Three-Year Old Behavior Challenges

What is life like with a three-year-old?  There is something quite magical about the three-year-old year, and often something quite difficult.  I have had three mothers contact me recently about life with a three-year-old – its ups and its downs..

This is how the Gesell Institute Book “Your Three-Year-Old” characterizes some of the qualities of a three and three and a half year old”

Three Years:

Conforming, decreased physical aggressiveness, happy most of the time, friendly, pleasing

Loves new words

Likes to make a choice within realm of experience

Sure of himself

Tries to meet and understand social demands

Gets along well with mother

Helpful around house

Like to relive babyhood

Beginning of interest in babies, wants family to have one

If sibling is on the way, most really do not understand baby growing inside mother

Expresses affection readily

Desires to look at and touch adults, especially mother’s breasts

Father can take over in many situations, although Mother still favored parent

Child clings less at bedtime and may go to sleep better for father

Usually enthusiastic about other children but still immature in their social reactions

Children may be more comfortable with adults other than other children – they approach adults with requests for help or information

From page 55, “ Much of a child’s conversation with any adult is still self-initiated. He may respond to what grown-ups say to him, or sometimes, he may not.”

Temper tantrums decline


Three and a Half Years:

Turbulent, troubled period of disequilibrium, the simples event or occasion can elicit total rebellion

Strong and secure gross motor abilities may turn more into stumbling, falling, at this age

New- found verbal ability “I’ll cut you in pieces!” and lots of whining

Loves silly rhymes and rhyming words, sentence length is increasing, acquiring a large vocabulary

May refuse to do things a lot, or howl and scream, or say a lot of “I can’t” I won’t” kinds of things

Three and a half to four may be the height  for the most “WHY?”  “WHERE?”  “WHAT?” kinds of questions

Demanding, bossy, turbulent, troubled but mainly due to emotional insecurity

Mother-child relationship difficult but may also cling to mother

May refuse to take part in daily routine – may do better with almost anyone than Mother

Inwardized, insecure, anxious

Determined and self willed; emotional extremes predominate

Emotional and physical insecurity

Anxious; lots of tensional outlets such as nose-picking, nail-biting, boys may be pulling almost constantly at their penises,  etc; can see stuttering and tremors of muscles at times, visual strain

May not eat well, may still have problems with bed-wetting, may wake up in the middle of the night and walk around

Afraid of almost anything and everything

Beginning of prolonged play with dolls, house building, tricycle riding

Girls may propose to Daddy at this age

If your child tells you stories, they may have violent elements in them (page 102)


Wonder at things!

Play a lot

Invent stories to tell

Talk a lot and ask a lot of questions

Love their mommies and daddies and pets!

Get all those new words and new skills!



Frequent changing of mind

Wanting to play games constantly with mother and wanting her attention all the time

The difficulty that comes with dressing, eating, going to bed, taking a nap

The asking of “Why?” over and over and over


For an anthroposophical view of the three-year-old, let us consider the following.  Rudolf Steiner had much to say about the period of two-and-a-half until age five; this is the age that “an exceptionally vivid memory and wonderful imagination” starts to happen.  He discusses how children continue to live by imitation, and how the best things to do with children between these ages involve anything that invokes imagination.  This is where Waldorf teachers and followers of Steiner start looking toward more open-ended, homemade kinds of toys due to their beauty and warmth and how much the child can add to this out of the child’s own imagination.

Steiner felt that the child of this period “is by  no means in a position to take in ideas which bear on the moral life.  And it follows that he should not be taught to him.”  In the book “Understanding Young Children; Excerpts From Lectures by Rudolf Steiner Compiled for Use of Kindergarten Teachers”, this story is told: “Two disconsolate parents once came to Dr. Steiner and complained that their child, generally very good, had stolen money that the mother had put in the cupboard, bought sweets and distributed them.  Dr.  Steiner explained that [the child] merely copied what [the child] had seen its mother do.  And this had nothing whatever to do with stealing.  The child becomes what its environment is.”

