From “Terrible Twos” to “Threenagers”

How to Mindfully Parent a Three Year Old

Parenting a three-year-old, often affectionately referred to as a “threenager,” can be a whirlwind experience. This stage marks a significant leap in your child’s development, characterized by increased independence, curiosity, and often, a healthy dose of defiance. Like many other caregivers of children this age, you are probably wondering how to effectively navigate this exciting and challenging state. Embracing mindful parenting can help to ease this often tumultuous journey for both you and your child. If daily struggles are getting in the way of your relationship with your toddler, or you are simply gearing up for this next developmental stage, keep reading for more information on how to support and encourage your toddler’s need for autonomy while still maintaining harmony in the household. 

toddler flexing arms

What is a “Threenager”?

The experience of being a three year old is marked by a number of developmental changes. Perhaps one of the most noticeable transitions for parents is their three year old’s increased desire for autonomy and independence, which can often look like defiance, tantrums, or opposition. As tricky as they can be to manage, these changes are developmentally expected and healthy. When your child is acting in ways that seem contrarian, this means that new skills in cognition, emotional maturation, and social development are developing as expected. 

One practical issue with your toddler’s new focus on autonomy and control is that it doesn’t always match up with their competency in execution. For example, consider a three year old who is adamant that she, and only she, will be tying her shoes. Unfortunately, her cognitive development has likely outpaced her fine motor skills at this point. So, while she really wants to tie her shoes, she still needs your help. This developmental gap can be discouraging to children and parents alike. 

Decades of research in neuroscience and developmental psychology show us that problem-solving and critical thinking skills, which are housed in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, are offline during times of heightened emotionality. This means that thinking logically is difficult. Any efforts to try and rationalize with your child are likely to not be as successful as you might hope. All of these factors combined make for an exciting, and somewhat unpredictable, time with your young child.

toddler girl covering face with hands

How To Respond When Your Three Year Old Isn’t Listening

Just because the steady stream of “no” or “I don’t want to” is developmentally appropriate, doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes frustrating for parents and child. How can you strike the balance between allowing independence while still setting limits when appropriate?

We encourage parents to take an approach that provides them with tools for two distinct time periods: 

  1. Strategies for the heat of the moment, in other words, during.
  2. Strategies for after everything the escalated behavior has passed, in other words, after

During the difficult behavior: is this a battle worth fighting?

When you’re in the heat of the moment, and your child is asserting their autonomy and acting in ways that seem defiant, the first thing to do is consider whether this is a battle worth fighting. Sometimes, it can be easier, and appropriate, to simply allow the child to exert their independence. There are plenty of times for teaching moments, but, consider whether arguing with your child about what shirt they want to wear to a birthday party is actually how you want to spend your energy.  

That said, when matters of health or safety or impact on the family’s schedule arise, it is important for parents to set the limit. Part of our role as parents is to help children “tolerate the no.” This means that we want to help our children be able to accept structure. In fact, children feel even more secure and assured when their caregiver is able to implement (and follow through) with limits. 

During the difficult behavior: validating feelings

The second thing you’ll want to try to do in the heat of the moment, is to identify and validate your child’s feelings. This means expressing that you understand what the child is experiencing, and then helping your child to regulate and accept directives. In the shoe-tying example above, this might sound something like: “I know that you really want to tie your shoes, and you are feeling frustrated that you can’t.” As much as possible, try to understand your child’s point of view. It can also be helpful to provide a rationale for your child. For example, “I need to tie your shoes, because we can’t be late for school.” Providing the thought process behind what has to happen can help her begin to understand times when help from a grownup makes sense. You can implement and maintain a boundary while remaining warm and empathic. 

After the difficult behavior: the debrief

Now let’s talk about the “afterward” time period. The debrief is almost as important as your response in the moment! When things have calmed down, make time to talk to your child about what happened. Support your child in problem-solving what to do if the same situation should arise again. Maybe she can end play five minutes earlier to leave extra time for tying her shoes. Or, perhaps you can provide Velcro sneakers which she can put on independently. The debrief is also a nice time to brainstorm different coping strategies your child can use when feeling frustrated. This includes taking some deep breaths, counting to 10 or even asking a parent or adult for help. Co-regulation is a great strategy when your toddler is feeling frustrated and you can help model ways to self-regulate and invite in calm. 

mother kissing toddler son on the cheek

How to (Try) to Reduce and Prevent Tantruming and Defiance in Three Year Olds

There are a number of strategies that parents can use to work with their child’s desire for independence and autonomy, instead of against it.

