Five Tips for Surviving Life with a "Threenager"

Five Tips for Surviving Life with a "Threenager"

What is a threenager you ask?

Well, if you're a parent and you're asking you either don't have 3 year-old yet (in which case, read this now so you can prepare) or you have discovered some magic that you should immediately share with us all! For real, the comments section is waiting for your magic!

While getting my PhD I took a wonderful class on Emotional Development and in that class we debated the accuracy of the term “Terrible Twos”. We discussed how, in the context of normal, healthy emotional and cognitive development, all of the things that make the “terrible twos” so terrible are in reality signs of their new sense of self and their appropriate desire for autonomy. They are also transitioning from being other regulated (meaning their primary form of behavioral and emotional regulation comes from others) to being self-regulated. This means that they are developing more in terms of executive functioning, which gives them longer attention spans and (slightly) more impulse control, and in terms of emotional awareness and regulation, which allows them more awareness of their own and others’ emotions, as well as the desire and ability to handle their own emotions. In everyday life this looks like children engaging in deeper play, and starting to be able to control their impulses around things like hitting, taking toys, and other things we would like them not to do. Notice I said starting: impulse control is something that they will be working on for many more years. It also looks like their emotions get bigger and bigger as they give voice to all of their joys, sorrows, and displeasure. In our class we felt like the label “Transitional Twos” seemed more inline with what was happening developmentally, and all of our practical personal experience told us that the “Twos” had nothing on the “Threes” in terms of terribleness.

As I mentioned in my recent live chat over on my Facebook feed (click here to watch!), many of the parents I work with and those in my free online community have experienced the almost overnight change in their child as the transition from two to three years old. It’s like a switch is flipped and our sweet, compliant little baby becomes a moody, defiant teenager-in-training.

And really, that isn’t far from the truth. Both periods of life are characterized by monumental growth and development and are accompanied by an innate drive for autonomy. The catch with “threenagers” is that they are still quite dependent on their caregivers in a way that true teenagers are not. They not only need us for physical nourishment and protection, they need us for emotional nourishment and protection as well (an argument can be made that the same is true for teenagers, but that’s a conversation for another time), and at the same time, they desperately want, and have an innate drive to seek, independence and autonomy. They are figuring out who they are, striving for independence and looking for ways to have control over their lives, while at the same time wanting desperately to know that they are loved, cared for, protected, and safe. And that inner war of dependence and autonomy-seeking is what makes this time so hard for everyone in the family.

So, how can we all come through this tricky time in one piece? Here are 5 tips that the parents I’ve worked with have found particularly useful.

1. Marvel at their development and successes

The key to this is having a certain level of understanding around what is happening developmentally at this age. There are a number of great books and resources out there aimed at helping parents understand what is going on for their child physically, emotionally, and cognitively as they age. One of my favorites in terms of brain development is The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. The first chapter alone is super helpful in understanding more about your child’s development and the rest of the book encorporates evidence-based parenting practices that promote healthy development.

Another series that lots of parents find really helpful is Louise Bates Ames’ series, which has one book for each year of development. Here is the link to the three-year old book. These books are aimed solely at explaining development and not really concerned with parenting approaches. One caveat: they were written in the 80’s so they aren’t exactly cutting edge and you will need to take some of take some of the cultural assumptions and heteronormative language with a grain of salt, but they do provide sound information for what to expect at each stage. Your local library will also likely have a whole section dedicated to parenting and can often have some good options for learning a bit more about child and brain development.

The reason this is so helpful is because it can help us approach this time in our child’s lives with a bit more perspective and can allow us to truly marvel at all they are learning and how much they have grown in such a short time. Keeping a firm hold on this sense of wonder and amazement can help us realize that much of what they’re doing isn’t because they are naughty (a term I really dislike) or because they are bad or because they want to test us, but rather is because they are navigating a very exciting but challenging stage of development. As Janet Lansbury has said, "This isn't personal- it's developmental."

As parents, if we can focus on the positive aspects of our children’s difficult behavior, we are more likely to respond in healthy and helpful ways. You can also use this sense of wonder and marveling to connect with your partner or other caregivers in your child’s life. Sharing a deep sense of amazement over the ways your child has grown can help caregivers connect after a long, hard day and get back on the same page in terms of how to handle things.   

2. Use humor (but never to them)

I’ve spoken before about how I use humor to deal with toddler tantrums and meltdowns. Sometimes saying to myself, “Wow, you are really NAILING three right now!” is just what I need to approach a situation with more patience and compassion. And just like connecting with your co-parent, partner, or other caregivers over your child’s amazing growth and success can help, connecting with humor over the trials of this period can help too. The crucial thing here is that it should never happen in front of them or in a way that could hurt the child. Children are deeply aware of how we perceive them, so use humor, but use it wisely and as a means of blowing off steam rather than as an actual strategy with your child and make sure it doesn't cloud the way you see your child as inherently good and trying their best.

And please, before you post things online, remember that these things last forever and having control of your online persona is an important thing to this newest generation. Always ask yourself before posting, “Will this embarrass my child in 10 years?” and if the answer is yes, send it in a text message or post it in a private group instead.

