Just when you thought you wouldn't survive the “terrible twos,” there is yet another age to fear during your child's growth and development and that's the year of the “threenager.” What is a threenager you ask? If you do a basic search on the web, you can get a variety of equally funny, yet terrifying answers (this was my personal favorite). Most suggest that a threenager is a three year old that acts and has the attitude of a teenager. In case you're not parenting a teenager at the moment or you've forgotten what it's like to be one, let me refresh your memory. Think: mood swings, emotional outbursts out of nowhere, angst, and fighting for independence, but all the while still needing mom and dad. All joking aside, my hope is to explain what your three-year-old child is going through and why many of her actions are developmentally appropriate. Maybe that will ease some of the frustration and the “I’m going to pull out my hair if she refuses to put on her pants one more time!” moments. I also hope that I am able to give you some tools on how to better parent your threenager so you are more prepared once they become actual teenagers!
To understand why your once darling child is behaving like a megalomaniac it first helps to explain what’s going on in her brain. Dr. Daniel Siegel, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and Tina Bryson, Ph.D., a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist, break down brain development quite well in their book, “The Whole-Brain Child.” Our brains are divided into two hemispheres, the left and the right. Our left brain is logical; our rational, literal, linguistic and linear centered thinking occurs here. Conversely, our right brain is more emotional; It is non-verbal and holistic. It sees the entire picture and the feelings that go along with it. From a developmental standpoint, toddlers--children ages one to three--are right-brain dominant. That means they have not yet developed a logical way of thinking. Therefore, they are living “emotionally” and cannot use words or logic to describe their feelings and live completely in the here and now. Have you ever wondered how your child has the uncanny ability to drop everything she’s doing to gaze at every rock or animal on the way to get in the car to drive to school, not caring that you clearly have some place to be? It’s not that she’s trying to drive you crazy, it’s that she has no sense of time and can’t rationalize that getting to school on time is more important than staring at rocks and cute animals. Is this sounding familiar? That being said, when your child finally begins to ask the dreaded “why?” use that as a clue that her left brain is emerging. The reason she wants to know why you have to get in the car, and why she must get in her car-seat and why she needs to go to school is that her left brain, that part of our brain that likes to know the cause and effect of relationships, is waking up. Furthermore, your child wants to be able to verbalize those rational thoughts with language.
In addition to right and left-brain dominance, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that provides behavior regulation and carries out executive function) is also still developing and will continue to mature through adolescence and into early adulthood. In other words, this is the part of the brain that helps differentiate among conflicting thoughts, good and bad, better and best, same and different, and performs social “control.” So, the reason your child unexpectedly lashes out at you because you (heaven forbid) cut her grilled cheese in half is because that part of her brain has not fully developed yet. It’s going to take some time for her to be able to self-regulate and control these emotions.
At three years of age, your child is officially out of the toddler stage and into the preschool stage. Socially and emotionally she likes to imitate adults and friends. She is beginning to show affection for friends without being prompted. She displays a wide variety of emotions (sometimes to your dismay!) and may get upset by changes in her routine. She begins to engage in fantasy play and she may have a difficult time telling the difference between what’s real and what’s not. As far as language development goes, she can speak in sentences of five to six words and speaks clearly enough for most strangers to understand. She may begin to tell stories and she has mastered some basic grammar rules. Cognitively, she can name some colors, she can count and may know a few numbers. While most toddlers have no concept of time, three-year-olds are starting to have a clearer sense of it. She can follow three step commands (when she wants to) and she now understands the concepts of “same” and “different”. In a nutshell, your threenager is practicing her independence. She wants to make her own decisions and feel like she’s in control, but she also needs you, her parents, as well. Tovah Klein, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development in Manhattan, as well as the author of “How Toddlers Thrive” writes that children this age have primary needs that are motivated by two instinctual drives “the need to separate and the accompanying desire to become an independent being with a sense of self.” Even though she wants to begin to separate from you, she also wants to know you’re still there to set limits, provide comfort, guidance, and protection. It’s what she calls the “toddler paradox,” they push us away, only to pull us close again.
All of this right brain dominance with left brain emerging, lack of self-regulation, wanting control, push and pull, can make the task of parenting very challenging for us parents. Fortunately, instituting a few the following tips can make life a little easier (see here for entire list). While I don't have the time to discuss all of these tips, there are two I'd like to highlight. One is to be attuned to your child. This may be one of the most important tips because when we are seeing the world through our child's point of view we can better understand why the melt-downs take place. For example, let's say your child throws a fit each time you try to put her coat on her while you're trying to get out the door in the morning. The morning rush can be difficult for three-year-olds and for parents alike. It's often hurried and your child's needs or wants may be overlooked in the chaos. Being attuned means figuring out why she doesn't want to put on her coat in the first place. When you take the time to slow down and ask her, you find that she doesn't want to wear the pink coat, she wants to wear the blue coat. Aha, problem solved!
Another important tip I'd like to discuss is to be consistent. This means that, as a parent, you consistently address behaviors that are problems. Three-year-olds need this consistency. They want to know what to expect in a given situation, but it is also natural for them to test their limits. For example, if you don't want your child to play with her food at the table today, you act on it right now, and then again tomorrow and the next day if she does it. Calmly say “Please don't play with your food. You can either eat in the chair or play on the floor, but you can't play with your food at the table”. If she begins to play with her food, you gently and calmly take away her food, take her out of her highchair and place her on the ground. What you've done here is given her a choice, which she made, and now come the consequences of that choice. This needs to consistently happen for the misbehavior to be replaced with good behavior. Also, make sure that other caregivers are on the same page as well. Finally, please don't forget that for each time you correct your child, you should be offering praise or loving words ten times more and praise effort, not the outcome. This way she gets positive attention and not negative attention.
Now that you are equipped with the knowledge of your three-year-old's current developmental state, coupled with some tips to help you parent her, you will survive the year of the threenager. Think of this year as being Mother Nature's way of helping you survive the teenage years. Good luck!
Information presented adapted from:
American Academy of Pediatrics, Tips to Survive the Terrible 3s.
American Academy of Pediatrics, Developmental Milestones 3 to 4 Year Olds.
Klein, Tovah, How Toddlers Thrive
Siegel, Daniel J & Bryson, Tina P, The Whole-Brain Child
Mary-Faith Fuller, CPNP
I am a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who has worked at ABC Pediatrics since January 2014.