Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Welcome back to another Beyond the Sessions segment of the Securely Attached podcast. I am Dr. Sarah Bren. I’ve got Dr. Rebecca Hershberg and Dr. Emily Upshur with me today and we are going to answer a listener’s question. Hi ladies. So good to see you.

Dr. Emily (00:59):


Dr. Rebecca (01:00):

Always such a treat.

Dr. Sarah (01:02):

So this woman wrote, hi Dr. Bren, what executive function should I expect from a three-year-old and how can I coach my toddler to develop these skills? My three-year-old doesn’t show any interest in dressing himself. Hates pull-ups, and also has very little interest in feeding himself. We struggle with everything from mealtimes to bedtime. I feel that that’s hard. The three people talk about, and I have lots of opinions on this, but people talk about the terrible twos and then the three major stage, and I’m like, while I don’t love labeling our kids, the reason why those terms are so ubiquitous is because they are developmentally genuinely challenging times. And maybe we could talk a little bit about why that is before we get into building executive functioning skills. Because developmentally, this is a really three years old. There’s a lot going on in the brain.

Dr. Rebecca (02:03):

Yeah, I mean three year olds are when she said we’re having, even if I hadn’t known the age, if it was like everything is hard from mealtime to bedtime, I’d be like, oh wait, I bet your kid is three. Because also one of the things that I heard once about three-year-olds, and it’s proven true, certainly personally, but also professionally is like that’s when they just buck any systems that you’ve put in place for them. So at two, you think that you’ve come up with this beautiful bedtime routine and they eat all these foods and you think that you’re sort of killing it. And then they hit three and obviously none of this is black and white, but it’s sort of like, then they’re like, you know what? I’m going to see what happens if I just don’t do any of, because they suddenly feel like they have autonomy in their job, which we’ve talked about on this podcast before, is to test that autonomy and see how far it goes and see what it looks like. They push their parent to this particular limit, and so everything becomes more challenging.

Dr. Emily (03:07):

The other thing I would say is this listener is asking, we can address the executive functioning piece, but I think I’d like to pull back first and say, routines and rituals are great for three-year-olds. And that sort of, it’s a foundation building block for executive functioning things, having a routine as much as they might rebuke it, which is totally developmentally appropriate, trying to have some of those routines does do lay those foundations for having some of those executive functioning skills later on.

Dr. Sarah (03:44):

Yeah, I think it’s interesting because Emily, it’s almost like what the both of you are saying feels contradictory, but I actually think it’s very much in alignment. Yes, the rules, not the rules, the routines and the rhythms help orient them. It’s like a container because they do have this drive to assert their autonomy to push against the edges. And so it’s counterintuitive, but the more we have a predictable container for them, the more they can push to the edge and be satisfied. They know where the edges are. So the urge to keep pushing and keep pushing and keep pushing, it doesn’t keep growing, if that makes sense. Could someone, could either of you make what I’m saying make more sense? Do you know what I mean?

Dr. Rebecca (04:38):

Yes, I do know what you mean.

Dr. Sarah (04:42):

That was a long pause

Dr. Rebecca (04:44):

Because I’m thinking honestly, back to my own kid, and it was when sleep started totally falling apart. I think various reasons for that, but we changed the bedtime. We actually didn’t stick with the usual bedtime routine because there was something so powerful. So we made changes. So I think first of all, I feel like we’re in a rabbit hole that I have no idea if we’re going to find our way out of, that’s the first thing.

Dr. Sarah (05:09):

Which is a parallel process because that’s how the parents of the three-year-olds feel.

Dr. Emily (05:12):

They’re like, where do I start? What do I do?

Dr. Rebecca (05:14):

But it’s a combination of you were saying of absolutely keeping that. We talk about when we talk about love and limits, we talk about how limits are not just rules, they’re also structures and routines that are boundaries for our kids. And it’s like if we picture them in a fence, 3-year-old is when they’re starting to really try to push the fence down and the fence needs to stay up in order for them to feel safe and be safe doing their job. I would simply say, to take the analogy one step further, is that it’s actually an age where it’s okay to kind of bend the fence a little bit so that they do start to come into their own sense of self and feel like they are heard. And you know what? They don’t like this little kid’s book anymore. And so you’re going to read another book or you’re going to add another book to the routine. They can stay up a few minutes later. So it’s sort of doing that dance, I think.

