Thursday, November 3, 2016

Thoughts on the Terrible Two-to-Threes

Photo: Three-year-old Matthew sitting on a ladybug statue

Everyone talks about the terrible twos. Some people say the threes are even worse. But in my experience, the most challenging, pushed-to-the-brink-of-sanity phase is the two-to-threes.

It’s the transition from toddler to preschooler, when their little brains start to form rational (and not-so-rational) thoughts. When they step into that higher level of thinking but their emotional intelligence lags behind. They are aware of bigger more complicated feelings but have no idea how to process them.

This incongruence leads to situations where your child is throwing an epic tantrum, screaming at you to “put my poop back on” after a diaper change. True story. I had to leave the room because I was laughing at the absurdity of my life.

We’ve been going through it with Matthew lately. He can be so much fun, so joyful and so thoughtful. And at the same time, he completely pushes me to the edge of my sanity. I have been close to tears many days from feeling utterly helpless. I will even admit to Googling “three year old is driving me nuts” which told me that I am not alone in this.

Then I found this journal entry from when Laura was going through this same phase:

I know my biggest challenge is going to be interacting with Laura. She is in one of those stages of learning new things and testing boundaries. It seems like I'm constantly correcting and she's constantly whining or yelling in protest. I know this is developmentally appropriate. Her brain is still immature and not able to regulate the strong emotions of her desires. Nonetheless, I fall into thinking that since she understands my words she should be able to follow my instructions, and I see her lack of compliance as disobedience. I take her negative emotions personally, and I feel disrespected, hurt, and angry.

So there are two ways to approach the interaction. I can be the stern parent, trying to bend her will to mine. I've tried this enough to know that A) it doesn't work and B) it creates more discord between us. It's the easiest approach, however, and I find myself using it mostly when I am too exhausted or distracted to give attention to the situation. Plus it feels justified - I'm right and she's wrong, so I am allowed to act angry.

The other approach takes concentrated effort. It requires me to stop whatever I'm doing, think about the best response, and, most importantly, sacrifice my feelings and desires. Sometimes it means holding the limit while empathizing with her feelings. Sometimes is means simply letting go and accepting that just because I would prefer that she not do something doesn't mean what she's doing is wrong. The key to this approach is to speak nicely. When frustration and anger are your emotions, this can seem impossible.

As I sat eating breakfast this morning, I know this impossible task is the key to my day. And the words come to me.

Speak generously instead of selfishly.

Let my response overflow with love. Give her grace. Sacrifice my feelings.

And all of this is equally true for Matthew. It is hard and it seems like things will never change, but eventually, gradually it does.

It is worth it to persevere. And when you make it through, the threes don’t seem so terrible after all.

What works for us:

Get your own emotions in check. Your emotional/physical/mental state will greatly determine the tone of your interaction. Make sure you are calm enough to be kind and keep things in perspective as the adult.

Connect, then redirect. This is a suggestion from both books listed below. You have to connect with the child and really show them you care about their feelings. To you it’s just a red cup instead of a blue one, but his disappointment is real. If you show him you care about his feelings, he can calm down enough to move forward.

Hold the limit, but be kind. Being kind to your child is not the same as being permissive. You can enforce a limit without being stern or threatening. Think of talking to your child the same way you would talk to a friend or your spouse.

Let it go. If you set a limit you have to be willing to stand by it. A child pulling the pillows off the bed is annoying to me, but he’s not disobeying unless I tell him to stop. Sometimes it’s easier on everyone to let them play and then clean up later than to duke it out over something trivial.

Be kind. It’s worth saying twice. I love this quote from Dr. Daniel Siegel:
"Kindness is more than simply being nice to others – it is actually a sign that our brain is working properly and able to focus on solutions."


These are the books I go back to time after time. I don’t follow each approach exactly, but the basic concepts have shaped how I approach parenting.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents' Guide to Raising almost Perfect Kids by Dr. Gregory and Lisa Popcak

*No affiliate links, I just love these books.

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