Most parents will end up saying these words, “I thought the terrible twos were supposed to end! The threes seem even worse!” I know I said this. As a first-time mom going into age two, I automatically believed it would be the most challenging year. Surely, I thought, by the time my son was three-years-old, things would get a lot easier. Now, having a four-year-old, looking back, I can laugh at this myth. I know now that the parenting journey continually changes as kids get older, but each age will always have its challenges. It does not magically get easier at age three. When my toddler turned three, I was shocked to find things got a bit worse.
Why Threes are So Much Worse Than the Terrible Twos
1. At age two, kids can barely talk – perhaps their favorite word becomes “no.” But at age three, their vocabulary has expanded so much that you now have a tiny negotiator that doesn’t stop talking.
2. Two-year-olds tend to cry. By three, they throw epic tantrums that can last for 30 minutes (or longer) and involve feet stomping, throwing clothes and shoes, and screaming so loud the neighbors can hear.
3. At two, they eat what you feed them (mostly). At age three, they become pickier. Suddenly your kid doesn’t like those little seeds in his sandwich bread or the apples that were cut and turned a little brown.
4. Two-year-olds wear diapers (making trips out and about and especially plane rides a breeze). By three, many kids are potty-trained, and it’s all about their pee and poo emergencies. Quick, we need a potty!
5. At two, they tend to listen with a firm voice of mom or dad. At age three, they realize the art of manipulation.
6. Two-year-olds take long naps. By age three, many kids start to phase out of them.
7. At two, they are sweet and more cautious. At three, they are running, jumping, climbing – basically a mini Godzilla!
Tips on Surviving the Year of the Three-nager
As much as I would love to tell you that positive thinking alone will get you through the year of the three-nager, I can’t. Because it won’t. So, here are some tips that will help you better manage one of the more challenging years of toddlerhood:
Kids crave routine. They need it. Yeah, sure, here and there things come up and our kids have to nap in the car, they are two hours late for their nap, or stay up late past bedtime because of camping. These once in a while occasions can still wreak a little havoc on a kid’s overall behavior. It’s when their routines are suddenly thrown off for an extended period of time, or when there’s no routine at all from day to day, we see more tantrums and poor behavior choices. When kids know what to expect next, it’s easier to navigate the day – for parent and child.
Setting expectations to avoid particular bad behavior from arising is something that works well in our family. This goes along with having an established routine. When kids know what to expect and the behavior we expect from them, things tend to go smoother.
For example, in the morning before preschool, my son must eat his vitamins, have breakfast, and get dressed. He also asks to watch Star Wars on Disney Plus or watch Blippi on the iPad. So, I set the expectation ahead of time, “Yes, you can watch Star Wars for 10 minutes while you have your vitamins and breakfast. Then mommy will get you dressed, and then it’s time to leave for school.” As a result, my kid eats breakfast, has his vitamins, and doesn’t have a tantrum when it’s time to turn off the show.
We also set expectations in the car before school, before going on a plane, or going to a restaurant. The constant reminders of what we expect help him stay focused on his behavior.
We use these a lot too, and it is similar to setting expectations. For example, “Five more minutes and then it’s time to clean up the toys.” Or “One more round of hide-and-seek, and then it’s time to go pee before your nap.” Or “We are going upstairs in 10 minutes to brush our teeth. You can show me how you brush all by yourself! ”
No Yelling, Threats, or Bribes
Believe it or not, there is a way to get toddlers to listen without yelling, threats, or bribes. There are adverse effects of yelling at kids. These few alternatives are more effective ways to get your kids to listen:
- Get down on eye level, use eye contact, and use the whisper technique.
- Stop saying “no” and talk more.
- Acknowledge how he’s feeling: “I know you’re frustrated right now and want to buy that toy. I hear you. Let’s put it on your Santa list. Do you know how many days until Christmas?”
Working from home and homeschooling our three-year-old required a lot of 100% full-attention playtime. When my son came over to my work desk and moved my computer mouse or while on my phone doing emails, said, “No phone, Mama,” I knew it was time to put everything down and give him 100% of my attention.
