Thrilling Threes

Forget terrible twos, what to do with the thrilling threes?

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Original Poster:


“I really need your help. My three year old is so, so difficult to manage these days. It's the usual stuff, tantrums, rollercoaster emotions, not listening to us, protesting every decision we make--and even some she makes!--it's making us crazy. A big part of the problem is that we have no strategy. We believe in setting limits and having consequences but I feel like we're just flying blind with this, definitely just reacting to what she does rather than having a plan in place beforehand.
Can you all tell me what the best book is for raising a three-year-old? And I would welcome any personal anecdotes related to tantrums, separation anxiety, mood swings etc., especially if there is a happy ending! (ha)
Thanks everyone -- so much.”

Kings - Hip Hop Nutcracker


Responses and Replies


“Basically, you want to avoid getting into a battle of wills, b/c it's going to backfire every time. You need to act with "kindness and firmness" and mean what you say, which often means watching your words to make sure you don't say things you can't back up with action. Kids no when your threats aren't real (most of the time). Never underestimate the power of humor and silliness. (My wife has been begging me to read this book for months. I finally read half of it the other day. So I'm no expert, but it has changed my approach in certain circumstances.)”


A member with a MS in Child Development writes:


“I completely feel your pain. I have been going through the same thing with my three-nager for almost 5 months now. It has been really difficult. We've finally hit a good streak recently, so I can only tell you what has helped us. Here are some things I read and remembered that have been helping;

1. At this age, they are so desperate for attention. They don't care if it's positive or negative attention, they just want all the focus on them. So I've been trying harder to ignore the bad behaviors that are not dangerous or violent, and focus more on praising the positive, no matter how small. Even when he's just sitting quietly and playing nicely (which is rare), I praise that action. Even when he brushes his teeth, or washes hands, or throws out a tissue, etc. As much as possible, I try to give him my attention, and I have seen a real difference in his behavior.

2. I read something recently about expecting too much from them, and I realized that since my youngest has gotten older (he's 1yo), I was expecting my 3yo to be much more capable and adult than he is, without even realizing it. So I have taken a few steps back and I am treating him very similarly to the way I did when he was 2 years old, and that has made a big difference. For example, he's fully capable of washing his hands by himself, and using the potty. When he refused to do these things, it was very frustrating for me (especially since the 1yo is so clearly in need of my constant supervision and attention). So now when he does these things that I know he can do alone, I still ask him if he'd like to do it alone or if he would like me to do it with him. He almost always chooses that we do it together, which gives him the feeling that he's in charge, gets it done a lot faster, and also gives him some extra attention that he craves.

3. They still very much want to feel like they're in charge and their words carry some weight - so if I'm asking him (or telling him) it's time to go, or time to get into PJs, etc., I give him a chance to finish what he's doing, or explain to me why he needs another minute. I've been taking the time to listen to him a lot more, which has really done wonders. Somehow I have harnessed the most extreme amount of patience that I thought was ever possible, and it has really been paying off. Easier said than done, I know, but when you hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up. I hit a breaking point, and somehow I summoned the will to be extra patient with him.

4. They say a tired dog is a good dog. I hate to compare my child to an animal, but it is so true with children as well. So I've been focusing more on activities that get a lot of energy out of him. When we walk the dog, I take us all into the park and let him walk or run beside the stroller for the whole time. This exhausts him, thrills him, and results in a lot better behavior once we get home. This also helps because we stopped going to playgrounds after a while since he wouldn't listen when it was time to leave and I would have to carry him out, kicking and screaming, and also because I noticed that at the playground he was just sitting in the sand, not really getting any energy out. The walk in the park gets his energy out, and he's willing to stay relatively close because he doesn't want to be left behind.

5. Going back to treating him like a 2yo, I was expecting him to follow rules since he is old enough to understand them, but he's not mature enough for this expectation. So I went back to methods of distraction/re-direciton that I used when he was younger, and also reminding him constantly of the rules in place. For example, if I see him starting to get frustrated with something or having trouble sharing with his little brother, I get him involved in some other activity with me. That way he gets the attention, and I stop the behavior before it escalates. He also is always thrilled to "help out" in the kitchen, or with laundry - any task he sees as an adult task, he wants to be part of, and it helps us both to involve him more. Another example of this is his unwillingness to use the potty when asked to, like before we leave the house, or when I notice it has been hours since he went. Previously, I would ask him to go, and offer to go with him, or even say I need to use the bathroom and I want company, but he would continue to protest. Now I ask him to come use the potty with me, and before he has a chance to protest, I tell him I have something I wanted to tell him or ask him, and I start talking to him as I walk away into the bathroom. He always follows, and while he's distracted listening to the story, I help him pull his pants down and sit on the potty. Then while he's sitting, I make up a story about a bug I saw, or a truck, etc., or I make something up like I saw something that I didn't know what it was called (like a bulldozer) and get him involved in figuring out what I saw. Meanwhile, he does his business without really realizing it, and it's over a lot quicker and lot more positively than before.

