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When Jack was two and Luke was one, I would often say I can’t wait to be over the terrible twos. People would always respond that wait till there three, but not many told me why. I had no idea what I was in for until I did some research.
What is Threenager?
It is a three-year-old child that has the attitude of a teenager, but worse because they are still learning right from wrong.
The signs you have a “threenager”:
- They want to do everything themselves. First, you think this is great; my child is going to be independent. Then it hits you as you can’t dare to try interfering or expect a meltdown. In a rush to get somewhere on time but your child insists that he must put on his shoes by himself.
- No matter how hard you try to ask about their day at preschool, they never tell. I ask Jack daily when we get in the car, and he tells me, “nothing,” “circle time,” or “played outside.” When I ask what you learned during circle time, he says, “nothing.”
- Everything must be right there and then. Manners sometimes slip as your child says, “I want water.” I have said several 100 times now not till you can ask correctly, but he sometimes will and sometimes won’t. If I am in the middle of something and say, please give me a minute, then prepare for a meltdown, talking back, and possibly an eye roll.
- They’ve started to have comebacks to everything you say. Here are some of today’s comebacks, Momma stop shaking your face no, I am just going to sit here forever, or I can’t do that because of its quiet time. I am currently typing this during a quiet time when they are napping. Jack said he couldn’t clean up the mess he made because it was during quiet time. However, when I said that’s fine, I will get a trash bag that was the end of that.
- They start bargaining with you. You may begin to hear, “If I clean up all my toys, then I can go outside, or we can go somewhere.” We were going to go to Kings Dominion here in Virginia, but it took three hours to get the playroom cleaned up. We couldn’t go because it got too late to go on a Sunday.
- Parents being put in timeout. Yes, you did read that correctly. I have been put in timeout today because I yelled, so I went in the corner with my coffee and sat there. It was kind of peaceful, and I wish I could be in timeout more often.
During these times, I search deep inside for whatever patience I have left. I often must remind myself that he is going through some significant life development. He is learning to use his words, independence, and emotions. It is my job as a parent to encourage it and teach how to display it correctly.
Changes your child is going through during this time:
- They are learning to manage and communicate their emotions. They start to understand their feelings and can tell you that you made them sad because of such and such. My son often tells me I made him cry, and that is not nice. I have reminded him that I did that because you would not listen. Their emotions are often intense and can seem overwhelming. The best parents can do during these times is to be patient and understanding.
- They are learning how to solve the conflict. It may involve hitting, biting, or pushing on impulse as they are learning the difference between appropriate and inappropriate conflict resolution skills.
- They’re learning empathy. When someone is hurt, your child can relate and will sometimes act to make the person feel better. It can give you a heartwarming response as they are doing what you have done to all their boo-boos.
How long does this phase last?
The good news is that most parents face something similar to a ‘Threenager’ while their children are growing up. They can be hard work, test your patience, and exhausting at times. Other times it melts your heart because they are growing up and holding open doors, saying please, thank you, and so much more.
This phase often can begin and end with a few months to a year as it varies on how you handle each situation and your child. Honestly, I wish I could say days, but dealing with it first hand back to back with both boys some days are better than others.
What is after the Threenager phase?
Well, you asked, and let me tell you when you think you have had enough, there are the fucking fours. Sorry about the language, but that is what it is. My experience on that will come later because we are currently going through that with Jack while Luke is in the Threenager phase.
Tips for Surviving the Threenager phase
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.
The reason this is so helpful is that 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 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 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)
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 an 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 that, 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.
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:
1.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.
2. 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). You will want 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 to 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. But so much is out of their control.
Our distressed reaction to losing that control can be an amusing reaction 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 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 that.” 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.
Do you have a Threenager at home? What do they do or say that makes you feel like you are in the same boat? I’d love to hear it because of the things are funny when you look back on it after it happened.