So when my son came up to me while I was working, I would pick him up and say, “It’s time for a big hug! Thank you for playing so well while mommy was working. I love you. I wish I could play with you all day, but it’s important that mommy works so we can pay for food, the house, your toys, and all the fun stuff we do. What should we play right now for five minutes? LEGOS? A puzzle? Hide-and-seek?”
Whatever my kid chooses, I play with him. After five minutes, I return to my work and set him up with an independent activity. Before the five minutes are up, I give a transition warning. That simple five minutes buys me at least an hour of no interruptions. It’s quite magical!
Distract and Redirect
This seems to work well even now that our son is four. A power struggle between parent and child is not going to solve anything. Kids are stubborn. Also, focusing on the issue at hand – whatever the tantrum is about – will keep emotions running high. Instead, distract and redirect to something new.
For example, my son came home from preschool and wanted his dad to play LEGOS. But dad was working all day and starving, so he needed lunch first. So his dad said, “Come to the window quick! The bulk trash pick-up truck is here. Let’s watch the trash being crushed.” Like a modern-day hero, my husband was able to buy himself some time for lunch and squash a toddler tantrum simply by distraction and redirection.
Pick Your Battles
This is an oldie but goodie – I even use this one for my marriage! Choosing your battles truly helps parenting go a lot smoother. Do I want my kid to eat his snack in the living room? Not really, but if he has a napkin and is extra careful while eating on the table, I let it go and just remind him to keep clean.
Another example is when we were going to school one morning. My son saw his bike in the garage and wanted to ride it. At first, I said no because we were off to school. Of course, my response set off a tantrum. I could have stuck to my guns, but I noticed that we had an extra five minutes. So I opened the garage, and we rode the bike for three minutes. After, we put his bike away and headed off to school.
Choosing your battles does not mean your child is winning. It means you are a savvy parent, and you are actually deciding what they do. And it helps to reduce the chances of an unnecessary tantrum happening to begin with.
It is crucial to stay consistent. If you give a five-minute warning before bed, don’t watch a show for another 20 minutes. You want your kids to understand how long five minutes is. There may be times when they want to stay up longer, and I give another minute, but after this, it’s upstairs.
“Time With” instead of “Time Out”
Timeouts are still effective when all else fails and your kid is still not listening and repeating the bad behavior. Sometimes we put our kid in the timeout corner and say, as soon as you stop crying and are calm, you can come out of timeout. This gives him more of a choice to change his behavior and get out of timeout sooner than when a timer goes off with him screaming or acting out the whole time.
However, most of the time, we practice what we call “Time With.” When my son is super frustrated, screaming, and banging the wall, I know he needs a “Time With.” I get down on eye level with my son and say, “It’s time for a timeout to calm down because you are not listening.” I walk him to the corner and stand with him with my arms on his shoulders. If he’s really having a tantrum, I get down on my knees and hug him tight. I start counting to 60 out loud.
While I’m counting if my kid throws a shoe or hits the wall or something else, I calmly say, “Timeout is starting over. We do not throw shoes.” And I start counting to 60 again.
By the time I get to 60 and he’s calm, I get down at eye level and say why there was a timeout and ask him what we can do differently next time. So this way, it’s a conversation together. Plus, this shows comprehension of bad versus good behavior. I say I love you with a hug and then redirect to something different, “Do you want to play with a puzzle or build a LEGO house?”
After he chooses, I then bring out the happy fingers and tickle him until he tells me he’s happy again. Making him laugh is funny when he’s upset, but the giggles do come.
It’s okay to walk away, too! Some days nothing seems to be working, so walking away to give your kid space and to regroup is best for everyone. As long as your little one is safe and cannot harm themselves, it’s okay to say, “You can calm down right here. Tell me when you’re sweet again.” If this happens in public, of course, you cannot walk too far away. So just divert your attention from the tantrum and pretend to read a box or check your shopping list.
The important part is to engage with your child the moment they are quiet and give praise, “Great job for calming down all by yourself. You are being a big boy! High five, bud! Which snack should we get for school this week?”
Parenting is not easy! But by loving our kids, showing patience, and understanding that they are still developing, we can minimize the hard days and focus more on the good days. And don’t forget to take some time for yourself when you need it! Mommy time-outs are definitely a thing!