Dr. Sarah (06:09):

Yes. And your fence, the fence metaphor is perfect because I think that is what my brain was trying to articulate and what I meant by being a container that your child has to push up against. If you were to take that fence away, they would really feel out of control. They wouldn’t feel contained. There’d be no boundaries for them to push up against, and they would become probably more kind of dysregulated and more unpredictable. However, we want the fence there because it’s containing for them, and their job is to push on the fence if they push. So if it’s easy for them to knock the fence down, that’s destabilizing. But if we as the parents can intentionally create some spaces where they can push on the fence and bend it a little bit so they have this very real authentic ability to play with that drive for autonomy that doesn’t destroy the structure and the integrity of the fence as a container. I think what I was trying to articulate, so it’s like they both are true.

Dr. Emily (07:19):

Yay. Just like a toddler.

Dr. Sarah (07:24):

Oh my gosh.

Dr. Rebecca (07:25):

Alright. One thing that I always want to think about with three-year-olds, because I do frankly think it’s too young to be thinking concretely about executive functioning. And one reason for that is because they don’t yet have what we call theory of mind. And I don’t know if our listeners know what that is, but in brief theory of mind is the ability to understand that there are perspectives different from one’s own. It’s sort of this idea when you look at a three-year-old and you’re like, do you think the whole world revolves around you? And it’s like they actually do and their brains can’t conceive that. There might even be. And it’s like before you know that there’s three dimensions, they’re stuck in two dimensions, they see all the candy, let’s say at the supermarket aisle. It’s like, well, if it’s not for me, who’s it for?


Isn’t everything for me? And that changes around five or six. I mean, there’s amazing research. I mean, I can be dorky for a second, but where they’ll have a child playing with someone running the experiment and they’ll have, let’s say Pepperidge Farm goldfish and Oreos, and they’ll dump out the Pepperidge Farm goldfish from the Pepperidge farm bag, and they’ll put Oreos in it and then they’ll close it up and then the kid’s mom comes in and the experimenter says to the little kid, what do you think your mom is going to think is in the bag? And a three-year-old is going to say Oreos because are what is in the bag. And I put them in the bag and doesn’t everybody know what I’m doing all the time? Because we’re all just one giant perspective and it’s me and a 5-year-old is going to be able to say, oh, my mom is going to think that there’s Oreos in, I mean, sorry, goldfish in here because it’s the bag says goldfish and how on earth she wasn’t here. How would she know? We put Oreos in the bag? And you need that ability to understand that different perspectives exist in order to begin to contemplate anything like planning, judgment, inhibiting impulsivity, all the things that we think of when we think of executive functioning. I talk about that study all the time.

Dr. Emily (09:38):

I love that.

Dr. Sarah (09:39):

It’s a good one. It’s helpful to illustrate it because I think understandably parents don’t necessarily know that cognitively, that their child’s brain development might not be able to comprehend certain things. Not everybody reads all these studies we do because we had to in grad school. And the reality is parents don’t know why their kid is completely refusing to do something that we need them to do. And we know that it’s important because it’s part of the routine and the structure. But if we can make sense of what they’re doing from a neurological perspective, from a brain development perspective, it takes a lot of the personalization out of it takes a lot of the, they’re defying me into, oh, they can’t comprehend. This is too complex of an idea for them.

Dr. Rebecca (10:41):

And it comes up all the time. It’s thinking about the parent who’s busy putting dinner together and the kid is like, can you come help me with this Lego or whatever it is, magnet tiles. And you want to be like, does it look like I can come help you with a magnet? Does it look like I’m not doing 45 other things? And it’s like your child’s brain truly can’t necessarily understand that there’s a world in which you view things differently from the way they do. And so you actually do have other things to do. And I feel like once parents understand that, I mean, you said it perfectly, Sarah, it takes away the personalization. It’s like, my kid’s not doing this to me. My kid is not selfish. My kid is not completely oblivious to other people’s needs other than in a very biological and neurological way. Yes, they are. And that’s how they’re supposed to be at that age. So the idea of executive functioning is kind of way out. If we think of three-year-olds as not even at that point, executive functioning doesn’t even start to really come online until at least when that happens, which is again, usually I think.

Dr. Emily (11:51):

But I think what this listener was asking is also, or maybe I’m overreaching, but I think you can say and build impulse control, and you can say to your kid, after I’m done with this stirring this pot, then I can come and help you with your Lego. Right? So there are ways that you can build some of those tolerance, impulsivity, control, frustration, tolerance, stretching that out in ways that we would ultimately build into executive functioning over time.

