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

Tip #3: Distract and Re-Engage

When your spirited 3-year-old decides he’d rather grab fistfuls of Grandma’s gravel driveway to throw in the air than throw the ball around, take advantage of this opportunity. Instead of flying off the handle and yelling at him, use a controlled voice to let him know that the rocks need to stay in the driveway so the cars will have a place to park.  

See also: 5 Ways to Connect With Your Preschooler


Because you’re talking to him in a calm voice, he’ll be more apt to listen to you when you suggest that he and Grandma go check out her garden to see if any frogs are hiding in the flowers.  By distracting and re-engaging him you are avoiding a power-struggle over his desire to play with those awesome rocks that are just calling his name.  

Tip #4: Offer Choices With Boundaries

Three-year olds are busy little bees. They can bounce from one activity to another depending on what kind of a mood they're in. But since this is the age when many kids start preschool, they have to cope with a lot more demands and limitations that are being put on their behavior. They have to learn to sit quietly during circle time, share toys, turn-taking during group activities, among other skills. All this in addition to the new rules likely being set at home, such as helping to clean up their toys before bedtime. 

It’s tough being told what to do all the time. You wouldn't like it one bit! That's why it's a good idea to start finding ways to offer your 3-year-old choices that lie within the boundaries you want to set, but give the child a sense of control. 

See also: 7 Simple Ways to Get Your Child to Listen


For example, if you have a child who dawdles in the morning, causing you to be late, enlist his help the night before in picking out the shirt he will wear the next morning. Give him a few options and let him choose. In the morning, remind him of how proud you are that he’s helping. Add a little gravy to the praise by letting him have a few minutes of TV time while you get yourself dressed to reinforce and praise the behavior.  

And speaking of praise...

Tip #5:  Praise the Positive

One common factor that most kids share is that they love getting attention from their parents and caregivers. They truly do want to please. But if they can’t get our attention from doing positive things, then they’ll happily do things that cause us to reprimand them—after all, attention is attention, no matter what form it takes. 

In order to minimize negative attention-seeking behaviors, focus on what your child is doing right and heap praise then, in the moment. By making this a conscious habit when your child is 3, you’re laying a great foundation of self-esteem and encouraging her to continue making good choices as she grows. 

“Maggie, that was really sweet of you to help Abby pick up her crayons when they spilled all over the floor. And then to share your red crayon with her because hers was broken. Nice job!”

See also: 5 Ways to Speak Positively to Children and  10 Fresh Parenting Resolutions for the New Year


How have you embraced your 3-year-old's independent ways?   Share your thoughts in the Comments section at quickanddirtytips.com/mightymommy, post your ideas on the Mighty Mommy Facebook page. or email me at mommy@quickanddirtytips.com. Also visit my family-friendly boards at Pinterest.com/MightyMommyQDT.

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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

Cheryl L. Butler 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. Call the Mighty Mommy listener line at 401-284-7575 to ask a parenting question. Your call could be featured on the show!