Dealing with 3 year old tantrums every day is exhausting. Learn what’s normal for children, as well as what to do if tantrums start getting worse.
Apparently, it was “opposite day” for my 3 year old. When we went outside, he wanted to go inside (only to change his mind once I obliged). He wanted to go for a walk, but complained that he was tired, leaving me to carry him the rest of the way home.
And when we were finally indoors for good, he threw a fit because he wanted to leave the door open… never mind that all the while, I was trying to take his shoes and jacket off.
For many moms, some tantrums erupt over familiar reasons, like refusing to put on any clothes, because his lovey isn’t in bed, or it’s time to bathe.
Other times, the reasons seemed ludicrous: A cracker broke in half, so of course your 3 year old lost his marbles. He doesn’t want to wash his hands, but then gets mad when you do it for him. And you swear you did the worst thing ever when you told him that no, he actually can’t press all the buttons in the elevator.
And of course, no matter how much advance notice you give or play time you offer, he still has a complete meltdown when you tell him it’s time to sleep.
No wonder you’re going crazy dealing with epic tantrums, every day. It isn’t easy seeing your 3 year old throw himself on the floor, screaming and crying. And despite all your efforts, he still has numerous, intense tantrums every day.
How to respond when your 3 year old tantrums every day
I was one of those parents who Googled “how many tantrums are normal.” I felt like I was arguing with him all day, that every issue was a fight to the death. The daily tantrums were so frustrating, testing my patience like I’ve never seen.
I was especially mortified when friends visited us from out of town. Rather than spending time with them, I had to deal with my son’s epic tantrum. For an entire hour. Basically, almost the whole time my friends were here. (I still wonder if I scared them a bit about having kids!)
For many first-time moms, dealing with tantrums and learning about parenting is an ongoing process. We try a few techniques based on our kids’ temperaments, and see what usually works and what doesn’t. I used many of those moments to better communicate with my kids and improve myself as a parent.
And over the years, the tantrums grew less frequent and intense, even with three kids down the line. Below are the key lessons I learned that helped tremendously:
1. Don’t give in to irrational demands
After enough “opposite days,” I learned the impossibility of meeting my kids’ irrational demands. Especially when they’re in the middle of a meltdown.
You see, they can’t exactly make sense of anything logical when they’re in that state—imagine yourself in road rage and you know what I’m talking about.
Instead, hold your ground, in a kind and compassionate way. If he doesn’t want what you served for dinner, refuse to whip him up one of his favorite meals. If he makes unreasonable demands during bedtime, let him know he can walk himself to his room and go straight to bed.
The longer you relent and give him what he wants, the more he learns to flip-flop during tantrums. Instead, your word must be solid as a rock. No, it’s not easy or fun, but he does learn that he can’t keep changing his mind all the time.
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2. Don’t bite the bait
Do you find yourself mulling over everything your 3 year old fusses about? Do you engage in his antics, or continue to give it more attention than it needs?
More than likely, you can avoid the whole situation simply by refusing to bite the bait.
In other words, it’s okay to shrug it off and move on. Ask yourself if you really need to respond to the situation, or if you can treat it as “no biggie.”
He wants to use the blue sippy cup, not the red one? Oh well, I guess he has to learn to deal with drinking from the blue one. He insists on going to the bathroom yet again before bedtime? Go ahead, but that means he has to walk himself to his room.
Convey a sense that “you’ve got this,” and that you’re not willing to go down a rabbit hole that won’t go anywhere productive.
Because contrary to what it might feel like, not everything has to be a fight with him. And one of the best ways to avoid drawn-out tantrums is to shrug them off and avoid biting the bait.
3. Connect to calm down
Tempted as you might be to engage in your 3 year old’s antics… don’t. Instead, focus on helping him calm down, all by connecting with him.
Again, he’s in a state where he simply can’t process anything logical, but he’s certainly geared up for a fight. Calm him down by connecting with him using non-verbal communication. You might rock him side to side, change your facial express to one of understanding, or soothe him with simple words.
