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  • 3 Going on 13! 5 Ways to Deal With a 'Threenager' Who Is Giving You Attitude

    What to do when your child suddenly becomes rude and defiant.
    by Kitty Elicay .
3 Going on 13! 5 Ways to Deal With a 'Threenager' Who Is Giving You Attitude
PHOTO BY iStock
  • You’d think caring for a newborn is the hardest stage of parenting, but parents have often been warned of the “terrible twos” stage, a period in your child’s life that is associated with unruly behavior. And just when you think everything will be smooth sailing after that year, your child suddenly evolves into a threenager.

    What is a threenager?

    Combined from the words “three” and “teenager,” a threenager refers to the awkward period where your child is no longer a baby and toddler but have not yet acquired the essential motor and mental skills that a “big kid” has. Thus, the tendency is the child seems to behave like a spoiled teenager.

    That’s a normal part of child development, as children between 18 and 24 months are beginning to show signs of independence — including defiance. “Kids this age are realizing they can assert themselves and arguing with you is one way they gain confidence,” says child psychiatrist Dr. John Sargent, to Parents.

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    3 signs you have a threenager

    Tovah Klein, an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York, tells Washington Post that at age 3, this need for independence turns up. “They are saying, ‘I am my own person,’ in a big way,” she shares. “They are saying: ‘I have ideas and I want to carry them out, and I want to carry them out verbally.’"

    1. Kids at 3 years old struggle to express themselves, even with an expanding vocabulary.

    At 3, you can engage your child in conversation because she is learning new words and phrases every day. But during emotionally-charged moments, she will still find it difficult to communicate her feelings and needs.

    “They’re still not developmentally ready to control their emotions,” explains Dr. Ilene Cohen, a psychotherapist, and author of When It’s Never About You, in her article for Motherly. “If they think something is funny, they’ll laugh uncontrollably. If something happens and they feel sad, they cry inconsolably,” Dr. Cohene writes.

    “You think that you’re speaking to a very reasonable human being. Verbally, they sound older than they are,” says Klein. But in the end, threenagers still get overwhelmed with emotions.

    In her book, How Toddlers Thrive, Dr. Klein writes, “They are caught between two battling needs: the desire for self and independence versus the need for comfort, security and the familiar — in other words, mama or dada.

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    2. Your 3-year-old wants to be more independent, so exercise your patience.

    Have you ever tried putting clothes on your 3-year-old because you’re in a rush to get out the door, only for her to scream and say, “No! I’ll do it myself!” Yep, that’s your threenager trying to exert her independence and showing you she’s more than capable of doing complex tasks on her own.

    Dressing up, in particular, seem to be a big issue with 3-year-olds. They take forever to pick their outfits or tend to have several wardrobe changes in a day. While their “style” may not be mom- or dad-approved, it’s important to them a little more freedom. Sure, their top may not match their skirt, or their clothes may be too hot for summer, but the moment they sweat in their outfits, they’ll learn they made the wrong decision.

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    3. A 3-year-old will ask ‘why’ a lot.

    Children are naturally curious, but it really seems to go on overdrive during the threenager period, testing a parent’s patience. But parents should know that the kids are not asking ‘why’ out of disrespect — instead, they just really want to understand how the world works.

    “This age probably takes the most energy because you’re teaching so much, and there’s more potential for defiance — not in a bad way, just in an opinionated way,” says Daniel Huerta, the executive director of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family, to Washington Post.

    The next time you’re put on the spot to answer your child’s tough questions, remember that this inquisitive trait boosts her learning in many areas. “Their curiosity about the world around them helps to build concepts, skills, vocabulary, and understanding of the unknown,” writes Rebecca A. Palacios, Ph.D., an expert in early childhood education, in an article for the Huffington Post.

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    The best ways to deal with a threenager

    Every parent wants their children to grow up independent, confident, and mature, but it’s a tall order when all your threenager seems to want is to act out, whine and cry all the time. So what can you do so you and your child survive this phase?

    Look at the world through your child’s eyes

    Understanding the journey of your three-year-old helps you to exercise empathy and be more patient. “The child is in the throes of separation; 2-year-olds start this process, saying ‘I’m my own person and beginning to move away from the parent or trusted adult. They desperately want to do things for themselves, but they still need to know that the parent is there for them,” says Dr. Klein to SheKnows. “It’s part of this whole back-and-forth of craving independence, but being so limited in what they can do on their own.”

    When your child tries to negotiate bedtime, you might think she’s being disobedient. But what if she’s scared of the dark? Take a minute to see things from your child’s perspective, so you’re not as exasperated.

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    Teach your child about self-control and taking turns

    Threenagers are impatient and don’t understand the concept of delayed gratification. Try using a timer to help your child know when things are going to happen. If she wants a snack “right now!” but you need to finish breastfeeding her younger sibling first, set the alarm for five minutes and let her know she’ll get her snack when the phone rings.

    “If it’s a ‘need,’ the parent pauses,” shares Huerta. “If it’s a ‘want,’ that’s where a parent teaches a child how to be patient.”

    Embrace a routine

    The predictability of a routine can help stabilize both parent and child’s emotions, relieving stress, and anxiety. Having a consistent, daily schedule reassure the child and makes her feel safe and comforted. Plus, they are more likely to cooperate with a routine in place!

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    Give your child control when you can

    Asking your child to do adult things, like chores, might slow you down, but it will feed her need to do things independently. Try choosing an age-appropriate task like putting their toys away or wiping up spills.

    Dr. Klein also offers a helpful suggestion from her book: put a plate of something on the table — carrot sticks, fruit slices, chicken fingers — that the child can grab at will. Meals should be about socialization, not about forcing your child to eat a certain amount of food. “It takes the battle away and lets the child decide if they want to eat more at dinner in the future,” says Dr. Klein.

    Learn to laugh and let go

    Sure, your toddler insisting she wears mismatched socks and shoes can make you pull your hair out in frustration, but try looking at it from a different perspective — doesn’t your child look funny and adorable at the same time with her mismatched look? “Entering their world and saying, ‘You want to do it that way, maybe that’s okay to do it that way,’ can help,” says Dr. Klein.

    Your threenager won’t be a 3-year-old forever. Though her behavior might be exasperating now, remember that your child will go through many more stages in life. Threenager won’t last forever.

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