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What’s normal (kinda annoying) 3-year-old behavior and what’s not

3-year-old survival tips

Choose your battles. Priorities will be safety issues like climbing or going near the stove. Supervision is essential to prevent injuries as your child isn’t able to anticipate the consequences of his actions. Traffic is a huge concern for parents at this stage. Insist that your 3-year-old hold you hand when walking in parking lots or in areas of high traffic. Just because she’s able to walk on her own doesn’t mean she should.

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Encourage your child to take turns and share toys. When he cries because he is told he can’t have another cookie, that’s something he will have to learn to get over in life. But you don’t want to squelch these demanding personality traits entirely, because your child may diminish himself in order to please. If these qualities are monitored but encouraged, these seemingly unpleasant characteristics can develop into admirable strengths like determination, assertiveness and self-confidence later in life.

Give him the words. Provide new words to him in order to expand his vocabulary. He will spend most of his waking hours asking “why?” and this will happen hundreds of times each day. The constant questions and rambling conversation can be very challenging, so keep your answers simple.

Discover his gifts. If you believe that your child is gifted, speak to your pediatrician who can refer you to testing specialists. Some 3-year-olds who are seen as particularly difficult are really just curious and bright — know the difference. Gifted children often thrive on enrichment activities that are geared towards their particular field of interest.

Parenting the stubborn 3-year-old

Robert Needlman, a medical doctor and expert, says, “While a few very laid-back and agreeable preschoolers are happy to go along with whatever his parents want, most young children want what they want, when they want it! A child who is temperamentally persistent, who also feels well-loved and well listened to, might well develop an unpleasant habit of stubbornness.”

Needlman continues, “But this habit not only makes them less pleasant to be around, it also makes the children less happy. They spend a lot of time fussing and demanding, but aren’t satisfied because what they want is the control, rather than the particular thing they are demanding. The answer to this is for parents to assert control in all areas, except those that they intend their young children to be able to make choices about. Little children can make little choices.”

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Heather Holden, mother of a busy 3-year-old says, “The biggest challenge is allowing Isabelle to grow in her independence but balance that with appropriate discipline when needed. I set boundaries and she is given choices so that her decision-making can improve.”

Her husband Kris says that his biggest challenge is being patient. He says, “You want to do what’s right for them but it may not be what they want to do. I give her choices when possible and make her feel like she is in control so there is less of a power struggle over other things.”

How should you deal with stubborness?

  • Let your preschooler know you’re proud of his new independence and creativity.
  • Give him choices whenever possible so that he learns to make decisions.
  • As he becomes more responsible in making his own decisions you can give him more control.

Above all, the 3-year-old needs to feel love and security while learning and developing. This is a precious and magical stage of development for your little one, and you can make it easier for everyone if you know what to expect. Enjoy the journey!

Originally published Feb. 2010. Updated Sept. 2016.

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