He’s clearly overwhelmed and agitated. What he truly needs is something as simple as a hug, a change in your posture—anything to communicate that you’re not here to fight. Calm him down out of his “red zone” and back into a more reasonable state.
The best part? You’re modeling for him—without using words—how to regulate his emotions. He’ll learn how to stay calm himself and manage his emotions, all in a healthy way.
4. Explain how you feel
A common communication technique when talking to others—even adults—is to state things from your perspective, rather than criticizing what the other person does.
This works with kids as well.
By explaining how you feel, you’re less likely to raise his defenses than if you were to point out mistakes he made. You’re also labeling emotions, showing him how to identify his own down the line. And you’re encouraging empathy by giving him a peek into how others feel, especially as a result of his behavior.
For instance, you could say, “I feel frustrated when I ask you to put your shoes on but I’m ignored.” Or you could even say, “I need to take a quick one-minute break right now because I feel mad.”
5. Find creative ways to prevent tantrums
We can prevent many of the tantrums we face simply by finding creative ways to avoid them. Let’s say your 3 year old throws a fit over getting dressed in the morning. As annoying as it is—especially over something that should be automatic by now—you can outmaneuver the tantrums in several ways.
For instance, you might let him sleep in the next day’s outfit so he’s already dressed when he wakes up. Maybe you play a game of “wear the hot clothes,” where you iron his clothes and he has to put them on quickly while it’s still hot.
You could hang a checklist of the clothes he needs to put on, so that upon completion, he gets to decide what to play before you leave the house. And you should make sure he’s getting enough sleep, either by letting him sleep in or moving bedtime earlier, so he’s less likely to be grumpy.
Depending on your child’s personality, find simple ways to prevent common tantrums from happening in the first place.
6. Praise positive behavior
Even if it seems like all your 3 year old does is throw tantrums, I promise that you can still find little pockets of appropriate behavior throughout the day. Don’t overlook these choices and gestures, no matter how small they seem. Instead, praise her for making good choices to encourage her to do more of them.
For instance, you might say, “Thank you for brushing your teeth! Now we can read books before bed.” Or “You were very gentle with the dog—that was great!” Or even “Look at you, drinking from your cup like a big girl!”
Don’t worry—you won’t have to praise her for every little thing over time. But these moments—when it feels like nothing she does is ever right—are the best opportunities to find the times she does.
Even as my son yelled because he wanted the door open, I knew better than to accommodate his requests. Instead, I sat on the floor a few feet away, giving him a look that said, “I’m sorry you’re feeling upset.” Within a few minutes, his yelling dwindled down to small whimpers and hiccups.
“Want to open the closet door instead?” I suggested. His face lit up and he ran to the closet to open and close it.
Dealing with 3 year old tantrums every day is no easy task, but certain techniques can curb them more effectively.
Avoid giving into irrational demands or biting the bait. Both will simply draw you further into the tantrum instead of using it as an opportunity for him to learn how to behave. Instead, focus on calming him down, not telling him what to do or not do.
Later, once you’re both calm, explain how you feel, and how his choices affect others and the circumstances around him.
Then, long before the tantrums even happen, find creative ways to prevent them in the first place. That could include praising his positive behavior, however small it may be, to encourage him to do more of the same.
As moms, we’re constantly learning how to respond to our children’s behavior, including tantrums. I’ve learned so much with each one, along with the mistakes I’ve made in the past. There’s no guarantee against future tantrums, but now you have concrete ways to handle them when they happen.
Get more tips:
- When Your 3 Year Old’s Behavior Is Out of Control
- 5 Unusual Ways to Deal with a Defiant 3 Year Old
- Consequences for Kids That Actually Work
- When Your Child Seems to Ruin Everyone’s Day
- 5 Things You Need to Do to Handle Your Threenager
Struggling with what exactly you should do when your child throws a tantrum? Join my newsletter and get my quick guide to help you figure out what to do when tantrums strike. Download it below—at no cost to you: