3.5 is a lousy age

Shannon writes:

“I know my 3.5 year-old is totally just doing what 3.5 year-olds do but I need some parenting strategies to work though this stage. 

There is a lot of him saying “No!” back to us any time he doesn’t like what we are saying which eventually amps up into full-on tantrum and uncontrollable crying.  My husband is very much of the mind to withhold attention and affection when our son is behaving in an uncooperative manner and has a “lay down the law/do what I say” attitude about back talk.  But I think it just makes things worse and he is a sensitive kid, so I feel like it will undermine his feeling secure in our love. 

Our son also has horrible separation anxiety right now.  Separation anxiety has been an on and off issue for him but it is rough right now with him screaming “Mommy!  No!  Mommy don’t leave me!  Help me Mommy!” this morning.  He has been at the same daycare/preschool since he was 3 months old and does fine 10 minutes after I’m gone but it is terrible leaving him in that state.  I am sure some of his struggle is that we had our second son 9 months ago and it is still a tough transition for him to have to share his parents.  Also, my husband and I have had a rough marriage year and there’s been a lot of tension and depression around our house.  We’ve tried our best to keep it light and normal around the kids and never discuss our problems with them around but we aren’t perfect and kids are intuitive, so I have no doubt that my older son has felt the stress. 

Any help you can provide on how to communicate in a way that will get through to him and how to establish respectful communication from both sides would be helpful.  Also, ways to help him feel secure and loved.  So often I’ve been able to get through the tough developmental things with “this too shall pass/this is just a phase” but this feels like an important point where we need to have a real strategy for setting expectations from both sides and setting a tone for our future parenting. “


This is an interesting twist on the “my 3.5-year-old is making me feel like a failure” questions I usually get. (And asked, with both my kids.) Nothing makes you feel as out of your depths as a behavioral stage that seems to come out of nowhere.

If you’re interested in reading what I’ve said about 3 ½-year-olds in the past and all the validating comments, check out these posts:




But now on to Shannon’s questions about communicating in a way that will get through to him and how to set the tone for future parenting. I think you can only really do half of that. Meaning, you as the parent need to work out a plan that you feel good about, but not base your evaluation of the success of that plan on how your child responds. Which I know sounds weird and is the opposite of everything else you do in parenting, which (especially up until this point) has largely been about trying things until you find one that works.

But here’s the thing about 3.5 (and 7, as we talked about on Monday)–the developmental changes going on in their heads make them truly unable to deal with normal structures and rules and consequences. They can’t really see cause and effect like they could before (and will again once they’re out of the phase) and their emotions overwhelm them. Remember that this is the stage in which a kid will throw and tantrum because you don’t let them have something, and then you give in and let them have that thing so they throw a tantrum that you let them have it. Their bodies are just so hyped up and it’s all emotion and hormones and discomfort running through their veins.

So they simply can’t process rules like they used to. Which means that the idea of being able to communicate effectively with your child at this stage doesn’t mean that you say something and they understand and comply. Or even just understand. You can be communicating as clearly as possible and they can physically hear it, but their scrambled brains won’t let them attach to it or comply with it. And then they’ll have a tantrum about it. So it’s not really “getting through to him” that’s possible at this age.

Yes, you can go 100% punitive and put the hammer down and squash them into such a small space that they “comply.” But that just means that they’re afraid of you, and that’s going to last long past this developmental phase. (And it’s not even what Shannon’s looking for. I just thought I’d mention it for the people who think they need compliance at all costs, although I doubt any of them are reading me anyway.)

The best thing to do at this stage is to put up safeguards (both physical and emotional) so that your child can’t hurt himself or you, and then stop trying to enforce the rules your child can’t process. Stay focused on keeping your home a safe place for everyone, so your child can’t hurt anyone and everyone stays as emotionally close as possible. Greet the outburst with as much kindness and sympathy as you can, while also being kind and sympathetic to yourself about having to deal with this stage.

I’d also caution against taking too much blame for the way your son is acting. You’ve had a lot going on, but many many many kids who don’t have siblings and whose parents’ marriage is in fantastic shape go through this exact same horrible stage in spades. I know that it’s really tempting to blame yourself for anything that happens with your child, because then it feels like you have control over it, but 3.5-year-olds can be awful, and even if everything had been delightful up until now you’d still be in this stage.

The way you interact with your child during this stage is not the same way you’ll interact with him once he’s out of this brain scrambling phase and is able to process rules and structures again. So don’t think of forming a strategy for parenting forever and ever. Instead, think about this as the crisis strategy that you use for 3.5, 4.75, 6.5, age 7, age 14, etc. (And then think of your normal parenting strategy as how you’ll parent again when he’s out of this phase.)

The crisis parenting strategy (mine, at least) essentially boils down to: Keep everyone together. Let the rules slide. Give a lot of hugs, even when you don’t feel like it. Keep your eye on the light at the end of the tunnel.

Remember that the lashing out and tantrums and weepiness aren’t in any way, shape, or form about you or about your parenting or relationship. It’s all about his body and his brain and what it can’t do right now. So think of this as any other period of recovery, not the future of everything. And don’t feel bad that you feel at odds with him right now–feeling at odds with the whole world is the hallmark of this age. This feels really big and really scary, but it’s also really normal.

And really awful.

Be kind to yourself.

Readers? Stories of horrible 3.5 behavior that then went back to normal loving behavior?


14 thoughts on “3.5 is a lousy age”

  1. We have a 9 month old baby and a 2.5 yr old and I think the increased mobility of the baby is really compounding the good old half year hell. Our toddler wants to control everything the baby does. So no real insight, but empathy especially about the baby.

  2. I would swear you were writing about MY son when he was 3.5. I agree with Moxie. Ultimately, what worked best for me was to focus more on myself – grounding myself, staying calm, maintaining some compassion, etc. – and less on my son. I sort of realized that nothing I did made much of a difference to him, but that it might to me. So I worked on staying patient, not losing my temper and not getting too "sucked in," and it helped tremendously. I can’t say if it improved his behavior, but it certainly improved my own emotional outlook.

  3. I have a 7 year old, a 3.5 year old, and a crappy sleeper of a 7.5 month old right now. You can imagine what my daily life is like right now. 😀

    This actually really helped me to remember, because the 3.5 year old just falls apart at the slightest provocation, whereas she used to be the most zen, happy-go-lucky little kid! And I was thinking to myself, "Oh God! What have I done to ruin her? Where is my easy child! I need my easy child, please!" (her older sister is SPD).

    So, looking forward to the 4 year old birthday. Hopefully things will calm down for a bit, then. 🙂

  4. Eh. Some things just have to be endured. To me, 3.5 was the very embodiment of that. Might be a good time to schedule a babysitter on the reg just to have a break from it. Whatever helps you not follow suit!

  5. I just want to say that 3.5 was AWFUL here, but sitting here now at 4.5 – I can’t really remember what it was that made it so awful.

    I do know one thing, though. My husband and I treated him differently during this time. My husband took a no nonsense, zero tolerance policy and I just tried to keep treating him how I always did.

    A year later, my son and I are really good and really, really close. My son and husband are at each others throats constantly. CONSTANTLY. I know they love each other, but my husband’s no nonsense approach has made my son really combative around him and they seem to be locked into a cycle they can’t stop.

    So I would say to the OP, maybe your husband should think about how he wants to continue his relationship with your son once the 3.5 bullshit passes.

  6. I feel like the strategies need to be focused on how the parents should cope while allowing the son to get through this phase of development. When you have a newborn who won’t sleep, you do shifts so that YOU can survive while the kid grows up. I think that the emotional development stages are like this. We as parents keep trying to use our brains and logic to help then when instead we should use those brains on ourselves. So ask your husband (and yourself): what are we afraid of? ("Our son will grow up to be a spoiled jerk.") Are those fears realistic? ("We’re worried if we don’t stop his tantrums he’ll be spoiled. Over what time period? How long would it take? At what point will we worry? Wait, don’t all kids go through a phase like this? So what do we want to prevent?") Then you put a plan together around THAT. ("We’ll give him six months to get through this, and we won’t make it worse by withdrawing OR playing to it. We’ll offer him ten minutes to calm down, then something that isn’t what he asked for so he’s not a tyrant but has a way out. If he asks for something he has to be polite.")… or whatever your own buttons are.

    My husband’s buttons are that he is "being disrespected" and "being told what to do" which means the kid isn’t being polite. Well, that I can work with.

