4 Ways I Survived the “Three-nager” Days

If you’ve ever sobbed over quartered grapes that took you 15 min to precisely cut because your child DEMANDED grapes only to be disgusted by them when actually served…then you may know the term THREE-NAGER.

What’s a three-nager?  

It’s a two and a half to four year old child who acts similar to how you behaved when you were a teenager – rollercoaster emotions, hating your parents, debating everything, testing boundaries, not taking no for an answer, asserting your authority, and crying, so.much.crying.

When everything changed…

It was at my son’s 3rd birthday party that I truly realized he had gone from a quiet, mild mannered little angel to a tantrum-throwing, emotionally unstable, unpredictable pre-schooler.  A once cheery boy  wouldn’t greet any of his friends.  Typically even tempered he cried – hysterically – when I wouldn’t allow him to rip off the glued-down decorative construction truck on Playmobil’s dining table.  The boy who ate blueberries, quinoa, and zucchini refused pizza.  He wouldn’t even crack a smile when we sang “Happy Birthday”.  I half-jokingly told all of our friends to enjoy this party because it would surely be his LAST. Then at some point during the party, in between tantrums and screeches, I scooped up my 3 year old, carried him into the bathroom, and started to sob.  I didn’t know who he was anymore, or worse yet, how to help him.

My husband trying to tell my son he can’t keep that truck. You can’t make this stuff up!

Send help…

Like many of you I sought out Pinterest for some blog advice.  The problem was that all of the lists that I read explained what happens in the three-nager stage, but no solid advice for navigating through.  Sit with your child.  Hug them.  Let them know you care.  Ok, well what do you suggest when he says ,”get away from me I don’t love you anymore,”!? Luckily my pediatrician had some amazing tips for me (see below).  I also read “Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child” and tried every method and system that I could get my hands on.  My hope is that this list will give you some direction to guide YOU through.  My biggest struggle wasn’t that it was hard for me, but that I felt ill equipped to help my son understand how to help himself.

I know you love your child and you’re going to hug them incessantly so here’s real life, trial-and-error, tips from our doctor, and the advice I wish I would have found beforehand…

  1. Have a PLAN, actually have lots of plans.  As I mentioned before, previous techniques for tantrums/meltdowns I had read about never worked for my son. Here’s what did:
    • Change of scenery.  Remove your child from the situation and then have a talk/try to deescalate.  Occasionally, you just have to wait it out (three-nagers are hard to rationalize with), but it’s less frustrating to do it privately.  Go outside, find another room, or use the restroom.  Tell your child you understand why their upset but this is just the way it is.  Example:  I know it’s hard leaving your friend’s house, but we have to get home for dinner.  Repeat yourself then try to change the subject/distract.  Example:  I can’t wait to go home and play with your new truck!  I wonder what we’re having for dessert tonight?
    • 4 – 3 -2 -1.  This was a calming technique I read in a Daniel Tiger book (don’t laugh!).  It’s the same idea of taking a deep breathe, but since my son was not a fan of deep breathes, “it’s too HARD!”, I found a better solution.  Picture placing your hand palm side down, parallel to the floor in front of the your face, that’s ‘4’.  Then you slowly lower your hand until it reaches your belly for 3-2-1.  It takes a few attempts and I do it with him, but it helps when we’re in public and meltdown city occurs.
    • Ignoring.  This is a HUGE focus in “Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child”.  I personally find it extraordinarily difficult to ignore whining.  Nails on a chalkboard = whining in my world.  But willing to try anything, I gave it at a shot at home.  I would let him whine/cry in 5 minute increments, usually in a room close by where I could see him, but far enough away to not hear the ear piercing wailing.  Example:  One night he screamed “I want ice cream!” under the dining room table for 10 minutes.  (Please note he’d already had dessert.)  My husband bathed our daughter while I cleaned the kitchen.  No one said a word about ice cream after the initial, “You already had dessert”.  It turns out ignoring did help a lot.  After 10 minutes he gave up and got in the bathtub.  Previously, I’d gotten so frustrated trying to make everything into a big lesson.  Ignoring then redirecting when he’d calm down was a huge help for our situation.  Now he’ll actually apologize after the fact, “Mommy, I’m sorry I was whining about the ice cream.”  PROGRESS PEOPLE!
    • Positive affirmations.  You’ve all seen the YouTube video of the little girl on her bathroom counter rocking side to side telling herself how great she is and how amazing her day will be.  Positive affirmations are mood changing and focus on the behavior we’re seeking out.  Examples:  I’m great at sharing toys, I like to take turns, I make healthy food choices, I use kind words.  It seems silly at first, but I did notice that this was a game changer.  The more he said it, the more it came true.
    • Consequences.  Have an item (ipad, doll, truck) that you WILL take away as a consequence for misbehaviors.  Am I happy to take away my son’s prized and motorized garbage truck?  No, not at all.  It’s like number 2 on the list of “Things That Make Me Feel Like a Terrible Parent”, but I know it’s effective. I give 2 warnings (with a countdown) and then that’s it.  I take it away for one day.  This worked so well that when I even mention taking it away he turns the behavior around before I begin counting.
  2. DON’T take it personally.  A hard part of this stage is that your child is testing limits, even verbally.  Now your child has a voice and he or she is using it to see what exactly they can get away with.  My husband would call from the fire station…”how’s it going”…”Well, I’m the meanest mom and he wants a new family, so that’s how it’s going.”  Try THIS:  Even though I knew he didn’t understand I’d say –   This really hurts mommy’s feelings.  If you’re upset, say – I feel upset, I feel frustrated, I’m not ok, then I can help you.  (More often than not the problem was that I wouldn’t let him have popcorn for dinner!)  Now I see him expressing himself in more productive ways, “It’s bothering me that…, It hurts my feelings when you…”.  Less whining, more talking.
  3. Discuss anticipated behavior.  In education we call this “modeling”.  If you don’t model the behavior you want to see chances are you won’t see it.  Examples:  Please say hi to everyone when we walk into the party, you will need to share toys today so let’s talk about how to take turns, I’ll give you a 5 minute warning when we’re ready to leave, etc.
  4. Undivided attention.  I began to notice that when my son was acting out it was actually a cry for more attention.  Once a day I set a timer for 10 minutes and give him my undivided attention – no phone checking, no laundry, no cooking, just me and him.  I let him pick out ANY activity and for 10 minutes there’s no rules or lessons, just fun!

Light at the end of the “three-nager” tunnel…

Consistency is key.  There WILL be hard days, days that feel completely hopeless.  Days when you call your husband and say, I just don’t know what to do anymore, nothing is working, I’m a bad mom and he’s a monster.  There will be mentally and emotionally exhausting days.  But I’m here to tell you that there IS light at the end of the tunnel.  Now that my son is four we have noticed HUGE behavioral improvements and more emotional stability.  Tantrums are fewer and far between.  Kinder and sweeter words are spoken.  Better choices are being made.  Soon enough the fruits of your labor WILL pay off.  Everything you’re doing WILL make a difference.  Keep on keeping on – and if no one told you today – you’re doing a GREAT job mama!

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