior gets lost in the grandeur of our stature. The two three year-olds in front of you are currently stuck in their amygdalae, in fight or flight mode. So the sudden presence of a tall giant (sorry, yes that would be you) is even more nerve-wracking for them.
Kneel down all the way and get eye to eye with them. Make eye-contact and keep eye-contact. Let them see you through their tears. Let them see a pair of kind, loving eyes in the midst of their chaos. Distract with a random yet helpful statement, “Woa, is that doll able to ride this motorcycle all by itself? I wonder whether we have a helmet for the doll, in case it wants a turn.” Then wait. You just reminded them of two items that are most likely breached their peaceful playtime.
Since he seems to be more upset than the other, reach out a helping hand to your son, make eye-contact and calmly say, “You look very upset. I see tears raining down your cheeks. You are not happy.”
Let him feel your presence the same way he felt it when he was an infant, in your bosom, perhaps nursing or being soothed by your gentle caress. Give him his safety net. Right now, you are his safety net, and the longer he can count on you for that, the stronger he will become for himself as an adult.
At this point, he may blurt out something about the problem, and let him say it however he wants to.
Stay on your knees. Gently turn to the little girl and look for clues in her face. Ask her whether she is also as upset as her friend, and if so, why?
Bottom line, become their mediator, their point of contact, their telephone wire.
The longer you stay there, eye-to-eye with them, the sooner the problem will remedy itself. If you have a stubborn player among them, such as if the little girl simply refuses to give him a turn on the motorcycle or with the doll, simply say in a gentle non-judgmental tone, “Well, it seems like you really don’t want to play with him. I will go play with him for a while until you are ready to take turns and play with your friend again.”
She will be shocked if she sees you walking away with her playmate, doing something more fun. And that’s when she will start to cry hard. Be sure to point this out to your child and quickly walk over to her, and in the same loving manner, become her pillar and ask her what the matter is. Model your behavior to both of them at this point. Ask if she wants to play with him now? “Yes, you do? That’s wonderful. Just be sure that both of you take turns.”
Stay there long enough to ensure they do take turns and leave them alone.