The Magical Three: On parenting a three-year-old

3

I am not the first person to say this, but age three took me by surprise.

Here I was, hanging out for the Terrible Twos, but they never came. Instead, soon after My Little Sunshine Girl’s third birthday, something ticked over. It was like fireworks went off. I’m sorry, but where did you put my little girl? One day, I was boasting about how I could take her anywhere, and about how kind and gentle she is, the next, I am stuffing wads of cotton wool in my ears to protect my ear drums from shattering.

That scream.

We were driving down the highway when we first heard it. It was so piercing, my husband’s knuckles turned white on the steering wheel.

My previous response to behaviour I didn’t like was to ignore it. Within minutes, it evaporated. But I was told I needed to put clear boundaries in place to control this new brand of behaviour.

Make it known what you do and don’t likeIt’s OK to be firm.

Being clear about boundaries, and using a stern voice, worked for my husband. The child, red-eyed and wild-haired with emotion, would lay on the floor, kicking and screaming. It was emotion so unrestrained, and so uncensored, it needed containing. My husband’s clear, strong voice worked, mostly. “That’s enough now!” he would say firmly. Usually so gentle, his sternness couldn’t be ignored. Although it wasn’t easy to do, my three-year-old scraped herself up from the tiles, and tried to Use Her Words to explain what she wanted.

Unrestrained expressions of emotion were one thing. There were public tantrums. There was defiance against simple tasks, like getting dressed. My little girl, usually so cooperative, began to master the art of resistance.

Most days she was her lovely self. But there were some days, being on my own with a three-year-old and a baby, which made me feel ready to hand in my resignation. Like that time a dandelion ruined my day. I just could not deal with her her flying fit of rage beside the road, while I was walking home encumbered by baby-in-sling and child-in-pram. “I’ve had enough!” I yelled once too often. Nor could I deal with the constant battle over what she was going to wear, or what she was going to eat.

I made it known what was and wasn’t acceptable. I was clear about the behaviours I liked and the behaviours I didn’t. But my stern voice began sounding like the mother I never wanted to be.

And it didn’t seem to be doing much good.

Like most things in parenting, and life generally, there wasn’t one single moment, but cumulative moments and a gradual transition which occurred.

On one hand, my daughter has grown into her emotions. She can now put the brakes on before the meltdown. As her cognition develops, she works out that being reasonable and cooperative works in her favour. She feels more in control of her situation, and more aware of how her emotions affect others.

One the other hand, I realised I don’t want to be Mrs Cranky Bags any longer. So I have rejected well-meant words of wisdom and ditched my stern voice. I’ve gone back to simply ignoring and down-playing behaviour I don’t like. If I have an emotional reaction, in any form, to behaviour, it just escalates the situation. So I try and remain calm.

There are no essential ingredients to surviving three-dom, and every child is different, with different needs. But here’s what works in our home:

Give it time

Three, like every stage, comes with its own characteristics. From what I have read, much of age three is about asserting will and forging independence. Tasks like getting dressed are a constant minefield because the three-year-old is exercising newly discovered autonomy. But it passes. With time, the game of running away from pyjamas loses its appeal, and the three-year-old tries a new game – cooperation.

With our Little Sunshine Girl, I have noticed that difficult periods come and go. Maybe they relate to hormonal surges. Dr Louann writes in The Female Brain about spikes in oestrogen which occur in toddlerhood as the small brain primes itself for fertility. This makes a lot of sense to me, as my daughter’s emotional outbursts do mimic prepubescent outrage or even PMS. They also seem to be correlated with growth spurts. Whatever is going on biologically, all I know is, the moment passes.

Acknowledge and validate feelings

In counselling, you are taught to acknowledge and validate a person’s feelings. At some point, I decided to apply my counselling skills to my three-year-old. They were extremely effective.  I acknowledged that I heard what she was saying, and said things like, “I understand why you would feel that way.” It completely took the wind out of tantrums and erratic emotions.

Control

Children, like adults, need to feel in control of their situation and their environment. I hate being told what to do. My daughter is the same. By giving her the freedom to make a choice about a situation, I am giving her back a sense of control, and difficult behaviour is minimised. Instead of telling my daughter what to do, I try to give her options, or ask her what she would like to do. For example, the answer to: “Shall we go brush our teeth now?” is surprisingly always: “Yes.”

Contain

At three, emotions seem to be highly charged. And that’s OK. Children should be entitled to feel what they feel. As parents, we can provide a safe and loving environment to contain wild emotions. If my daughter flies into a tantrum, I sit close by, and tell her that I’ll wait for her to calm down. People often use time-outs in response to heightened emotional outbursts, but I prefer staying close. Sometimes it’ll take five minutes. Sometimes ten. But eventually, when she’s ready, she seeks out the emotional support she needs.

