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The Terrible Threes

A lot of parents will tell you that 2 can't hold a candle to the tantrums, irritability and crazy behavior that comes in the third year. What is it about this time in a child's life that makes things such a battle? And more important, how can parents handle the tantrums, frustration over communication and growing independence without waving the white flag?
Moms in the Trenches
Sylvia Barnard fondly remembers the twos. "Ahh, yes, they were a breeze," she says. "The threes? Not so much."
The Atlanta mother of a 3- and 2-year-old admits it drives her crazy when the simplest tasks turn into a huge battle. "For instance, my son knows how to go to the bathroom; he's been potty trained since he was 2. But earlier this month he went to the bathroom in the front yard literally 20 feet from the toilet. I knew he had to go, but when I asked him, he said 'No' and continued digging his hole in the dirt. He just didn't want to go inside, so we ended up having an accident. I took him inside, made him take off his wet pants and then he sat on the stairs, essentially wiping poop on the carpet like a dog would do."
Barnard laments that her 3-year-old is so defiant. "It's so frustrating when he makes bad decisions when he knows better," she says. "There's just no reasoning with this age."
Another hotspot of trouble includes naptime. "I tell him that after he watches his 15-minute video, we'll need to go upstairs and take a nap, and he says 'OK.' But when the video ends, it's a 45-minute battle over going upstairs. I pick him up, screaming, kicking, rolling on the ground, having a tantrum. I look at him and start laughing or sometimes I just stare at him. After a while I'll say, 'Are you finished yet?' And sometimes he says 'no,' and other times, he says 'yes.'"
This is territory with which Robin Kelman is all too familiar. "I have a 3-year-old who's going through this stage right now, and it's been a bit difficult," says the Philadelphia mom. "She's demanding, whiney and defies almost everything I say. There are times when she's really good and others when she's so difficult we don't know what to do. Two doesn't hold a candle to 3!"
Kelman chalks up the change in personality to growing pains of sorts. "Children usually give up naps around age 3, so the day is longer, and they are still little people who need downtime. They're growing and have their own minds and know that they can test the waters, so to speak. I can't really blame them for this – it's human nature. There are also a lot of changes around this time – the transition to a big person's bed, school changes, potty training, etc."
Megan Lotz, a mother of two daughters and one son from Boise, Iowa, agrees that a 3-year-old's tantrums are more challenging than a 2-year-old's. "In my experience as a mother and teacher, the 3-year-old is more aware of any given situation, such as wanting a cookie or 10 more minutes at the park. Where a 2-year-old is more easily distracted, a 3-year-old understands the long-term ramifications of being momentarily placated."
Lotz says she's gone so far as to pluck her undecided children off the park slide and head toward the car. "Before they can throw a tantrum, I begin to compliment how nicely they are leaving today, such as, 'Won't it be fun to tell Daddy how nicely Ryan left the park today! We should have an extra cookie since you are following directions so well!'" she says. "In my experience, the child is so flattered by his great behavior that we leave together peacefully."
Barnard also finds success when she tag-teams the situation with her husband or nanny. Good cop, bad cop doesn't just work on television shows, after all. Little ones feed off of anxiety, so having someone lend a hand is incredibly helpful. "It's just so frustrating when you get these breakthroughs and then they slip backwards and you want to hit your head against the wall," she says.
Reinforcements from the Pros
The good news is that the majority of parents with 3-year-olds are still dealing with tantrums, says Dr. Rene Hackney, the founder of Parenting Playgroups, Inc., in Alexandria, Va. "While we expect children to tantrum less as they gain language and social problem-solving skills, 3-year-olds are just beginning to make progress in these areas and are easily overwhelmed. And they're still often pushing to gain independence. They're driven to do things for themselves and have a desire to master new tasks. While the desire is there, the skills to succeed often aren't ready yet."
Dr. Hackney says that at this age children begin activities that require practice to master. "Learning to catch a ball well takes repetition, patience and an attention span," says Dr. Hackney. "If children are still developing these traits, the time and effort it takes to learn to catch can be very difficult. The idea of practicing is new."
