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How To Handle Your Three-Year-Old…Living With a Mini Tyrant

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Being a parent is without a doubt the most wonderful, amazing, and also the hardest, most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. 


With each age, they become more delightful and adorable, while also becoming harder to manage. 

They learn to walk and it’s so cute to watch them pitter-patter around… until they run away from you screaming like a wild banshee. 

They learn to talk, and hearing their little voice say “mama” is the best thing in the whole entire world. 

Then they learn the word no. And then they learn the word why, which right now I dread more than the word no.

Download Chart

Theo (my 3-year-old) and I have conversations that go like this:

Theo: “Mommy, why is that swing in a tree?”

Me: “Oh, that’s called a tree swing.  They hang in trees.”

Theo: “But why did they put it there?”

Me: “Well, they thought it would be fun to swing in a tree.”

Theo: “Why?”

Me: “I don’t know.”

Theo: “Why?”

Me: “Buddy, I’m sorry, I don’t know.  The neighbors just thought it would be fun.”

Theo: “Oh.  But why are they our neighbors?”

Me: “They live in the same neighborhood as we do, so they are called our neighbors.”

Theo: “But why do they live here?”

Me: “They liked the house in the neighborhood, so they moved here.”

Theo: “But why did they like it?”

Me: “I don’t know, honey.  They thought it was a nice house.”

Theo: “But why?”

Pinterest image of a three year old boy standing in front of a wall.*Post contains affiliate links.

Three-Year-Olds are Way Harder Than Two-Year-Olds

For some reason, there is this notion that two is the tough age. 

They call it the terrible two’s, but friends, let me tell you… if you’ve made it through the two’s relatively unscathed, don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. 

You might think you have a handle on this parenting thing and then have twins and then your darling two-year-old turns three and you realize you know nothing. 


It makes two look like cake! 

I know that things are different for every child, blah blah blah, but I have talked to so many other parents who say the same thing; why did they tell us two would be so bad?  Parenting a three-year-old is like parenting an (adorable) emotionally unstable mini-tyrant.

A two-year-old can easily be distracted when they want something unreasonable.  A three-year-old will pretend to be distracted with a snack, only to immediately demand whatever it was you were trying to distract them from as soon as they have finished eating. 

Pure.  Joy.

As we have struggled with our little man fighting fiercely for his independence, I have learned a few things along the way.  I’ve also read about 50 million parenting books that pretty much all contradict each other. 

I’m sharing today the things that worked for us.  As I always say, things work differently for each family, so what worked for me may not work for you.  It’s worth a try.  Also, wine.

Tips on How To Handle Your Three-Year-Old

1.  Don’t Be Consistent

This basically breaks every parenting rule I’ve ever read. 

I don’t mean have no consistency at all;  you should still have consistency when it comes to the rules, but change up how you enforce the rules. 

If Theo doesn’t listen, he goes to timeout.  Then he becomes used to timeout, so it loses its effectiveness.  So I switch things up, and instead of going to timeout, he loses a toy. Once he becomes all ‘whatever’ about losing a toy, I’ll choose a different method.

Read –> What to Expect with Three-Year-Old Twins

2.  Give Reminders

I always give a reminder, so he knows what the consequence is. 

Theo might decide he wants pancakes for dinner, and upon hearing that we are actually having chicken, will proceed to throw a fit. 

I will acknowledge his feelings (see number 3!) and then give him a reminder that if he continues throwing a fit, he will have to go to his room to calm down while I finish making dinner.

3.  Acknowledge Your Child’s Feelings

Let’s keep talking about pancakes for dinner. 

Theo may have had a dream about having pancakes during his nap or recalled a fond memory where we had pancakes for dinner as a family. 

Somehow, this idea got in his head, and he can’t let go of it.  While my instinct is to brush it off and get mad that he is throwing a fit, his feelings need to be validated. 

Also, let’s be real, I’d rather have pancakes for dinner, so I totally get why he’s upset.

I will say something like “Pancakes are so yummy, aren’t they?  I love having pancakes for dinner.  You’re really sad that you can’t have them.  I’m sorry you’re sad about that, but pancakes for dinner are a special treat and tonight we are having chicken.” 

Then I will offer to read a book to him to help him calm down and REMIND HIM that if he can’t calm down with my help, he will have to go to his room to calm down while I make dinner.

I have learned that if I take a few extra minutes to acknowledge his feelings and help him calm down, it actually saves me time.  It helps us avoid a potential hour-long tantrum.  This is a method that I learned in a teacher training a long time ago and also read about in this book.

4.  Keep Your Word

If my hands are full and I can’t actually reinforce my consequence immediately, I don’t give it.  This is so important, and Theo is figuring out that I mean what I say. 

If I am in the middle of changing one of his sister’s diapers and he starts getting into something he shouldn’t, I will tell him to stop. 

If he doesn’t listen, I will NOT repeat myself.  I don’t want my children to get used to hearing me say the same thing over and over with no action. 

When I am done with the diaper change, I will go over to him, get at eye level, and say “I told you to stop doing that and you didn’t listen.  I need you to listen to me and stop right now.  If you don’t listen, you won’t get a sticker on your sticker chart for listening.

5.  Have Reasonable Expectations for Your Child

A three-year-old is not going to listen 100% of the time.  It’s just not going to happen. 

They don’t have impulse control like an adult does, so even if they KNOW they’re not supposed to do something, sometimes they just can’t help themselves. 