3. Tap into compassion- for all of you

There is no way around it, the later toddler years can be hard. No amount of wonder and enjoyment of their development is going to make it easy all the time. And many of you, like me, are living in a house with multiple toddlers. SO, cut yourself some slack, offer yourself a little bit of grace, and tap into compassion for yourself. You are doing the best you can during a legitimately difficult time. And, while you’re finding that grace and compassion for yourself (super easy to do right?), be sure that you’re offering some to the other people in your family too! Offer some to your partner when they lose their patience over socks “feeling weird” and to your kid, who likely doesn't yet have the language to explain what exactly is “weird” about their sock, and to the sibling who hasn’t had their needs met as the rest of the house deals with absolute disaster of a weird-feeling sock. We are all deserving of love, compassion, and grace and there is always enough to go around!

4. Don't do for them what they can do themselves

(unless of course they ask you to and doing so would make them feel loved and cared-for)

One reason this age is so hard is because, developmentally, they are very much in a place of  recognizing that they are a whole, separate human being, in and of themselves, and with that realization comes a very appropriate and understandable desire to make real choices for themselves about who they are, what they will or won't do, and how to do things for themselves. We see this starting to emerge as our younger toddlers fiercely proclaim, "Do it myself!"  Or as my wonderful niece, who used to call herself "you" instead of "me" would say: "YOU do it!!  YOUUUUUUU do it!" While jabbing herself in the chest. My sister says she always worried that other parents would hear this and think, “Poor kid, why won't her mom help her!” but I think we all know that most parents overhearing this would only be feeling sympathy, understanding, and maybe gratitude that it wasn't their own child screaming this time (you know you've felt that gratitue!).

The "do it myself" drive is so real in this period of life because it is all a part of coming to realize that there is a "self" that is completely theirs and no one else's. This drive for independence can be really hard for parents for so many reasons: while we are enjoying getting to know this new little person who is loudly making their identity and opinions known, we miss our little babies who were so willing to help and so happy to follow directions. Also, sometimes it's so much easier to just do these things for our kids. In the morning when we're trying to get out the door we don't feel like we have time to stand there while they spend 10 min putting on their own shoes, only to have a meltdown about the Velcro feeling scratchy. And sometimes it's true, we simply don't have time, but if we can it is best to support them in these bids for independence. If a child is consistently wanting to get dressed themselves but it is making the family late, rather than not letting them try, simply get the process started earlier so that you have time. If there is a play object a child consistently struggles with, but doesn't want your help, find a way to offer other support (rather than doing it for them). I always tell the parents I work with to intervene as little as possible, start as small as you can, maybe with just verbal hints at first, and work up as the child needs support. Create a scaffold for the child to do it themselves, rather than simply solving the problem for them. 

5. Know what you have control over and what you don’t, and then LET GO!

Another struggle that really comes out in this phase is our own struggle with feeling out of control when it comes to our children. We are often mourning a sense of control that we used have and coming to terms with what is our job and what is our child’s job. So many parents around this age start dealing with pickiness around food for the first time and it is HARD for us to let go of control. But the simple truth is that there are a few things (like food, potty, and sleep) that kids have complete control over. They intuitively know what those things are and hold on to them for dear life because they want control over their lives. They want autonomy. They want to choose. But so much is out of their control. They don't get to decided when to stay home or when to go to preschool. They don't get to choose so much, but when to poop, that's all theirs. And when or what to eat, again, totally up to them. And they know it and relish that feeling of power.

Our distressed reaction to losing that control can be VERY interesting to them, and also a little anxiety provoking, which makes the potential for a power struggle super high. The question of who is in charge is a question of attachment at this age. It is a question of security, a question of confidence. Kids need the answer to this question (which they are asking with their behavior as I discussed in this video here) to be answered calmly, with love and compassion, and with respect for their personhood. So in those moments, I recommend that parents simply give that power to them in a safe way, which means with boundaries. So while they decide when to go potty, you decide where (i.e. Not the house plants, as unreasonable as that may seem). And while they decide what to eat at dinner, you decide what is being offered as an option, with their input if you're open to it (i.e. Would you like strawberries or pears with supper? Both? Ok! Fruit salad it is!).  

If we can recognize, "I have no control over what she eats ." It can take the tension out of it, which will make it less interesting, less attractive as a source of power struggles, and ultimately our children will feel secure that, while they are in charge of their bodies, their parents are in charge of keeping them safe and healthy.

Because that's the ultimate tension of the "Threenager". They want independence and security all at the same time and we can offer that by giving them choices and control over their lives, all within our loving boundaries of health and safety. And that is ultimately where confidence comes from: the deep inner knowledge of who you are and what you need, and the trust and support of those around you in realizing those goals. So, if we want to make it out of the "threenager" years alive and with vibrant, confident kids, we first and foremost need to trust and respect them as individuals and then find ways to support them that don't undermine their burgeoning sense of self. 


Catch my live chat on this topic here: