How to survive a threenager in five easy steps: Advice from the parenting trenches

Julie Maclellan


You know these creatures. They’re small, adorable bundles of amazing – and the most exhausting, exasperating, migraine-inducing species of being you could ever hope to meet.

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I speak, of course, of The Threenager.

I have one in my house now. She’s been three for a little over two months now, which has given me the confidence to write this blog post to share the wisdom I have acquired in the past seventy-two days (yes, I counted). With no further ado, I offer up this unsolicited wisdom from the trenches:

1. Pick your battles.

Because there will be battles. Oh, will there be battles. Battles about things you’ve never dreamed of battling over, from the colour of socks to whether to wear pyjamas to bed to whether blueberries are indeed a complete supper to whether Mommy put on the WRONG PEPPA PIG EPISODE MOMMY NOT THAT ONE THE OTHER ONE THE ONE WITH THE STARS to whether your little darling should be allowed to go to daycare in rubber boots and a tutu.

Your Threenage Warrior is ready to stand her ground on pretty much all of those things.

Which means it’s up to you (you know, the wise, adult one) to decide which hill you’re willing to die on. There’s no one right answer here, by the way. My right answer may be different from your right answer. And your right answer on Monday may be different from your right answer by Friday, also known in Threenage Parent circles as Fine Have That Third Cookie While You Watch That Fifth Peppa Pig Episode Day.

The point is, you can’t battle everything. You’ll get exhausted, your little warrior will get exhausted, and you’ll both go to bed licking your wounds only to start the whole damn thing again tomorrow.

Just don’t. You can start teaching manners and courtesy and good eating habits and listening ears again tomorrow. Right now, just follow the advice of the wise Queen Elsa and Let. It. Go.

She’s three. It’s normal. She won’t die of it. And neither will you.


2. Grow a sense of humour – and fast.

Yes, parenting a Threenager is exhausting, exasperating, migraine-inducing, add-your-own-adjective here. It’s also hilarious.

At what other stage of life can you get trapped in conversations like this one:

Threenager: I want to read Curious George.

Mommy (reaches for Curious George book): OK, let’s read Curious George.

Threenager (grabs Curious George book and tosses it on the ground with a threenage LOOK): But I don’t WANT to read Curious George!

Mommy (continuing to smile and speak sweetly): That’s fine, sweetie, what else should we read instead? Shall we read Rainbow Fish?

Threenager (now shrieking): NO, I don’t WANT to read Rainbow Fish! I WANT TO READ CURIOUS GEORGE!

And on. And on. And on.

In the moment it’s infuriating. But it will become funny later. In fact, if you let yourself think about it, it’s already a little bit funny.

Learn to laugh about that stuff. That, and the hour-long conversations that consist of your Threenager asking “why” on repeat, and the times when your Threenager refuses to put on clothes and runs to the door naked when the pizza guy comes, and that time when your Threenager starts shrieking in the lineup at Safeway because SHE WANTS THAT CHOCOLATE BAR WITH THE RED WRAPPER RIGHT NOW, and that time when she demands a trip to the Big Park only to have changed her mind by the time you get there and announces she wants to go to the Little Park instead.

She’s three. It’s normal. She won’t die of it. And neither will you.


3. Be prepared to compromise your principles.

I get it. You are the mother who wasn’t going to allow your child to have any screen time, who would allow only the most ethically produced, fairly traded wooden toys into the house, who wouldn’t cave in to Disney Princess stereotypes, who would feed your child only organic local food, who would nurture a little vegetable-lover who would choose a carrot over a cookie any day of the week.

These are wonderful goals. Keep them in mind. Strive for them. But maybe, just maybe, you want to think about scaling them back for day-to-day survival. The troublesome thing about principles is that it turns out that your little Threenager has a mind of her own. If it turns out that she loves chicken nuggets, gravitates to all things pink and sparkly, can name every Disney Princess and finds the cheap plastic Hello Kitty that came in her Happy Meal more appealing than the wonderful array of educational toys available for her inquiring young mind – well, just go with it.

She’s three. It’s normal. She won’t die of it. And neither will you.

Plus, you have to admit she looks damn cute in sparkles and tiaras.


4. Take the time to listen.

This one is so, so amazingly important that I’m actually embarrassed to admit it wasn’t really on my radar to begin with. I might not have even thought of this one if it hadn’t been for my own evening with my Threenage Bedtime Resister last night.

