terrible 3s
Toddler Toddler Development Toddler Discipline

10 Proven Techniques To Handle The Terrible 3s

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You’ve heard of 18-month tantrums and terrible 2’s but if you’ve got a 3-year-old and they are destructive, disobedient and everything seems to be in disarray, then you may be experiencing the terrible 3s!

Most people think that the temper tantrums, mini meltdowns and uncontrollable crying stops before their child turns 3, but that is often not the case.

Mistakenly parents comment, “Well at least they are out of the terrible twos”.

Although technically this is the case, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

3-year-old children need just as much support as younger toddlers.

This helps them to continue to learn, explore and express themselves effectively in controllable ways.

As your child goes through each developmental stage they continue to grow with their environment, sharing expressions and becoming more independent.

Consequently, this means some children will be better equipped to express themselves in appropriate ways and others may not.

Handling The Terrible 3s!

1. Calmness Always Wins

10 Proven Techniques To Handle The Terrible 3s

Being calm is your first weapon. A calm parent is a mindful parent and one that can think about the correct ways to deal with any situation.

It’s not practical to get angry, frustration and verbally lashing out to your toddler.

9 times out of 10 this may make the situation worse and it probably won’t help get what you want to be done.

Extreme aggression in 3 year old is usually caused by miscommunication and your child feeling misunderstood.

Instead, take a step back, re-evaluate the situation and gain perspective on what you need to do.

For example, if your child has just turned your bathroom into a playground of toilet roll and shower gel, your instinct will be to shout and scream, “What are you doing!!”

3 Year Olds are very fast learners and they can read your verbal and non-verbal cues.

If you react with anger and aggression they will copy this reaction which will create a downward spiral of negative behaviour.

It’s better to fix what you can and just forget about the rest.

So in our example instead of getting upset, try to see the funny side of the “toilet roll tent”, remind your child that this is not an acceptable use of toilet roll and if she wants to play tents then to use blankets in the bedroom instead.

While you can’t always see the funny side of more serious or aggressive behaviour, it is always easier to take a less harsh approach to child play once you are in a better headspace and can react in a child-appropriate way.

2. Use Your Words

10 Proven Techniques To Handle The Terrible 3s

When your 3-year-old lashes out, throws a tantrum or rips a toy from her brother a good strategy to remind her to use is “use your words”.

At 3 years old your child’s vocabulary is still in it’s learning stage but they are still able to understand and repeat a vast amount.

Remind them that words are a better way to express themselves than, hitting, shouting or throwing themselves down. Here, a gentle reminder will suffice.

For example, “Sweetie, I understand you don’t want to eat your peas for dinner, but throwing them on the floor isn’t going to help.

Please use your words. Say mummy I don’t want any more”

If you continue to remind her that using her words will get her what she wants faster then a tantrum will then she will begin to see it’s effectiveness and resort to it more often.

This will have a twofold benefit:

  1. It will serve as an aid to vocabulary and as a reminder to say the right things to get what they want
  2. It will help you to better and more easily understand your child as they learn more words and link those words to the correct situations.

Children learn with repetition and giving them the opportunity to use their words will help them effectively express themselves and help with problem-solving as they grow up.  

3. Praise the Good, Ignore the Bad

It’s very common to show more attention to negative behaviour than to positive behaviour.

This is normal as you’ll spend more time in rehabilitation mode then reward mode as your child test more boundaries to gain attention from you.

While it’s important to instil a strong disciplinary environment for your child to learn and grow safely it’s just as important to praise the good behaviour they show and use it as an example of exemplary progress.

Children who receive more attention for disruptive behaviour tend to become more defiant to gain attention.

This is understandable as they have learnt that when they crave attention they get it by being defiant.  

Instead try to ignore (when it’s safe to do so) disruptive behaviour and provide a greater emphasis on conforming and positive characterises.

For example if your 3 year old is painting a picture and they keep trying to paint themselves try to ignore it.

Worse case it just means you have more washing to do later.

Chances are painting themselves instead of on paper is just a ploy to get your attention anyway.

Instead focus on the picture they are drawing and be enthusiastic about their craftsmanship.

Children grave attention and will find constructive ways to get it from you.

By ensuring you praise the good and ignore most of the bad you set the framework for positive reinforcement and the correct structure your child must follow to get it from you.

4. Teach Breathing Techniques

10 Proven Techniques To Handle The Terrible 3s

This is often an overlooked technique but is very effective amongst parents that try it.

Slow and calm breathing is an actionable way to calm your toddler down and will help when they are feeling particularly anger, upset or vunerable.

The terrible 3s phase revolves unrestricted expression and emotions.

With big emotions comes even bigger expression and your 3 years old certainly know how to draw your instant attention.

Breathing helps to reduce stress and ensures that your child cools down a lot quicker then if they just sat in a time out.

Breathing Example

Try and turn your breathing exercise into a game.

Here you would emphasis to breath in “Like you are smelling pretty flowers” and breath out “like you are blowing out candles”

This provides them with a visual aid to relax and will help manage their emotions a lot easier.

