God bless the parents of three year olds. After parenting four of them over a decade, I feel confident in saying that the threenager phenomenon is, in fact, a thing. And it is a really, really, exceptionally challenging, frustrating, and gloriously invigorating thing. If you are parenting a threenager, or if you have an eventual threenager, this is for you.
Before I get started, there’s one tool you won’t see in my dealing-with-toddlers/preschoolers strategy: wine. I know, there are a zillion memes out there to convince us all that the answer to life with toddlers is more wine. All the wine. But I’ve come to embrace the idea that wine is a perk of being an adult, and not an asset to being a parent. This is no knock on you vino-lovers out there (I have a glass of red waiting for my dinner tonight), but my own belief is that when it comes to navigating toddler-rearing, the best approach is one that focuses on dealing with their behavior and not escaping it with a bottle of the good stuff.
Now on to the fun. You should know that of my four older children, the fourth, my current threenager, is the absolute toughest. I don’t know if I was buying into some universal parenting hype, or if I just convinced myself of what I wanted to believe, but I genuinely expected the fourth kid to just hop onboard with whatever the rest of us were doing. You guys, I have never been more wrong about anything. My sweet and stubborn little Kent is proof that God has a great sense of humor. With Kent, I have to use every tool in my parenting toolkit. He is the most strong-willed of all my strong-willed children. He knows what he wants and he will stand his ground until my mind is unraveled. There is no tantrum so great that my Kento can’t top it. But he’s a person, and he’s learning about his world as he goes through these, and he’s teaching me too. My response to life with a threenager is not to eradicate all threenager behavior, but to carefully navigate it in a way that lets us all grow out of it and into a better relationship with one another.
At the heart of all my behavior management strategies is a desire to teach my children to navigate their own emotions. That’s so hard for a toddler/preschooler. The world is so big and so new and so stimulating. It’s all so exciting, and it’s hard to understand that while the world may be your oyster, you can’t just go around snatching pearls all the time. (I’m not sure that makes sense, but let’s just go with it.) My three year olds have always wanted to taste all the things, play with all the toys, and make all the noise. And when they can’t…disaster. My children are epic tantrum throwers (they get that from me). When things go south, they go south quickly, and before you know it, they’re a wallowing mess of screaming and contorting in the floor leaving puddles of crocodile tears in every direction. Bless their hearts. In the picture of Kent posted above, he’s crying because 1) he wanted to leave on our vacation a day early, and thought if he suited up we would just go, and 2) he wanted to take an entire box of granola bars and a gallon-size bag of animal crackers that would be only his, completely inaccessible to the other children in the family. My boy.
I had a woman I worked with once tell me that she had two sons, and she had two of everything. Her boys were teenagers at the time, and she explained to me that she had two X-boxes, two computers, two iPads…you get it. I asked her if this was super expensive and if she felt like it was worth it, and she said “I have a peaceful home.” And I’m sure she did. But I also know that, at least for my children, I can’t afford to buy two of everything just for the sake of avoiding fighting, and I also don’t particularly want the kind of peace that’s achieved just by making sure everyone in the house has everything they want all the time, with no interruptions. That’s not what life is like, and what are we doing if not preparing our children for an emotionally healthy life later on? No. My goal for this squad is to learn to be okay with disappointment, and to be able to handle getting angry, frustrated, irritated, or (the horror!) bored, and still navigate their day to day lives.
So here are my little tricks to making it through, when the screaming and door slamming and all-out defiance come out in force:
- Clear cut boundaries: I’ve written about this before, so I’ll be brief. It’s so important to be really clear and consistent, especially with toddlers, about what is and is not acceptable. My kiddos know that we sit at the dinner table until we’re finished, we do not play with our food, and we ask to be excused. They might horse around and make ridiculous inappropriate jokes (heaven help me), but they know where I draw the line.
- Routines: As a homeschooler, and more significantly as an unschooler, it’s easy for me to let routines slide and just be flexible every day based on how we’re feeling. But that’s not what a three year old needs. A three year old needs structure. They need to know what to expect. So having dinner at a regular place and a regular time is important. So is having a place for their things. How can they understand that we want them to clean up their toys today when every other day it’s okay for them to be on the floor? A little pick-up time before dinner or nap time is a great way to start a routine of keeping their space neat.
- Smooth transitions: If you are altering the plan, tell them ahead of time. I find that if at bedtime each night I tell my guys what to expect the next day, they wake up ready for what we’re going to do. And if I change the plans, telling them ahead of time, then giving 10 and 5 minute warnings can make all the difference. There is no worse feeling than telling an unsuspecting toddler that we have to find his shoes because it’s time to leave and we’re already going to be late. Seriously. It’s the worst.