Here’s the deal. (Forgive me for a long story, but it’s important to illustrate my point.)

My Threenage Sparkle Princess started a new daycare at the beginning of September: a “big-girl school” for three- to five-year-olds, which is quite a change from the small infant-toddler daycare where she spent her first two outside-of-home years. Her transition has actually gone quite smoothly; her teachers have told me repeatedly how well she’s doing (in fact, their descriptions of the tiny paragon of preschool virtue leave me wondering whose child they’re looking after, because this kid who sleeps well, eats well, listens well and plays nicely with others really doesn’t sound familiar a great deal of the time).

But by bedtime, she’s been crazy. Refusing to go to bed (and this was new for her, my little 7 p.m.-into-the-crib-and-done girl that she’s been for most of her young life), procrastinating at every turn, getting wildly upset and calling for Mommy over and over and over again. I’ve gone with it, understanding that the shift to a new daycare is a huge transition in her young life.

But I never stopped to question, much, why every day she’d tell me to come pick her up early. My working schedule is such that I’m one of the first parents there at the end of the day; I’ve always assured her I’ll be there early and moved on.

Then last night, she kept asking, in that way that Threenagers put every question on repeat: “Why does Charlotte want Mommy to come early?”

I gave her some answers: Because you miss Mommy. Because Mommy misses you. Because it’s fun to play with your friends at school, but by the end of the day you’re ready to come home. Because you miss your home and your toys and your buddies. And she agreed with all of my answers, but kept on asking.

Then I asked her: Why does Charlotte want Mommy to come early?

And she replied, in a quivery little voice: “Is Charlotte frightened?”

“Frightened?” I say, my mommy radar on instant high alert and my bear claws ready to come out on the person who has frightened my child. “Why is Charlotte frightened?”

So quivery little voice explains, ever so bravely fighting off tears, that she’s afraid that she will be left all by herself: that all the other mommies will come and her friends will leave and the teachers will go home and she will be left all alone at school.

My poor, tiny brave little soldier was clearly terrified at the whole idea. Yet, for three solid weeks of worrying that she’d be abandoned at school and left to fend for herself, she’d set off cheerfully in the morning, had fabulous days at daycare and impressed everybody (including me) with her adaptability and good attitude. It was only by the end of the day that the fear was really getting to her; when she’d see me (her safe person) and get home (her safe place) and be able to melt down about the whole thing.

If we hadn’t stopped to talk, I never would have known she was scared to death.

I assured my brave little soldier that of course, that would never happen. That Mommy and Daddy will always come to get her. That if we’re ever late, the teachers will never leave her alone. That she will always have someone to care for her and watch out for her and that no one will ever, ever let her stay by herself.

I wasn’t sure if she was reassured. But she fell asleep without a meltdown and without repeatedly calling for Mommy. And today, when I dropped her off at “big-girl school,” she didn’t remind me to come early – she just kissed me and hugged me and ran off to play with her friends.

So listen to your Threenager. Especially when they’re making you crazy. Their fears and hopes and frustrations and dreams and wishes are so small and silly to us sometimes – but so huge and real to them.  Be their ear when they need one. It’ll help both of you.

She’s three. It’s normal. She won’t die of it. And neither will you.


5. Focus on what matters.

Yes, there are things you aren’t willing to compromise on. There are times when you have to not let the Threenager decide her own fate, and times when parental listening must give way to parental guidance and instruction. This is a good thing. Basic personal hygiene, kindness, respect for personal belongings, listening, asking nicely: all of these things are good skills that will serve her well now and in the future. Keep working on all those things. Some days will be good. Other days will be not so good. Keep on plodding. You’ll get there.

But, along the way, don’t get so sidetracked that you forget to teach your Threenager what really matters. Focus on that stuff. Stuff like time together. Talking together. Eating together. Playing together. Laughing together. Having fun together. Exploring the world together. Loving each other. Hugs and snuggles and giggles at the end of a long day.

This is the stuff that childhood is made of. This is the stuff that parenting is made of. This is the stuff that being a human being is made of. Embrace this stuff, and you can be sure your Threenager will embrace it too.


So there you have it. How to survive the threenage years, in a nutshell. And if all of that fails, you could always book yourself a year-long sabbatical and run off to a monastery in Tibet, or a cabin in the mountains, or a beach hut in Goa, and come back after your Threenager turns four.

Then, good news: the Fearsome Fours start. I hear those are fun, too.

I’ll let you know next year.



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