The Threenager: Why Dealing With Three Year Olds Is So Hard

Before I had kids, I would always say that three year olds were my favorite.  They are so cute-no longer babies but not quite big kids.  They look adorable dressed up like miniature adults.  They can talk enough to tell you what they want and need but make these cute little language errors.  Classic gems like my daughter saying, “I had honey dude for lunch.” 

Awww!!

BUT….

Welcome, the terrible and ferocious fits of a three year old.  The craziness of arguing about cutting up peaches and then her being furious that the now cut up peaches are not whole.  It can literally feel like a constant war zone with a three year old in the house.  Watch out, land mine over socks.  Beware, another one over here about a toy.  More than one kid in the room…danger zone!

Mom’s…it’s YOU (but it’s not your fault)

You’re gonna love this research.  Do you ever feel like your toddler is hell on wheels-but only when you’re around? Leave your toddler with Dad to go to the store and he reports everything is wonderful! Babysitters love your three year old.  Day care says that they are super! Wait, is this really the same child?

Well, researchers investigated this “worse with mom” phenomenon and low and behold, they found that children under ten are 1600% worse with their mothers compared to other caregivers (including amazing Dads). 800% worse in general. But 1600% if under ten. Let that sink in.

Just entering the room is enough to trigger a change in behavior, including asking for food even if they had just eaten!

See, it’s all your fault, Mom! (But, it has nothing to do with you).

100% of the children in the study responded better to a normal tone of voice from ANYONE other than the mother.  100%.  That means when Dads tell you that you need to be more stern and that’s the problem.  WRONG…you actually have to speak like your are “being attacked by large animals” (according to the study) to get the same result as non-Mom’s.

So, that explains why we feel like we are always yelling.

What To Do With A Needy Three Year Old?

  • Don’t get frustrated! Understand that your three year old is biologically wired to respond more “needily” to you.  Also, remind yourself that this is because you are so important to her!
  • Get help! Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the best.  Leave your child with one of the people that have such an easy time with her behavior so that you can get a break.  (Not forever, but for an afternoon).  Usually, getting away is a cure for most things.  If you don’t have a lot of help, offer to switch with other moms, call in some favors, use a local drop off service.  Whatever it takes!
  • Sleep: This one works for both you AND your toddler.  This might also be an age where your child refuses to nap or is fighting bedtime. But, don’t give up. Continue to work on your sleep routine or consider a sleep consultant.  Sleep rules all.  If you are not getting enough sleep, you will never be at your best. Same for your child.
  • Don’t resort to drugs or alcohol: It is tempting to solve your frustration with another bottle of wine.  Having something that will help you relax is key, but drugs and alcohol are going to work against you in the long run.  Yes, a glass of wine at the end of the night is okay. But don’t overdo it.  Dealing with toddlers with a hangover is never fun!
  • Don’t take it personally! Didn’t I say that already? Yes, but you need to hear it twice.  Your child doesn’t hate you. She is not trying to make you miserable.  You are not a bad mom.  This is the unfortunate part of parenting and it will get better.

Some Practical Tips for Dealing with Three Year Olds

First, let me say that NOTHING WORKS ALL THE TIME.  These are tips that will help manage the behavior of toddlers, but tantrums are a part of life.   If you are in the midst of an angry toddler, some things seem to work more frequently than others.

LABEL AND REFLECT FEELINGS: 

Throughout the course of your day, try to insert feelings words into your conversations with your toddler.  This is especially true with non-verbal kids (start preparing from birth).  You can essentially narrate your child’s experience.  If they scrunch up their face when eating a lemon for the first time, you can reflect, “You were surprised at how sour that was and you didn’t like it.”  If they grunt and sigh when putting on socks, comment back, “You’re getting frustrated that those socks won’t cooperate.”

By putting a feeling word with the emotion at the exact time that the emotion is being felt, you are helping a child learn how to communicate their experience.  In the future, they will be better able to tell you what is wrong using words instead of throwing massive fits.

This is a marathon, not a sprint.  This one is going to help you long term, but might not help much in the moment of the next massive tantrum.

OFFER CHOICES

To reduce power struggles with your toddler, offer choices throughout the day.  The basic rules of choices:

  1. Two at a time (apple juice or orange juice?) not (What do want to drink?)
  2. Both must be acceptable to you (apple juice or orange juice?) not (apple juice or Mountain Dew?)
  3. Repeat the original choice a few times (chocolate milk was not a choice…apple juice or orange juice?)
  4. Failure to decide IS a choice.  So, if your child refuses to choose between the two, let them know that you will pick for them.  (Last chance or I get to pick) and then (you can decide to drink the apple juice or not drink it). Choices are empowering.   You can use this language instead of bribes.

ESTABLISH GOOD ROUTINES

I can not say enough about the importance of routines and structure for toddlers.  If you do things in the same order and at the same time every day, little kids thrive.  Notice, I did not say “about the same time.” I mean, LITERALLY, at the same time every day.  I know, that seems impossible.

Bedtime is at 7pm EVERY DAY.  Not around 7. Not 7:15 one day and 7:30 the next and 6:55 another day.

Bedtime is at 7pm. Period.  Change your life for the sake of the schedule.

(Note: bedtime might be at 8pm or whatever works in your family. It doesn’t matter as much WHAT the routine is, more so that you stick to it).

The same is true for what you do before bedtime (or any other part of the day).  Get repetitive.  Now, I know that there are some families that say this is overkill. Great, don’t solve a problem that doesn’t exist. But, if you are having struggles with your toddler…examine your routines (or lack there of) and start there.

USE TRANSITION WARNINGS

Once you have a great routine, you can use transition warnings to remind toddlers that a new activity is coming.  5 more minutes and it’s time to get in the bath.  1 more minute and it’s bath time.  Time for your bath.

Again, the key is to be consistent and don’t lose track of time.  If you give a 5 minute warning and then answer a phone call and talk for 20 minutes, you lose! You are trying to teach children what 5 minutes FEELS like.  They can only learn it if you actually use the warning consistently with the clock.

Don’t give in for extra time here! Stick to it.

*Note, you can also do a countdown.  10 more swings and then it’s time to go.  2 more swings and then it’s time to go.  Last swing! Okay, it’s time to go. (AND THEN GO!)

TIME IN VS. TIME OUT

TIME OUT:

In the midst of a tantrum, most people will use some version of time out.  Time out is a great tactic.  Go to your room, sit in this chair, stand in the corner…doesn’t matter.  The typical rule is one minute of time out per age of the child. So, three year olds would stay in time out for 3 minutes.

DITCH THAT RULE!

Instead, use time out to teach regulation (therapy code for “get it together”). The second that your child has stopped crying, let them out of time out.  You want to reinforce the regulation (calm) and not require a young child to continue sitting in time out “to think about what they have done.”

“When you are done crying, you can come play!”  

TIME IN

If you have a child that is hurting himself or one that refuses to stay in time out, then try time in.  This is essentially a way for you to hold your child so that they get the benefit of physical contact to help them regulate.  You might need to use some muscles to keep them in your lap (or next to you). But the option is to come sit with me until you are ready to play.

Some people think this is rewarding bad behavior. NOPE! This is teaching children a skill.  They can’t use it alone in time out until they learn it.  Hold them, rock them, breathe deeply and practice calming down together.  Again, when they stop crying, immediately offer the option to get back to whatever they were doing.

PLAY

I know it seems counter-intuitive but when your child is being the most oppositional, she might just need to play.  With you! I remember one day that my toddlers would not stop running in the house. They were driving me crazy and every time I tried to discipline them for their out of control behavior, it just got worse.  Finally, I jumped on the Hover board and starting chasing them around with Frankenstein arms and a big lion roar.  They ran and giggled and yelled, “get me, get me!”  Not only did it completely wear them out in about ten minutes, but it totally changed my attitude as well.

And finally, WALK AWAY

Sometimes, the best option is to simply walk away.  The tantrum is the tantrum.  No amount of “you’re so frustrated right now” is going to work.  You don’t have the energy to keep putting her in time out and your child bites if you try to hold her in time in.

Sometimes, the best option is to take away the audience! If your child is not a danger to herself or others, you can just let this little firecracker fizzle out.   “You can be mad right here.”  Even if that right here is in the middle of the aisle at Target. (Note… in public, you can not actually walk far away). But do something else, check your phone, pretend to compare calories on the boxes.   Ignore the behavior for a few minutes and see what happens.

Again, the key is pay attention to the second that your child stops crying.  At the exact second (as much as possible), make eye contact contact, praise the behavior, offer physical contact (hug/high five, etc) and then reinforce the next choice/boundary/schedule.

Final Thoughts

Again, I can’t stress enough that nothing works all the time.  The two biggest emotional milestones for young children are “Autonomy vs. Shame” and “Initiative vs. Guilt.”   They are learning how to exert their will and how to have purpose in their lives. This is a big task and one that will have major bumps. Also note that the more headstrong, independent, or seemingly intelligent your child is, the more likely that you will bump heads from time to time.  And alternatively, a child with special needs, speech delays or medical problems is dealing with extra challenges and may test your patience as well.

The bottom line is that there are some things that you can do to reduce tantrums in three year olds, but the goal is not zero.  That is unrealistic and impossible.

And, when they are not throwing a massive fit…take their pictures, record them singing and dancing. After all, three is still my favorite age because they are so darn cute.

Things like,

 

(Need a way to capture all those cute things your toddler says?  I use this free app, “Little Hoots”)  Share your Little Hoots with me!

About the Author Jen Taylor

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

  • Danielle Holloway says:

    This is a excellent article Jennifer. I too have a “threenager”. Somedays lately, I don’t know how I am going to survive. That you for normalizing a lot of his behavior. Even though I’m a therapist and I know normal and appropriate developmental milestones and such. I can’t help but wonder if one of these tantrums is a diagnosable mental health issue (using sarcasm here). Thank you for the listing the tips to help with him. Luckily, we are already doing the majority of the things that you mentioned. But like you said, no one is perfect and not everything will work, and this a marathon not a sprint. But the best thing I saw that you wrote was, “This will not last forever”. And God willing, it won’t!

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