How to Survive Age Three

Soon after a child turns three, caregivers come up against controlling and resistant behaviors. Rather than getting lost in endless power struggles and conflict, try Project Parenthood's effective tools to get through this challenging developmental period with your sanity intact. 

Nanika Coor, Psy. D.
6-minute read
Episode #637
The Quick And Dirty

Tips for surviving age three: 

  1. Reduce demands, allowing your child to lead and make choices where possible and appropriate. 
  2. Instead of punishment, set firm limits and validate big feelings. 
  3. Seek to meet needs rather than stop behaviors. 

Three-year-olds are coming into their sense of self and beginning to feel proud and excited about their increasing abilities. Children at this age have some developing self-control and are noticing more how others might be feeling. Motor movements are becoming smoother and faster and there is much excitement about doing things together with caregivers and being a "helper."

Louise Bates Ames, who wrote and collaborated on a series of books on child development from birth to age 14, describes the half year before a child’s fourth birthday as being a time of disequilibrium and turbulence, where they are more at odds with themselves and their environment - more clumsy, emotional, confused, and temperamental than they are during the prior six months. Tasks that were easily accomplished just weeks ago the child suddenly has difficulty completing.

Parents require a lot from a 3.5-year-old throughout the day, which means ample opportunities for outright refusal to comply. Your first tool for reducing meltdowns and behavior issues is to reduce the amount of requests and requirements to the bare minimum - let the child lead whenever it’s possible and appropriate and try not to let yourself be drawn into power struggles.

Your three-year-old in a nutshell

A child of 3.5 is more irritable, insecure, and dealing with built-up tension that might lead to self-soothing behaviors like finger sucking or feeling extremely attached to a lovey. Dressing, eating, and bedtime can become a battle of wills, and some parents meet their child’s staunch resistance with a lot of resistance of their own. Imaginative and pretend play are becoming exciting for 3.5-year-olds, but they can switch from playing to being controlling to weeping in bitter disappointment all in the same minute. This can be exhausting for caregivers.

Not every 3-year-old is the same, and yours may be very different from these descriptions - it’s important to understand your unique child. But those parents for whom these descriptors ring true - often just knowing that these behaviors are a normal part of developmental growth that will eventually pass can give parents some relief and help them be creative in managing the challenges of this stage.

Struggling child, frustrated parent

Recently, I got a request from the parent of a 3.5-year-old struggling with behavior challenges. The parent writes:

"My 3.5-year-old constantly fights me on simple requests, won't listen to me, and then acts up. I’m wondering if I should be taking away a privilege at these times to start to teach him consequences. For example, at a playdate last week, he and his friend were happily playing, when my son started riding around on a communal tricycle that belongs to the playground. After riding around a bit he got off, and his friend quickly hopped on it and rode off.  When my son became upset, I said: 'Tim is using the tricycle now. When he’s done you can have another turn.' All of a sudden my son ran toward the gate to the playground - which was open - then he ran out of the playground and down the block yelling and wouldn’t listen when I yelled after him to stop. At home, I sat him down and explained that he’s not allowed to run away from me like that and all the reasons why it could be dangerous - but he continued to act up. I was tempted to take away his TV privileges for the evening, but I wondered if that was the right thing to do. How could I have handled this situation differently?"

My 3.5-year-old constantly fights me on simple requests, won't listen to me and then acts up. I’m wondering if I should be taking away privileges to teach him consequences.

Here’s my answer: 

When parents use the term "not listening" they usually mean "not responding" or "not obeying." He's listening, he’s just not interested in doing what you you’ve requested. So the question is why doesn't he want to do it? Is he in fight-or-flight survival mode? Does he feel unheard?  If so, punishing upset makes for more upset and doesn’t address the source of the problem. Punishment can look like taking things away, lecturing, inflicting physical pain, time-outs, shaming, and any other adult-imposed consequence. All of these can be damaging to your relationship and to your child’s sense of self-worth.

If a child is upset about waiting for their turn, you can compassionately empathize with and validade your child’s upset for as long as they need to express it. (This could sound like: "Ugh. You wanted to ride the bike and now it's Tim's turn. You don’t like that at all - I hear you. Sometimes it's really hard to wait.") If they're open to it, you can help them decide what they'd like to do while they're waiting for their turn. Offer several options and let them choose. When your child is done getting out their big feelings, just let it go, and go back to whatever everyone was doing beforehand.

The rule: "It's not okay to run in the street" is a great rule - but not one a toddler is going to be able to reliably follow, and certainly not when they're in a fight-or-flight state. It's never a 3-year-old's job to keep themselves safe on a street by remembering the rules - it's the job of his adults to keep him safe. So, as you’re headed to the playground you might say to yourself: "My kid is a runner, and gets pretty dysregulated around toy sharing, so when sharing comes up I'll need to stay close and be ready to hold space for big feelings if he melts down and head him off at the pass if he tries to run."

Challenging behaviors happen downstream - once they're happening, it's too late to do anything about them. You can only keep everyone safe and wait for it to be over. So take your mind upstream for troubleshooting - that's where your power is.

And if a child is still in fight-or-flight mode when you get home, they will not be able to have rational discussions about rules. So if you want to discuss something and make a new plan of action for the future with a child, it's best to do that when you're both in a really connected and calm state and the thing you want to talk about is not happening in the present moment (and maybe happened several hours to a day or more ago).

If your child is "acting up" there's a reason for it. He could need more connection, more validation, firmer boundaries, more autonomy, or just for you to hold space for big feelings. It’s most important to remember that all of your child’s behaviors are in the service of getting his needs met, and an outward manifestation of his present physiological state.  When you’re able to help him get calm by getting calm yourself, and meet his needs in the moment, he no longer needs to use the challenging behaviors.

Punishment is more about a parent meeting their own needs for control, obedience, and unfortunately sometimes it might be about a parent’s need for the child to suffer for their mistakes.

Punishment is not the answer

Punishment meets exactly zero child needs - a child never has a "need" for punishment. Punishment is more about a parent meeting their own needs for control, obedience, or being heard, and unfortunately sometimes it might even be about a parent’s need for the child to suffer for their mistakes. But the more kids are made to suffer for their mistakes, the more they will fear making them and the more they’ll want to hide them from you by sneaking or lying. Your child will make more and more sophisticated mistakes as they get older, and they’ll need your help with some of them. It won’t feel safe to tell you the truth or use you as a resource - even if they really need you - if they ultimately fear you, your judgements, or your punishments.

Reducing unnecessary demands, giving opportunities for control, accepting big feelings while holding firm limits, proactively setting you and your child up for success, and troubleshooting during times of connection are some helpful tools for surviving your child’s third year.

Thanks so much for listening!

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

Nanika Coor, Psy. D.

Dr. Nanika Coor is a New York-based clinical psychologist and respectful parenting therapist. She helps overwhelmed parents hear a kinder inner voice and experience more mutually-respectful interactions with their children. Find out more about her work at www.brooklynparenttherapy.com.

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Coor to answer on Project Parenthood? Leave her a message at (646) 926-3243 or send an email to parenthood@quickanddirtytips.com