That doesn’t mean that when they don’t listen, we say “Oh, it’s OK, you don’t have impulse control so you can’t help it.”  Not at all. 

We use those moments to teach and correct.  It is our job as parents to teach them how to listen.  It doesn’t happen magically overnight and children desperately need us to teach them this skill.

Pinterest image of a three year old boy walking down a sidewalk next to the ocean.

6.  Remove the Temptations From Your Three-Year-Old

Just last week, Theo asked if we could blow bubbles.  It was raining outside, there is carpet in our playroom, and he doesn’t have the control to not make a huge mess. 

Everything pointed to no, but I offered the choice that I could blow the bubbles and the kids could pop them.  When we were done, I took the bubble wand into the kitchen to rinse it but left the bottle of bubbles in the playroom. 

By the time I got back in there, he had taken the cap off and tried to pour bubbles into the cap… resulting in the bubble liquid…everywhere.  I literally just stared at the situation in anger… mostly at myself. 

I know he doesn’t have impulse control and likes to do the bubbles himself, yet I left the container of bubbles in his reach while I left the room.

If your child has something that they can’t keep out of, remove the temptation until they are old enough to be around it.  For the longest time, I would catch Theo ‘just cleaning the toilet just a little bit’ after going potty. 

I told him at least 37 thousand times not to touch the toilet brush, but he still would do it.  One day I absolutely lost my cool and shouted, “How many times do I have to tell you not to touch that?!?!” 

As soon as the words came burning out of my mouth, I realized I just needed to move the toilet brush out of the bathroom.  That would solve the problem.  Most children really do want to listen, so why do we make it so hard for them?

7.  Focus on Your Three-Year-Old’s Good Behavior

I personally believe that 3-year-olds need lots of praise. 

We have a behavior chart that we use (you can download it, for free!!) and Theo loves putting stickers on it and earning rewards.  If Theo gets out of his chair during mealtime I will remind him that he needs to stay in his chair to earn a sticker. 

If he meets his goal for stickers for the day, then he gets to choose an extra book to read at bedtime.  I don’t particularly love giving him the option to procrastinate his bedtime, but I wanted something we could do at the end of the day.

Download Chart

We also started a kindness jar this summer.  When he does something kind he can put a colored pompom into the jar. 

So far he has been happy with just praise and putting a pompom into the jar (it’s been 5 days).  Once that wears off I will probably introduce some sort of experience as an award for filling up the jar.

Read –> How to Teach Your Child Kindness

8.  Offer Your 3-Year-Old Specific Choices

Give them one good choice and one bad choice.  My husband and I do this 500 times a day.  Theo doesn’t want to finish his dinner, so he can choose to have 1 bite of everything or 14 bites of everything. 

I’m not kidding.  When I give him a 5-minute warning until bedtime and he hollers that he does not want to go to bed, my reply is “Do you want to play for 5 more minutes or zero minutes?”  He then chooses 5, because obviously, it’s the best choice. 

Manipulative?  Possibly.  Effective for us? You betcha.

Before I pour his milk in the morning, I ask him what color cup he wants from the cupboard. I am specific: “This morning you can choose red or blue. Which would you like?”

Even though he chooses the same color every morning, he loves being able to make that decision on his own.  If his favorite cup is dirty, I won’t wash it for him, but I will explain that he can choose it again when it’s clean.

9.  Explain the Why

Although I would love to tell Theo “because I’m the mom, that’s why!” (and sometimes I do!), at this age he has a huge desire to know everything. 

I want him to trust me and know that I am setting rules to keep him safe.  I do tell him that mommy and daddy are the bosses and that the rules we set are to protect him. 

A few days ago he broke a glass candle that we have told him multiple times not to touch.  I used it as a learning experience to remind him that the rules are there to keep him from getting hurt… and also a reminder to me to remove the temptation.

Read –> How to Handle Your Emotional Four-Year-Old

10.  Teach Your Child the Skills to Calm Down

I have talked about the book Calm-Down Time in previous posts.  We went through a point where every time Theo was having a tantrum, we would read the book together and talk him through how to calm himself down. 

We then got to the point where he could sit and read the book and calm down on his own.  He learned to take deep breaths to calm down, and now I have him blow on my hand.  When he starts screaming about something I will hold up my hand and he will blow on it and immediately calm down (most of the time). 

My next step is to teach him to blow on his own hand.

Resources To Help You Handle Your 3-Year Old

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind

Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy

1-2-3 Magic: 3-Step Discipline for Calm, Effective, and Happy Parenting

Parenting the Strong-Willed Child: The Clinically Proven Five-Week Program for Parents of Two- to Six-Year-Olds, Third Edition (Family & Relationships)

I found bits and pieces of helpful information in all of these books.  Different techniques work for different parenting styles, and I am just sharing what worked for us.  I got the MOST useful information out of the top two books.  They are more serious reads but absolutely worth it.

Phew!  I don’t think I left anything out!  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Do you agree that three is the most difficult age?  What have you found that helped your family?  For those of you who have survived, please don’t tell me that four is worse…

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Jamie Salas

Thursday 1st of June 2017

I remember when my son was 3 and he was a total tyrant! One of the things that helped most was giving him specific choices - instead of what game do you want to play, I'd pick 2 and let him pick. Now that my daughter is 16 months and already acting like a tyrant I am glad to have read this post for the tips, especially validating their feelings. This can be hard sometimes when they're flipping out but is so important. Thanks for sharing!

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