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Stand Back Terrible Twos: A Threenager is the Real Terror

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From the time we mention we’re interested in possibly starting a family sometime soon, we’re warned about the terrible twos. “Enjoy that sweet baby now, because the toddler years are around the corner”. No one tells us that behind the so-called “terrible twos”, the real monster is lurking. The threes.

The truth is, the threes are much more terrible than the twos could ever be. Two is a little bit naughty, but a cute naughty. Two-year-olds run away with your hairbrush giggling. Three-year-olds run away screeching with your open lipstick and smear it all over the walls. Two-year-olds stick out their tongue at you in defiance and blow raspberries. Three-year-olds scream “NO!” and then throw themselves down on the ground, refusing to move and making themselves nearly impossible to carry.


While 2-year-olds have a limited vocabulary with which to express themselves. Sure, they get frustrated at their inability to get their point across. But it’s nothing a Popsicle can’t fix. 3-year-olds have had an extra year to expand their vocabulary, but are still without any degree of emotional maturity to help them exercise restraint. They know just enough to be dangerous, and repeat in rapid succession all the “bad” words (stinky poo-poo butt, dumb-dumb) that they know.

I’ve experienced this threenager phenomenon twice now with my own two children. First with my now 7-year-old boy, and I’m in the thick of it now with my 3-year-old daughter. With each, the second year came and went with hardly a feather rustled. “The twos aren’t so terrible”, I thought to myself. I foolishly figured that maybe my kids were just really well behaved. I was one of the lucky few. Then the threes came and set me straight.

While most of their peers were potty-trained by three, my kids still struggled with toilet issues well into their third year. They were anal retentive little things, both literally and figuratively. And oh, the temper tantrums. There was no reasoning with my son when he was deep in the throes of one of his fits. These fits were usually prompted by nothing more than his frustration with a puzzle piece he couldn’t find a spot for, or a slight mistake in his drawing.

My daughter’s tantrums aren’t of the same intensity as my son’s, but she lives up to the term “threenager” in every way. She brings all the sass and attitude, and loves to get into my makeup and jewelry. A few weeks ago my wedding ring went missing from its case on my nightstand, and I found it a week later in my dirty laundry basket with some other rings of mine. There was no mystery who the jewelry thief was.

My kids at three were clever enough to try to manipulate my husband and me. “I’ll only behave if you give me a cookie”. The worst, because we are tempted to give in and skip all the theatrics.

I’ve taken an informal poll of other parents with 3 year olds, and found they’ve had similar experiences of the “threes” being worse than the “twos”. Even experts say the threes are worse than two, because of the epic temper tantrums and the ability of 3 year olds to negotiate “like tiny lawyers”.

Three year olds are going through changes including rapid physical growth, and possible behavior regression as they struggle with less one-on-one interaction due to the likely introduction of preschool. Three year olds are walking contradictions because they want to be more independent, but also feel safe and protected.

Fortunately, there are some ways to make the threes a bit more manageable. Michele Borba, EdD, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions advises sticking to routines, staying positive instead of dwelling on the negative with discipline, and taking measures to get ahead of temper tantrums, among other tips.

I’ve personally found that the best way to deal with the threes is to simply not overreact to the bumps in the road. Temper tantrum? Put them in timeout and let them cool off. So what if they’re screaming for a few minutes?

When my three year olds have worked their best manipulation tactics to get their way, I simply try not to give in to their demands.

As we all know too well, time marches on and this stage too shall pass.

Take heart, fellow parents of threenagers. The smoother seas of four are ahead, and we’re still a ways away from the choppiest waters of the preteen and teen years.





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