Skip to main content

The Thrilled Three Year Old...

Yesterday I hinted that it's been a bit of a trying week with our youngest. It's been a while since I had a three year old quite like him - about seven years to be exact...

It's easy, when your child's behaviours take a fairly sudden turn for the 'worse' - aka they start driving you insane in one manner or another - to think this is something that is going to last and become part of their ingrained personality.

I often hear parents saying, 'It's like someone kidnapped my beautiful child and replaced him with a little terror'. In Iceland we even have folklore surrounding this concept, whereby elves like to exchange their own children for human children who they find more attractive in looks and personality, so when a human child no longer seems like themselves it can be put down to them being a changeling.

There are, of course, other explanations. More scientific explanations - explanations which can provide us with a sense of hope as well as a little reassurance that the little 'invader' isn't here to stay, just so long as you ride out the waves with him or her.

While doing my Master of Education, where I specialised in Early Childhood Development, I learned a few tidbits about the development of the human brain, which at the time did help me with my then three year old boy, Erik, and two years later with his brother. Erik and Luey at the ages of 5 and 3 were a force unto themselves. They were into everything, they fought and squabbled, but at the same time where best buddies and conspirators. Some days I thought I was truly going insane with their antics. I just couldn't keep up. I'd just finish cleaning the toothpaste from the bathroom sink, floor and walls to come out and find they'd poured maple syrup all over my new couch! It was full on. Luckily, it was a phase, it didn't last, by the time Erik was seven and Luey was five some calm had been restored to the house.

Bryn, though definitely trying at the age of three and four, was not even a quarter the work of his big brothers. Not only was there just one of him, but he coped with all the changes three year olds go through quite well. So, I guess I forgot...

Ari has always been feisty. Generally speaking, his personality is more like Luey's than anyone else in the family. He is very smiley, very affectionate and also very self-confident with a moderate streak of aggression running down his backbone. This is a lot like Luey in many ways. The way he is more like Erik is in his frenetic energy levels. Erik was a timid, sensitive child with a propensity to hyperactivity. Erik never instigated any form of aggression towards others - though on occasion, he did join in aggression instigated by other children. Erik was - and remains - an enthusiastic follower.

Ari also has exhibited a quality Bryn has always had in spades. That is, the ability to be reasoned with, and to forestall gratification under reasonable conditions. Erik and Luey were both much more impulsive.

Erik, Luey and Bryn were all relatively easy going two year olds. I used to be quite smug about how 'my boys' didn't do 'the terrible twos'... Ari changed that pattern. So, I thought, well okay, if he's doing the two year old thing, maybe he won't do the three and four year old thing? I was wrong. Oh, how wrong I was!

In the past few weeks - since just before turning three - Ari seems to have lost the ability to be reasoned with, and gained a lot truckload of impulsivity. His energy levels, which were already at 'high' and now tipped over into 'off the scale'. Most difficult for me though is that glint in his eye which screams,'What can I get into next?' He is suddenly full of mischief - just like his big, big brothers and I'm ashamed to admit this has completely taken me by surprise (I should know better by now, right?).

My behaviour hasn't been stellar either. I guess I've panicked. I've been having flashbacks to the terror years with the older two. I may have a bit of Post Traumatic Stress about it all. I have yelled a lot, and I have even smacked him a couple of times. This is not good and not the kind of parent I want to be.

So, then last night after I acknowledged to myself that I'm not enamoured by this changeling behaviour, I started to think about what I know about three year olds...

I recall learning that the brain of a newborn is a little like a house where the rooms have lights with dimmer switches. When the infant is born, some of the lights are switched on, but set to very dim and immediately start to brighten - these are the parts of the brain engaged in developing attachment and language, for example. Some don't actually switch on until later, like social cognisance which flickers on towards the end of the third year (so, lead up the child's third birthday). The part of the brain that puts together letters and sounds and visual cues often goes on at about the age of six, which is why many children can recognise individual letters and sounds by the age of four, but struggle in that first year of school to put those letters and sounds together into more complex systems (words), and then suddenly seem to 'get it' in grade one (of course, some children do this a little earlier, and some a little later, it's a continuum but the majority do it around the age of six).