- Time to chill out: This is for both mom and kiddo. I used to ask my kids to choose to chill out or be sent to time-out. But now I’ve realized that time-out is the place to chill out. My Kent is a screamer. Like…top of his lungs, stomping his feet, getting red-in-the-face screamer. And in those moments, it’s hard for me not to shout at him, if for no other reason than to be heard over him. But it’s never effective. If he’s angry to the point that he’s screaming, it’s time for him to go chill out by himself. Whether he goes there willingly or not, we have designated his room, more specifically, a beanbag in his room, as the place for him to go if he needs to chill out. I’ve carried him there kicking and screaming more times than I can count, but now he knows to just go there when he’s losing his mind. (And yes, he goes there stomping and screaming the whole way.)
- The trick to this is not making eye contact and not debating. Just carry him to the chill-out space, tell him he’s there to calm down, and he can come out when he’s calm. When he tries to escape, calmly carry him back there and say the same thing. And once you’ve done it twice, you no longer even engage in telling him, you just take him back to the chill out space every time he escapes. The first time I did this Kent tried to escape his room 16 times. The second time I did this, he tried 4 times. And the third time, he just sat stewing on his beanbag until I let him out. Now it’s the norm. He loses his mind on a regular basis- he’s just a kid who burns hot and cold- but now he has a place to go chill out without destroying the house or hurting anyone (or making his mother crazy). Just be sure to recap why he went there in the first place, and see if you can resolve what he was mad about before the time-out had to happen.
- This also works for me, when I just can’t take anymore of the kids’ behavior. It’s true. I have a horrible temper. I love too much and I fume to much. My kids joke about being able to see me visibly seething. When I’m that frustrated, I need a chill-out break. So I tell them Mommy’s going to chill for 15 minutes, and that usually means looking at memes in my room or reading my Bible or listening to a couple of songs to calm my nerves, before coming out to face the crowd again. And if I’m still seething? I have to tell my husband I need a break when he gets home (or call a sitter) so I can clear my head and put angry mommy back out of the picture.
- When you’re out and about…this is a judgment call. I’ve left carts full of groceries or marched a child out of a children’s museum 5 minutes into a visit because of temper tantrums, but I’ve also had days where we needed groceries and I couldn’t drop everything, so I put in my headphones and got the list done with a screaming whining kid. You’re not responsible for other people watching and judging your parenting- you’re just responsible for raising your kid the way you think is best, mama. Do what you gotta do.
- Model good communication: A toddler is learning how to interact with his environment, so give him a great demonstration of how to do that. I don’t expect the child who has the toy first to share, I expect the child who wants a turn to wait his turn. I don’t expect my three year old to suggest he’ll have his dessert after his dinner, I teach him that it’s what’s going to happen through routines. When I make mistakes or lose my temper, I explain that to my kids and apologize to them, so they know that I expect them to do the same (I also tell them I expect them to do the same). A child who regularly hears “please” and “thank you” will say please and thank you, not only because they’re expected, but because they’re just part of everyday speech. Hearing “no” is no different. A child who regularly hears “I’m sorry, but we aren’t doing that today, you’ll have to wait for another time,” or “I know you want that toy today, but that’s not what we’re shopping for,” will eventually learn that being disappointed is not fatal. They may not love the discomfort of it, but they’ll certainly have developed the habit of taking tough news and living through it.
And ultimately, the real secret to surviving a threenager? Realistic expectations. We all have bad days. We all have crushing disappointments that make us cry and wish someone would just give us a warm hug. There are plenty of times I can say to my toddler “I am not going to give you what you want, but if you want a hug, I can give you that. I know it’s hard not having something that is important to you.” Many times that’s all it takes. We lovingly nicknamed Kent “Angry Baby,” because he’s always just gotten so upset at not having things his way, but he’s also the most loving of all of us, and the fastest to recover when things go amiss. Canceled plans? Rain delays? The trampoline park is closed? He may scream, but his day is never ruined by these, because he’s already learned that the day goes on, and he’s conditioned himself to finding another way to amuse himself. I’ll post more about this soon, but we recently turned off our television and computer indefinitely (maybe permanently), and removing that instant entertainment for our children has yielded an even more flexible approach in them. We create the expectations they have for their world, and if they get what they want by screaming, or just because they’re alive, they’ll struggle living in a world that just won’t deliver their every wish. It’s a much more peaceful home when the children can take disappointment like little champs, and even better when they know that when they’re disappointed, a hug from someone they love will make up for it anyway. It’s teaching them what really matters- because even at 3, they can understand it.
Hugs to you and yours,