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What Really Bugs Me About the Term 'Threenager'

Photograph by Twenty20

I will never forget the first time I heard a parent refer to her toddler as a "threenager." We were at the park, playing in the sand. Per usual, sharing issues became a problem. Toddlers, in general, aren't known for their exceptional sharing skills. A large part of growing up, after all, involves learning these social skills one step at a time.

The "threenager" in question ripped a shovel from the hands of another child. The other child cried, the moms jumped into action and the somewhat flustered mother of the toy-taker apologized over and over again, remarking on the newfound "threenager" behavior in her home.

I remember thinking it a strange description for a tot. Surely all parents of toddlers have been on both sides of that scenario at times. Toy taking and saying no to sharing are part of toddlerhood.

Once that word was on my radar, it seemed to crop up just about everywhere. Suddenly the hot comparison to draw in the world of parenting is the one between toddlers and teens. Why is he acting like SUCH a toddler? Ooh, she'll be trouble in a few years! Yes, negative comments laced with sarcasm to describe fairly average behaviors for both age groups suddenly became the new normal. Instead of working on things like sharing (for toddlers) or expressing emotions (for teens), parents decided to draw the comparison, roll their eyes and dismiss them.

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This comparison has become so widespread that a Google search on the topic yields 128,000 results. But here's the thing: Toddlers are not teenagers. They have very different needs and work through very different milestones.

From a medical standpoint, I can understand the comparison: Both toddlers and teens experience rapid brain growth, rapid physical growth and need sufficient sleep, play (exercise) and nourishment to thrive. They also seek independence and need help expressing their emotions. But, if we're being honest, those things describe almost every stage of childhood. Kids are constantly growing and changing, and meltdowns can happen at any age (even for adults).

When we laugh off behaviors and compare them to different stages, we minimize the needs of the individual child.

To roll the eyes in the face of a back-talking toddler or teen is to ignore two very different needs at two very different stages of development. The back-talking toddler, for example, lacks the sophisticated communication skills necessary to engage in a healthy debate. She needs guidance—she needs to learn about voice tone, facial expressions and the differences between assertive and aggressive communication. The back-talking teen, on the other hand, is likely engaging in a defense mechanism used to cover up the true emotions beneath the behavior. She needs support, unconditional love and time to process her feelings and figure out how to proceed.

Toddlerhood is a rollercoaster on a good day. There are tears, hysterical laughter, tantrums, excitement, frustration and big, wet kisses … and that only brings us to lunch. They are up, down and all around and learning in leaps and bounds during all of these shifting emotions. They need playtime, downtime, outside time, reading-in-the-lap time and time to simply engage with family.

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When we laugh off behaviors and compare them to different stages, we minimize the needs of the individual child. When we rely on sarcasm and words like "drama" to describe young children, we send the message that we think their needs are silly and meaningless. When we refer to toddlers as teens and talking about trouble coming down the line, we set them up to fail. Even very young children build core beliefs in response to our feedback, after all.

Parenting is no easy task, and the toddler years certainly can bring challenges. Even so, it's important to remain focused on the present and appreciate each developmental stage as it comes. There is little to be gained from comparing toddlers to teens, but everything to be gained from meeting our children where they are and addressing their individual needs as they arise.

Your toddlers are toddlers. Enjoy the ride.

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