Dr. Sarah (12:25):

Yeah, no, that’s a very good point. I think in order for us to shift away from what’s wrong that my three old can’t do this, we have to sort of lay that kind of foundation of like, well, there’s no way they could. And they are developing their brain every single day. And so the part of the brain where the executive functionings live, which is the prefrontal cortex, is the slowest part of the brain to develop. It’s finished fully developing around 26 ish, and it varies between boys and girls. There’s periods of development where it’s going through tremendous leaps or sometimes I like to describe it as being under construction.


And zero to three is a time, you could even say zero to five is a time of tremendous construction. And then you move into latency. So that’s like until what, six, seven to pre-adolescence to 11, 12, 10, 11, 12. It’s a little bit chiller in terms of rapid growth and development. And then you hit pre-adolescence and adolescence, and it just starts to go back to rapid, rapid, rapid growth and pruning and developing new neural connections. And that’s why we say that toddlers and teenagers look kind of similar because their prefrontal cortexes are under construction. So when your prefrontal cortex is under construction and your executive functioning capacities live in that space, we can kind of sometimes have touch and go access to them. And that’s I think, helpful too, just in terms of understanding the timeline. But to Emily, to your point, it’s always growing. It’s not like it stops and then in a couple weeks it grows more and then maybe in a couple months it grows more. It’s like every single moment of our lives, our brain is developing. So what some of the, we talk about zones of proximal development in learning the so, so want to explain zones of proximal development because I feel like that’s a useful way of maybe thinking about this. I going to explain zones proximal development. So the idea, it’s Vygotsky, right?

Dr. Emily (14:46):

It’s Vygotsky who I love.

Dr. Rebecca (14:51):

Who I haven’t thought about in probably years. So this is blowing my mind.

Dr. Emily (14:53):

Oh my God, I love, I base everything. I don’t want to explain it, but I love it.

Dr. Sarah (14:57):

Amazing. So what a zone of proximal development is, it’s like here is your sort of core skill level. This is where you are at in this moment. These are the skills you have cognitively. And then there’s a little bit of a buffer zone around that that’s outside of your ability, but it’s within reach. It’s in your proximal developmental space. So it’s not something you’re yet able to do, but it’s not past that outside of your zone of proximal development is your brain is literally going to be like, that’s impossible for me to do. I’m not even going to try. But a zone of proximal development is like, this isn’t something you could do yet. Maybe you cannot inhibit an impulse. Maybe you can’t reliably dress yourself when you’re not in the mood to dress yourself. That’s inhibiting an impulse or initiating, activating a task that’s an executive functioning skill. Maybe you don’t have that yet, but what is in your zone of proximal development? What can you do? So you need to get to Z? What’s B? That would be how I would describe a zone proximal development. Once you get to B, then can we try to stretch you to get to C? So you’re breaking things down into smaller parts to move towards something kind of more sophisticated.

Dr. Emily (16:19):

And I think the stretching is the important part. I think that’s sort of what, can you play up a little bit? Can you stretch outside of your comfort zone? Which is really important because you have to learn how to tolerate that discomfort of learning a new skill, that discomfort of trying something new and not being good at it. And that’s the theory behind it is we don’t want to always be in that stretchy place, too uncomfortable all the time, but we don’t want to stay in our comfortable zone indefinitely.

Dr. Sarah (16:52):

I wonder if it could be helpful to apply this though to more concrete example. So for example, this mom is saying he doesn’t show an interest in dressing himself. So if we were going to think about that in terms of, okay, at developmentally at three we’re going to require a certain number of executive functioning skills that he may not yet possess yet being the operative word here. So what are some executive functioning skills that are connected to the ability to independently dress yourself when you don’t feel like it? Right. I think the big part, my child’s capable of dressing himself. If he’s in the mood to, if he’s playing dress up, he is going to be doing it right because driven to, there’s something that he’s intrinsically driven to do and it’s gratifying for him. So that does not require initiation in the same way.


