My Three-Year-Old is Acting Like a Teen!!

(June 22, 2021)

Typical Three-Year-Old Behaviors and How to Adjust to Your Threenager.

We are all familiar with the “terrible twos” concept; the tantrums and struggles a 2-year-old may present can be challenging for sure. You are a brave, strong parent when you realize you and your family have survived the terrible twos. There is a sigh of relief to have graduated from that stage of parenting and are ready to welcome your 3-year-old, until…you realize your 3-year-old is just as or more challenging than your 2-year-old. What went wrong!? Your 3-year-old is challenging you with the word no and refusing to do what you ask. It’s no longer about picking your sobbing two-year-old off the department store floor and carrying them to the car, now you are having a verbal spat of wills with your 3-year-old!!!  How did this happen? Is it normal?

Rest assured my fellow weary parent, the 3-year-old you are ready to trade in for that cute 2-year-old from a year ago is doing just fine! This developmental stage can be frustrating and require some clever parenting, but it is typical for a 3-year-old to test the very core of your parenting strength. Welcome to parenting a threenager!

Children this age yearn for control.

As your three-year-old, or threenager, develops, they are learning more about their sense of self. Developmentally, a child this age is learning how to put words to their emotions and understand better a separate sense of self from others. A three-year old’s vocabulary is growing, and they may be testing limits at home. As they learn about their strong emotions and have more words to use to express themselves, it is natural for children to test the limits and act out with tantrums if something happens they cannot control or do not like. They may have the words to express themselves but developmentally, they cannot express themselves fast enough when upset. The act of being frustrated can be overwhelming, resulting in throwing or hitting.  This happens; it’s OK!

You might also notice that it seems like your young child enjoys tall tales or appears to be lying. At this age, children are not lying out of malicious intent. Their discernment between fantasy and reality is a little blurry, after all they do spend much of their time in pretend play at this age. A three-year-old does not understand that saying something that isn’t true is wrong.

They may seem extra whiny or bossy somedays. This is all part of natural development as they search to understand themselves in the larger world. It is important to pick your battles and allow times when your child can exercise some control and also set healthy limits. This helps your child grow and gives you an opportunity to take a deep breath and help your child learn along the way.

Some helpful tips to survive this time in parenting include the following: 

  • Adjust your expectations as a parent: Your three-year-old may be acting more mature, but they do not have the emotional ability to handle frustration even though they are demanding more independence. Remember, your threenager is actually three. Tantrums develop out of your child’s inability to handle the frustrations that come with testing limits. Use distraction to respond to tantrums. Remain calm and tell your child it is time to do something else, like take a walk or read a book.
  • Be Consistent: Set limits and enforce them. The more you stay consistent as a parent with things such as mealtimes, bedtimes and morning routines, the calmer the child as they know what to expect.
  • Give your child notice: Ease into transitions. It is normal for children to get engrossed in play and not want to stop. Give your child plenty of warnings when it is close to time to leave the house or a playdate.
  • Give your child a voice: Help your child understand the emotions behind their behaviors. For example, when your child throws things or whines incessantly, say something like, “you seem very frustrated, let’s try something else instead.” Giving voice to a feeling helps your child learn words to use to express themselves. They may act like a little adult, but three-year-old’s have a lot of growing and learning to do. You are their best resource. 
  • Pick your battles: As your child grows and wants some independence, it is good to give it to them. Let them know they are being heard and understood. If your child insists one parent provide them their sandwich and that parent is handy, allow that to happen. If your child is ordering something you cannot give into, like a second milkshake, simply explain that one is enough and move on. It might be tempting to have the last word if your three-year-old keeps upping the ante with smarty pants remarks. Move on and don’t engage. It’s not healthy for you or your child. 

Learn when to let it go and move on. You will find yourself actually feeling a bit more relaxed.

If, after trying some of the above techniques, your child continues to have angry outbursts that seem constant and too overwhelming to parent, lacks the ability to socialize with peers, or struggles with day-to-day routine after several weeks of you consistently setting limits, it might be time to get some support. Parents need all the resources they can get. We are happy to work with you and your young child to learn parenting and child development skills. Please call us at 217-203-2008, or email if you feel it is time to get extra assistance.