I've also tried some things like consciously trying not to raise my voice. Ever. I take a breath, squat down to his level, and speak to him calmly. This is very difficult to do in most situations, and the only way I've been able to maintain this is by seeing how much better he responds to this tactic. I ask him to put his listening ears on, wait while he mimes this action, ask him to look at me, and speak very clearly to him about what he has done wrong, or what I expect from him. I also have him repeat it at the end, or ask him about what I said; "so what will happen when we walk in the street?" to make sure he was listening, and understands what I'm asking of him. Sometimes he'll say, "I forget" or "Can you say it again", and I try and re-focus him and repeat the most important part, "We don't run away on the street. You need to stay close to me so I can keep you safe".

I also involved him in this, and explained to him that mama is going to try not to yell anymore, and he decided he would join me in trying not to yell anymore as well. That way we're both on the same team, and we can remind each other of this goal when we slip up. Which we both do. But getting him involved and showing him that even I let my emotions get the best of me sometimes has helped a lot. And I always make sure to apologize if I lose my cool or jump to the wrong conclusion. "I'm sorry I got so mad and yelled. It is very important that you not run away from me in the street".

I also imposed a very clear three-strike policy that I abide by - so at dinner for example, if he does something like throw a piece of food on the floor on purpose, I calmly and clearly tell him that was strike one, and remind him that he gets three strikes, and on the third strike dinner is over. There have been times that he goes through the three strikes quickly and has barely touched his food, but I stick to it and take his dinner away. I figure if he's really hungry he would be eating instead of playing or acting out, and I know that missing one meal will not kill him. Then he eats a big breakfast in the morning, and inevitably tells me he was hungry last night, at which point I make the connection clear that he was hungry because he chose not to eat his dinner but instead to throw it or misbehave.

I also realized that I was giving him too many rules to follow (this goes along with expecting too much) and I needed to ease up a bit. So even though I am a bit OCD, I try to let him get away with much more, as long as he's not endangering himself, and as long as it doesn't involve hitting or pushing or anything physical. This has also made a marked difference in his behavior. And most of these things I've mentioned, I still have to remind myself once a day or once a week, etc. It's not easy, but things have been getting better.

I hope any small part of this has helped. I have an MS in Child Development, so it was appalling to me when I was having such a hard time with him, when I know what works and what doesn't! It's always easier said than done, but all I can say is that we were in a really bad place, and I took a good hard look at our interactions, and these are the things that have really helped me and made a difference in his behavior. Again, I hope this helps! Hang in there, you're definitely not alone.”


Recommended Reading


No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Lansbury

“Hands down my favorite book is No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame by Janet Lansbury. A practical, easy read that has profoundly shaped how I approach my toddler for the better.”


“I loved No Bad Kids.”


Setting Limits with Your Strong Willed Child by Robert J. Mackenzie, EdD

“I recommend the book "Setting Limits with Your Strong Willed Child". I thought it was great. The problem was my husband did not want to get on Board is difficult to be consistent Because he wasn't on board. But for a month that he was away I could see the difference and teachers at her Preschool were on board.”


“I experienced some of what you're talking about for the first time when my son was 2.5. The book I liked was Setting Limits with your Strong Willed Child.”


How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will TalkHow to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Elaine Mazlish and Adele Faber


Raising Your Spirited ChildRaising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

“Our daughter is now 4 and these books have really helped us navigate the tough times.”


No Drama DisciplineNo Drama Discipline by Daniel J. Siegel

“So far I'm liking No Drama Discipline. My cousin is a child therapist who has five remarkably well mannered children ages 2-6, and she recommends it. But more, I like having a set of instructions to follow, so I can at least make a stab at consistency instead of flailing each time a tantrum erupts. It feels good to have a game plan.”


How Toddlers ThriveHow Toddlers Thrive by Tovah Klein

“I loved How Toddlers Thrive!”


1-2-3- magic1-2-3- magic by Thomas W. Phelan

“I need to find my copy and re-read it since I remember finding some sanity in "1-2-3- magic". My sister was/is horrified by my use of the system but it helps me clearly tell my kid which behavior is completely unacceptable. At least it helped with my "big" kid. This little one is a lot more worldly than his brother was at this age... Or maybe I'm more tired?


“I experienced some of what you're talking about for the first time when my son was 2.5. The  book I like was 1-2-3 Magic.”


Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen

“I can totally relate. I'd recommend this book.”


I Said I Want the Red Bowl! Responding to Toddlers' Irrational Behavior

See PBS link