“Definition of a threenager: the little human living with you, who according to their birth certificate is 3, but according to their attitude is a teenager.” – Unknown
“Shhhhh. Mommy, I busy. Go away.”
“No, mommy, you are in timeout.”
“Mommy, I do it by myself!”
These are all statements I’ve heard countless times from my daughter—my sassy threenager. In the blink of an eye, she can go from a sweet and loving girl who wants millions of hugs and kisses, to a volatile, stubborn little woman.
As my daughter sprays her independence all over the house, with her sharp words and growing personality, I sometimes don’t know if I should laugh or serve the same attitude right back to her.
In those moments of teenage anguish, I go in search of whatever patience I didn’t use up when she was two, and I remind myself that at 3 years old, she’s going through some major life transitions.
This little one is starting to grow her own sense of self, finding her own voice and independence, and it’s my job to encourage it.
Even though she can be unknowingly rude, this developmental stage serves as a major learning experience for both of us. It’s a time for her to grow into herself, and a time for me to give her the space to do that while also showing her how to appropriately express who she is.
If you’ve got a threenager in your house, you know what a challenge it can be. But before you respond to this stage with your own sassiness, remember that it’s more important to model good behavior than it is to shut that threenager down.
Three-year-olds go through some major life transitions at this stage in their lives:
1. 'Threenager' kids are learning to manage their emotions.
Around the age of three, children start to understand their emotions. They might even begin identifying their feelings with words. However, they’re still not developmentally ready to control their emotions. If they think something is funny, they’ll laugh uncontrollably. If something happens and they feel sad, they cry inconsolably.
Their emotions are intense and can seem overwhelming— try to just be patient and understand that, at three, they don’t have the capacity to properly control their emotions.
2. They want instant gratification.
Three-year-olds don’t have much impulse control. If they feel the need to do something, they’ll act on it without much thought.
For example, they might take the chocolate out of your purse even after you’ve said “No,” or they might hit another kid when they get mad. Delayed gratification has to be learned over time, and it isn’t something 3-year-olds fully understand.
3. They’re learning how to solve conflict.
Three-year-olds may hit, bite or push as a way to deal with conflict. Since they act in the moment on impulse, they don't understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate conflict resolution skills.
As a parent, it’s important to show your threenager that there’s a proper and improper way to express emotions and resolve problems with others. You show them this by being mindful of how you respond to conflict, and by talking them through their own conflict resolutions.
4. They’re developing a sense of humor.
I don’t know about yours, but my 3-year-old is hilarious! She’s developing a real sense of humor. I can see that she loves to make me laugh. Like most kids her age, she finds talking about things like poo poo and pee to be very entertaining. Though your taste in humor might be slightly different, remember that at this stage, 3-year-olds are learning how to be funny.
5. They’re learning empathy.
Empathy starts to develop in children around age three. They can relate to others when they’re hurt, and you can get a response from them when you ask how they’re feeling. They might also cry if they think they hurt you, especially if they didn’t mean to.
6. They’re learning to play with others.
At 3 years old, kids learn to play with others. Before that there’s a lot of parallel play, but at this age, they start to engage with each other. They may even start asking you to play with them, too!
Your baby is growing up quickly and turning into his or her own person. As scary as that may be, it’s also very exciting to see your children grow into themselves. They start to have their own likes and dislikes, personalities and curiosity for life.
I’ve found that the better my daughter gets at using her words to express how she's feeling, even if it’s with attitude, the fewer tantrums she has.
We all know that our threenagers want to call the shots, but they don’t always have the fine motor skills to complete certain tasks. Watching them pick out their own (non-matching) outfits and put them on backwards is frustrating—naturally, we feel the urge to help them. But we can better serve them by sitting back and letting them figure it all out on their own.
It’s important for everyone parenting a child at this delicate age to remember that consistency and patience are key. Don’t take their words personally, and try to explain things without getting overly emotional or angry.
Remember, our threenagers will have fewer meltdowns and learn to better transition through life if we act like adults ourselves.
Want to help foster the goodness that comes with being 3 years old? We have a few suggestions...