“The commonly used term “the terrible twos” has become ingrained in our society and has led parents to anticipate this stage as the most challenging one.”
It’s quite blindsiding then when the terrible threes come along to blow the twos out of the water!
Why are 3-year-olds so difficult? At age 3, children are not yet able to process and regulate their emotions, so misbehavior is often their response to feeling angry, fearful, or overwhelmed by their world. This can mean parents face more defiance, resistance, and even aggressive behavior during this period.
Every age brings its own challenges, which is why having a tunnel-like focus on the terrible twos can give parents a false sense of security about what threedom may have in store (spoiler alert: it’s not angelic).
To help you navigate the choppy waters of the terrible threes, here’s all you need to know about them from what’s normal to survival tips and much more.
What Comes After Terrible Twos? Terrible Threes!
The “terrible threes” is rarely acknowledged — perhaps because it’s not as catchy as the terrible twos — but this stage can be every bit as challenging as the former, if not more so.
We’re here to talk about threemageddon, why it happens, what’s normal, and how to survive it!
Is There Such a Thing as the Terrible Threes?
The terrible threes are absolutely a thing. Because so much lip service is paid to the terrible twos, it’s easy to forget just how rapidly a child’s brain is developing and the impact that an increased sense of independence at age 3 can have as they explore their world.
This newfound independence can see them express themselves in new ways and become more defiant, becoming pickier eaters, for example, or expressing frustration in screams and tantrums as opposed to crying.
Reasons Behind the Behavior
While your 3-year-old can now begin to converse with you, they will still find themselves incredibly frustrated by their inability to communicate every little want, need, and emotion, so a tantrum can be a healing vent for getting all those big and confusing emotions out!
Often, it’s about a lack of control, though overstimulation, hunger, and boredom can also be common reasons behind tantrums and unpredictable behavior.
Testing limits is also very common at the age, so don’t be surprised when your sweet little one tries to push you to the breaking point.
Speaking to Today’s Parent, parenting author and mother-of-two Natalie Serianni puts the turbulent nature of the terrible threes down to a child’s intense wonder and curiosity: “little ones are developing their language, memory and imagination, and it’s a time of discovery.”
In conjunction with this self-discovery, Serianni also notes that the threes are “a time when both kids and parents struggle with unpredictability, expectations, and boundary setting, particularly in uncertain situations.”
Speaking of uncertain situations, 3 years old is typically the age your child may start preschool, which is a whole heap of unfamiliarity for them.
What To Expect With Terrible Threes
Remember that every child is different, so there is no definitive rulebook for what to expect with your own child’s terrible threes.
To give you some idea though, co-creator of Parenthood4ever and mother-of-three Ana Iturmendi has observed the following symptoms in her own children:
- Erratic and aggressive physical behaviors (kicking, hitting, pushing)
- Grabbing and throwing things
- Inconsolable crying
- Lashing out
- Doing things alone and rejecting help
- Problems with sleep and naps
- Issues with the toilet/potty
- Losing their appetite or becoming fussy eaters
- Getting your attention by misbehaving on purpose, e.g., peeing on the carpet, throwing toys in the toilet
- Ignoring you
Are Terrible Threes Worse Than Terrible Twos?
The terrible threes can seem much worse than the previous year as kids tend to become less agreeable as they transition into more independent beings.
Whereas 2-year-olds have limited speech, poop in diapers, and mostly eat what is put in front of them, your 3-year-old is now a mini negotiator
becoming skilled in the art of manipulation, which can make communication in all aspects of this transition a living hell.
If this sounds a tad similar to another dreaded parental milestone, it’s not your imagination.
“3-year-olds and teenagers actually have very similar developmental needs and challenges: autonomy,” explains Jamie Malone, mom-of-four and professional counselor at Insight Counseling and Consulting.
Threes can also appear worse than twos because parents have certain expectations for their child by age 3.