Steiner also discusses how speech is the foundation for thinking, and how physical mobility is the foundation for speech.  Therefore, a child learns to walk, to speak and then to think.  “In the beginning, “Steiner says, “ the child merely repeats the sounds it hears, sounds that are more or less rhythmic and melodious and in accordance with the peculiar relation between its groping arms and legs.  Thinking can only arise out of speech and not before.”

In Steiner’s view, one of the most important things we can do in the first seven years for our children is to teach the child gratitude.  This becomes the basis of love, the virtue belonging to the second seven year cycles, and duty, the basis of the third seven year cycle.

“If [the child] sees that everyone who stands in some kind of relationship to him in the outer world shows gratitude for what he receives from this world; if, in confronting the outer world and wanting to imitate it, the child sees the right kind of gesture that express gratitude, then a great deal is done towards establishing in him the right moral human attitude.  Gratitude is what belongs in the first seven years.”

One thing that the Gesell Institute book points out on page 12 is this gem of a sentence, “The first is that, as we have tried to emphasize, even though he may be difficult at times, your child is not your enemy.  It is not you against him.”  They point out that the mother matters most to a three-year-old and is therefore the child is often at his best and worst with his own mother. 

Here it is again – how we are mothers respond to our children and set the tone in our home is a determinant in the lives of our family. It is not whether or not our child “behaves”; it is how we ACT toward our child.  Three is so very, very little.  Please do let your child feel your warmth toward them; it goes a long way at three.  The other piece of advice that can be offered for dealing with three is to not turn things into a personal battle between the two of you…it is not you and your child, it is just “this happens when we do this”, “we must do x in order to do x”. Sing, hum, wonder together, and love one another.   The more peaceful, matter of fact energy you can muster will really help in the day-to-day life with a three-year-old.  The more we can create for our child that sense of wonder at life, gratitude for life, the better laid the foundation is for the rest of the child’s life.

The next post will discuss some tips for more peaceful living with your three-year-old.

13 thoughts on “Three-Year Old Behavior Challenges

  1. thank you for your post! i would be interested in more detail of the three-year old interacting aggressively with a younger sibling (18 mos) and what can be done to continue the peace in the household! while i believe i understand why it is happening, it’s still hard to know what can be done in the moment, that would produce the best long term result for all the relationships involved.

    also, a friend sent me a link to your site and i have been enjoying catching up on all your posts. thanks for your parenting encouragement!

  2. Pingback: Waldorf In The Home With The Three- And Four- Year Old « The Parenting Passageway

  3. Pingback: “Discipline For Preschoolers 3-5 Years”: “Discipline Without Distress” « The Parenting Passageway

  4. Thank you so much for your post.
    Today of all days I have experienced every form of negative action from my three and a half year old that you described.

    Your post has confirmed a lot of what I already suspected regarding the normalcy and faults of my current relationship with my son.

    Thank you again!

  5. Pingback: This Will Keep You Busy: Links By Age « The Parenting Passageway

  6. brilliant i have been so worried about my 3 year olds babyish behaviour lately this is a relief to hear keep up te good work 🙂

  7. How refreshing?! Thank you. My instincts were here, but I couldn’t possibly have articulated it. My 3 year old appears to be ‘going through’ something I could get my head around. This article has helped me get clearer about that fact that what he’s ‘going through’ is simply his childhood and I so much want to be the mother he deserves to have. Thanks again.

  8. Pingback: Klusek i bunt trzylatka | Nasze Kluski

    • Thank you so much for translating my post into Polish! I love my Polish readers as I am part Polish. 🙂

  9. I was worried this morning thinking how should we behave with my three and half year old . Who learned saying “stop it” , “don’t lie” at school. I feel she doesn’t understand meaning of it.
    Well this very helpful post. We can definitely improve our behavior

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.