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

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Being a parent is undoubtedly the most wonderful, amazing, and also the most challenging thing I’ve ever experienced. And learning how to deal with a 3 year old?

It has honestly been an enormous challenge.


With each age, young children 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.

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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 about anything.


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 preoccupied 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.

We have 4 children and they have all gone through power struggles and fought fiercely for their independence. I have learned a few things along the way and 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. Drinking wine will help.

twin sisters starting preschool

For more specific help with three year old twins <— that post is for you.

Tips on How To Deal With Your Three-Year-Old

1.  Change What Isn’t Working

At the age of 3, you might want to stop being so consistent.

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

Sometimes we focus so much on consistency (because it’s the number one parenting rule, right?) that we don’t think about changing things when they aren’t working.

I am not implying to have zero consistency at all;  you should still have consistency with rules, but mix things up with how you go about enforcing the rules.

A child’s development at three is different than at two. For example, their ability to understand what you’re asking them to do is much higher than at two!

Unfortunately, they have also realized that they have free will.

They have opinions and oftentimes very strong opinions.

They are now aware that just because you tell them to do something a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s the only way that thing can be done. They realize that even though you are serving them chicken for dinner, there is an entire refrigerator and pantry full of more delicious food! Why the heck would they eat chicken for dinner when they know about CANDY and ICE CREAM and CAKE?!

But also, because their cognitive ability is higher at 3 than when they were 2, we have higher expectations for their behavior. And while they do have a higher level of understanding, their impulse control is still about the same as it was when they were 2.

With low impulse control, strong opinions, and the realization that they have free will, can come some bad behavior. It is appropriate behavior for a 3 year old, if that makes you feel any better!

2.  Have Reasonable Expectations for Your Three Year Old

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 the way that 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.

3. Understand Where They’re At

All children develop at different rates, but there are a lot of new skills that are learned in this age group.

One important skill that is learned at some point around the age of 3, is pretend play and the development of their imagination. At some point during your child’s 3rd year of life, they will enter a phase of spending so much time participating in role play.

An interesting thing to note is that when they are playing pretend, they get lost in the world they are playing in. If they are pretending to be on a farm, they actually believe and feel like they are on a farm.

4.  Give Reminders to Your Three Year Old

Give a reminder so that they know the consequence of their behavior.

This works really well with my fourth child, Beckham.

He really values his independence and doesn’t like to ride in a stroller or hold my hand. This is OK sometimes, such as when we’re on a walk in the woods.

However, when we’re crossing the road, walking through a parking lot, or in a crowded situation? He has to hold my hand. Or sit in a stroller.

So, I give him a reminder: if you don’t hold my hand, you are getting buckled into the stroller. It’s to keep you safe. I don’t want you to get hurt.

This *usually* works for him. I’m not sure if it’s because he understands what it means to get hurt, or he really doesn’t want to get in the stroller, or both.

5. Use Simple Language

At 3 years old, language skills are all over the place.

The best way to get them to listen is to simplify things. Give simple instructions and use words that you know they understand.

“Hold my hand or you will go in the stroller.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt.”

These things are both true, but the bigger factor is that I want him to obey me. I want him to learn how to respect and follow rules. I want him to learn how to be safe crossing the road.

But that means nothing to little kids.

6.  Acknowledge 3 Year Olds Feelings

Let’s use the same example, wanting to walk independently through a parking lot.

If there are temper tantrums about wanting to walk solo, my instinct is to blow it off. It’s not something to throw a fit about, the child is being disobedient, etc.

But the reality is, they are genuinely, truly upset! They might see their older siblings walking by themselves. Even though it is insignificant to us, it is not insignificant to them.

I might say something such as “You really want to walk by yourself right now. You are feeling mad that you can’t do that. When we get to the playground, you can walk by yourself. In the parking lot, you can hold mommy’s hand, or I will pick you up to keep you safe. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

I have learned that if I take a few extra minutes to acknowledge my 3 year old’s feelings and help them 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.

7.  Keep Your Word

If you cannot or will not physically enforce something, do not threaten it.

We have all done it. “If you don’t listen, you are not getting ice cream tonight!” A few hours later, the infraction doesn’t seem too bad, and ice cream for everyone.

If you are in the middle of something, such as changing a diaper, and you physically can’t follow through in the minute, don’t threaten something.

You can give simple instruction: “Please stop playing with the ice maker right now.” If they can hear you and ignore you, do NOT repeat yourself.

You don’t want your children to get used to hearing you say the same thing over and over with no action. 

When you are done with the diaper change, you can go over, kneel down so that you can make eye contact, 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.”

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

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

We have discussed impulse control a few times, or rather, the lack of impulse control that three year olds possess.

If young kids don’t have impulse control and physically cannot help themselves, it isn’t fair that we leave things out that are tempting to them, and then get mad and resort to physical punishment and time outs.

For the longest time, I would catch my oldest, Theo, ‘just cleaning the toilet just a little bit’ after going potty. 

I had clear expectations. Toilet brushes are dirty and not to be touched. 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 to a different bathroom.  That would solve the problem. 

Most children really do want to listen, so why do we make it so hard for them?

9.  Positive Reinforcement

All children need positive reinforcement and lots of praise, but it works especially well for older toddlers!

If your child’s behavior is really struggling, you might have a hard time finding things to praise them for. However, there are so many different ways that you can praise them!

As the primary caregiver, we oftentimes overlook good behavior because we just don’t notice it. If you play close attention, I’m sure you can find ways to give your little one praise!

You can also use a behavior chart (click below to download the one that we use and love!)

Download Chart

We also started a kindness jar this summer.  When Theo 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

10.  Offer Your 3-Year-Old Specific Choices

Give them one good choice and one choice that is less than desirable.  My husband and I do this 500 times a day. 

There are so many different things you can use this for.

Bedtime stalling: you can choose to play for 5 more minutes or be done playing right now and go to bed.

Whining for a cookie instead of goldfish: you can have goldfish or carrots.

Manipulative?  Possibly.  Effective for us? You betcha.

Before I pour my 3 year old’s 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.

11.  Explain the Why

“Because I’m the mom, that’s why!”

That doesn’t really work with this age group because of the deep

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

12.  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 a deep breath 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.

For more information on helping your child learn to calm down on their own, read this post!

13. Know That It’s Normal

Sometimes we need to know that we aren’t alone. That our children’s bad behavior is totally normal. So I am here to tell you that it is!

Your children will probably be angels with grandparents and other family members. There are different reasons for that, but the biggest reason is that you are their safe place. They feel free to have big emotions and fall apart around the person that they feel the safest with.

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 different things that were 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 challenging age?  What have you found that helped your family? 

And for those of you that are curious to look past the age of three and see what is in store for the upcoming year….

Just know that while 3 is the year of tyranny with a threenager, four is the year of big emotions with a fournado.

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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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