If your 3 year old’s moody behavior is making the terrible twos seem like a picnic, don’t panic. Our expert explains why it’s normal and what you can do to stay sane.
If you sometimes wonder whether you’re raising a 3 year old or a 13 year old, you’re not alone—enter the new term ‘threenager. Like teenagers, 3-year-olds are all attitude. They don’t like how you cut their sandwich, they don’t want to go to bed, and they can do everything without any help from you, thank you very much.
Their behavior may seem baffling, but from a developmental perspective, it’s actually completely normal. “Three-year-olds are making huge leaps in their skills,” says Michael McKenna, M.D., a pediatrician at Indiana University Health. “They can do more physically, and their vocabulary is bigger, so they’re better at expressing themselves.” They’re also becoming more independent—and one of the ways they experiment with that independence is by testing limits. So how are you supposed to cope with your little rebel? Here, Dr. McKenna shares his advice.
Adjust your expectations. “Three-year-olds are so advanced that it’s easy for parents to get tricked into thinking they’re older than they are,” says Dr. McKenna. Keep in mind that while your child has gained many new skills, she doesn’t yet have the ability to control her emotions and calm herself—hence all the tantrums.
Be consistent. “Parents, grandparents, and caregivers may not always agree on the rules, but they need to enforce them,” says Dr. McKenna. “That’s how kids learn what the boundaries are.”
Rethink your response to bad behavior. Parents sometimes try to reason with their 3-year-old, but it’s an exercise in futility. “Kids this age don’t have the cognitive ability to understand reason,” says Dr. McKenna. If your child is talking back or throwing a tantrum, you’re better off ignoring his behavior or trying to distract him. “Kids have fits to try to get your attention, so if you ignore it they learn it won’t work,” he explains. Distraction works particularly well when you have to take your child somewhere he finds boring. “If he acts up, bring a book or a toy you can offer him instead of just saying ‘No!’ all the time,” says Dr. McKenna.
Ease into transitions. Kids this age get very immersed in their activities, and a lot of battles arise when you try to get them to do something else. If you know a transition is coming up—you need to leave the playground soon, for example—warn your child in advance that she needs to switch gears (“You can go down the slide five more times and then we have to go home.”)
Avoid reinforcing bad behavior. It’s tempting to give into your child’s demands when he’s screaming or throwing toys at you, but it’s better in the long run to stand firm. “The worst thing you can do is take a hard stance and then give in,” says Dr. McKenna. “All it teaches kids is that they should immediately throw a fit if they don’t get what they want.”
-- By Jessica Brown