    I think you celebrate your own control and improvement as adults while the kid gets a break to get through it. Now I’m off to take my own advice. 🙂

  7. Man, this and the comments are so helpful. We’ve been seeing 3.5-like behaviors since my daughter was 2.5. It might have gotten better, but number two arrived just three months short of older’s 3rd birthday, and the sibling rivalry has been intense. I managed to have not one but two major disagreements with my normally very supportive mother about my "defiant" and misbehaving child, and how I’m choosing to discipline. We’re trying to avoid punishment, in large part because when I try time out and other punitive approaches, it works about as well as not using those things. At this point, with my daughter rapidly approaching the 3.5 mark (but currently in a mostly delightful independent phase at 3.25), my husband and I are trying to mitigate our own responses. The truth is, I get truly sick of hearing "No matter what, you have to be consistent" – my kid’s behavior and the reasons for it aren’t consistent, how can I possibly respond to it exactly the same way every time? And yet, we’re struggling the most with this unevenness – calm and detached one minute and reacting angrily the next. Or I spend the whole day doing it "right" only to have my husband explode at my daughter in the evening. When you add the layer of "my kid is horrible and it must be all my fault because we’re doing this wrong," it makes the guilt and frustration that much worse. We finally both agreed that we need to work on making our own responses respectful and stop worrying about whether what we’re doing is working in the short term. I volunteer at my daughter’s preschool, I see first-hand how much like every other kid her age she is. But it’s hard when the specter of parental failure sits on your shoulder telling you the reason she’s STILL aggressive toward her sister 7 months in is because your discipline choices suck.

  8. I needed this tonight. My 3.5 year old has been in a sleep-strike for just over two weeks and tonight has been awful. She’s been up and down. During the day she can be soooooo sweet. And then fly off the handle before I can blink. I’m glad to find that this is a ‘thing’ and might calm down sooner (hopefully) rather than later!

  9. Oh yes. Now delightful 6 and 8 year olds were psychopathic hellspawn at 3 1/2. And both before and after that age they have the sort of temperament which gets compliments from strangers, makes them teacher’s favourites, etc. But 3. Aiyiyi, it was bad.

  10. Thank you I so needed to hear I’m not alone! My son is 3.5 and overnight turned batshit crazy. The twos were bad and then we had a nice month or 2 and now I’m just miserable. Everything is an argument. I try 2 simple and appropriate choices and the answer is just no if I get one at all. We used to be so outdoorsy and busy and now he won’t leave the house. Previously happy to go to bed and a good sleeper he’s now pratting around. Toilet trained for over a year and now just pees on the floor. Running off – a previous fave of his. Dangerous attention seeking behaviour like trying to run in the road so I’m forced to play along. So frustrating as I try so hard to keep him engaged and stay connected but it’s like he’s fighting me all the time. Another fave seems to be constant mind changing of an activity it game. So 15 mins spent building train track and 3 mins later I want to do X. Then very quickly I want to do X. Feel like I’m just his exhausted minion and he seems to enjoy keeping me on my toes. I’m ashamed to say I’m so done in by it now I’m yelling. Doesn’t help of course and sets poor example. I’ve really found the empathetic approach works best with him and he really cares how others feel about him. Except it seems me. His listening skills have never been great, it’s very much if he likes what your saying but atm they are appalling. I’m told I’m not hungry and can’t have brekkie but guaranteed 11 am he suddenly wants pancakes. I feel like he is controlling everything with his whims. I’m gutted as we used to have so much fun and now I have to make a real effort to smile. However thanks to this I’m going to stop worrying it’s me and go easier on the pair of us and just ride it out 🙂 so thank you xxxx

  11. I am going through a really, really shit period with parenting my 3.8 year old. I want to go buy milk and get lost coming home. It is horrid. And yes, we are the example of only 1 kid (so no sib rivalry to blame) and basically good, strong marriage. But this is shit. She is a hyperactive maniac that no kidding is demanding and feral and bitchy from 6:30am till around 8pm with no nap, no downtime. If I sit on the couch in a dark room with something soothing like Boobah after lunch, she will crawl all over me, accidently hurting me, chucking hissy fits…attention, attention, attention. I want to smashy skull in with a brick. Sometimes, when she has been whining, and whining I tell her she has to stop or my brain will explode. I can’t stand to be a parent right now. I f##$$ing hate my days at home.

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