How to deal with a ‘threenager’


Read below as Madeline Sibbing (psychologist) discusses the ‘threenager’ concept and how to handle it…

Here’s a scenario that parents of 3-year-olds will know all too well:

Parent: “here sweetheart, let me help you put your shoes on”

Child: “NO! I’ll do it by myself!”

Parent: taps toes…..jingles car keys……tries not to lose patience as child struggles to wriggle their feet into their shoes…….child’s foot gets stuck…..child whinges…….parent then offers “come on darling I’ll help you with this tricky part, we need to hurry to school to pick up your brother”

Child: “NOOOOOOOOOO!” Kicks feet in frustration……..shoe flies off….…………….

Parent: …………………cops a child’s shoe to the head.

Parenting is just SO rewarding isn’t it?!

So what is a “threenager”?

Though it is certainly not a diagnostic psychological term, “Threenager” is the term some have coined for that difficult stage where our pre-schoolers are learning that they can begin to have some control over their world……….AND THEY LIKE IT.

Stop for a moment and think about the world your little one lives in.  Almost every decision is made for them – what they eat, when they eat, how they eat, where they eat, with whom they eat…….what they wear, how they wear it, where they wear it, with whom they wear it……you catch my drift. They have almost NO control over their world, thus causing huge amounts of frustration.

So, of course your little one then craves that feeling of control and seeks it wherever possible, becoming defiant and argumentative and wanting independence above all else sometimes! Sure it’s frustrating for us – but imagine you lived in a world where someone made every decision about your day for you.  Wouldn’t you also try and find the weak spot and push against it to gain some sense of control back for yourself?

What does this mean for us as parents? Well, if we want our children to develop a healthy level of independence, we need to allow them to have choice and control where appropriate. It might look like this:

  1. Choice of two – offer your child a choice of two options that you are comfortable with, such as “you can put your shoes on in the car or in the garage, which do you choose?”
  2. Picking your battles – we might have to intervene with getting dressed because that doctor’s appointment will not wait for us…………but later when we’re back home we will let our child change their shoes by themselves for as long as it takes.
  3. Teach independence for tasks that the child can do for themselves – I love the Montessori philosophy of “Help me to help myself”. Teach your child tasks that they have a chance of performing independently – such as getting dressed and undressed, washing up in the sink, drying up after dinner, helping to set the table. Teach these skills in a proactive way when you have ample time, as this will help your child to build their confidence and self-esteem in their abilities.

And remember – as hard as it can be now, that strong will might hold your little one in good stead when they are actually teenagers and faced with even greater challenges!

Madeline Sibbing is a psychologist at NCCD – see more about her here.


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