Disciplining a three-year-old can be a challenge. Here are 5 effective ways to handle a threenager, no matter how strong-willed your child may be.
“No more jumping,” I told my three-year-old. “It’s too loud for the neighbors. Walk to the bathroom instead, please.”
His reply? “You’re not my friend! I’m not talking to you!”
Welcome to the threenager stage: three-year-olds with the sass of a teenager.
Three-year-olds are just as curious and test their boundaries like their “terrible twos” counterparts, but this time, they do it with attitude and stubbornness. I’m sure they’d roll their eyes if they could, just like a 13-year-old would.
How to handle a threenager
Learning to handle a threenager can be more shocking if you didn’t see much of the terrible twos. You thought you were safe when your child skipped the tantrums everyone talked about. That is, until the threenager stage hit you when you least expect it.
For a while there, I thought my twins just weren’t the “tantrum-y” type. Whereas I was dealing with weekly tantrums from their older brother at two-years-old, these guys seemed to coast right along. Then they turned three, and I wondered if they’d just been saving it all up for now.
Thankfully, I dug around for ways to handle a threenager, many of them rooted in positive parenting and the understanding that this is all normal. Below are a few of the tips I learned and recommend:
Give your child independence
This is the age where preschoolers are shedding their baby-ness and want to be like the big kids. They’re aware of the difference between babies and toddlers on one side, and the preschoolers and bigger kids on the other.
Rather than holding your child back, encourage her growing independence. She may even be so surprised at your willingness to let her try that she’ll go above and beyond to do her best. She needs to know you trust her with tasks like putting on her shoes or climbing the playground on her own.
Rather than feeling stifled, your three-year-old will appreciate the room to explore. Give her autonomy to do things on her own without hovering. With a threenager’s independence comes the need to step back and allow it to happen.
This can be especially tough when she takes forever to put on her shoes or spills the basket of blueberries all over the floor. Still, this is when you need to draw patience and reassure yourself that mistakes and messes are all part of the learning process.
Label her emotions now that she’s more verbal
At three-years-old, she wonders whether she’s the only one who feels jealous or angry. She’s unsettled when she feels her heart beating fast or tightening in sadness.
Labeling emotions defines the feelings your child has. Calling these feelings by name makes them normal—something we all experience. It’s the same as coming down with a new ailment you haven’t had, and someone says, “Oh yeah, I know that—that’s called [fill in the ailment].” It’s reassuring.
Now that your three-year-old is more verbal, it’s even easier to talk about her emotions. Talk about how she looks angry, or that she might be feeling disappointed. Take advantage of her growing vocabulary to include emotions in your everyday language.
And let her know how her words and actions affect you and those around her. Describe how her words had been hurtful, or how we need to respect one another. She’s still egocentric in the way kids are, so it’s important to describe how others feel.
Accept all her emotions.
Your threenager will go through many ups and downs. Now’s not the time to withhold your affection because she was being sassy or feeling frustrated, or to reprimand her for making mistakes (remember, we all do that).
She needs to know you love her, even when she’s at her worst behavior or giving you the meanest attitude.
Instead of taking things personally, guide her through all the madness. As difficult as it is to stomach her antics, her emotions are harder for her than they are for you. It’s actually during these challenging times that your threenager needs you the most.
This doesn’t mean gushing over her bad behavior, or allowing her to keep speaking to you rudely. But it does mean offering a hug to make her feel better, not saying anything just as hurtful back, or making it seem like you’ll only spend time with her when she’s happy.
Model the behavior you want to see
Your child will mimic your behavior more so than any discussion you may have with her. You can discipline all day, but none of that will matter if your own behavior doesn’t follow the values you teach.
This is hard, especially when you have to handle a threenager. It’s tempting to respond with something sarcastic, but speak with respect. Curb her bad attitude by doing so yourself.
She’s learning to manage her own communication skills. The more she sees good examples to model after, the more she’ll be able to follow suit.
Remember, she’s not a teenager
We laugh about our little threenagers who think they’re a decade older than they are. It’s tempting to compare them to teenagers—except they’re not. Far from it.
They’re still the little kids who need help managing social interactions. The ones who struggle with meltdowns and outbursts. They still need us to be patient through all their antics.
One of my three-year-old twins surprised me the other day. Whereas he had been so calm and composed, he then spent the next few minutes yelling at me. Not in the typical “I’m throwing a tantrum” yelling. More like the, “Go away, I don’t want to see you” kind.
It’s tough to be patient and much easier to lose our cool. But it’s during these times—the hardest times—our kids need us the most. Yes, even when they jump after we just told them not to, or yell “You’re not my friend!”
They’re three, not thirteen, still grappling with their emotions and growing independence.
Learning to handle a threenager is no easy task. While you may have thought you escaped the terrible twos, you instead have a three-year-old as stubborn as a teen. Thankfully, parents can do plenty to turn things around.
Give your child the independence she craves now that she’s leaving toddlerhood behind. Label her emotions so she can use words to share what she feels (and to know she’s not alone in feeling them). And accept her emotions, no matter how frustrating or difficult they may be for either of you.
The best way to teach the behavior you want to see in your child is to model it yourself. This means no back talking, saying hurtful words or disrespecting her.
And finally, remember that your child isn’t a teenager—as tempting as it is to pin her as a sassy teen, she’s not. She’s still a three-year-old who needs her mom just as she always has, even if she yells, “I’m not your friend!”
You can also read this adorable book, The Importance of Being Three by Lindsay Ward, a favorite of ours. The book shares the joys and struggles of being three that your little one can relate to:
Get more tips about your three-year-old:
- Why You Need to Follow Through with Consequences (and How to Actually Do It)
- Warning: 5 Things You Tell Your Kids but Probably Shouldn’t
- “Help! I Can’t Stop Yelling at My Child.”
- 9 Warning Signs You’re Raising a Spoiled Child
- Parenting Your Strong Willed Child
Tell me in the comments: How are you struggling with your threenager? What is your best tip to handle a threenager?
Get 20 quick parenting tips
Want a simple way to turn the parenting tips you read into action you'll actually do? Get exclusive tips and an instant FREE download of the bonus chapter, 20 Actionable Items You Can Do!