Understanding Your Three-Year-Old
Help! There is a Threenager in My Home!
As your child transitions from 3 to 3 1⁄2, their cooperative, easy going attitude might seem to evaporate overnight and be replaced by one that’s demanding, controlling, and often rigid. Welcome to what’s known as the “threenage” period of growth.
Once a child turns 3, many parents will welcome the calm and stability that their child exhibits after completing the development stage sometimes referred to as the “Terrible Twos”. Unfortunately, this quieter period is relatively short-lived. As the child gets older and approaches the age of 3 1⁄2, they rapidly enter into a new phase of development causing an abrupt shift in mood and behavior.
A good word used to describe most 3 1⁄2-year-olds would be ‘insecure’. Children at this phase of growth experience instability in all areas of their development, including social, emotional, physical, and cognitive. Three-and-a-half year olds are much less secure within themselves, often leading to increased bouts of crying, whining, an increased need for attention and reassurance, and difficulty separating from caregivers (even when they went with others easily at 3 years). The insecurity 3 1⁄2-year-olds might experience often causes difficulties in their relationships with others, with a heightened need for reassurance from mom or dad that they are loved and accepted despite all of their high demands. Three-and-a-half-year-old children are demanding of attention and often become extremely jealous of any attention given to other family members – especially younger siblings.
Tensional outlets can be exaggerated for this age group as 3 1⁄2-year-olds display more of a need to self- soothe and self-regulate through any means available: blinking their eyes, biting nails, picking their nose, pulling hair, masturbating, or sucking their thumb excessively. This is also the age that some anxiety behaviors may begin to manifest, as the child feels extremely insecure and lacks confidence in his or her abilities. The emergence of tensional outlets usually signifies something distressful for your child, and they use these behaviors as a way to self-soothe and calm their brain.
This difficult period of insecurity, disequilibrium, and incoordination at 3 1⁄2 may only be temporary in some children but may also be long and extremely challenging in others. Although situations in the environment may contribute or exaggerate this phase of growth, most children will enter this period of insecurity completely on their own based on their age and innate drive towards greater maturity. As parents, it is helpful to see this phase of growth as a necessary step to help the child gain security and confidence so they are able to be curious and expansive when they approach the age of 4.
The incoordination of this age period may extend into all areas of the child’s life and behavior. It is common for 3 1⁄2 year old children to lose muscle coordination and stability previously gained at 3 years, causing the child to trip, stumble, or fall more often. Sustained fine motor coordination is difficult for these children as they tire easily, with some even developing a slight hand tremor as exhaustion sets in.
Incoordination may also interfere with the 3 1⁄2-year-old’s language development. Stuttering is common amongst this age group, even if they didn’t stutter before. Parents are encouraged to be patient and allow their child to finish his or her statement without being rushed. It is important to remember that the child is most likely experiencing great frustration as they aren’t able to state their desires quickly and smoothly.
Strategies for living with threenagers
- Give extra one-on-one time: When parents are understanding of their child’s difficulties and see them as developmentally appropriate and necessary stages of growth, they are able to show the child the extra affection and compassion which they so desperately need at this crucial stage. Giving your child a little extra one-on-one time will go a long way. This helps to combat the feelings of insecurity your child is experiencing and helps to develop their inner sense of worthiness, competency, and greater security. The more connected children feel to parents, the more secure they will feel within themselves.
- Streamline routines: Just as you did when your child was 2 1⁄2, streamline as many things as possible. Three-and-a-half-year-old children are simply not secure enough to handle choices all of the time. Sometimes they need a parent to take control and to help them accomplish what may seem like simple tasks. At this stage, children are able to grasp three steps or instructions – so try to keep all routines and requests to three things total. In terms of practicalities, it helps to keep things consistent like having the same plate/cup/utensils available to your child each time they need to use them. In short, don’t give them too many options to battle and fuss over – keep things as simple as possible.
- Maintain your level of patience and empathy: As difficult as it may be, this stage is vital for parents to remain accepting and patient with their 3 1⁄2- year-old. Parents who are able to remain attuned to their child and can respond to their child’s demands with empathy are able to safeguard their child from the emotional, social, and behavioral obstacles typical of this age group. Through empathy and attachment, parents help to nurture the insecure 3 1⁄2-year-old so that they can continue to grow into a rich stage of fantasy, imagination, and playfulness that comes in at full force at 4-years-old.