Boundaries

Containment also refers to boundaries. Loading a toddler with rules and guidelines can have a negative effect, because the child begins to feel hemmed in, and out of control of their situation. But where necessary, a child needs to know when acceptable behaviour ends and unacceptable behaviour begins. In my home, I don’t tolerate hitting, or unkindness. If my three-year-old is unkind to her baby sister, I clearly tell her it’s not OK. Because she doesn’t run into a red flag every time she turns a corner, she is responsive when I make a boundary clear.

Divert

I’ve noticed that at three, it’s often a case of digging the heels in. My daughter will get stuck on a theme, like, “I don’t want to wear floppy pants!” Quite often, there is no point arguing. Her logic is of a different time and place, and negotiation is pointless. So I change the topic of conversation. “Have you fed the fishies yet?” always seems to work.

Connection

Psychologist Robin Grille from Heart to Heart Parenting talks about the parent-child connection being central to the well-being of the child. Since having a second child, I have less time to connect with my three-year-old. I can’t always meet her needs. But where possible, I try and reinforce our connection. We bath together, and lately, have been spending a magical hour before bed reading classic stories like Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway TreeThroughout the day, she relives the stories, and we reenact the characters. It’s not without irony that stories have been our point of connection. Hand in Hand Parenting talks about designating Special Time each day to connect with your child. Special Time is one-on-one, uninterrupted time spent together doing child-led activities.

Letting go of anger

Anger and frustration are my stumbling blocks. I am quick-tempered and often react emotionally, whether it is to my daughter’s own quick-temper or to something stupid, like dropping the coffee beans. But lately, something shifted. I made a decision to let it go. I realised how much my anger rubs off on my daughter. When I stopped getting mad at her, she stopped getting mad. It was Just Like That.

Magic

Since having a three-year-old, I have to say I believe in magic. I’m not talking about applying magic ointment to the wound or waving the magic wand. But lately, my three-year-old and I have been weaving magical worlds while we tell stories, or play in the garden. My daughter’s imagination has taken flight. Watching her in her magical universe, I realise how much of her emotion and attention is redirected into a fantasy world. There is less focus on herself, and Big Problems like floppy pants, because why would floppy pants be a problem, when you are flying in a hot air balloon around the world? And when we do get into a pickle, I use magic as a tool to get us out. If my daughter resists teeth-brushing duties, I invite the Tooth Brushing Monster in, and without fail, the magic works wonders.

Have you got a three-year-old, or do you remember those heady days? What tricks worked for you?

Linking with Essentially Jess

  • By the third time round, the three’s are a blimp in the system and you have no problem showing who’s boss (while the rest of the world thinks you’re mean). For the record, I love the threes…they become so much fun!

    • I am finding that now, Lydia. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Oh, I have a three year old too. So much fun. So many tears. So much drama. It’s everything at once. I love to “Acknowledge and validate feelings” too. But we have days where everything works and days where nothing works. Sigh. xx Danya

  • My daughter turned 3 two weeks ago…. We went through terrible twos early, but then she settled down. Now some sort of force has been unleashed, and she can be unbearable. The tantrums, the shrieking, the screaming, crying……over nothing.

    I have realised I have to let go of the anger as it is not working being angry at her. It makes the situation worse. x

  • Beautiful post Zanni and some really, really, really great tips there 🙂 I have taken something from every single point you made so thank you. I do have a 3 year old and, like you, didn’t get the terrible two’s. At three, sure he has his moments, but I feel very much in control. My two year old daughter on the other hand. My golly gosh! She is intense and I will definitely be applying ALL of your tips to her. Do you think it’s a girl thing? 🙂 x

    • I think some of it does relate to being a girl. Have a look for The Female Brain book, or extracts online. You might find it interesting!
      Glad you were able to take something from this Neets. And thanks so much for your support. x

  • My son is three and a half and like you he was great at age two, then after his third birthday turned into a little terror, we had some issues as well, but we worked them out in much the same way and we continue to do so 🙂

  • My threes are long forgotten. I now have one who is 13. All those tips! They work well with 13 year olds too 🙂
    Leanne @ Deep Fried Fruit

    • I will keep that in mind Leanne 🙂 x

  • Great post with some fantastic tips. As you know, I have a three year old also. I am experiencing some serious mood swings at the moment and am trying a variety of different tactics. It is interesting that you say you prefer to remain close. This is what I like to do also, however my husband prefers to give her a time out and gets annoyed with me when I want to stay close to her. We all then end up mad with other. Clearly we need to come up with a better plan. What we have found works for us, and you have mentioned this above, is talking about feelings. She responds incredibly well to this. Oh … and the fertility thing. So interesting. Lots of good stuff in this post, Zanni. Thanks.

    • Thanks Renee. Yes, a lot of it is about trial and error, and finding which ‘tactics’ work for your family. Sometimes parents have different ways of doing things, so negotiating your approach is all part of the fun! x

  • This is a lot of great info Zanni. I thought we’d escaped the terrible twos, but really knew about it once Bell turned three! Thank goodness we made it through OK, lots of patience needed for sure. xx

    • And I am sure you had it in bagfuls, Lisa 🙂

  • Oh yes 3 was the worst for us too. And it did take me by surprise. I thought I’d escaped the terrible two’s and all would be smooth sailing!
    Great action plan Zanni, my biggest thing was learning to be extra patient and try not to descend into my own temper tantrum!

    • Patience is definitely the winning card Jodi 🙂 x

  • You know, Zanni, it’s gotten easier….. maybe I’m getting used to it, and finding new ways to deal with, or diffuse the situation, or maybe the intensity had dies down a little. Either way, it doesn’t feel a horrible as it did.
    Lovely post, with lovely techniques. You’re a wonderful, gentle mama.

    • Thanks Dan. It does get easier, doesn’t it? 3.5 feels like it’s a different 3. Glad you are sailing along more smoothly now. xx

  • Oh we haven’t hit the threes yet. We do have some special days already and my daughter has just hit two.

    I’m a primary teacher and I find that being emotionless works best. I acknowledge feelings and ask them to see me when they’ve calmed down. I say something like “oh it’s really sad that person won’t share. Why don’t you take a couple of minutes to calm down and then come and see me and we’ll work something out.” It’s so much easier to be like that with other people’s children though.

    • Yes, other people’s kids don’t seem to press the same buttons Jess. I was surprised by my own response to my own children. Sounds like you have all the tools up your sleeve though 🙂

  • Oh yes, I have a Miss Three too and understand these moments too well. Love your tips! x

  • We survived 3 twice! I love your list, my favourite is give it time and magic. Everything always works out in the end, have faith that you are always doing a great job in your parenting even on the days when you are at your wits end. Imagine what it must be like for them? dealing with the growth spurts, the hormones, the parents who smoother them with kisses one minute and then yell the next….everything body needs to find their balance. Great post x Josefa from #teamIBOT

    • “Everything works out in the end” is my mantra Josefa xx

  • i so agree with you on all these points Zanni! I’m quick tempered and easily frustrated too especially when they kids press those buttons and when I’m upset with MR A. Thanks for this post. I will bookmark this post as I think it’s really helpful in times of need.

    • Thanks Judy. It’s really hard containing frustration when you are naturally wired like that. Thanks for coming by! x

  • Great post! My 16 month old is asserting her independence right now, and I am actually hanging out for when she is able to put more words to what she wants. Now you tell me she’ll get worse not better gulp!! But your advice is excellent and has so far always worked for me. Ignoring undesired behaviour is generally sucessful. I sometimes slip up and yell when it’s something that just riles me, but I am working on it! It never ever ends with a win for me!

  • Even if I don’t have kids, I really enjoyed reading your post Zanni and will definitely try to remember some of these tricks for the future.

  • I’m in the midst of all that right now, my middle is 3.5 and cries at the drop of a hat when he doesn’t get his way, or is upset or mad for some reason. I try very hard to just ignore it, the best option but I too have yelled, I’VE HAD ENOUGH, then felt guilty afterwards! Great tips and hang in there Zanni – someone told it gets easier (ha ha) Em

  • Hi Zanni – this is a great post and you’ve gone to lots of troubles with the links and tips. We are smack bang in the middle of the 3’s with our second. Our daughter was a lot easier – I seem to remember really great times of just hanging out as companions – although her most challenging moments (up until recently) were still in her 3’s. My son has kept his baby whinging and combined it with 3 year old assertion of will and frustration at not being able to use his words to get himself understood. A much more challenging combination of behaviours than our daughter ever showed. I love your last paragraph about magic games – maybe I can convince Little Yang that monsters don’t whinge and whine in magic land.

  • I have a three year old now and some of these behaviours started when she was 2.5 years old. I generally ignore the tantrums in the shop. I have tried reasoning with her but sometimes it makes the tantrum worse. But, while there is drama and loud emotions being displayed, it’s also an incredible cute age and I love how she is blossoming into a little girl. It’s sunshine and thunder when you’re a three year old!

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