How I Deal With My Threenager (Without Losing My Sh*t)

I have a 3-year-old, which means I spend half my life trying not to lose my sh*t. The whole “terrible twos” thing is bogus. The terrible twos are a basket of kittens compared to what moms face once their offspring become threenagers. Three-year-olds provide a terrifying glimpse of what’s to come during those hormonal, impulsive, irrational teenage years—which is why threenager is the most appropriate nickname ever.

Three-year-olds are needy and demanding by nature. They don’t care about silly things like facts or reason, and if they’re going to do something, they’re going to do it by themselves, so don’t even think about trying to help them. Their daily goals amount to destruction, eating snacks, asking for things they don’t really want, and being angry when they get them. Let’s just say there are plenty of reasons to lose your sh*t when dealing with a threenager.

I learned a lot when my firstborn was 3. My daughter introduced me to this maddening world, and taught me how to pick my battles, and navigate a public meltdown. When my son began showing signs of 3-year-old bedlam, I felt prepared. I already survived this once, I thought, I got this. I quickly realized that nothing I thought I knew mattered, because my son was a completely different kind of crazy, with a side of Y-chromosome aggression. My son’s behavior is a moving target. There’s no rhyme or reason for his meltdowns, and he’s been known to have outbursts of aggression when he doesn’t get his way.

Dealing with a threenager of this magnitude has left me dangling on the edge of my sanity more times than I can count. But, there are a few things I’ve learned that help me cope, and keep me from losing my sh*t on a daily basis. For starters, I remind myself often that my son doesn’t have a fully-developed brain—no 3-year-old does. Because their little minds are still developing, they literally don’t have the ability to process things logically, so I don’t waste time trying to reason with him. Emotions drive nearly every decision 3-year-olds make—most of which are completely impulsive, because again, underdeveloped brain.

When my son is in the throes of an epic meltdown, it’s because he’s angry or sad, and he doesn’t know how to express his emotions appropriately. I’ve tried a lot of things with this kid, but one thing I’ve learned is: never tell him to “calm down.” It makes sense if you think about it, I mean, I’ve never been calmed by someone telling me to “calm down.” More often than not, it only makes things worse. Instead, I get down on his level, so we’re face to face, then I look him in the eye and say, “Tell me why you are upset.” (I know this sounds crazy, but stay with me.) This helps him express his emotions with words, not just flailing and screaming, because let’s face it, that sucks for everyone. There’s normally a fair amount of crying, snot, and tears happening at this point, so I don’t get much out of his first attempt to explain. I grab a tissue, wipe his face, and say again, “Honey, I can’t understand you. Can you stop crying and try to tell me again?” I do my absolute best to keep my voice as calm as possible, regardless of what’s going on in my head, because kids take our lead—if you’re angry, they’ll be angry.

Think about it like this: If you’re having a problem at work, and you tell your supervisor about the problem, their response can make or break your reaction. If they respond aggressively or defensively, you are likely to do the same. But, if your boss says, “I understand, let’s see what we can do to fix this.” The interaction will likely go much smoother.

Here’s another thing: I’m totally open to negotiation. I always thought I would be a firm, put-my-foot-down kind of parent, but I’ve learned that’s the fastest route to Meltdown Town. I don’t like to argue, because it’s exhausting and time consuming, but I also can’t let my kids run the house like a bunch of feral children. If I can prevent an argument with a little negotiating and flexibility, I’m all for it. Let’s talk snacks, for example. If my kid wants a snack 10 minutes before dinner, that’s not happening. But, I will say something like this, instead, “How about you go pick out your snack and set it on the table, so you can eat it when you’re done with dinner.” This makes them feel like they have a choice, and kids like choices. Now, this doesn’t always work, sometimes they freak the hell out, because they want a snack right now! In these cases, I let them be mad. In our house, you’re allowed to be upset—angry, even—you just can’t scream at anyone, hit, or throw things to express your anger. Go to your room, scream into a Paw Patrol pillow, and then come join the family when you’re ready.

Every kid is different, and three can be a challenging age. I’m the parent, but I don’t want my kids to feel like I’m their boss. I want them to feel like an equal in our family. Their opinions and feelings matter, and I want to help them solve their problems. It’s not about anyone getting their way, it’s about learning how to respect each other. Bottom line: Three-year-olds are going to act out, but if you lead by example, and treat your children how you want to be treated, the threenage years are totally manageable. And if all else fails, step away and scream into a Paw Patrol pillow—sometimes that works, too.

Photo: Getty

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