So, what is going on for a three year old?


  • Language development hits its peak! All those words they know and have stored inside their brain spring forth in more and more complex sentences. With this comes power and respect - because humans are kind of lame like that and we have a tendency to believe those who can express their feelings actually have feelings, while those who can't don't. Oooh, aaah, I'm being controversial! So, yep, talking goes ballistic. Listening? Not so much. Once they realise the power of their words, they want to wield that power as often as possible, hence the constant stream of consciousness which spews from the holes just above their chins (this phase lasts about 3-4 years in my experience, so buckle your seat belts parents, it can be a bumpy, ear bleed inducing ride, at times).
  • The social part of their brain lights up like a zealous Christmas light display at the end of November. They suddenly realise other people are there to interact with not just along side of. And that's what they want to do. Play with me, talk to me, be my climbing frame, don't make me go to sleep and miss out of practicing all my newfound social power! Some of this explosion also may incur casualties along the way, especially if your child has a tendency to take, even mild, rejection badly. This is when a child is most likely to hit, push, kick and bite other people who are pissing them off. That is because the empathy room of their brain house is still pretty dimly lit - and won't really brighten up until around the age of 6 or 7 (and won't hit full brightness until the late teens - sometimes not even until the late twenties), just so you know. So, it's social interaction at your own risk with a three year old. Of course, those of us who are much older (aka the parents) have the task of role-modeling appropriate behaviour. So, if the child doesn't like that you don't want to be their climbing frame and decides to headbutt you in the face for it (this happened to me this week), the appropriate response is, 'Ow, that hurt! It's not okay to hurt me, let's go do something that is okay, like stomp our feet and say GRRRRR because I can see you're angry' - the inappropriate response would be to impulsively smack the child and say, 'How do you like being hurt?! NOT NICE, is it?' (yes, that was me - not my proudest parenting moment).
  • Three year old boys experience the second highest testosterone surge of their lives (second only to puberty), and unfortunately it comes at time when their ability to project the consequences of their actions is still pretty much non-existent. Testosterone is a great hormone, it gives men (and woman) a lot of energy and get up and go and 'can do' attitude. It has the ability to make people feel like they can conquer the world. Problem is, three year olds don't have a helluva lot of empathy, and so they tend not to be benevolent dictators, but more the beserker variety - well at least the ones who have a moderate streak of aggression to begin with (aka future leaders and makers and shakers, and my son Ari).
So, there you have the trifecta of three year old boys - a perfect storm, if you will, in the right conditions.

What I need to remember is that this child is still the same child he was six months ago. He is just experiencing a storm within his body as the world opens up to him and he has energy to burn to explore it all. He needs lots of stimulation. Lots of fresh air and running around in the elements. Lots of love and understanding and willingness on our part (his family) to acknowledge that this too shall pass with time, but in the meantime we need to keep his amazing spirit alive and well because when he comes out of this storm, he'll need all that affection and reason and energy to get on with the rest of his life.

Ari is simply THRILLED to be alive right now!

Two more years...

Comments

coloursofsunset said…
Bugger, just posted a long comment and lost it. Just said THANK YOU, love this post. This is my 3.5 year old son to a T. All of a sudden won't shut up, I love our conversations but there are times I think "just be quiet for 5 seconds!! Please!!" and he has major melt down tantrums over basically nothing and it takes a lot more than it used to to distract him and move forward. Great post!
Jayne said…
Great post! I really think the basics of developmental psych should be taught to everyone who becomes a parent! It's something we all should know...but mostly don't :(
Sif said…
Thanks guys :D.

