Disciplining a three-year-old can be a challenge. Discover 5 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 test boundaries like their “terrible twos” counterparts, but with attitude and stubbornness. They might disrespect others, or have an opinionated way of sharing how they feel. I’m sure they’d roll their eyes if they could, just like a 13-year-old would.
How to handle a threenager
Dealing with the developmental milestones of a threenager can be more shocking if you didn’t see much of the terrible twos. You thought you were safe when your little angel skipped the tantrums everyone talked about. That is, until the threenager stage screams at you when you least expected it.
For a while there, I thought my twins weren’t the “tantrum-y” type. Whereas I was dealing with weekly tantrums from their older brother, these guys seemed to coast right along. Then, in a blink of an eye, they turned three, and I wondered if they’d 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:
1. 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 his growing independence and sense of control. He may even be so surprised at your willingness to let him try that he’ll go above and beyond to do his best. He needs to know you trust him with tasks like picking a pair of pants or carrying his own plate of carrot sticks.
Rather than feeling stifled, he’ll appreciate the room to explore, especially with the autonomy to do things on his own. With the signs of independence come the need to step back and allow them to happen. As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:
“We do too much, whether it’s chores, directing play time or managing every minute of their day. Kids don’t have a chance to find who they are or what they’re capable of.
They can’t face or cope with the inevitable difficulties life will throw at them. After all, we’d buffered and saved them as much as we can. So much so that they grow up still depending on us for things they should be able to do.”
This can be especially tough when he takes forever to button his jacket or drops his sandwich all over the floor. Still, this is when you need to have patience and reassure yourself that mistakes and messes are all part of the learning process.
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2. Label your child’s emotions
At three-years-old, your child wonders whether he’s the only one who feels jealous of his siblings or angry at his parents. He’s unsettled when he feels his heart beating fast or tightening in sadness.
Labeling big emotions defines these feelings. 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 I know that—that’s called [fill in the ailment].” It’s reassuring.
Now that your child is more verbal, talking about emotions is even easier. Describe how he looks angry, or that he might be feeling disappointed. Take advantage of his growing vocabulary to include emotions in your everyday language.
And let him know how his words and actions affect you and those around him. Explain how his words had been hurtful, or how we need to respect one another. He’s still egocentric in the way kids are—describing others’ emotions is one big way to teach empathy.
Read why you need to talk about emotions.
3. Accept all your child’s emotions
Your threenager will go through many ups and downs. Now’s not the time to withhold your affection because she was being sassy at the grocery store or reprimand her for mistakes (we all make mistakes).
She needs to know you love her, even when her behavior is out of control.
Instead of taking things personally, guide and comfort her through the madness. As difficult as it is to stomach her antics, her emotions are harder for her than they are for you. These challenging times are when she needs you the most.
This doesn’t mean gushing over her defiance, or allowing her to keep jumping on the couch or throwing a toy at you. But it does mean being compassionate, not saying anything hurtful back, or making it seem like you’ll only spend time with her when she’s happy.
4. 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 with a threenager. It’s tempting to respond with something sarcastic, but speak with respect. Curb her bad attitude by doing the same yourself.
She’s learning to manage her new skills in communication and impulse control. The more she sees good examples to model after, the more she’ll be able to follow suit.
When she starts hitting and getting angry, give yourself a pep talk. “Okay, it’s game time! Let’s try something new. She needs me to be patient right now, not angry.”
Learn why you should model the behavior you want to see.
5. Show empathy
Rather than disciplining or even reasoning with your child, simply show empathy with what she’s feeling.
Let’s say she’s angry because she wants her favorite cup that happens to be in the dishwasher. Say, “I can see you’re upset that you don’t have your cup. I’d be pretty mad, too.” Show that you understand her feelings. Often, when kids are angry, they want people to acknowledge how they feel.
Then, don’t downplay what they’re upset about and say, “It’s just a cup” or “Get another one right here.” She needs you to know the depth of her frustration (even if it’s just over a silly cup!).
Show her that you’re on her side, not against her. That you’re on her team, can understand why she’s mad, and that you’ll help her get through it.
6. Remember, your child is 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 self-control and still need us to be patient as they develop into their own person.
At one point, one of my twins had been so calm and composed, only to spend 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 ignore the timer we set, or yell and slam the door. They’re three, not thirteen, still grappling with their emotions and growing independence.
Get your guide to handling tantrums.
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, you 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). 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 is to model it yourself. This means no back talking, saying hurtful words, or disrespecting her.
And finally, remember that she isn’t a spoiled 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 mama just as she always has, even if she yells, “I’m not your friend!”
Get more tips:
- How to Stop Preschool Behavior Problems
- How to Respond When Your 3 Year Old Tantrums Every Day
- What to Do When Your 3 Year Old Won’t Stay in Bed
- 9 Warning Signs You’re Raising a Spoiled Child
- Parenting Your Strong Willed Child
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and get 5 Tips to Raising a Strong-Willed Child at no cost to you:
My daughter is 3.5 yo and this past 2 weeks she got angry easily everytime She didnt get what she wants. She bite, hit and even kicked me hard (I tried so hard not to hurt her back). I need your advice pls. Is this just her phase or she need attention from me? I’m a single mom and I’m working too. Thankyou.
Nina Garcia says
That is definitely a challenge, Ellora! And yes, it can be so tempting to lash right back (I know I’ve said things I’ve regretted or raised my voice), so that’s great you were able to focus your energy on not retaliating. I do think it’s a stage, meaning your child isn’t inherently going to do this for the rest of her life. But I do agree that changing how we interact with our kids can make a huge difference.
First, I’d start every interaction with a different mindset. I don’t know about you, but when my kids act up like that, it can take all of me to not get angry right back. So when your daughter starts hitting and getting angry, tell yourself, “Okay, it’s game time! Let’s try something new. She needs me to be patient right now, not angry.”
Then, rather than disciplining or even reasoning with her, just empathize with what she’s feeling. So, let’s say she’s angry because she wants her favorite cup that happens to be in the dishwasher. You can say, “I can see you’re upset that you don’t have your favorite cup. I’d be pretty mad too if I were you.” You want to show that you understand her feelings. Often, when kids are angry, they just want people to acknowledge what they feel.
Then, don’t downplay what they’re upset about. Don’t say, “It’s just a cup” or “Get another one right here.” She needs you to know the depth of her frustration (even if it’s just over a silly cup!). Basically, show her that you’re on her side, not against her. That you’re on her team and can understand why she’s mad, and that you’ll help her get through it.
And finally, if you feel she needs attention, one of the best ways to do that is to simply focus on her 100% even for just a few minutes of your day, ideally right when you see her. So when you pick her up, be genuinely glad to see her with a big smile on your face. When you get home, don’t do anything just yet other than sit with her, even for five minutes, to give her your full attention. When we “fill them up” with our attention, they’re more likely to play happily even on their own, and less likely to resort to antics to get our attention.
Definitely check out a few more articles on the blog where I talk more about helping kids cope with anger, and with hitting as well. Here’s one about anger, and this one is about hitting.
And lastly, I just want to reassure you that you’re doing a fantastic job, mama! Often, we blame ourselves so much for our kids’ stages. And while we do have an impact on how they behave, we also shouldn’t burden ourselves with so much and think it’s all our fault. You’re doing a great job just even searching for solutions. Keep us posted!