The Unique Challenges of Being 3 1/2 Years Old

I have quoted Slow Family Living founder and early childhood parenting coach, educator and speaker, Carrie Contey numerous times on Attachment Mama over the last year.  She never ceases to amaze me with her thoughtful insights on parenting babies and young children. Parents inside or outside of Austin can benefit from Carrie’s wise counsel. I’ve really enjoyed the number of workshops I’ve attended over the last three years and out-of-towners really appreciate her e-handbooks, tele-classes and phone consultations. Check out her web sites for options!

My husband and I recently reached out to Carrie for advice on our 3 1/2 year-old and her frequent intense emotions over the last few months which have felt like too much for her age to my husband.  With Carrie’s permission, I’m sharing her brilliant response in hope that it may serves other parents:

3.5 is a monumentally challenging time to be a little person and subsequently the parents of a little person. Even if conditions are ideal (slow pace of life, super resourced happy parents with tons of emotional, financial, physical support, minimal changes and transitions, plenty of exercise (but not too much;) …she would still be having a hard time because that’s what 3.5 is all about.

It’s halfway between 0 and 7 and it’s fraught with the desire to stay a baby and feel extremely felt by the main people around her and to be completely independent and not need a thing from you. It’s crazy making for her and for you. And, add in all the changes, stresses, new stuff, good stuff, hard stuff… that your family is going through and yes, she’s going to be challenging. A lot of the time.

All that said, I do believe 3.5 is a golden opportunity for:

1) helping her understand how to feel all these big feelings AND know that other people can have their feelings and can set boundaries so she can be safe. Both are true. And she’s learning this. And she needs patience and compassion and love and presence in monumental ways right now. And so do you. For yourselves.

2) doing some digging into your own early experiences. She’s pushing big buttons that are rooted in that time of life for you. Did you get to tantrum with support? If not, what happened when you expressed big feelings? How do you relate to yourself now when you are feeling those kinds of feelings? It’s all in there and it’s all up because she’s so emotional at the moment. Which is really exactly where she needs to be. It’s your work to get really well resourced, look at what’s triggering you, be clear with your boundaries and ride the waves. Think of it as learning to surf.

My best suggestions are these:

1) Get clear in yourselves on what’s working and what’s not working right now. Be honest and do some work alone before coming together to discuss it. Ask yourselves these questions, “What do I need?” “Is family life working? If not, what needs to change for me to feel more balanced, more safe, more resourced?”

2) Spend some time together talking about what you are experiences and really listen to each other.  John Gottman’s work gives nice examples of how to do reflective and responsive listening.

3) Realize that you are the family regulators. Your 3 1/2 year-old is the family weather vain at the moment. If she senses either one of you is off she is going to start spinning because she is in a disregulated state and she is going to do whatever it takes to get your full attention. As a 3.5 year old who is growing and changing in monumental ways when she is home she is not going to be human very much of the time. She’s going to be in her mammal or reptile brain more than not.

What she needs is…
Presence. She needs reflection of what she is feeling. She needs to hear how you are feeling and what the boundary is. She needs to be acknowledged and seen and appreciated when she’s not it a big emotional state so she can feel emotionally fed and neurologically learns that she can get full attention without having to be challenging and disregulated.

And, she needs to have LOTS of meltdowns right now. It’s part of the deal with 3.5.

And she needs time alone with adults that are regulated and care for her. She cannot be regulated by her baby sister or other children right now. She will be thrown off more often than not by other children. She needs a lot of contact and connection from adult nervous systems.

4) Look closely at what is triggering you. It’s more than likely when you are feeling either physically and/or emotionally “invaded” or “abandoned” by her. This is not about her. This is EVOKING very old feelings in you. It’s up for healing. Three books that I HIGHLY recommend to explore this more are:
  • I’ll Never Do To My Kids What My Parents Did To Me! – Eileen Paris
  • Undefended Love – Jett Paris
And when you are really really ready to explore your deep emotional stuff, my favorite…
  • The Presence Process – Michael Brown
The gist of all of these is that your children/partners/parents are not making you feel how you are feeling; they are just evoking old emotions that are trying to get your attention. Trying to change them and their behavior will get you nowhere because the universe will just send more opportunities for you to get the message until you get it and start acknowledging in yourself that you have these feelings. When you learn how to give yourself that attention with compassion, the outside experiences don’t have the same effect and ultimately just stop showing up.

Thanks again Carrie!!
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2 Responses to “The Unique Challenges of Being 3 1/2 Years Old”

  1. Sarah says:

    Great info. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Timely advice! My little guy is not quite 3 1/2 but he has been more trying than his older 3 siblings put together and I need all the gentle reminders I can get on helping us both survive this stage. 🙂

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