Your own interest is such a motivator that you don’t have to initiate when you don’t want to. Initiating a task, when you don’t feel motivated to do it is a very sophisticated capacity. It requires inhibiting an impulse or an urge. I want to be doing this, I want to be playing with my toys. I have to inhibit that because, and then I have to switch my attention that’s shifting set, which is another executive function. It’s still have to move from paying attention to my toys to moving my attention to getting dressed, and then I have to initiate and sequence all that stuff. So getting dressed requires sequencing and planning. I have to put on my pants, I have to put one leg in and then the other, and then I have to pull it up and then I have to get my shirt and I got to get one arm in. It’s a lot of actual, if you were to really break it down, it’s a lot of stuff. And then I have to tolerate doing this on my own when I might want to be with my mom who’s in the bathroom putting her makeup on in the morning, right? Whatever. So there’s a lot going on here that we don’t maybe fully appreciate.

Dr. Rebecca (18:48):

To me, I don’t want you to keep going. I really want to highlight the first part. The first part that’s going to be what differentiates. Like when a parent says to you, well, he has no problem getting dressed, but he knows we’re going out for ice cream.


Parents will or Well, he listens to, he sure listens when I tell him he’s allowed to use his iPad and they view this as volitional. And it’s sort of like, well, since he can do it, he must be able to do it at all times. When in fact there’s a whole distinct skillset that involves doing something when you don’t want to. That’s separate from the skill itself. And so viewing that as an additional skillset and not about personality or stubbornness or some other kind of judgmental take on the child is so critical. It’s like, yeah, you are absolutely right. Your child can get dressed when you’re about to go out for ice cream and they can’t get dressed when they know that they’re going to daycare. You are right. There is a difference in abilities, not in the pulling on the pants and putting the shirt over their head, but in the executive functioning skillset, which is the inhibiting the impulse and shifting the at.

Dr. Sarah (19:59):

Right? I often talk about executive function skills as kind of like there’s a lot of them, but a couple of really important ones are hitting the brake and hitting the gas, and a lot of the things that go into that, right? So if you can’t hit the brake and you can’t hit the gas and you need to and you don’t necessarily want to, that is when I think we see parents get frustrated because they can do the skill. Maybe it’s a gross motor skill or a fine motor skill, but the hitting of the brake or hitting of the gas is actually the part that’s not developed yet.

Dr. Rebecca (20:34):

Which then ties back into the zones of proximal development because you can to the readers or to the listener’s question to your, or three-year old, you can say, you can name it. You can say, I know you don’t want to get dressed. I know you don’t want to stop playing with your toys. Let’s see if we can do it anyway. And you can hold your child’s hand. And again, they’re not going to do it by themselves, but by naming the thing that’s hard, you are potentially stretching them outside of their comfort zone into that zone of proximal development where practicing and using those neural pathways is going to have value.

Dr. Sarah (21:15):

Yes. And that’s called scaffolding, right? Scaffolding is when we help them move from point A to point B. If we’re trying to get to Z, and then we might have to help them a lot to cross that finish line, but we let them kind of cross that finish line themselves. We tee them up a little bit more. So if we want our kid to address it independently, that’s Z. And right now A is when they don’t want to, it’s just a fight. What would B look like? Could it be, I’m going to help you a lot to begin with, and then I can start pulling back some of my help. And also, it’s not just help to physically get dressed, but help to tolerate doing something we don’t want to do, which is where you can practice this in lots of other places where maybe you have more bandwidth.


Sometimes it’s just easier to just dress your kid in the morning because mornings are usually tight on time, and this isn’t maybe a time that we want to invest in practicing these skills because we have to get out the door too. So sometimes I’m like, the easiest thing in this moment is to just get your kid dressed and practice these skills of doing things we don’t want to do as much when you have more bandwidth. But could we turn it into a game? Could we practice it when there’s no urgency and we don’t have to actually get dressed? Can we practice doing something we don’t want to do in other moments and link it back like, Hey, this is kind of like when I want you to get dressed in the morning all by yourself and you don’t want to do that. This is happening here too. And look, we’re practicing doing something that we don’t want to do. Look at you. Go, awesome. So there’s a lot of ways to practice and support that development of hitting the brakes when we don’t want to or hitting the gas when we don’t want to. And that I think is where I’d start with a kid at three. That’s I think, the best way to approach building, setting, laying the bricks for eventual more sophisticated executive functioning skills.

Dr. Rebecca (23:15):

Yep. Absolutely. I think spot on.

Dr. Sarah (23:19):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in this new series Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

✨We want to hear from you! Go to https://drsarahbren.com/question to send us a question or a topic you want to hear us answer on Securely Attached – Beyond the Sessions! ✨

181. BTS: How can I get my 3-year-old to do things they don’t want to do?