At a loss for how to handle tantrums in 3-year-olds? Do you find your toddler’s temper tantrums are just getting worse? Is your child’s growing desire for independence fueling more power struggles at home?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you’re not alone! Many fellow parents would agree that the “terrible twos” have nothing on the “threenager” stage.
The good news? Three-year-olds have many new skills and capabilities that can HELP you diffuse tantrums much easier than in the early toddler years.
Let’s talk about 6 key positive parenting tips for how to handle tantrums in 3-year-olds.
How do I handle tantrums in 3-year-olds? They’re getting worse!
How often do 3-year-olds have tantrums?
Tantrums may not be easy to manage, but they are certainly the norm for most 3-year-olds.
Research shows tantrums peak as children reach their third year of life. A whopping 91% of children ages 2.5-3 years of age experience tantrums, with at least 18% experiencing daily episodes (Sisterhen & Wy, 2020).
The “Threenager” Stage
What makes 3-year-olds unique is that they are in a “limbo stage” between the baby/toddler years and early childhood.
On one hand, their developing brains have a nearly unquenchable thirst for autonomy. At the same time, they still don’t yet have the skills needed to navigate big emotions on their own.
As you likely know, this creates a challenge when tantrums arise!
6 Tips for How to Handle Tantrums in 3-Year-Olds
Tip #1: Keep an eye on basic needs
While not every tantrum is preventable, there are many positive parenting tools to help stop meltdowns from happening in the first place.
Fatigue and hunger are often two huge players in the tantrum game. Maintain a consistent sleep routine and keep healthy snacks on hand at home and on the go.
Adjust expectations when needs can’t be met
When factors change outside of our control, we can adapt our expectations.
For example, if your toddler is transitioning to a “no nap” routine, the hour before bed may become dicey! Perhaps you only ask them to clean up 3 toys instead of the entire playroom while they’re adjusting.
Just consider, when we’re completely exhausted as adults we often give ourselves a break. We may let that laundry basket sit until tomorrow. Or we might order takeout instead of cooking.
As positive parents, we can strive to instill empathy by modeling it for our kids.
Tip #2: Plan ahead for new experiences & potential challenges
New experiences and big feelings often go hand in hand for young children. When kids don’t know what to expect, things can go awry.
Consider using these preventative strategies:
- Explore the 5 senses
- Amp up the yeses (what they CAN do)
- Set clear, specific boundaries
- Role-play scenarios
- Answer questions
Explore the 5 senses
In the hours or days leading up to a new situation (the bigger the event, the more time you’ll need), review each of the 5 senses with your child:
- What/who can they expect to see? (Will they be meeting anyone new?)
- What can they expect to hear? (Will there be loud noises? What should their noise level be?)
- What can they expect to touch? (What is “on” and “off” limits for touching?)
- What can they expect to smell?
- What can they expect to taste? (Decide and discuss in advance if food will be purchased. Avoid using treats as rewards or bribes for “good behavior.)
Amp up the “yeses” (what they CAN do)
Prepare for the new experience on a positive note!
Set the scene for something your child will WANT to do. Give a clear list of all the “yeses,” or things your child can expect to do.
Example: “We’re going to the library after lunch today. You can choose 5 books from the children’s section to take home! You can scan your own library card at checkout.”
Set specific, clear boundaries
Once your child is on board, brainstorm ideas of what needs to happen to make the new event a success. Ask open-ended prompts such as, “What are some things we should do while we’re at the pool to keep everyone safe?”
Fill in any unaddressed areas by setting clear expectations. Phrase boundaries with a positive, “please do” rather than “you better not” approach.
Example: “While we’re at the pool, we use walking feet to stay safe. Also, please wait for Dad or me before going in the water.”
This one is usually a huge hit with 3-year olds! Engage in some fun pretend play and act out the new experience at home. Be sure to change roles!
Example: “At cousin Ava’s party tomorrow there will be cake and we’ll sing the birthday song! Let’s go over to your play kitchen and practice. Remember, Ava will be the one to blow out the candles and everyone will get a turn to eat cake. Do you want to play you or Ava first?”
Questions. It’s one thing that 3-year-olds (with typical speech development) seem to always have on hand!
Lend a listening ear and provide ample time for them to ask away about the new experience.
Tip #3: Listen
Dr. Jane Nelson of Positive Discipline once said, “Children will listen to you after they feel listened to.”
One of the biggest advantages of handling tantrums in most 3-year-olds is their ability to express themselves.
This may be a big change from how you addressed tantrums in the early toddler years. Of course, individual verbal language skills vary from child to child.
Let them go first
For verbal children, be sure to let them talk first. This will greatly increase their ability to listen and hear you when it’s your turn to talk. Show a genuine interest in learning more about their side of the story.
Help them along
If needed, ask open-ended prompts to help your child piece a cohesive story together (e.g., “Tell me about what happened earlier. How were you feeling? What happened next?”).
Use visual tools
Visual tools can greatly enhance a child’s ability to identify and express feelings and cater to a range of speech abilities. These are a few of my favorite print-at-home sets from Such a Little While:
Tip #4: Validate Feelings & Perspectives (Not Behaviors)
Don’t give in and maintain boundaries. Giving in will fuel future tantrums.
A common misconception is that positive parenting is permissive parenting. Positive parents believe that all feelings and perspectives are a valid part of the human experience; however, do not condone all behaviors.
In other words, to quote my favorite children’s show, Daniel Tiger, “It’s okay to feel angry, it’s not okay to hurt someone.”
