Threenager Survival Guide: Growing With a Strong-Willed 3-Year-Old

The 'terrible twos' might be over but buckle up because the turbulent threenage years are here.

When she was 3, a trip to the local grocery store was never complete for Cora McDonald without swinging by the live lobsters in the tank near the seafood department.

“She always loved to stop and see them,” her mother, Jennifer McDonald, recalls.

For Cora, age 10 at the time of this article’s publication, communication has always been important.

The Holly mother of two says since her daughter was 10 months old, she hasn’t stopped talking. So it came as no surprise when Cora routinely asked mom to visit the lobsters – or, as she called them, “monsters.”

But one time that routine changed, and Cora had a classic 3-year-old meltdown.

“Her dad took her one day to shop, and she kept asking to see the ‘monsters,'” McDonald says. “He couldn’t figure out what she wanted and even bought a balloon in an effort to appease her. When he got home, she was still in tears because dad didn’t take her to see the ‘monsters.’ Gary was almost in tears also. When I asked her what was wrong, I couldn’t help but laugh, because I knew she meant lobsters! I assured her next time we would go see them.”

All these years later, it’s a story McDonald, who is also mom to Austin, who was 4 years old at the time of publication, still cherishes.

“I feel like they both had strong personalities and both had attitudes in their unique ways,” she says. “This was good and bad. I feel like they will be strong adults, but as 3-year-olds, it could be challenging. They both were constantly asking questions. Why? What is that? Why can’t I do that? Why do I have to go to bed? Why must I eat dinner? Why can’t I poop in diapers?”

It’s all part of a stage that’s been culturally dubbed the “threenager.” Hot on the heels of the so-called “terrible twos,” it finds kids acting even more strong-willed, getting a bigger sense of their individuality and demonstrating some very big emotions. Kind of like a teenager.

Chris Trentacosta, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Wayne State University, researches self-regulatory skills and emotion competence among parents and their young children. He says kids begin to show independence at a very young age.

“Children’s abilities to understand and use language and understand their own and others’ emotions are increasing rapidly during the preschool years,” he says. “However, 3-year-olds typically do not yet have well-developed skills to manage their emotions, attention or behavior, and they also have difficulty understanding complex emotions or situations. Therefore, on a moment-to-moment basis, life can be difficult and unpredictable for 3-year-olds.”

Sound familiar?

Navigating the rough waters of these threenage years may be taxing, but it’s helpful to remember that these frustrations, emotions and behaviors are … well, normal.

While surviving the threenage years may not come with its own handbook, it’s helpful to keep a few thoughts in mind – if even for the sake of your own sanity – during this roller coaster year with your 3-year-old.

Inside the threenage mind

So, what exactly is going on in there? While it’s impossible to fully know – and we typically don’t have good firsthand memories of our own minds at that age – there are clues in kids’ abilities and behaviors, says Trentacosta.

“Generally speaking, we can surmise that demands, desires or preferences in the immediate moment are logical to the young child, which is one reason that the child persists in making demands,” he says. “From another perspective, it might not be logical, but 3-year-old children often do not yet have the capacity to stop themselves or redirect to something else.”

That’s called “self-regulation” – and it’s something 3-year-olds haven’t honed yet.

“Researchers have studied self-regulation for decades, and we know it increases for most children across the preschool years,” Trentacosta says. “But self-regulation continues to be challenging, even for older children, adolescents and adults.”

Drawing of three year old turning down food
Illustration by Jay Holladay

1. Food preferences will change – and often circle back.

Sara Petry, Oakland Charter Township mom to Jack, 4, and Bruce, 2 at the time of publication, was thrilled when both of her sons enjoyed a variety of healthy foods.

“Both, as babies, were the best eaters,” she recalls. “They loved avocados, spinach – everything healthy. A parent’s dream! Then … boop! When our eldest turned 3, the only foods that exist as palatable are grilled meat, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, mac ‘n’ cheese and fruits.”

Trentacosta says children at this age are developing preferences – some of which are temporary and others that will become long-lasting.

“Typically it is not a good idea to force children to eat certain foods, and that approach could backfire,” he says. “Giving the child a choice of two or perhaps three healthy alternatives could be a good option, because it allows the child to express her preference from among a set of options.”

Illustration of three year old taking selfie
Illustration by Jay Holladay

2. Style and sass: This too shall pass!

At this age, children are not only developing preferences for food but for clothing and fashion. And, as Trentacosta points out, mom and dad might not agree with these preferences.

“Parents should be mindful of the extent to which the child’s choice is just annoying to them (e.g., wearing mismatched clothes) versus choices that are truly dangerous or harmful,” he says.

Tricia Hartline, a Shelby Township mother to Sam, 9, Thomas, 6, Charlie, 5, and Grace, 3 at the time of publication, has her own little fashionista in the family.

