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Healthy Kids: Handling the tumultuous threes

We’ve all heard of the terrible twos, but parents are often surprised to discover that life with their child becomes more challenging when he or she turns three.

Age three is a critical time of development, when children typically begin to exert their independence—and test their boundaries. Erica Coyer sees this daily with her 3-year-old twins, Nia and Sylas.

“They’re exercising their will and their independence and their ability to disagree,” she says. “Their emotions are really strong and their needs are intense and very real to them.”

“Having a three-year-old is like having a teenager. I call them three-nagers,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw with Eugene Pediatric Associates.

When it comes to managing your 3-year-old’s impulsive temperament, she advises parent to:

Pick your battles. If you fight your 3-year-old over every bad behavior, you'll be at war all day. Instead, list the behaviors that really bother you—because they're dangerous, aggressive or uncivil—and set clear, specific rules and logical consequences. For less-serious misconduct, like not sharing, develop an overall policy, but deal with each situation on a case-by-case basis.

Don’t allow yourself to argue with your child. Instead, use a calm, quiet voice. Know when to take a break from an intense situation and clear your head.

Keep your child’s tantrums and outbursts in perspective. What they often can’t communicate clearly, it sometimes comes out as hurtful behavior.

“Remember, their words are grown-up sounding, but they don’t mean them. When your 3-year-old says, ‘I hate you’—which one of mine did, screaming, kicking the back of my seat—she didn’t mean she hated me. She hated that she got in trouble for her bad behavior,” Dr. Bradshaw says.

Another tool Dr. Bradshaw offers parents is what she calls the 90-10 rule:

“It’s a good goal to have 90 percent of what comes out of your mouth be positive, because then you will look for good things in your kid. They will appreciate that most of what you say is positive, and then what you say that is corrective really stands out to them,” she explains.

Use what you know about your child to head off needless blowups. If your child tends to be happy in the morning but is tired and grumpy after lunch, schedule trips to the store and visits to the doctor for when he or she is at their best. And because five minutes can sometimes feel like five hours to a little person, try using an egg timer to help ease your child’s impatience.

“If you’re going to say to your child, ‘We will go to the park in 15 minutes,’ set an egg timer and tell him or her, ‘When it dings, we’re going,” says Dr. Bradshaw.

While parenting a 3-year-old can be challenging, parents like Erica know that there are also plenty of wonderful moments watching those little people explore, grow and learn.

“Every day is filled with moments of extreme trial and challenge and moments of amazing beauty and gratitude,” she says. “It’s really about being able to flow with it.”

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