  1. Offer your child plenty of opportunities to make their own choices. Help them fill up their “control bucket” by providing them with several alternatives throughout the day. Do they want the pink or green cup? Do they want to first play on the swings or go down the slide? The idea is that you present your child with predetermined, pre-approved options, and they get to choose.
  2. Find the “yes.”. Little kids hear versions “no” and “stop” all day long – you can’t do that, don’t touch that, stop running – and these restrictions go against their natural desire to run the show. With that in mind, try and identify multiple times throughout the day where you can say “yes” to your child. The more that you can allow your child to take the lead, the more open and accepting she will be of subsequent limits.
  3. Try to anticipate times in which your child will be more likely to struggle with limits. Children are often more vulnerable to dysregulation when hungry, or tired, or sick. When emotions are high, keeping this in mind can sometimes help us access more compassion and patience as parents. If your child is extra exhausted, try increasing the amount of transition time in leaving the park. If you’re out running errands close to lunchtime, be sure to have a snack on hand. Another key preventative strategy is to establish clear and consistent routines – that way, many of the limits enforced will be expected, instead of a surprise.
  4. Remember that children learn best in the context of relationships. This means that the more children feel supported and secure, the more they are able to respond to the strategies listed above. One easy and well-researched strategy is to implement one-on-one or special time. Set aside a few minutes each day to engage in child-led play, where your child gets to pick the activity, and you provide your undivided and positive attention. Engaging in parent-child quality time leads to improved frustration tolerance and listening skills. 
mother holding toddlers hands and smiling

More Tips for How to Mindfully Parenting Your “Threenager”

Beyond focusing on the prevention and reduction of tantrums, there are plenty of other strategies that parents can keep in mind to aid in their journey of mindfully parenting their three-year old:

Understand Developmental Changes

Keep in mind that three-year-olds are experiencing rapid growth in several areas:

  • Cognitive Development: They’re learning to think more complexly, solve problems, and understand cause and effect.
  • Emotional Development: They’re beginning to recognize and express a wide range of emotions, though they often lack the skills to accurately express or regulate them.
  • Social Development: They are becoming more interested in interacting with others but might struggle with sharing and taking turns.

Recognizing these developmental milestones may help you foster more empathy for your child’s experiences.

Practice Patience

Patience is your greatest ally. Toddlers are known for testing limits and expressing their blossoming independence, sometimes through tantrums. Instead of reacting with frustration, take a moment to breathe and respond calmly. Show empathy by acknowledging their feelings: “I see you’re upset because we have to leave the park. It’s hard to stop having fun, isn’t it?”

Set Clear and Consistent Boundaries

Consistency is key at this age. Three year olds thrive on routine and clear expectations. Establishing simple, understandable rules helps them feel secure and know what to expect. Be consistent in enforcing these rules, but also flexible enough to adapt to your child’s needs and circumstances.

Use Positive Reinforcement

Celebrate positive behaviors with praise and rewards. Positive reinforcement encourages your child to repeat desired behaviors. Simple affirmations like “I love how you shared your toys today!” can go a long way in reinforcing good habits.

Model Mindfulness

Children learn by watching their parents. If you practice mindfulness in your own life, your child is likely to emulate it. Show them how to handle emotions calmly and make thoughtful decisions. Simple mindfulness exercises, like deep breathing or counting to ten, can be taught and practiced together.

Use Play as a Tool

Play is the language of young children. Use play to teach, connect, and communicate. Through play, you can introduce new concepts, work through emotions, and build social skills in a fun, engaging way. Playfulness in communicating boundaries can also help to break the tension. 

There is no doubt that parenting a toddler is difficult at times. It’s totally normal for moms and dads to struggle when trying to navigate developmental issues such as the increased need for autonomy and control. If you think you could benefit from support in this process, or want to learn more about our range of supportive services for caregivers of toddlers, please click here for a consultation call to learn more. 

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