How to Handle Your 3-Year-Old

Three-year-olds are curious, creative, and independent. But they can also be a handful. Mighty Mommy has 5 tips to help you embrace this challenging stage of toddlerhood.

Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #308

I recently attended a holiday gathering with my family and had the joy of interacting with dozens of children who were much younger than my brood. 

While raising my 8 kids I can remember vividly sweating it out during many a function when one of my then toddler-aged tots would have a meltdown over not getting the cupcake frosting of his choice or being told that she couldn’t water the silk flower arrangement with her sippy cup. 

In the heat of the moment, we parents work fast and furiously to defuse these “time bomb” moments. Sometimes we succeed, but often our best efforts fall short and the toddler’s cranky behavior can overpower even the most patient parent.

As my family of tweens and teens partied politely and independently, other guests were juggling babies, toddlers, and preschoolers in various states of dismay and disarray. I admit I felt a bit smug being able to hold a conversation and a cup of hot cocoa effortlessly while my neighbor with 3-year-old twins hadn’t even had breakfast yet. Exasperated when one of them started pulling ornaments off our host’s Christmas tree she yelped, “I thought the terrible twos were bad. They were nothing compared to this!"

Yep, it turns out, the threes are far worse!.

Mighty Mommy has been there, done that 8 times over and I can honestly say that the age of 3 is the most daunting and exhausting of all - far worse than the terrible two stage we all fear so much.  Three-year olds are inherently curious and ready to explore and conquer the world on their terms. As overwhelming as this can be, it’s also a wonderful time as they blossom into amazingly independent little beings.

Mighty Mommy has 5 tips to help you embrace this challenging stage of toddlerhood:

Tip #1: Understand What Your Three-Year Old’s Job Is

In order to help maintain my sanity while raising 8 kids so close in age, I developed a mindset that at each age, each child had a specific job to do (other than pushing my buttons). Three-year-olds are explorers. 

They are constantly developing new skills, such as a better understanding of using language and engaging in conversations.  They start to recognize letters in books and their imaginative play begins to blossom.  Showcasing their independence is the name of their game, so stubbornness and tantrums are just a normal part of the package.  Knowing that your 3-year-old is going to be curious and adventurous can be part of the solution when trying to combat poor behavior.

See also: 6 Tips for Handling a Defiant Toddler


For instance, if you have a playdate scheduled at a friend’s house, don’t expect that your 3-year-old will sit quietly and color or play blocks while you and his friend’s mom peacefully chat over coffee. That's a pipe dream.

Instead, anticipate that he’s going to want to roam and investigate his new territory a bit before settling down to play. Rather than starting the playdate by forbidding him to move from the designated play area, take him around to check out a couple of spaces where it's OK for kids to play in. This gives the young explorer a little control over his new environment because you’re not limiting him to a table with a box of crayons. 

Tip #2: Choose Your Battles

Let's say you're out in public and your son is actively picking his nose. What's your first reaction? Probably to hiss, “Don’t pick your nose. That’s a yucky thing to do!" Or let's say your daughter chooses to wear wool tights with a pair of shorts to her grandmother's birthday party rather than the cute skirt you picked out for her. What do you do?  

Obviously you want your child to be as well-mannered, appropriate, and socially conscientious as possible, but not every moment is a teachable moment. If it’s something minor and safety isn’t a concern, let it go. Learn to pick and choose your battles. If you can ignore some of the minor stuff, you’ll eliminate a lot of your own stress. Obviously you can’t ignore bad behaviors and habits that are inappropriate, but try letting go of the small annoyances.

This method has an extra added bonus: When you stop bringing negative attention to these small matters, eventually they will work themselves out. Let's face it, the more you fight your daughter on wearing her cute pajamas to school, the more she’s going to want to do it.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.