A 3-year-old wants to be 2 again. What’s she afraid of?

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Q: My daughter recently turned 3. In the days leading up to her birthday, she was excited about all the new things she could do as a 3-year-old: join a soccer team, go to preschool, etc. Now that her birthday has passed, she repeatedly tells me, “I wish I were 2 again!” She bursts into tears anytime someone asks about her age. We have tried to understand why she feels so sad about the change, but she’s too young to articulate it. Reminding her of all the exciting things she can do now has no effect, so we try to comfort her and tell her that we know it is hard to go through a change. Any thoughts on how to help her embrace her new age?

A: Oh, what a great question! Developmentally speaking, new 3-year-olds are bursting at the seams to get out into the world. They want to venture forth, jump off walls, give their opinions on food and clothes, and be a big kid. But new 3-year-olds are also immature. They derive most of their feelings of safety from being physically close to their caregivers. This means that as excited as 3-year-olds may seem about soccer and preschool, when it comes time to actually leave you, their brain goes into a panic, and they need to be near you.

My answer to your question is going to sound paradoxical: When we push our children to be excited about something, we end up causing more worry and neediness. So don’t help your daughter embrace her new age and what is coming.

Children are built to stay in a developmental stage until the requirements are met for them to move on. What does this mean? When babies start to crawl, they will not pull themselves up and begin to walk if they are not in an environment where that can happen. Yes, that is an extreme case, but maturation is spontaneous and dependent on the preceding building blocks. Once the needs of the child have been met, the child moves on to the next stage of development.

Americans have decided that 3 is some kind of magic age. The 3-year-old should go to camp and preschool and participate in sports and swimming classes. We could not be more wrong. The new 3-year-old does not…

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