“I’m just not sure how to help him.”
I sat in our pediatrician’s office with tears rolling down my cheeks. We were there for my son’s three-year-old checkup, and after he had passed all physical examinations, the conversation turned to any concerns I had. I was shaking as I started describing some of the behaviors we had seen in the last few months.
If you have ever had a freshly-turned three-year-old, you might understand my emotional state. They are crazy. Legit crazy. Often hilarious, but mostly crazy. I’ve given more wide-eyed emoji faces to my three-year-old than any other human being.
So what is “normal” when it comes to three-year-olds?
The tantrums have definitely escalated from two-years-old. This makes sense because his brain is understanding more and more information, but his speech has not been able to keep up. The communication barrier seems to be at an all-time high and is accompanied by hitting, kicking, and biting. He’s also become quite the stubborn, strong-willed child. I’m confident he has a “no” reflex to any question or command. “Please sit in your chair.” “No.” “Put your shoes on.” “No.” “Do you want ice cream?” “No. Uhh…wait, yes.”
Every day felt like a marathon that didn’t end at bedtime because OF COURSE HE DOESN’T SLEEP EITHER. It’s no surprise the tears came easily when our pediatrician asked if I had any concerns. Is this normal? Is this just a phase that every kid goes through? What if it’s not? Then what do we do?
Our pediatrician, who I am convinced is the greatest woman on the face of the planet, softly stroked his curls and smiled reassuringly. She handed me a tissue and said, “It could be normal, or he may need some extra help. We have lots of resources.” She went on to describe how speech therapy may help with the communication barrier, hopefully reducing a few tantrums. Occupational therapy is an option for learning some self-regulation skills that will help him better manage his emotions. She didn’t push anything on me, but she offered referrals and left it open for me to pursue what I thought may help him best.
But the last thing she said really struck a chord with me. It hung in the air as we left the room.
“Maybe he’s just one of those boys with a lot of energy. He needs an outlet so all that energy doesn’t spill out on the rest of you. I’d recommend at least three hours of physical activity, preferably outdoors, every day.”
On my drive home, I mulled over all the therapy options I had been given but kept coming back to her three hour suggestion. I tried to think back to when we first started noticing an increase in his behavior. It was definitely during the winter. Possibly November or December? It was THE cloudiest, rainiest winter on record. I tried to be a good mom and offer sensory tubs and Play-Doh and all sorts of things to keep him entertained, but we definitely did not have much physical activity. Certainly not outdoors. Could this simple solution really be what I was missing all this time?
I tried it that day, as soon as we got home from the pediatrician. One hour of backyard time, running and digging in dirt. One hour at the park down the street from our house. Another hour in the backyard doing an obstacle course.
WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT? He sat in his chair and ate his whole dinner that night. He didn’t hang upside down from the kitchen table once! He sat in the rocking chair with me and read book after book at bedtime. He actually fell asleep the first time at bedtime. No circus acts required.
I know some of you may be thinking, “Duh,” but this was honestly groundbreaking information for me. Of course kids need physical activity. Everybody knows that. But surely they don’t need this much. This feels excessive. It might be excessive for some kids. My five-year-old daughter doesn’t need that much, which I’m sure is why I never considered it with her younger brother. But now that we have followed The Three Hour Rule every day for two months, I can CONFIRM it was exactly what he needed.
He’s a different kid these days. He can control his emotions much more easily. We’ve seen far fewer tantrums and timeouts. He is willing to repeat himself and is much more patient with us when we don’t understand him the first time. We’ve learned that this strong, powerful child has so much energy inside him that will come out if he is not given a physical outlet. Everyone can tell if we miss a day.