I’ve always thought that while most new parents find mommy-and-me meetups when they have newborns, it’s parents of “threenagers” who truly need a support group. Each day is like being on a wildly awful and delightful rollercoaster as your child cycles through deep and intense mood swings, creating emotional whiplash for us poor, exhausted parents just attempting to hang on.
We didn’t experience the terrible twos with either of our daughters (true story). Both of them were cute and pleasant at two; they were mobile and happy, and certainly more baby than toddler. I would laugh over-confidently, proud that my daughters were just cruising through toddlerhood.
But the next stage caught us off guard, especially with our youngest daughter. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been home with her 24/7 during this COVID-19 quarantine. We’ve been thrown by the very-high highs and lowest lows. As soon as we blew out the candles on her third birthday cake, a dark cloud began to hang over her head. One minute our adorable child was sunny and sweet; the next, yelling, crying or refusing to put on socks. I’ve been told I’m the best mommy “in the whole entire universe-world” and I’ve been rebuked at 7:35 in the morning by a groggy toddler-monster in her dark cave, yelling “DON’T COME IN MY ROOM!” There have been the adorable face grabs of “Mommy, you’re so cute!” while smooshing my cheeks with her tiny hands. She would love preschool one day and hate it the next, staging silent protests on the sidewalk. She’d sit down in the middle of the grocery store aisle. (Remember bringing your kids to the grocery store?) In one memorably epic Target tantrum, pre-lockdown, she was writhing on the floor, sending boxes of Hello Kitty Band-aids, tampons and make-up remover pads flying, as my oldest, then six, scurried around to pick up the debris.
I think you’re getting the picture. Many times it was a missed nap. Sometimes it was an overdue snack. But often, there was no rhyme or reason to the wild pendulum swings. This is why, after doing it twice, I’ll tell you that parenting a three-year-old child is not for the faint of heart. It’s mentally and emotionally challenging, and it will rattle even the calmest of parents.
Why is age three so turbulent? Sometimes called the “magic years,” three year olds are filled with wonder, independence and many (many!) questions. These little ones are developing their language, memory and imagination, and it’s a time of discovery, as parents begin to see their kid’s personality shine. It’s also a time when both kids and parents struggle with unpredictability, expectations and boundary setting, particularly in uncertain situations.
My parenting bible through this threenager stage has been No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Lansbury, arguably today’s most popular parenting guru when it comes to dealing with tricky toddlers. I keep Lansbury’s books by my bedside and her podcast “Unruffled” on my iPhone.
Lansbury teaches that respectful parenting is not passive parenting. In a chapter of the same name, Lansbury uses words like “unruffled,” “calm” and “matter of fact” to help parents recognize that intense responses to their kids’ developmentally appropriate behaviour often backfires. She preaches the importance of clear expectations for three year olds who crave routine.
“Our children need to know that their parents and caregivers are not thrown by their minor misdeeds, so that they can rest assured that they are well taken care of and not more powerful than the leaders they depend on,” she writes. A three-year-old kid simply wants to feel safe, even in the midst of boundary-testing. We have to keep calm and stand outside the situation, she urges, as even a meltdown can be healing for toddlers—they’re just getting all the big emotions out.
Lansbury suggests imagining you’re donning a superhero cape in those moments—one that makes you a capable and confident parent who can see that these epic tantrums and unreasonable demands are actually milestones. In the midst of our current ongoing coronavirus situation, I don’t quite have my own cape, but I’ve seen myself become less reactionary and more attuned to her emotions. The key to healthy and effective discipline is actually an adjustment to my attitude and outlook—not hers.
One easy-to execute solution for us has been to announce, well in advance, changes or transitions in the schedule. For example, it’s been helpful to tell the kids that we’ll be coming inside for lunch, and then we repeat the same announcement every few minutes, so there’s no confusion or surprises. It’s also helped to acknowledge and empathize with her big feelings. I often ask my preschooler, “Are you feeling sad about this?” and I’m always surprised how these insightful questions can disarm anger and lead us into calmer spaces.
The best advice I’ve ever received about parenting, at any stage, is that it’s all temporary. Yup, three year olds can turn on a dime, but it’s an in-between stage. They’re big, but still little. This time around, I’m trying to not get bogged down into problem-solving, approaching situations with more awareness, and realizing it’s not my “job” to do something about everything. Sometimes enduring it—changing the subject, redirecting their behaviour, or even simply waiting it out—is the best thing you can do.
After the Target tantrum, once I finally got my screaming, kicking child strapped in her car seat, I shut the door and looked around the parking lot. I was frazzled, sure, but I didn’t get caught in it. It’s often my reaction to her that makes it worse, so I tuned out my daughter. I noticed the striking quiet of the underground lot. I heard the beep of another car’s lock system. I took three long, cleansing breaths and regained my composure.
This is our last trip through this tricky terrain of volatile threenagers, so I’m trying to savour it—even when it’s really hard. Isn’t that the push-pull of parenting? To want the hard things to go away faster, while simultaneously not wanting each stage to end?
To make it through this unprecedented time together, we have to give each other—kids and parents alike—more grace, and some space (despite the close quarters). Even stuck under lockdown, I’m learning to enjoy the gifts of toddlerhood and to go with the flow.