All About Terrible 3 Year Old Tantrums and How to Stop Them

Just when you think those “terrible twos” years are behind you, you enter the infamous three-nager years. Time to prepare yourself for some seriously terrible 3 year old tantrums.

We’re going to answer some of the most important and critical questions out there regarding these outbursts.

What IS a tantrum? How do I know if it’s normal? Am I doing something wrong? Is it ever something to worry about?

… and most importantly…

How do I STOP a tantrum?

Between both of us here at The Moms At Odds, we have five kids in total. Plus Jo works with kids and their development on a daily basis. Believe us, we know what we’re talking about.

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Ready to learn about these terrible 3 year old tantrums? Let’s dive in before anyone starts fussing.

What Is a Tantrum?

A tantrum is a spontaneous fit, outburst, or public display of rage and frustration. Basically, it’s an external representation of what they’re feeling inside.

It can consist of physical signs (such as kicking or stomping), verbal (like whining, screaming, or complaining), or a combination of both.

Tantrums are equally prevalent in boys and girls and most commonly occur between the ages of one and three. The frequency, intensity, and age tantrums begin vary widely between individual children.

It is usually the result of frustration – stemming from not getting what they want when they want it – but can also come in response to a perceived injustice or feeling like they’re being left out (even if it’s unintentional).

In younger children, they are commonly due to not being able to accurately communicate their wants and needs.

For older children, they are more likely caused by toddlers feeling that their independence is being threatened.

One thing that is common in all ages is that they are unpredictable and a disproportionate response to the action that brought on the tantrum in the first place.

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Dad holding a son during a terrible 3 year old tantrum

Signs Your 3 Year Old Is Having a Tantrum

Here are some common signs of terrible 3 year old tantrums:

1) Their breathing becomes heavy and hard for them to control as their emotions escalate.

2) Your child gets furious over something small.

3) They scream, cry, and seem inconsolable.

4) Their face reds up or turns pale rapidly.

5) They refuse to listen to instructions or requests.

6) Signs of physical aggression – kicking, pinching, hitting, punching, biting, flailing, holding their breath.

7) Verbal signs – whining, crying, shouting, screaming.

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3 year old blonde boy having a tantrum

Is It Normal for a 3 Year Old to Have a Tantrum?

Unfortunately yes, terrible 3 year old tantrums are a completely normal and inevitable part of life (just like death and taxes – fun!) .

A little backstory on terrible 3 year old tantrums: they are the result of what many experts call “terrible twos” syndrome.  

In other words, terrible three-year olds (I call them three-nagers) can be so difficult because they’re actually terrible two-year olds who have grown taller and bigger but haven’t really learned how to control their moods or feelings yet.

Terrible three year old tantrums are often random, with no apparent cause. For some children, they occur infrequently. For other, they happen multiple times per day.

The intensity, signs, and actions can also vary wildly between children. But it’s all completely normal.

It’s important that you know a three-year old is not deliberately trying to frustrate you or make your life difficult – it’s just a part of their emotional learning curve!

Remember that tantrums don’t mean you’re a bad parent or that you are doing anything wrong.

And the good news is that as your child grows older, develops their communication skills, and learns to regulate their emotions – terrible 3 year old tantrums will become a thing of the past. In fact, for most children tantrums begin to become less frequent by 4 years of age.

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Mother comforting child during tantrum

When Should I Worry About Tantrums?

While tantrums are almost always a normal developmental stage, there are a few signs you should look out for:

  • Tantrums lasting longer than 15 minutes
  • Excessive fearfulness or anxiety during a tantrum
  • Holding their breath to the point of fainting or getting light-headed
  • Signs of self-harm or violence against themselves
  • Tantrums are getting worse and more frequent as they approach the age of 4
  • Involve excessive destruction of property or injury to others

If your child experiences any of the above signs, or something just doesn’t feel right in your parent gut, we strongly recommend consulting your pediatrician.

Their doctor can rule out underlying systemic illnesses, delays, disabilities, or even hearing/vision problems that can be contributing to the severity of the tantrums.

If you as a parent are struggling to deal with terrible 3 year old tantrums (you are losing your bond with your child or have feelings in inadequacy), a consultation with a pediatric mental health specialist (such as a psychologist, social worker, or psychiatrist) may be appropriate.

All About Terrible 3 Year Old Tantrums and How to Stop Them

What Causes a Temper Tantrum In a 3 Year Old?

For older toddlers, temper tantrums are primarily caused by power struggles and/or perceived threats to their independence.

Often adults don’t even recognize incidents that will incite a tantrum as they can be caused by relatively benign interactions.

Here are just a few common issues that can cause terrible 3 year old tantrums:

Not getting what they want – have you ever noticed how terrible three-year olds will throw a fit when their preferred brand of cereal isn’t on the grocery store shelf? Or when they ask you for something (like sweets or toys) that they often aren’t allowed to have? Yep – the power struggle.

