Six steps for thriving with your three-year-old

three-year-oldEveryone hears the phrase “the terrible twos.” The normal behaviors of a toddler between the ages of eighteen months and three years (give or take a few months,) include things such as saying “no, “ being defiant and having temper tantrums. At this age, a child is trying to find a separate self from mom and dad, and it can be challenging for both the child and the parent as the toddler starts to test his/her independence and autonomy. Parents having often heard the phrase “terrible twos,” wait for this time to end, thinking once my child is three they will be finished with this bad behavior.

Then they hit the “thrilling threes,” and another thing happens. What was once impulsive, defiant and negative behavior now becomes more manipulative.

The challenge of the thrilling threes is that children are able to talk a little bit more, and they are always calculating what they can and can’t get away with. They are continuing to develop a sense of self, and can sometimes be argumentative, jealous, fearful, stubborn, overactive, whiney, resistant to bedtime routine, daily chores and more


How things have changed from the terrible twos to the thrilling threes?

  • Parents need to be able to recognize that what was once simple defiance is now much more strategic and complex.
  • Children at this age have a broader world-view and a larger vocabulary.
  • They have created a database of how their parents and family behave.
  • They also have seen more frightening events, such as glimpses of world events on the television, possible domestic quarrels, scary animals and bullies on the playground.

three-year-old fight

Six steps to help parents and three-year-olds thrive

The most important things for parents to remember at this age, besides “this too shall pass,” are the following:


  • Children need a lot of reassurance and a safe environment to express fears and other conflicting emotions. It is helpful to get down to eye-level with your child and talk calmly while setting clear limits on behavior.
  • Parents need to remain aware of their own stress levels and the need for a time-out. Parents have to take good care of themselves so they can have the energy to manage the intensity of the thrilling three year old.
  • Children need to learn ways to communicate their feelings. Always reflect back to them what they appear to be feeling by saying things such as:  “It really makes you sad when Sally talks to you that way,” or “You get scared when the dog barks loudly.” This helps them find words for their feelings, as well as assures them that all feelings are okay, even the ones that might feel uncomfortable for them.
  • Pick your battles. Ignore annoying behavior. Not giving attention to the little irritating behaviors eventually leads to their demise.  Children thrive on attention and any attention from parents, even negative attention, in a child’s eyes is good news.
  • Stop behavior that is dangerous, destructive and rude. Calmly and quietly remove your child from the situation, saying “ Name the behavior here is not okay. When you are calm we will talk about what happened, but right now you need to take a time-out over here.”  When the child is calm ask why he/she was in time-out, and then ask what would be a better choice next time.  This helps children to learn more appropriate behaviors and think a bit more about what else they can do in conflicting situations.
  • Encourage appropriate behavior. Parents are often so busy trying to get through the hectic daily schedule, that they don’t pay attention when their child is behaving.  However, it is easy to see when misbehavior is happening, because it is causing a problem. Make an effort to catch your child being good, and say things like: “I really liked the way you picked up the toys the first time I asked today.  That really helped us all have a better dinnertime tonight,” or “Brushing your teeth before bed helps you have sparkling, healthy teeth and the dentist is going to be so happy to hear that you brushed tonight.”


The “thrilling threes” can last a while, so take good care of yourself and do the best you can to understand how children think and develop.  The most important thing that we can do for our children is to see them and love them exactly the way they are, developmental challenges and all.


That being said, children also need clear limits and boundaries.  Finding effective ways to parent today requires a tenacity and willingness to try new techniques, make mistakes, and always remember to BREATHE.


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