Disciplining a three-year-old can be a challenge. Here are effective ways to handle a threenager, no matter how strong-willed your child may be.
“No more jumping,” I told my three-year-old. “It’s too loud for the neighbors. Walk to the bathroom instead, please.”
His reply? “You’re not my friend! I’m not talking to you!”
Welcome to the threenager stage: three-year-olds with the sass of a teenager.
Three-year-olds test their boundaries like their “terrible twos” counterparts, but with attitude and stubbornness. I’m sure they’d roll their eyes if they could, just like a 13-year-old would.
How to handle a threenager
Dealing with a threenager can be more shocking if you didn’t see much of the terrible twos. You thought you were safe when your child skipped the tantrums everyone talked about. That is, until the threenager stage hit you when you least expected it.
For a while there, I thought my twins weren’t the “tantrum-y” type. Whereas I was dealing with weekly tantrums from their older brother, these guys seemed to coast right along. Then they turned three, and I wondered if they’d been saving it all up for now.
Thankfully, I dug around for ways to handle a threenager, many of them rooted in positive parenting and the understanding that this is all normal. Below are a few of the tips I learned and recommend:
1. Give your child independence
This is the age where preschoolers are shedding their baby-ness and want to be like the big kids. They’re aware of the difference between babies and toddlers on one side, and the preschoolers and bigger kids on the other.
Rather than holding your child back, encourage her growing independence. She may even be so surprised at your willingness to let her try that she’ll go above and beyond to do her best. She needs to know you trust her with tasks like putting on her shoes or carrying her own plate.
Rather than feeling stifled, she’ll appreciate the room to explore, especially with the autonomy to do things on her own. With a threenager’s independence comes the need to step back and allow it to happen. As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:
“We do too much, whether it’s chores, directing play time or managing every minute of their day. Kids don’t have a chance to find who they are or what they’re capable of.
They can’t face or cope with the inevitable difficulties life will throw at them. After all, we’d buffered and saved them as much as we can. So much so that they grow up still depending on us for things they should be able to do.”
This can be especially tough when she takes forever to put on her shoes or spills the basket of blueberries all over the floor. Still, this is when you need to draw patience and reassure yourself that mistakes and messes are all part of the learning process.
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2. Label your child’s emotions
At three-years-old, your child wonders whether she’s the only one who feels jealous of her siblings or angry at her parents. She’s unsettled when she feels her heart beating fast or tightening in sadness.
Labeling emotions defines these feelings. Calling these feelings by name makes them normal—something we all experience. It’s the same as coming down with a new ailment you haven’t had, and someone says, “Oh I know that—that’s called [fill in the ailment].” It’s reassuring.
Now that she’s more verbal, talking about emotions is even easier. Describe how she looks angry, or that she might be feeling disappointed. Take advantage of her growing vocabulary to include emotions in your everyday language.
And let her know how her words and actions affect you and those around her. Explain how her words had been hurtful, or how we need to respect one another. She’s still egocentric in the way kids are—describing how others feel is one way to teach empathy.
3. Accept all your child’s emotions
Your threenager will go through many ups and downs. Now’s not the time to withhold your affection because she was being sassy or reprimand her for making mistakes (we all make mistakes).
She needs to know you love her, even when her behavior is out of control.
Instead of taking things personally, guide her through the madness. As difficult as it is to stomach her antics, her emotions are harder for her than they are for you. These challenging times are when she needs you the most.
This doesn’t mean gushing over her bad behavior, or allowing her to keep speaking to you rudely. But it does mean being compassionate, not saying anything hurtful back, or making it seem like you’ll only spend time with her when she’s happy.
4. Model the behavior you want to see
Your child will mimic your behavior more so than any discussion you may have with her. You can discipline all day, but none of that will matter if your own behavior doesn’t follow the values you teach.
This is hard, especially with a threenager. It’s tempting to respond with something sarcastic, but speak with respect. Curb her bad attitude by doing the same yourself.
She’s learning to manage her own communication skills. The more she sees good examples to model after, the more she’ll be able to follow suit. When she starts hitting and getting angry, give yourself a pep talk: “Okay, it’s game time! Let’s try something new. She needs me to be patient right now, not angry.”
5. Show empathy
Rather than disciplining or even reasoning with your child, simply show empathy with what she’s feeling.
Let’s say she’s angry because she wants her favorite cup that happens to be in the dishwasher. Say, “I can see you’re upset that you don’t have your cup. I’d be pretty mad, too.” Show that you understand her feelings. Often, when kids are angry, they want people to acknowledge how they feel.
Then, don’t downplay what they’re upset about and say, “It’s just a cup” or “Get another one right here.” She needs you to know the depth of her frustration (even if it’s just over a silly cup!).
Show her that you’re on her side, not against her. That you’re on her team, can understand why she’s mad, and that you’ll help her get through it.
6. Remember, she’s not a teenager
We laugh about our little threenagers who think they’re a decade older than they are. It’s tempting to compare them to teenagers—except they’re not. Far from it.
They’re still the little kids who need help managing social interactions. The ones who struggle with meltdowns and outbursts and still need us to be patient through all their antics.
At one point, one of my twins had been so calm and composed, only to spend the next few minutes yelling at me. Not in the typical “I’m throwing a tantrum” yelling. More like the, “Go away, I don’t want to see you” kind.
It’s tough to be patient and much easier to lose our cool. But it’s during these times—the hardest times—our kids need us the most. Yes, even when they jump after we just told them not to, or yell and slam the door.
They’re three, not thirteen, still grappling with their emotions and growing independence.
Learning to handle a threenager is no easy task. While you may have thought you escaped the terrible twos, you instead have a three-year-old as stubborn as a teen. Thankfully, parents can do plenty to turn things around.
Give your child the independence she craves now that she’s leaving toddlerhood behind. Label her emotions so she can use words to share what she feels (and to know she’s not alone in feeling them). Accept her emotions, no matter how frustrating or difficult they may be for either of you.
The best way to teach the behavior you want to see is to model it yourself. This means no back talking, saying hurtful words or disrespecting her.
And finally, remember that she isn’t a teenager—as tempting as it is to pin her as a sassy teen, she’s not. She’s still a three-year-old who needs her mom just as she always has, even if she yells, “I’m not your friend!”
Get more tips:
- How to Stop Preschool Behavior Problems
- How to Respond When Your 3 Year Old Tantrums Every Day
- What to Do When Your 3 Year Old Won’t Stay in Bed
- 9 Warning Signs You’re Raising a Spoiled Child
- Parenting Your Strong Willed Child
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