Your self-help guide to parenting a 3 year old

Parents are warned about the “terrible twos” where toddlers suddenly become extremely mobile and destructive, because their physical development has outstripped their emotional and mental development. However, three year olds can be far more challenging – they have reached an age where they understand that they have both choices and boundaries and they want to test their powers. Your job is to maintain that volatile balance between “choice” and “boundary” and when a 3 year old disagrees with your ruling, they can become quite vocal about their disapproval!

So how do you help your 3YO navigate the world without breaking each other’s spirit?

Explain why

Three year olds are just figuring out that the world is a complicated place, yet at the same time there are rules which establish some level of logic and predictability. When life is too unpredictable, your child will become unsettled and frustrated. This is a good time to reinforce simple rules like putting toys away once you’ve finished playing, brushing teeth after breakfast and dinner, or no eating on the carpet. Keep the rules simple and explain the reasoning behind them, so 3YO can develop a sense of logic about the world.

Demonstrate consequences

A three year old can’t be expected to anticipate danger or long-term damage, so they are particularly uninhibited about running across roads and tipping milk onto the carpet. You need to curb this adventurous spirit by introducing the idea of consequences. Kneel down to the child’s level and explain why the behaviour is undesirable. If your 3YO has made a mess, either intentionally or accidentally, work with them to clean it up. This way they are learning the natural consequences of their actions, and some practical skills at the same time.


Avoid negotiations

Like Billy Joel’s Always a Woman, a three year old “never gives in, she just changes her mind.” Constantly. You pour milk, 3YO wanted juice. Cut the sandwich into squares, 3YO wanted triangles… or circles. Peel the banana, 3YO wanted the peel on. Hold out the left shoe, 3YO will collapse crying because the right shoe should go on first.

Having discovered the world is governed by arbitrary rules, 3YO is attempting to set some of these rules and establish some control over the world. This is a frustrating phase for both of you, but you can reduce the pain by limiting choices. Never open a drawer and say “which shirt?” Instead, take out two shirts and ask 3YO: Blue shirt or red?

Your 3YO will also struggle with transitions, such as when it is time to go home or time to leave home. Make the transition a little easier by giving a gentle countdown – “ten more minutes and we have to say goodbye, so we can go home; five more minutes and we’ll pack up the toys, okay?” It’s very easy for adults who are watching the time and have a sense of the future to know instinctively when an event is complete; but for a 3yo absorbed in the moment, transitions can seem extremely abrupt and unfair.

Make time for independence

A 3YO likes to do things independently even if it takes half an hour and ends in tears of frustration. Yes, it can be time consuming and frustrating to wait all that time for 3YO to put on a pair of shoes only to see they are on the wrong feet, but this foray into independence is actually a great investment in building confidence and self esteem.  So pace yourself and allow some extra time for experimental independence, so you don’t become too stressed at how long it takes to button up a cardigan!

Celebrate the individual

When life with a three-year-old gets tough, remind yourself how much you will admire this passion and ferocity in your child once they become a little more independent!

Featured image by @ivyandthefox

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  1. I made it through the trying threes, now onto the fours, Im sure five will be better, ba ha, I love her. She is just as sassy as I am.

  2. I remember when my kids were 3. It’s just around the time They start to come into their own and their opinions are running rampant. You offered some great suggestions. Thanks for sharing!

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