Three and a half (weathering the storm)

Now that it’s safely passed, I feel ready to talk about the experience of having a three-and-a-half-year-old. I wrote a bit about it at the time, but I couldn’t even do it justice. Short version: Wow. So hard. So crazy.

It was like this, all the time.
It was like this, all the time.

If there’s ever been a time in the past four years when I’ve questioned everything I thought I knew about parenting, it was the three months after Silas turned three-and-a-half. He was just terrible. He had this crazy energy and was bouncing off the walls. His various irrational fears, an issue since he turned three, got completely out of control. He would barely go outside because he was terrified of the wind.

We had to use more time-outs than I ever thought possible. Not hippie dippie “time-ins,” but actual serious time-outs. He hit. He deliberately pushed buttons and made messes. It wasn’t cute exploring, it was downright horrible. He had melt downs several times each day. Another mom who knew him (and whose child is several months younger) asked if he had a sensory processing disorder, and I understood why she said that. A couple of months later, when her kid hit that stage…she understood what had been up with Silas.

No one warns parents about this stage. You hear about the “terrible twos,” but by three-and-a-half, they’re big enough to do real damage to themselves or others. It’s so much worse. Careful listening can get you through the worst of the twos, which I think are mostly a communication problem. But there’s no reasoning with a three-and-a-half-year-old. Why is this a thing?

I think this stage, like most difficult stages, mostly boils down to brain development. Three-and-a-half to four is the time when most kids are going through a massive, and upsetting, discovery: Other people have their own minds. They might believe things that are not true. They might be looking at you and thinking things that you can neither know or control.

Here’s a video that explains it pretty clearly:

I think it’s this reorganization of their understanding of the world that makes children at this age so completely awful.

Your toddler is suddenly shy and especially doesn’t want people looking at him–because they might be judging him in their heads.

Your toddler suddenly is snatching toys from his sister again–because he’s trying to test the idea that she disagrees with him about who should have that toy right now.

Your toddler experiments with lying–because she wonders if you can be deceived.

Your toddler is terrified of things that you assure her are perfectly safe–because if you can be tricked about who ate the cookies, how does she know you haven’t also been tricked about whether the wind can carry a child away?

So, how do we get through?

Here’s the advice I have, and unfortunately, it’s not much: HANG ON. It gets better. They grow through this. Don’t abandon everything you thought was working. When a toddler pushes the boundaries, stand firm on them. Don’t question whether you’re doing everything wrong. This is not a good time for experiments, because your data will be junk–nothing will work, and it’s because they’re three-and-a-half, not because your parenting skills have stopped working. I don’t know if talking about different people’s viewpoints, or telling stories and saying, “What does the wolf think about this? How are the pigs feeling?” will help, but I can’t imagine that it will hurt. I think that this development has to do with physical structures in the brain, though, so I doubt that you can teach it to get through it faster. I’m not a psychologist, though. It might be worth trying.

The good (great!) news is that when they come out the other side of this, they are different. Better! Silas is, since reaching about three-and-three-quarters, suddenly so empathetic and lovely. He’s been kind and helpful. Still so much energy, and we have to encourage him to get out and run it off, but he doesn’t get so crazy. His imaginative play is at a new level. He tries to understand what Petra, in particular, is thinking. I feel like I didn’t do a great job of describing this change in his four-year-old post. As bad as things were, that’s how good they are right now.

As just one of many examples, last night, when JC was putting the kids to bed, Petra headbutted JC hard. He thinks she broke his nose, in the cartilage bit. She’s not-quite-weaned (still. sigh.) and doesn’t like to go to bed when I’m in rehearsal. That’s not the story, though. The story is this: Silas said, “You go downstairs and take care of your nose. I’ll cuddle with Petra.” As he closed the door, JC heard Silas say, “Petra, just imagine that Mama is already nursing you, okay?” He was able to understand what she wanted–something he hasn’t done or wanted in over half his life, and doesn’t remember doing. He was able to understand that JC was in too much pain to deal with them right then. And he figured out what he could do to help. Amazing. And wonderful.

The only downside is that now I know what we’ll be going through with Petra in a year and a half. Sigh.


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  1. Shannon
    October 13, 2014

    I resonate with this sooo much! When my first child became 3, “no” wasn’t cute anymore–it was serious! Now that he is much older, I forget the details, but I still have an emotional reaction to thinking about him at age 3. The good news is that neither of the next two were nearly as difficult at that age (so maybe there’s hope with Petra?).

  2. Nuri
    January 11, 2015

    I stumbled upon this today. Wow. I can relate. Time-outs all the time. I’ve definitely sat down and questioned all my parenting methods that seemed to have working before this age. Three was the worst. L just turned 4… I’m so happy. I’m waiting for the horrible three stage to *quickly* fade out. (It’s already started to)

    • January 11, 2015

      I’m always happy when I hear this from someone else who is through it, because sometimes I wonder if it was just me…but no, apparently 3.5 is The Worst. I’m so glad L is moving past that stage. Should be smooth sailing until adolescence, right? (please?)

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