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Surviving the Terrible Threes

by Dr. Heather Wittenberg | January 31, 2011 | Child Development

By Dr. Heather

My son was turning 3. After a long toddlerhood of screaming, not sleeping and throwing tantrums, I was ready for a break. Hurray! I thought. The Terrible Twos are over! A birthday party was had. He was walking — and talking — more confidently. He didn’t look so much like a toddler anymore. He was even working on the potty. But wait a second! The tantrums only got louder — and more persistent.

As it turns out, 3 is a whole new reason for your toddler to have meltdowns and freak-outs. Yes, he has much better language and motor skills now. He is interested in playing with other kids. And his memory and speech skills make him seem like he’s a big boy. But those social skills are a long way from being perfected — he may still be unable to wait his turn or share nicely.

I often hear this complaint from parents of 3-year-olds: “I know she can ____ (insert your desired toddler behavior here: dress herself, buckle her own car seat, use the potty, etc.), but she won’t!” That’s because skill is not the same thing as willingness.

On one hand, she wants to be a big girl. On the other hand, she still wants to be cared for by mommy and daddy. So just because she can do something doesn’t mean she will. And there’s not much we can do to force her, because reinforcements like sticker charts often don’t hold much influence, yet.

Therefore, those tantrums are likely to continue for a while. As far as development is concerned, toddlerhood doesn’t actually end until the fourth birthday.

I think it’s more useful to think of the stretch from the ages of 1 to 4 as one long road. Sure, tons of exciting developments happen along the way. But parents get tricked into thinking that “it’s finally going to get easier” after a child’s third birthday. That leads to unrealistic expectations, and then frustration with the child who is still developing.

It’s a lot easier if you understand that there are three long years of toddler behavior — not sharing, not waiting patiently, and not smiling sweetly at unwanted birthday gifts — along with lots of positive development. Adopting a Zen-like attitude is the only way to retain your sanity until your child’s next birthday.

So what else can a frustrated (and tired) parent to do?

  • Expect regressions and don’t take them personally. Remember to breathe.
  • Lead from behind and give your toddler control when you can. Let him have one or two choices, when possible. That makes it easier to be the boss when you must.
  • Reverse psychology works great with this crowd. “Looks like you don’t want to put on your own clothes today. OK, I will do it for you like I did when you were so little.” You’re much more likely to have a big girl tomorrow.
  • Pick your battles — ensuring safety and preventing blatant rudeness are probably enough, for now.
  • Have faith and hang in there. Your 4-year-old will be much more workable, willing and fun. With enough guidance, encouragement and appropriate limit setting, 4 will be awesome. I promise!