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Terrible Twos? Try the tantrum threes

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Recently, my two-year-old, my husband, and I were spending a Sunday morning with close friends and their four-year-old. My son was in rare form – easily frustrated and crying when a Lego fireman didn’t fit properly into the front seat of a truck, indecisive about which cup he wanted and in tears over each option: “The green one! No, the fishy one!”

It’s been a familiar state of affairs for the last couple of months. But our friends basically laughed it off: “He’s still so little and cute,” they said. “And you have no idea how easy it is compared to what’s coming.”

I hear it all the time ” the terrible twos might be hard, but three is a whole new ballgame.

Stories from the trenches of three-year-old parenting are so similar to each other it’s uncanny. Little preschoolers are way more aware of the world, dialed-in, and skilled at negotiating. Whereas distraction or redirecting might work to sooth the angst of a two-year-old, a year later that same little person will dig in her heels and fight, using her newfound powers of clever bargaining and button-pushing.

For example, my friend recounts, when TV time is over and she reminds her three-year-old son it’s time to turn it off, he comes back with, “But Mickey Mouse comes on now. I’ll just watch a few minutes.” She turns off the TV. He turns it back on. After a number of rounds, she warns that a timeout is impending. “Well I like timeouts because I like to watch the numbers on the clock change while I’m waiting!”

Yes, this sounds trickier than what happens in my house. My son gets heated about having to stop an activity, and it can lead to tears and occasionally a dramatic collapse on the ground but not this level of mental and verbal finagling.

Another friend tells me that her daughter figured out that peeing in bed at naptime guarantees her a visit from mom, so shortly after tuck-in time a sneaky voice calls out, “Mom-my, I’m about to go pee pee in my pull-up…”

And all my friends with three-year-olds say that bedtime is where the most brilliant haggling begins. “She knows exactly what to say to get me back in the room,” says one. You leave and the covers come off. She cries that her covers are off. Re-tuck. She’s thirsty. Fill a glass. Go back in because the water is not at the specified level. She throws her Big Bird. She needs her Big Bird!

The brain of a three-year-old

The way I see little preschoolers (and the way it might help parents to think about them in tough times) is that they’ve got the burgeoning smarts of a child, but still the emotional skill of a toddler. When you consider what’s going on in the brain of a child this age, it’s no surprise that being with a three-year-old is a parenting rollercoaster.

Counter to what you might expect, children have far more neural activity than adults do. Until age two or three, brain cells connect to each other at a breathtaking speed – approximately 1.8 million synapses (bridges between neurons) are formed per second. By the time a kid is in preschool, the brain has around twice the number of connections as the adult brain.

The first few years of life are a matter of wiring up and joining neurons, and then from early childhood on, the use-it-or-lose-it principle determines which connections stay and which are lost (20 billion synapses wither away every day until adolescence). It’s actually in this process of losing certain pathways and strengthening others that skills and personality are truly formed.

In other words, the mind of a preschooler is a hotbed of activity, some of it random and chaotic. And, unfortunately, skills for self-control are some of the last to develop. Sensory and motor regions are relatively advanced by toddlerhood, but emotional regulation takes many more years of cutting back and solidifying the right networks.

Three-year-olds are intellectually very advanced little creatures – masters of climbing and jumping, able to imagine and dream, and verbally sophisticated. But the brainpower that will eventually be used to direct, temper, and oversee all this hustle and bustle is comparatively immature.

Part of what makes them difficult is that they are so self-assured and full of personality. In fact, one of my friends said that when her son stands his ground (even when it’s over buying new Thomas the Train underwear), it makes life more difficult for her, but she appreciates his assertiveness.

I’m looking at my son – who alternates between cracking me up with his new musings on life and making me want to rip out my hair when he refuses to listen or bosses me around – and I’m wondering what he’ll be like next year. I’m kind of excited – and kind of nervous to find out.

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