Motherhood writer Jessica Blankenship shares many of the expectation-versus-reality scenarios she experienced with her 3-year-old son from assuming there would be improved communication and good table manners to independent playtime.
Three-Year-Old Behavior Problems: What Is Normal?
With all this behavioral change stemming from your 3-year-old’s rapid development, it can be difficult to tell whether certain behaviors are just a phase or indicative of something more concerning.
Associate professor of psychology Faye Walkenfeld, Ph.D., explains that defiance is normal at this age:
“A 3 or 4-year-old who is trying to establish independence and does not yet understand people’s perspectives might throw a tantrum when told they cannot play a game until they put away their toys.”
Behavior problems largely stem from a lack of impulse control and poor emotional regulation in toddlers and preschoolers.
Licensed mental health counselors Kristen Souza and Sandra Calzadilla note, “biting, hitting, and pushing are age-appropriate behaviors.”
As your 3-year-old starts preschool, it’s also common to see them cry at being dropped off or display anxious behaviors about staying in school for long periods.
However, “as they settle into school, make friends, and get to know their teachers, the anxiety or resistance to school should subside,” notes Calzadilla.
Clinical psychologist specializing in children and adolescents Melanie A. Fernandez, Ph.D., warns that “the behavior really deserves attention when ‘no’ is the only response you’re getting and it doesn’t change without a huge fight.”
Fernandez also implores parents to seek help if they “are seeing not only frequent temper tantrums but full-blown tantrums, where the child is upset, crying for a long time, and inconsolable.”
You can find other examples of behavior in your 3-year-old that may require attention from your pediatrician here.
Terrible Threes Survival Tips
Starting to feel like you will never make it through this threenager period? Don’t lose heart – you’ll muddle through this stage just like you did with the terrible twos!
1. Set clear and simple expectations: Make a short and sweet list of family rules for your 3-year-old such as 1.) Use nice voices, 2.) Do what Mommy and Daddy ask you, 3.) Hurting others is wrong.
2. Divert and redirect with creativity: If your child is showing pre-tantrum signs (i.e. snatching toys, yelling, whining on the floor), get in early, and redirect their attention to something productive or creative.
Perhaps they’d like time outside on their bike or doing a puzzle.
3. Frequently give your child your full attention (in small doses): The next time your little one interrupts your errands (pulling clothes off the laundry basket, “helping” you send emails by bashing the keyboard, etc.), take a moment to look them in the eyes, ask questions, and use body language that suggests you are paying attention (if only briefly) to him/her.
4. Expect repeat offenses and intervene early: Don’t be disheartened if they pull the same stunt again and again.
If yelling or riding out the storm through gritted teeth has been your only way of dealing with things until now, try intervening early to put a stop to the pattern.
Children’s MD uses the example of one mom’s 3-year-old who repeatedly refused to strap into her car seat as she knew her refusal controlled the whole family.
“One day on the way to the car, I said ‘If everyone says “We love you!” three times, will you strap in?” She said ‘OK but you have to say it five times.’ We did, she strapped in, and everyone was laughing. By giving her control of a little issue, I gained control of the whole situation.”
3-Year-Old Temper Tantrums Getting Worse
A sign your 3-year-old’s tantrums are getting worse is that they are happening more frequently, carrying on longer, or occur at times that wouldn’t have triggered them previously, such as happening suddenly when it comes washing hands, brushing their teeth, getting dressed, etc.
If tantrums are escalating, psychotherapist Amy Morin urges parents to ignore the tantrum and refrain from giving in to their demands, bribing them, or giving them repeated warnings about their behavior.
“Attention reinforces behavior, even when it’s negative attention.”Amy Morin
If you have concerns that your child’s tantrums are becoming worse or abnormal, don’t hesitate to discuss these with your healthcare provider to see if they can make any suggestions.
Three-Year-Old Behavior Is Out of Control
Behavior can be considered out of control if your 3-year-old exhibits destructive patterns (throws toys, breaks things, hurts others), throws daily full-blown tantrums, or turns almost everything into a fight.
