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?