Surviving The Threenager

I have a Threenager. This summer, he’ll be a Fournado – but let’s deal with one emotional apocalypse at a time.

My son has feelings. Big, big, nuclear feelings. They are spectacular to witness, in much the same way that the good people of Nevada were awed by hydrogen bomb testing.

Threenagers are an enigma, wrapped in Tasmanian devil on crack and surrounded by mess. Our morning routine used to be a recipe for disaster: Add a dash of dawdling and stir in a healthy cup of I-will-not-do-anything-you-ask-me-to-do-until-you-reach-a-pitch-that-only-dogs-can-hear. Our mornings used to be an endless power struggle that started the moment we woke up.


I knew there had to be a better way to communicate with my son, a method that empowered him and enabled us to parent him in a way that achieved long term goals. My partner and I took a class led by an Adlerian Parent Educator.

After applying some of her techniques and following her suggestions, we saw an almost immediate change in our oldest son. I’m not advocating one school of thought over another, or that this method works with every child across the board. In my home these suggestions worked for my child and ultimately, for our entire household. Here are just a few things we learned:

1. Let It Go (don’t sing the song. Just.Don’t.)


This was a hard one for me. I manage everything in my home. And it’s exhausting. My morning monologue used to sound like this:

“Time to get dressed, get dressed please, here are your clothes, do you need help? Get dressed get dressed please get dressed, please brush your teeth here let me help you with the toothpaste stop eating the toothpaste brush your teeth top AND bottom, stop chewing the toothbrush, please sit down and eat breakfast, sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, eat your breakfast, eat it please god just eat it please eat your breakfast, time to get your coat on get your coat on get your coat on are you listening to me? Stop pushing your brother and get your coat on fine I’m leaving if you don’t get your coat on in 5 seconds…”

And so on…

After the class, we just…stopped. Stopped arguing with him, stopped the power struggle, stopped trying to tell him what we think is best. This is closer to what I say now:

“Your clothes are on the bed for you. See you downstairs when you’re dressed and we’ll have breakfast.”

“Time to get our coats on. Here are your boots, I’ll meet you at the door.”

We’re letting him do as much for himself as he is capable of. The results were amazing; as soon as we stopped telling him what to do, he became more amenable to doing for himself. The process took time (about two weeks of script-flipping) and it’s not perfect (he intentionally wears his shirts or pants backwards and getting him to sit through breakfast can be challenging), but he’s making more of his own choices and he’s learning to live with the consequences of his actions in an age-appropriate way.

2. We Know His Limits

There was a brief period of time when we didn’t go out with other people. The thought of scheduling a play date sent me into b*tch-panic. And forget restaurants. I remember taking the threenager (along with his baby brother) to his first birthday party for a school friend. I only remember a whirlwind of chasing, spilling and endless “no thank you’s”.

At one point, I had tied a balloon to his wrist so I could find him. Now, we give him limited choices, prepare him for the day in advance and watch for early meltdown signs (fatigue and hunger are the main killers.) I still get anxious when we go out, but as long as it’s early enough in the day and in a controlled environment, weekends are much, much more enjoyable.

3. Respect Yourself

Ultimately, I can’t control my threenager – and I wouldn’t want to. Do I want him to grow up to be a compliant people-pleaser? Of course not. But I can control me and my reactions. Sometimes, he acts up and lashes out (remember big feelings?) A few months ago, we had Wafflegate. My son, who will only eat waffles if they are whole and un-cut, was barely picking at his breakfast. I asked him if it might be easier to eat if I cut it up for him. He said yes (he was distracted. I take full responsibility.) Well didn’t that child take one look at his easier-to-eat waffles and flip his s**t – along with his syrupy plate full of food – all over the floor. The old me, who never fully healed her inner child, would have agonized and freaked out. But at that moment, I realized that I couldn’t make him see my point of view or apologize, but I could respect myself enough to walk away.

“Here,” I said, returning with a cloth. “You can clean up.”

Him: “Make me another waffle!”

Me: “Ohhh, no…no more waffles. Breakfast is over. You get nothing.”

Him: “I get…nothing?”

Me: “Well, not nothing. You get to clean up the mess.”

I didn’t yell, I didn’t fume, I didn’t resent him. But I wasn’t about to give him another chance to treat me poorly. And he wasn’t going to starve over it either.

I’m not perfect. Sometimes I lose my patience and yell. Sometimes, I sit in the bathroom with the door locked and cry for five minutes. Sometimes I feel like it’s a threenager’s world and we’re all just surviving in it, Lord-of-the-Flies-style. But the limit-testing, the challenging behaviour and the button-pushing are all signs that he’s developing exactly as he should be.

At the end of the day, I’d rather have a child who stands up for himself and has loads of confidence.

Having said that, come talk to me when he turns four…

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