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Navigating the choppy waters of life with a ‘threenager’


The urban dictionary defines “threenager” as a 3-year-old spouting attitude like a spoiled teenager. Its usage example: “My kid just left the house in mismatched/stained clothes and 17 bracelets because she’s a threenager and I have more important fights to pick.”

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Whoever said the twos were terrible obscured the challenges right around the corner. Parents everywhere are duped into thinking they’re in the clear when their child leaves two behind, but it doesn’t work that way.

What’s going on in those 3-year-old hearts and minds?

James Dobson, in “The Strong-Willed Child,” calls this stage the first adolescence.

Tovah Klein, associate professor of psychology and the director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, says that children begin to show signs of independence between 18 and 24 months. By age 3, that dial turns way up. “They are saying, ‘I am my own person,’ in a big way,” she says. “They are saying: ‘I have ideas and I want to carry them out and I want to carry them out verbally.’ ”

Three-year-olds have no sense of time. They can focus, but only on what they want to focus on. They have big, strong emotions and they are starting to express them, but they get overwhelmed by them, too. The trouble comes in, says Klein, “when you think that you’re speaking to a very reasonable human being. Verbally, they sound older than they are.” In “How Toddlers Thrive,” Klein writes, “They are caught between two battling needs: the desire for self and independence versus the need for comfort, security and the familiar — in other words, mama or dada.”

And then there are the constant questions. Daniel Huerta, a behavioral therapist and licensed clinical social worker, says 3-year-olds are not asking “why” out of disrespect, but because they are trying to understand things.

“This age probably takes the most energy because you’re teaching so much and there’s more potential for defiance — not in a bad way, just in an opinionated way,” says Huerta, the executive director of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family. “You’re not in control anymore. And really, when were you?”

In my case, what makes the situation more complicated are my problems. I thrive on order and control, calm and quiet. I am impatient. I don’t want parenting to require all of me — I want space for hobbies and house projects. So this is a learning experience for me, too. Along with my son, I am growing in self-control and love, which is both painful and wonderful.

I want my kids to be independent tooth-brushers, clothes-changers, eaters and potty-users. Someday, I want them to do their own laundry, keep a budget and get a job. Today, though, I tell my friends, I just want to get my kids in and out of the grocery store without everyone crying. I asked both Klein and Huerta for advice on how to get there.

Make sure everyone’s basic needs are being met. “The goal is to be attuned to your child, present and energetic,” Huerta says. “So you have to have a lot of self-care.” Sleep. Exercise. Eat well. Make time for your spouse. Take time away to do a hobby. These are not selfish things; they will give you the energy to be there for your child. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep and eating well, too.

Know your child, and adjust accordingly. At age 3, some personality traits are starting to emerge, Huerta says. Notice whether you have an introvert or an extrovert. Also pay attention to his temperament: Is he inhibited or uninhibited? Kids who are inhibited are more compliant and cautious, while those who are uninhibited give their parents stories to tell at their weddings. “You really have to pause your own life to direct this child,” he says. “If you don’t at 2 or 3, then at 6, 7, or 8, you’re going to get calls from school because your child is having trouble with impulse control.”

Take the “Parenting Point of View.” Klein advises parents of toddlers to try to see the world through their kids’ eyes. To parents, a date night is a nice evening out. But the child wonders if the parent will ever come back. Or take bedtime. Going to sleep is a relief for parents while a full night in the dark can be scary for kids. Taking a minute to try to see things from your child’s perspective can prevent a lot of exasperation.

Answer the tedious “why” questions. “When a kid asks ‘why,’ some parents say ‘just because’ and move on and they’re missing an opportunity to teach them something,” Huerta says. “It teaches them good emotional intelligence when a parent stops, gets down on their level, looks in their eyes and really explains why.” Emotional intelligence, Huerta explains, is a child’s ability to understand his feelings, to read others’ feelings, and to have empathy and patience. A simple, “Don’t do that because it’s not safe and it scares Mommy” when your child asks why he can’t dart out into traffic will go a long way.

Teach self-control and how to take turns. Use a timer to help your child know when things are going to happen. If one child wants to watch TV (“right now!”) but you need to attend to the baby first, you can set a timer for five minutes to let the older child know when he will get what he wants, and help him wait. “If it’s a ‘need,’ the parent pauses,” Huerta says. “If it’s a ‘want,’ that’s where a parent teaches a child how to be patient.” For more self-control practice, encourage kids to take turns with siblings and playmates.

Routine. Routine. Routine. “Life is hectic, but children need us to slow down and pay attention to their need for regularity,” Klein says. Think through the things you do every day, “the pieces of the day that happen over and over.” Then create a basic schedule. To help get everyone in the house on the same page, including caretakers, write it out and post it somewhere that it can be referenced easily. Think of the routine not as prison, but as the structure that will help kids gracefully handle irregularity, such as having company or taking a vacation. That way they learn that “today may be different, but I have a routine to return to,” she says.

Be realistic about behavior. Maybe going to the grocery store with the kids at night isn’t the best idea. Self-control is a resource we all use up during the day, so do hard things in the morning. If you have to go at night, Huerta advises parents to give kids something to fidget with, such as squeeze balls, and to move quickly through the store.

Give them control when you can. Ask your child to do adult things, such as help you with dishes or sweep the floor. Is it efficient? No. But you’re feeding his or her need to do things independently. In her book, Klein also has great suggestions for mealtime, including putting a plate of something on the table — rice cakes, carrot sticks, apple slices — that the child can grab at will. Meals, she says, should be about socialization, not about demanding that a child eat a certain amount of a particular food. So if a child says he is done, but an hour later, is hungry again, just point to that same bowl. “It takes the battle away and lets the child decide if they want to eat more at dinner in the future,” Klein says.

Have a sense of humor. Read books about parenting that make you laugh. (Of course our children are angels, but still try Bunmi Laditan’s “Honest Toddler” or “Toddlers are A**holes: It’s Not Your Fault.”) Be silly with your kids and help them to laugh at situations. Once, Huerta and his daughter went searching for “Patience” because his daughter had forgotten to bring her along. He led her on a search, saying, “Did you forget Patience in your room? Is she in your closet?” “At ages 5 or 6,” he says, “kids can start to make the connection and respond, ‘Oh Dad, I did forget her. Patience is now with me.’ ”

Find self-soothing techniques for yourself, too. When you get mad, find what helps you calm down. Maybe it’s stepping outside for a moment. Or put “pause buttons” around the house, Huerta says, to remind you that you need to put your own needs on hold for your kids’ needs when they are this young. With her own kids, Klein used to repeat: “He’s just a little boy.” And when your child has a tantrum or you blow your cool, Klein says the most important thing is to reconnect with the child, with a simple “I’m sorry” and “I love you.” Teach the child that no matter how mad mommy or daddy gets, he or she is still loved and accepted. “It doesn’t have to be long or drawn out,” Huerta says, “it can be quick, friendly, loving, and kind.”

All of these are simply weapons in the battle with threenagers — not for control over clothing choices but for our children’s character and soul and the adults they will become. And that is a battle worth fighting.

“Three ends at some point,” Huerta says. “Gain perspective. You’re investing right now in the long term, pressing pause on many moments in your own life, knowing that it’s going to pay off down the road. You’re teaching a child how to handle their will, handle self-control, how to manage having an opinion.”

We only get our threenagers for so long, before they are 4, and then 5, and then 6. … This too shall pass, and I’ll probably miss it.

Lindsey Roberts is a freelance writer. She can be reached at and she tweets @lindseymroberts.

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