Remember you can have them count as well:

  1. Breath in to smell the flowers
  2. Breath out to blow out candles

Try and get them to repeat it as much as necessary and it’s even better if you do it with them.

You’ll be surprised at how effective this is and will teach them self control and self-discipline in the process!

5. Give Choices (Get them involved)

3 year olds crave independence and they routinely want to be in control of the small and big things.

Use this to your advantage to help with the terrible threes phase.

If you are having a particularly busy day and can tell that your child is on the verge of a breakdown or break out then pre-empt the situation.

For example, You are in the middle of hovering and packing the washing machine.

Say “Sweetie, I can see you are bored, but mummy just needs to finish some house chores before she can play.

How about you help me, it will be fun! What would you like to help me with, sweeping or packing the washing machine?”

Here you proactively intervene to get them involved but allow them to choice what they would like to do.

Just asking them to help “sweep” or help “pack the washing machine” may results in a resounding ‘NO’.

But giving them the choice and the freedom to help, one way or the other, allows them to feel in more control of the situation.

This directly taps into their desire for independence and you can even leave them to do it by themselves if it is safe to do so.

You can give your child small choices as well, just remember to keep them simple and manageable.

Do you want to drink milk or water for lunch?

Do you want to take teddy or fairy to playgroup?

Do you want your spoon or folk to eat with?

7. Be Attentive

It’s important to look past the loud crying, loud stamping and aggressive hitting to get to the root of the problem.

These are all signs of the terrible 3s.

However, children rarely make a fuss for no reason.

Remember, there’s usually an underlying cause to each tantrum or mini meltdown.

For example if you see your child at the park getting aggressive with another child your first instinct is to pull them away and tell him off.

Whilst this is the correct action to take, you should also take a closer look.

Upon doing so you may see that he had been sharing the toddler slide with all the other children but this one child would not get off and was being aggressive and violent to all the other children including his sister.

Now with context you can see that he was only looking out for his sister and was actually promoting sharing and playing fair.

Understanding the small circumstances that trigger your child into behaviour inappropriately is a vital component to survive the terrible threes.

Try to be more sensitive to your child’s anxieties and stressors and proactively parent to anticipate it.

That way once they start the journey they are ripe for a NAP!

If you can dictate scenarios where everyone wins you’ll always be one-step ahead.

8. Be Engaged

Another smart strategy is to be 100% engaged with your child when they are demanding your attention.

Children are very smart and they can sense when you are playing with them half-heartedly or are distracted with a funny cat image on facebook.

They will only retaliate with frustration, grief and anger.

To avoid this try to be more engaged with them when they need your attention.

A good way to do this is to block out play times during the day that you can schedule your daily routine around.

For example if you know that you have dinner to make at 5pm and your toddler wakes up from their afternoon nap at 3.30pm then you can schedule in dedicated time between 3.45p,m – 4.45pm, Monday through Thursday.

In that way you know you can give your child your undivided attention away from any unwanted distractions.

9. Time Outs: Punishment or Calming Technique?

There have been many debates recently on the effectiveness of Time outs (or Time Ins)

Whether you are for or against them it’s important to understand the effectiveness of “Time outs” and then you can make your own judgement.

A time out shouldn’t be overused and should be age appropriate.

If you use them too often you’ll run the risk of them losing their effectiveness.

Usually, they are most effective for violent or disruptive behaviour and should be used when a toddler needs to calm down and just chill out for a bit.

They can also be useful to break up conflicts between siblings or friends when children are playing too rough together or may be too over stimulated so need some rest time.

You should try to keep the time out zone away from any distractions and remind your child that they must stay in the zone until you tell them that it’s over.

Once it is, hug them remind them you love them and give them the reason why they got the punishment in the first place. This is very important.

For example, you can say, “No hitting your sister” Or “We don’t hit others, we use our words”

10. Repetition & Consistency

Children learn best from doing the same things over and over again. (much like adults)

Once you set them up with a postitive routine try to continually push it so they remember that it is the correct way to behaviour.

This is a smart way to combat the troubling terrible 3s stage.

If you fail to do this, they may fall into bad habits like hitting or screaming to vent their anger.

Instead, try to proactively pre-empt disruptive situations by having some boundaries set in stone.

For example, you can write a list of family rules that everyone can follow.

For a 3-year-old this should be short and concise giving them specific instructions on acceptable behaviour:

For example:

  1. Use inside voice
  2. Listen to mummy
  3. Keep your hands to yourself
  4. Use your words

Keep the rules in a clear and obvious place so that your child can see it all the time.

Discuss them at breakfast time, lunch time, with their friends, with other people, whenever you can.

This way they will constantly see the importance of them.

Also by constantly reminding them of the ‘Family Rules’ you give them the best chance of remembering it.

All in all, it will make your job a lot easier as they grow and become more independent.

Follow the above strategies and you’ll find the terrible 3s is a thing of the past!

Related Post: 5 Ways To Empower Your Child To Overcome Bullying

Here’s a quick video on How to Survive the Terrible Threes


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Mo Mulla

Mo Mulla is a work from home dad who enjoys reading and listening to music, He loves being a dad and husband to a growing family. He also loves writing about his passions and hopes to change the world, 1 blog post at a time!

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