Limiting autonomy – 3 year olds need to feel like big kids. When mom or dad says it’s time for bed, three-nagers see that as an infringement on their rights and will resist with all their being!

Reaching a limit – anything from too much stuff happening in one day (just like adults) to not enough sleep can lead a 3 year old to reach a breaking point.

Mad toddler girl

How Many Tantrums a Day Is Normal for a 3 Year Old?

It’s normal for 3 year olds to have at least one tantrum a day. Three year olds who are more emotional can have up to 10.

They do outgrow them, fortunately. Expect for tantrums to decrease in severity and frequency as they approach 4 years of age.

12 Surefire Methods for Diffusing Tantrums

There are no set rules for how to handle tantrums. And the fact of the matter is that all methods won’t work for every child.

While there are countless guides out there on how to handle your child’s tantrums, one thing is essential – start by take a deep breath yourself.

You cannot de-escalate a situation if your emotions are running high or if you are feeling excessively angry.

Now that you’re calm, here are some proven strategies for how to soothe those terrible 3 year old tantrums:

Get Physical

If your child is feeling out of control, a big hug might be just what they need to feel safe, loved, calm, and get back in control.

This definitely doesn’t work for every child! My son always responded well to hugs, but my daughter needed space to process her big emotions.

Make Eye Contact

Getting down with them on the floor, on their level, and making eye contact will often help your child feel heard, seen, and supported.

Laugh

Laughter encourages positive interactions and plays an essential role in your child’s development. If you can laugh with them, they will feel loved and accepted.

Since 3 year olds don’t have the most sophisticated sense of humor, it’s usually not difficult to get a chuckle out of them. When they’re having a tantrum, however, it’s considerably more challenging.

The trick is to get them to laugh with you, be careful that it doesn’t appear you are laughing at them.

Sometimes I will pretend that I misunderstand what they are whining about. “‘Cookies!?!?’ I thought you said ‘footies’.” Then I tickle their toes.

Another strategy is to make a silly face, like making your nose flair or extending your tongue ridiculously.

Take Off The Grouchies

I saw this adorable idea on Facebook by Mom Seeking Coffee when her little one was having a meltdown:

I took my hand, and started plucking the air around her…

Of course she stopped to ask what I was doing…

“Shh, sit really still… they’re all over you”… I said, staying focused

“What’s all over me?” She asked, almost forgetting why she was upset.

“The grouchies!” I continued… “we’ve got to get them off you!!”

At this point she realized that I was being silly and she started laughing.

“No those aren’t grouchies, they’re HAPPIES!!” She said.

“Oh good!” I said, putting one back and plucking other spots.

“No that’s not a grouchy either!!”

“Are they all gone?!” I asked.

“Yes!” She said laughing.

“I want a hug.” She said.

Sometimes we can shift the tone of the moment through play and connection… not always, and I promise I know it’s not easy, especially when you’re tired & frustrated… but, its worth it when it works.

You become a soft spot to land after the big emotions pass.

So next time your little one starts spiraling, try plucking those grouchies away.

Thanks, Mom Seeking Coffee – great idea!

Help Them Breathe

While most 3 year olds don’t listen when you tell them to take a deep breath – I have a trick up my sleeve.

Bubbles.

Start to blow bubbles with a wand. After a few turns, invite them to join in and try.

It will help them self-regulate their breathing and calm down.

Reduce Stimuli

This is especially effective if you believe the cause of the tantrum to be over-stimulation.

Try to dim the lights, turn off the TV or any music, and speak in a soft voice. Choose your words carefully and calmly repeat them rather than bringing up new points.

Fill Up Their Tank

Try to identify the underlying cause for what prompted the tantrum. Are they feeling frustrated by a lack of independence? Not getting the attention they need? Hungry? Feeling unsafe? Tired?

When you’ve identified it, help them fill that “tank” of the area they are missing.

If they are hungry, offer a snack. If they are tired, invite them to rest on your shoulder for a bit.

When kids aren’t feeling loved or getting the attention they want, I like to hold them and tell them their “love tank” is empty and I need to fill it up again (usually this involves rocking them giving them kisses on the top of their head).

Distraction

It’s no secret that 3 year olds have short attention spans, so take advantage of that and try a diversion.

If a tantrum starts while grocery shopping, I’ve been known to distract toddlers by shaking pasta boxes to pretend and listen for the best one. Or taking them to the seafood section to wave at the lobsters.

At home, try to calmly get out their favorite puzzle or coloring book. Don’t offer it to your child, just begin doing it yourself and allow them to join in.

Whisper

This technique works really well for verbal tantrums.

If they are yelling loudly, start whispering. Be sure they can see your lips moving so they know you are trying to talk to them.

Chances are, they’ll quiet down in a few moments so they can eat what you are saying.

Time-In

Give your child a dedicated safe space where they can calm down. Let them sit on a couch to cry it out, squeeze a pillow, hug a doll, have a snack, or use a calm-down jar.