He says another source of frustration for many toddlers is that receptive language and mental abilities are beyond their expressive language skills. "Their ideas and plans are beyond what they can communicate," says Dr. Hackney. "For others, while they feel big emotions, they're just starting to learn emotion language and ways to express and better cope. It is common for 3-year-olds to be overwhelmed by their own emotions and easily frustrated. And finally, many 3-year-olds are still realizing their own power, that they can have differing opinions from others and can assert themselves in disagreeable ways."
"In regards to opposition and anxiety, these are very natural tendencies in children – all kids protest, refuse and are tentative and fearful at times," says Dr. Beth Grosshans, a clinical psychologist in Princeton, N.J., and the author of Beyond Time-Out: From Chaos to Calm (Sterling, 2008). "Problems arise when parents have fallen into the traps of mismanaging these inevitable childish states. One of the most central, but overlooked, dynamics in the parent-child relationship is that of power. In order for children to grow up healthy, secure, self-controlled and independent, they need parents who've been effectively and respectfully in the lead. Those children whose parents have inadvertently turned too much behavioral and emotional power over to them are the ones who display the most trouble."
Dr. Grosshans believes kids are hard-wired to want their way, and unfortunately they resist what they need most – a parent who can hold the line in the face of upset and anger. "This is the central paradox of parenting," she says. "Struggle is inevitable. Power is central in the dynamic whether we, as loving, nurturing parents, like it or not. So parents need to learn to extend the authority that's naturally theirs but to do so respectfully and lovingly."
But this doesn't mean wielding an iron hand. Rather, Dr. Grosshans says that it's a parent's job to help shape and direct a child's healthy, appropriate voice and choice. "This is what I call parenting in the 'sweet spot,'" she says. "Find this groove with your 3-year-old and you and he/she will reap the benefits for the rest of your lives as a family. There's no substitute for effective parents in the lead. Don't even think about throwing in the towel – if your child is anxious, defiant and challenging you left and right, then this is your call to action. Your child needs you more than ever."
Dr. Hackney advises parents to maintain their own sense of calm, as this is integral to handling tantrums. "If parents match children's frustration and upset, it tends to escalate the situation," she says. "Parents have a better shot when they speak in a quiet, calm way. They are also providing a better model for expression during the next upset."
She also encourages parents to teach their children the language needed to express their emotions. "The more kids are able to label and discuss emotions the less they may boil over," says Dr. Hackney. "You can teach about emotions through children's storybooks. Most stories have some emotional content this is requires adding a conversation about the emotions presented to that reading time."
Another helpful step Dr. Hackney finds is to validate children's emotions when they get upset or agitated. "This is important to do even when you disagree with how the child is feeling or how they express that negative emotion," she says. "When parents recognize and label children's negative emotions, the emotions tend to calm. The child feels heard and can better listen to parents or move forward to solve the situation."
But when your toddler is acting in a way that's unappealing, the next step is to coach the child on better ways to express negative emotions. For this to happen effectively, you need to decide what forms of expression are OK within your household. "It's not that one way is better than another, but rather that family members are able to express themselves in ways that don't increase the problem," Dr. Hackney says. "In one house it might be OK to stomp feet when you're mad, in another house that might be disrespectful. It's best to teach children these ways to express themselves out of the moment, when no one is angry."
But one of the biggest aids in this trying stage is to offer your child choices whenever possible. "Offering children choices can be a way to lessen the frustration," says Dr. Hackney. "Rather than saying, 'It's time to go. Put on your shoes.' A parent might say, 'It's time to go. Would you like the blue or red shoes?' or 'Would you like to put on your shoes or should I?' Allowing children to make more decisions gives them a sense of control about their day."
And finally, when you feel like your head is going to explode, if you utter, "Let's go ... put on your shoes!" one more time, simply stop. That's right – stop repeating requests. "When parents repeat themselves children learn to tune them out," Dr. Hackney says. "Saying, 'It's time to get your shoes ... Could you get your shoes please ... I'm leaving, get your shoes,' teaches children not to listen the first two times on the next go-around. After parents have made a request, I want them to move into action and help the child to be a listener. They might take the shoes to the child or lead the child to the shoes and get them moving. Likely parents will be less frustrated because they made a request once and the child is learning to listen the first time."
But above all else, moms and professionals alike urge parents to keep the faith. You and your 3-year-old will weather this storm and come out the other side. And the little person standing by your side will be older, more independent, but also more amazing – so keep up the good fight.