Knowing where to start can feel too overwhelming for words.
Creator of the blog Sleeping Should Be Easy and author of 31 Days to Better Parenting Nina V. Garcia recommends focusing on your child’s most offending behavior to prevent spending your energy on policing everything they do.
“Let’s say your biggest power struggles stem from his talking back to you. You might set expectations on how you want to be treated or put your foot down on his tone of voice. Perhaps you show him better ways to communicate how he feels, or reflect on whether you’re modeling the right behavior as well.”
“Focus only on the worst offending behavior until you’ve worked through it, then move on to the next issue. Besides, fixing the biggest problem will more than likely trickle down to fixing the other issues as well.”
How To Handle 3-Year-Old Tantrums
No parents are exactly alike, and every child is unique, so what works for you may not work for others and vice versa. However, the tips provided below are universal and can be applied to many situations.
Try To Stay Calm
“Our children need to know that their parents are not thrown by their minor misdeeds so they can rest assured they are well taken care of and not more powerful than the leaders they depend on,” author Natalie Serianni explains.
She adds, “We have to keep calm and stand outside the situation as even a meltdown can be healing for toddlers.”
Make ‘em Laugh
Making 3-year-olds laugh is mercifully quite easy and can be very disarming.
Marygrace Taylor at What To Expect suggests “putting a clean diaper on your head” during a fussy diaper change to stifle stress-causing chemicals with feel-good ones!
Cuddle Him/Her (For Extreme Full-Blown Tantrums)
When the tantrum is too far gone, the power of touch can be very soothing and impactful. Holding your 3-year-old firmly but gently can help ease their frustration and sadness over losing control.
Keep Them Safe Mid-Tantrum
If your child is being physically aggressive by hitting, lashing out, etc., pick them up firmly (don’t drag or pull) and take them to a safe place. If you are in public, take them outside or to your car.
Otherwise, it may help to hold them tightly there to prevent them from hurting themselves or others.
Disciplining a 3-Year-Old
Time-outs may not work in every situation, and even if they do, they may not be the best approach to employ.
Janet Lansbury, author of No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame suggests that the key to healthy and effective discipline is for parents to adjust their attitude and outlook, not the child.
This can mean becoming less reactionary and prioritizing talking over yelling to help your child truly listen.
Coming down to their eye level, speaking using the “whisper technique,” and acknowledging their emotions are more effective ways to approach the bad behavior and possibly help prevent further tantrums.
Terrible 2, Horrible 3, What About 4?
Just like the terrible threes, the terrible fours are less researched but are by no means less of a reality for many parents!
Common behavioral problems in 4-year-olds can be things like refusing to do tasks requested of them, switching between cooperative and demanding behaviors, and generally becoming more confident about expressing and negotiating their wants.
When Do Temper Tantrums Stop?
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the occurrence of temper tantrums tend to lessen as children become more capable of communicating their wants and needs.
Are Tantrums a Sign of Autism?
Tantrums are a normal part of your child’s development. Severe outbursts, however, could be a sign of a behavioral disorder like autism.
Seek professional help if your child’s tantrums last beyond 25 minutes, occur more than 10 times a day, and result in unsafe behaviors (hurting oneself or others).
To sum up, the threes can be just as difficult if not more trying than the terrible twos due to your child’s rapid cognitive development and the immense changes happening in their lives (potty-training, socializing with others, a greater need for attention, pure overstimulation etc.).
Defiance and frequent temper tantrums are normal at this stage, but if they become a recurrent daily battle coupled with destructive behaviors, please speak to a healthcare professional for guidance.
Remember, you got this, and you will weather the storm of threes, fours, and beyond!
Rebecca is a seasoned copywriter and researcher with over a decade of experience, specializing in parenting topics. With a passion for all aspects of raising children, from breastfeeding to potty training.