Below are a few sentences stems to try:
- “It’s okay to feel ________.“
- “You really wanted ________.”
- “I understand why you’re feeling ________.”
- “You didn’t want ________.”
- “It makes sense to feel ________.”
- “You wish you could ________.”
Tip #5: Implement a Designated Calming Space
Wondering how to handle tantrums in 3-year-olds? Having a special spot for processing big feelings can be a huge asset for families.
Between the ages of 3 and 4, most children become ready for a designated calming space (often referred to as a “calm down corner”).
What’s a calm down corner?
A calm down corner is a safe, designated space for kids to identify their emotions and practice self-regulation skills with the loving support of a caregiver.
Sometimes the term “calm down corner” is used interchangeably with “time-in” (more on this in a moment). Both are alternatives to traditional time-outs.
What’s wrong with time-outs?
Wondering why positive parenting doesn’t subscribe to traditional time-outs? In short…
- Time-outs prioritize punishment
- Time-outs build walls of isolation
- Time-outs create feelings of shame & resentment
- Time-outs teach kids to suppress emotions
- Time-outs teach kids to blindly obey
I invite you to learn more about positive parenting time-out alternatives here.
How do I set up a calm down corner?
There are two critical elements to a successful calm down corner:
- The child should collaborate in the planning process and take ownership of the space.
- The space should never be used as punishment.
The CALM Collection
Feeling overwhelmed on how to get started? Such a Little While’s CALM Collection has everything to help make the process simple and easy.
The Ultimate Kit on How to Effectively Handle Tantrums in 3-Year-Olds
The CALM Collection includes all of our best-selling printable resources for parents and kids at the very best value! Take comfort in knowing each tool was strategically developed by a Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator and former Professional School Counselor.
Tip #6: Hold a “time-in” AFTER the tantrum has passed
Like calm down corners, “time-ins” are an effective positive parenting alternative to traditional time-outs. They’re particularly helpful for maintaining boundaries amidst big emotions and tantrums.
What’s a time-in?
Time-ins are carefully constructed and collaborative conversations with children about big feelings and behaviors. They’re perhaps the most important tool for knowing how to handle tantrums in 3-year-olds!
During time-ins, caregivers validate feelings and maintain boundaries for behavior. The goal of time-ins is not to punish, rather to problem-solve by teaching children new skills.
Stop parenting in the heat-of-the-moment
A big mistake we often make as parents is spending too much time discussing and correcting children’s behavior when emotions are running high.
Just think of your 3-year-old’s tantrum as a pair of earmuffs. He or she cannot effectively hear you during the storm of big feelings.
A cooling-off period is essential to help kids prepare to receive guidance and redirection! (Think of your child’s calm down corner as a prerequisite for your time-in.)
Better yet, this pause equally benefits us as caregivers. Often, we’re better off stepping aside and processing our own emotions. This way, we can calmly choose an effective positive parenting tool.
Use effective positive parenting tools
Are you on board with time-ins, but don’t feel confident implementing one when tantrums arise?
You’re not alone! I polled my Instagram following and found 86% of parents who subscribe to positive parenting practices either didn’t know about or didn’t feel confident using time-ins.
How to get started
An easy, yet powerful way to equip yourself with the most effective positive parenting tools for tantrums is with our parent-favorite guide, The Time-In Response Plan.
What’s included in The Time-In Response Plan?
As a certified positive discipline parent educator, former school counselor, and fellow parent, I developed a game-changing, 4-step digital guide that prioritizes social/emotional development in kids.
- The “why” behind your child’s tantrums
- A key 4-step C.A.L.M. plan to replace time-outs & use for any challenging behavior
- Essential positive discipline “do’s” &”don’ts”
- How to implement a designated cool-down space
- Age-appropriate coping skills to teach your child
- How to engage your child as a collaborative problem-solver
- Over 50+ specific response examples to use in key parenting challenges
- The positive parenting approach to consequences & apologies
FAQ on Toddler Tantrums: When to Worry?
Is it more than just a tantrum?
We know the majority of typically developing toddlers experience tantrums.
This being said, children with speech development delays, autism spectrum disorders, and other developmental and neurological differences may experience more frequent and more aggressive tantrums and behaviors.
If your parenting intuition is telling you there could be more to the story, don’t ignore it. Early intervention can have a significantly positive impact for children who need it.
How to handle extreme tantrums in 3-year-olds: Where to go for help
Talking with your pediatrician is an excellent first step. Let them know you’ve researched and tried positive parenting tools for how to handle tantrums in 3-year-olds. Be clear that you need more insight to help your individual child.
If you reside in the United States, you may also contact your state’s early intervention program to find out if your child is eligible to receive supports and services.
Never hesitate to ask questions or pursue more information. You are your child’s greatest advocate!
The last thing you need to know about how to handle tantrums in 3-year-olds
There’s no doubt about it, figuring out how to handle tantrums in 3-year-olds is tough stuff.
One minute you’re feeling confident in your parenting skills and the next, you may feel defeated and helpless after a major meltdown. You’re not alone!
Often, our mindset about parenting challenges can make a world of difference.
Positive parents see challenges as opportunities to teach and learn new skills.
Furthermore, they believe that we can all grow through mistakes.
In other words, if you don’t handle every one of your 3-year-old’s tantrums “perfectly,” don’t sweat it! You now have more information on what works or doesn’t work to support your child the next time.
You got this, friend!