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16 Tips for Surviving the Terrible 3’s


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Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD - published on 09/14/15

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They call them the “terrible 2’s,” “trusting 3’s” and “pleasing 4’s,” but in reality having a 3-year-old can be harder than a 2-year-old.  If you’re starting to feel like you just don’t really like taking care of your toddler anymore, you are not alone.  Here are sixteen tips to help you learn to love parenthood again (or at least make it through the day):

  • Label behavior and teach virtue:Instead of getting angry, label behavior.  I got this from Sesame Street—there’s a scene where Cookie Monster is accused of lying about stealing cookies.  Frustrated and upset, Cookie Monster says, “Me glutton, not liar.”  If Sesame Street can use words like “gluttony” to label behavior, so can I. So now we use words like “gluttony,” “patience,” “kindness,” “diligence,” and “envy” and even “sloth.”  This is virtue-based education for your toddler.  It sounded weird at first, but now I love it when six-year-old tells her teasing brother, “That’s not kindness!”  

  • Be attuned to your children:The key to raising emotionally healthy children is attunement, or how well you recognize your child’s needs at any given moment.  Attunement, in short, is putting yourself in your child’s shoes and then meeting their needs with the wisdom of a parent.  Try to identify the root of your child’s misbehavior— why she won’t put her shoes on or why she’s throwing a tantrum— then tailor your consequence appropriately. Most books on discipline and parenting revolve around the same themes—be consistent, follow-through with consequences, don’t give too many warnings, don’t punish in anger, etc.  Although I agree with these themes, there is a risk of becoming too formulaic.  In attunement parenting, we don’t just give time-out as a rote response to misbehavior.  Instead, attuned parents ask “why” a child is misbehaving.  When we understand the root of a child’s misbehavior, we can better meet their needs, love them, and get long-term healthy behaviors.  I’ve written more on Attunement Parenting and how it differs from Attachment Parenting here.

  • Give your child your full attention in frequent, small doses:  If your 3-year-old is pulling your cell phone out of your hands, banging on your keyboard while you type, or knocking over all your piles of laundry, this one is for you.  I know your 3-year-old wants your full attention all the time, but it’s just not possible if you are trying to run errands, read your email, or otherwise have a life.  So as soon as you realize your sweet-thing is trying to get your attention, give her a few seconds of full attention.  Look her right in the eyes, ask her some questions, and listen to the answer.  Use body language that shows attention, like putting your phone down.  While you listen to her answers, think of how you are going to redirect her.

  • Redirect with creativity: Try to redirect early, and with a loving voice.  Ask yourself, “Why is my child misbehaving?  What do they really need?”  Aggressive behaviors usually require physical redirection.  For example, if a child is snatching toys or yelling, they might need to ride a bike outside for a while.  If a child is lying on the floor and whining, they may need a little attention and some quiet activity— try reading them a book.  

  • Touch your 3-year-old, many time per day: Most 3-year-olds need lots of hugs and snuggles, even when you’re not ready.  Be ready to put your work down and hug your child, multiple times per day.  Don’t forget to actually say, “I love you,” especially when your 3-year-old is misbehaving.

  • Anticipate repeat offenders: Children, like adults, have patterns of misbehavior.  They do the same wrong things again and again.  Do you fight about clothes every morning, or struggle to get your 3-year-old strapped into her carseat?  Know your repeat offenses, intervene early and encourage your child to make good choices.  I had a three-year-old that liked to refuse to get strapped into her car seat because she knew she could control the whole family— the car wouldn’t move until she was strapped in.  The more she refused, the angrier our other children became, and she felt powerful.  So one day, on the way to the car, I said, “If everyone says, ‘We love you!’ three times, will you strap into your car seat and be happy?”  She said, “Ok, but you have to say it five times.”  We did, she strapped in, and everyone was laughing.  By giving her control of a little issue, I gained control of the whole situation.

  • Set clear expectations: Write a list of family rules.  For 3-year-olds, make the list short and simple.  For example, 1) Use loving voices, 2) Obey Mommy and Daddy, and 3) Don’t hurt other people.  Discuss the rules daily, and praise successes at dinner or bedtime.  

  • Teach obedience: Kids aren’t born obedient, we have to teach it. Three year-olds are naturally seeking autonomy and will fight obedience.  The trick is to teach kids that they want to be obedient, that they get lots of praise and positive reinforcement when they do what you say.  To practice obedience, play “Simon Says,” except change it to “Mommy Says,” or “Daddy Says.”  Start with typical stuff like patting your head and clapping your hands, then transition to putting toys away.  

  • Praise effort, not outcome: Try to praise ten times as often as you correct, but praise in the right way. Praise effort, not outcome.  Too much praise can actually have an inverse effect on children’s achievement— it can set the bar too high and lead them to fear failure. The New York Times magazine has an excellent summary of the powerful research behind this paradoxical effect.

  • Get a behavior sticker chart: Stickers will never again be as powerful than when your child is three.  Enjoy it. Get a sticker chart and start keeping track of days your three-year-old stayed in bed, cleared their plate, kept dry underwear on all day, etc.  

  • Be consistent: Consistency does not mean harsh punishments or yelling, it means consistently addressing the same problem behaviors.  If leaving your shoes on the floor is not OK on Monday, you can’t pick them up for your child on Tuesday.  That doesn’t mean your 3-year-old needs a verbal lashing.

  • Get on the same page with other childcare providers: What positive reward systems are in place in your child’s nursery classroom?  What about grandma’s house?  If they are working outside home, try them at home, too. Rules at school and home need to be as similar as possible.

  • When all else fails, resort to time-out: Don’t be angry, just ask your little defiant one to go to time-out, and pick him up if he doesn’t go.  Make sure you identify your time-out location before hand and try to be consistent about this location (we use the bathroom so they can’t get out to go to the potty).  Give one minute time out for each year of life, or tell him he’s staying in until he can stop crying and be sweet. As your child kicks and screams while you carry him to time-out, just gently tell him you love him. Resist the urge to debate to speak reason. He’s 3, he won’t be reasonable.  

  • Take care of yourself: Ask for help. Talk through specific situations. Take a break. Remember that 4 is coming soon–let’s hope you get a “trusting 4.”

  • Remember that your child does have perfect parents, in heaven: Unless you’re God, you’re never going to be a perfect parent.  For all the times that you are less than perfect, ask God to be your backup. Then pray for your children and your own parenting. Ask for the peace that surpasses all understanding.  

Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and a mother of five young children. Connect with Dr. Berchelmann

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