Also, I think so much focus is on two year old behaviour that many parents look forward to some respite at 3 and 4 and then it just doesn't come and a lot of parents start to blame themselves and/or resent the child to some degree.

Jayne, I really wish this was taught in some systematic way, sort of like those birth prep classes at hospital, offer to parents as a weekend intensive or over several weeks every couple of years as a commu ity based program,'Toddler Years Preparation', 'Preschool Years Preparation', 'The Middle Years', 'Early Adolescence', 'Late Adolescence' and 'Freedom is Just Around the Corner, Dealing with Your Own Seperation Anxiety'! (haha, that last one would be for parents who live vicariously through their children!)...
bek said…
See, I know all this but this reminder is extremely timely as I try to not get too angry with the toddler for being almost 3 :)
Sarah said…
Bit late in commenting Sif but wanted to say thanks so much for writing this. I really needed to read every word of this this week, including the section on 6 yr olds after butting heads with my sons first grade teacher on exactly this topic.

As for three year olds, I'm finding Evie to be something else Haha just when I think I have her figured she up's the anti .
Cassie McLean said…
Thank you for this blog! My almost 3.5 year old boy has been getting more and more difficult over the last couple of weeks and been driving me slightly insane, wondering where that gentle little boy has gone. Then I remembered about testosterone surges, started trawling the net and came across this. Always helps to know there is an explanation. x
Corinna Caylao said…
SHE UNDERSTAAAANDS MEEEE!!! OH MAN! THATS A RELIEF! IM NOT ALLOOOONE!

Popular posts from this blog

12 Things Happy People Do Differently - a self-reflection...

A few days ago a Facebook friend posted the above poster on her wall. I believe she got these points from this blog which she enjoys reading, and the bloggers on the Marc and Angel Hack Life blog derived their discussion of these points from this book, available on Amazon - you're welcome! I have to admit, I haven't read the blog or the book I've just mentioned but wanted my readers to have access to the sources of the poster for their own reflective purposes.
The New Year will be upon us in but a few days and I thought this a great opportunity to do a little personal assessment on how I'm playing the happy game. I'm often not very happy at all - I don't need to be happy all the time, let me just say that up front - I personally believe that life is a balancing act and those who seek euphoria often will also often feel desolation because in all things there must be balance. The great riches of the few on this planet come at the personal cost of the many as is …

The symbolism of elephants...

Just recently I've been seeing and noticing elephants everywhere!

A few weeks ago I saw the Samsung Elephant Ad, and watching that led me to watching a video with an elephant painting (seriously, you have to watch it to believe it!).

Then last night the boys told me they were having a free dress day at school to raise money for 'Mali the Elephant' - who turned out to be a paper maché statue which the children will paint and then show around the council before it comes back to the school to stand outside the performing arts room.

Then this morning I followed a link from Twitter to Toushka Lee's blog and read this post about an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka.

This morning the Grumpy Old Man did another driving test and unfortunately didn't pass. We've booked his next test and are looking forward to that now. About ten minutes before he walked in the door I saw this poster on Facebook...


At the time, I didn't know if the Grumpy Old Man had been successful or …

Alone... And Stuff...

Do you ever just need to be alone?



As the boys are growing up, we have more times when the house is quiet. The youngest will be asleep. One will be reading, one will be playing on his computer with headphones on, one will be painting and there is stillness.

Sometimes, even that is not enough.

Sometimes I crave being alone, with no possibility of someone suddenly realising they have to tell me something important or ask me a question or even just crash about in the kitchen.

Sometimes I crave S P A C E, lots and lots of space, being able to walk from room to room without encountering another soul.

This is how I felt when I woke up this morning, so instead of getting ready for work, I decided to stay home. Get up, but not go anywhere, no hear the sound of my own voice, or anyone else's.

I think this might just be part of getting older. After a lifetime of chasing after other people and trying not to be alone, my mind and body is full of thoughts, experiences, feelings, and busy-ness …