“As long as Grace wears her Paw Patrol coat and Paw Patrol shoes, we are able to get quickly in and out of the house,” she says. “If for some reason we can’t find her shoes, I will force another pair on and then she will just take them off in the car. I choose to make life easier and let her wear what she wants. It’s less stressful for me and less time consuming.”

Threenager breaking a clock
Illustration by Jay Holladay

3. No sense of time.

A threenager’s fashion opinions (or other particularities) may result in difficulty with simply getting out of the house in a timely manner.

Abbey Kleinhardt of Romeo is mother to Robby, 10, Marion, 7, Josie, 6, Irene, 2, and Benjamin, 3 months at the time of publication. She was caught off guard by the “threenage behavior” Marion displayed.

“She used to have tantrums daily about how her pants and socks felt,” Kleinhardt says. “She was also very particular about what shoes she wanted to wear. She would change multiple times before she would leave the house.

“One day we were trying to get Robby to school and Marion was breaking down about all her clothes,” she recalls. “Eventually I had to just put her in the car in her underwear and a T-shirt so Robby could make it to school. She was, of course, screaming the entire experience.”

Trentacosta suggests that children be introduced to time at an early age, even though they may have difficulty grasping this concept.

“Helping the child to start to understand time by pointing out clocks and offering one-, three- or five-minute warnings might be helpful,” he says.

Threenager surrounded by question marks
Illustration by Jay Holladay

4. Questions, questions, questions.

Does it ever feel as though your little one is the source of never-ending questions? Although tiring at times, Trentacosta reminds parents that children are curious creatures by nature – and curiosity is a good thing, as it shows that they are thinking and learning.

“Parents may not know the answers to all of the ‘why’ questions, and it is OK to tell your child that you do not know, or perhaps let them know that you can look up the answer together or ask someone else,” Trentacosta says. “When the questions become persistent, it can become annoying. And parents may want to redirect the child or calmly explain that they don’t always know the answer.”

5. Promoting independence.

Independence – and a sense of control – can help facilitate the child’s development and maturity, Trentacosta says.

Hartline agrees.

“Give lots of choices, if at all possible,” she says. “It makes them feel like they are the ones making the decisions.”

Trentacosta adds, “Parents should help to promote and ‘scaffold’ independence by supporting children as they try to do things on their own.”

Threenager having a meltdown
Illustration by Jay Holladay

6. The dreaded public meltdown.

Romeo mother of four Tiffany Bell remembers a trip to the grocery store when her son, Matthew, age 10 at the time of publication was quite the unhappy threenager.

“We didn’t get the right color cart, which turned into Matthew screaming at me the whole time up and down the aisles,” Bell remembers. “After 15 minutes, I sat down in the middle of an aisle and started to pretend-whine, until he looked at me completely quiet and then we both laughed.”

Trentacosta says this behavior is not unusual.

“Parents should keep in mind that meltdowns are relatively common, and, as long as safety is not at risk, then sometimes the best approach is just to support the child and be there as the child experiences the strong emotions,” he says.

7. Outlets for mom and dad.

 “It is vital for parents to care for themselves,” Trentacosta says. “When parents are tired, stressed or hungry, they are less likely to be able to meet their children’s needs in the moment. Sometimes parents need to take some time for themselves in order to de-stress, which ends up being better for the child and the family in the long run.”

Today’s parents are seeking support in numerous ways. Parenting blogs, social media groups, Meetup groups, Stroller Strides, mommy-and-me classes, library story times and more have provided an outlet for metro Detroit parents.

“I honestly just learned from experience and am still trying to figure it out,” Kleinhardt says. “It helps to have girlfriends who are experiencing the same thing. You can share tips and just vent to one another.”

Bell adds, “Also, make time for just you. Schedule a facial every few months or a standing coffee date with a friend twice a month.”

Threenager hugging a leg
Illustration by Jay Holladay

8. Remember – it’s natural.

It’s understandable that exhausted parents may want their kids, at this age, to simply “stop” this perceived misbehavior. The truth of the matter is kids are acting in a very age-appropriate manner.

“When I find myself losing my cool, or when my daughter is getting super frustrated, I just ask her for a hug,” Kleinhardt says. “It helps us calm down and I remember she is my baby.”

She adds, “The 3s can seem to be exhausting, but they are also super fun. Our babies start to really show who they are and what they want. Try not to get so worked up about the hard part, because they can be so fun at this age, too.”

Give yourself a break

If you’ve had it up to here with your threenager, remember that perspective is essential.

“It is helpful to try to stay mindful of the present moment, attend to the child’s basic needs, and remember that all days can be tiresome and stressful,” says Trentacosta.

“Having social outlets, hobbies or other enjoyable activities can also help the parent to ‘stay sane.’

“At the end of the day, when you are exhausted, tired or stressed, it is also important to remember that no parent is perfect – and even experienced and ‘expert’ parents face the same kinds of challenges on a daily basis.”

This post was originally published in 2019 and is updated regularly. 

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