The idea of this space is for the child to decide themselves how they want to calm down. It’s a judgement-free zone for them to process and handle their feelings.

Acknowledge and Validate

Having your feelings justified can do wonders. Don’t simply tell them to “calm down” or that “it’s not that bad”.

Instead, use “I” statements and say why you think they are having that specific emotion and reaction.

As an example: “I can see you are sad right now because you didn’t get a cookie. That must feel terrible.”

This allows them to feel connected with you and acknowledges their feelings of injustice.

Ignore Them

If all else fails, considering ignoring the outburst.

Ignoring your child during a tantrum shows them that you don’t think their behavior is acceptable and that you will not negotiate when they are acting in this manner. Therefore they will not get what they want, whether it be an object or simply attention.

Before ignoring them, however, ensure they will not endanger themselves, others, or surrounding property. Make sure to keep them in sight at all times.

Give In

Another final strategy can be to give in to their demands (within reason!).

Especially if you are in public, for the sake of others and your own sanity, if it’s a small request just let them have it.

Toddler covering her eyes

Meltdown No-Nos

While there may be no “right” way to handle terrible 3 year old tantrums, there are a few definite wrong ways.

Try to avoid these things at all costs:

– Don’t scream or get angry.

– Don’t threaten punishment or consequences.

– Avoid hitting, biting, or kicking back.

– Don’t bribe (ex. we’ll get ice cream if you stop crying).

– Don’t allow overly aggressive behavior. If they start to hurt others, stop the action immediately.

Toddler who is almost crying

How to Prevent Terrible 3 Year Old Tantrums

While it’s impossible to prevent tantrums, there are a few strategies you can implement to reduce their frequency and severity.

1: Work on emotional regulation

At a minimum, teach your toddler to use their words to express themselves. This will help them understand the feelings they are experiencing and offer possible solutions.

Once you learn the feelings attached to meltdowns (frustration, anger, sadness) then you can try defusing the situation before it becomes an argument or verbal tantrum. If your child feels heard and understood, there is less of a chance for acting out behavior.

2: Talk about tantrums after they are done

Once your child has calmed down, sit down and discuss their reaction.

Let them tell you about the way they felt during their tantrum. Don’t ask “what were you feeling?” but instead, “how did it make you feel?”.

Don’t forget the positive attention. Be sure to praise your child for calming down and being able to talk about their feelings. 

3: Watch for signs of impending terrible three-year-old tantrum

Often tantrums will start with subtle signs (pushing away, sighing heavily).

If you notice these early on, you may be able to avoid the meltdown all together by changing course.

It’s also a good idea to keep forbidden items (tablets, sweets, etc.) out of sight.

4: Give choices

Another strategy is to give your child choices so they feel in control.

Them them choose between two snacks, restaurants, or outfits. Just make sure to only give options that you are OK with.

5: Make sure basic needs are met

This may seem obvious, but tantrums are often the result of being over exhausted or hungry.

Take breaks throughout the day to let them get their wiggles out and eat a good meal at least an hour before bedtime.

6: Be predictable and consistent

One more factor that can trigger tantrums is inconsistency in behavior. Changes causes a toddler to become confused and unhappy because they don’t know what to expect.

Keep meal times the same time every day, have consistent rules for bedtime routine, and make sure their expectations are set.

7: Give plenty of warning

3 year olds don’t like surprises, especially when they involve stopping an activity they are enjoying.

Before leaving a party, the playground, or stopping a game – give them plenty of advance warning.

Remember that toddlers don’t have a concept of time. Rather than saying, “we’re leaving in 10 minutes”, try, “you can go down the slide 2 more times”.

8: Model good behavior

Your child is constantly looking to you for cues on how to act and behave because they haven’t mastered these skills yet.

When you get angry about something, try not to yell, kick things, or curse. Attempt to demonstrate good control and take a deep breath. Talk aloud about what is frustrating you and how you are processing it.

For example, “I’m very upset right now because the traffic is bad and we are already late. But I’m going to take a deep breath and try to calm down so I can think about what we’re going to do next.”

Putting Tantrums to Rest

Remember that terrible 3 year old tantrums can come in a variety of shapes and sizes – and yet at the same time are almost always completely normal.

Do you have any techniques for handling tantrums that we missed? Let us know in the comments!

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About Author

Jo

Hi, I’m Jo!

I have two small children, Ry and Lily, only 19 months apart. It’s usually crazy around my house, but thankfully my wonderful husband is around a ton and helps keep the peace.

I also own my own business and work full-time. I’d love to list all these amazing hobbies I have, but honestly I can barely handle keeping the kids entertained, the house clean, and food on the table. Although on days I’m too tired to do housework, I love to pour a glass of wine and watch Supernatural or Murdoch Mysteries on Netflix.

My husband and I like to stay very busy and drag our kids everywhere with us. Weekends often include relaxing at wineries, festivals, exploring Washington D.C. and other short getaway trips.

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