Ages One to Three

The Challenging Threes


Why is three so hard?!?!? He screams, hits, even bites! I’m at the end of my rope – nothing I do seems to work!


Really, three is a tough age!

The thing to remember about this age is that it’s a turning point from toddler to child. It’s one step forward and two steps back and, eventually, it’s two steps forward and one step back, until your son turns four and you’re walking forward (although four has issues of its own).

The first thing I’d encourage you to do is get a copy of Ames and Ilg’s Your Three-Year-Old from the library. I guarantee you’ll be amazed at how much of these frustrating behaviors are simply normal developmental things.

Second, I’d encourage you to work hard on setting kind and firm boundaries. I often say to my 3-year-old, “You may be angry, you may not hit me.” Or “You may be frustrated, you may not hold us hostage with your voice. I will hold you while you calm down, but your screams must be taken into your bedroom.”

The key is to not get sucked in. Keep a healthy amount of emotional detachment. Not detachment from him, but from his 3-year-old drama. If you think it’s tough to have a 3-year-old, the thing to remember is it’s difficult to be three! He wants to see that his emotions aren’t too big for you. He wants to make sure that his big, overwhelming emotions and feelings aren’t going to overwhelm you. If they do, he gets scared. You need to teach him the lesson that “I am bigger than your big feelings and I will keep you safe.”

Do you do much reflecting of feelings? If he gets mad about something, simply state the emotion you see. “You are frustrated that I didn’t let you empty the toilet.” Nothing else. No explanation. No attempt to change the feeling. This gives him a name for the feeling, and naming your feelings gives him power over them. One trick for biting is, if you see the signs your son is about to bite (like that big open mouth heading towards you), you can put your finger gently under his chin and press up (it takes very little pressure, so practice on yourself first). Just lay your finger sideways under their chin and keep them from being able to bite. They might try and lash out in other ways, but that is always easier to stop, even if it means walking away.

Be sure to reflect and validate feelings. It sounds to me like your son has some very big feelings going on and is having difficulty processing them. A friend of mine has a very physical and aggressive little guy, and our culture tends to view the presence of aggression as the absence of deep feelings. What I’ve come to realize with her son is that his aggression is his way of begging the adults around to help him stop himself and help him process what is going on. It’s a very immature sign that he can’t do it himself, but now that we’ve identified that she’s quick to deal with his feelings and he’s not nearly so aggressive. Still very physical, but not so aggressive.

One last thought, children with big feelings feel overwhelmed and overpowered by them. They scare themselves. It is also very scary to believe you have the power to overpower your parents, or that your big feelings or behavior scares them, too. They look to us to help them with the stuff that’s too big and scary for them. I would probably work on preventing the biting (like with the finger under the chin), and present your son with a very confident mother and father who aren’t afraid of his big feelings or his big expression of them. Once he sees that he can’t overpower you, he will likely calm down more and be less aggressive. I have seen this in my own home when someone is being very physical and I start to get “gun shy” about getting hurt. It seems that timidness, more than anything else, is scary to them. It does take us – the adults – to stop the cycle, and the first step is to stop reacting big, even if it hurts.

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