Seeking Moms Who Are Having Problems with 3 Year Old and Tantrums

Updated on March 19, 2011
S.R. asks from Jacksonville, FL
11 answers

It has been some time since I asked a question. I am grateful for all the excellent advice on transferring our little one to her own bed and room from Mommy's bed. It went great. She loves her room. She is 3 years old and we are having problems with tantrums (for lack of a better word). She has major meltdowns (screaming, crying, even hitting at times) when she doesn't like what we are doing, saying, not doing, not saying, etc. I have tried to track them and see if there is a pattern or trigger. Today, it came after a Mommy & me class. She wanted ice cream and was told as soon as they had lunch. WoW! That started it. Once in car, she ate her sandwich and was fine. Let me put in, she is a poor and inconsistant eater. Any recommendations on how to deal with this behavior or what it is? We have been reading "what to expect" book but can't seem to get a handle on things. Experience is the best teacher.

Thank you all so much for your input.

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answers from Salt Lake City on

Time outs work very well with my 3-year-old. She is a bit sassy and has fits when she does not get her way. However, she has learned that if she throws a fit, she is sent to her room for a time out (usually about 3-5 minutes). When I go to get her, she is almost always in a better mood and we will talk for a minute about what she did wrong and I will ask if she is ready to be nice. I will make her apologize if she yelled at or hit a sibling.
These days, most of the time, all I have to say is, "Oh! Are you having a big fit?" and she will stop in her tracks and say, "No, I am happy, see?!" (puts on huge smile and the tears roll back into her eyes!). Good luck!

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answers from Portland on

All of this is normal, and some littles are more 'normal' than others. She's only slowly developing impulse control, and believe it or not, she'll probably be a cooperative and patient child in two more years. Right now, life is giving her lots of things she has to wait for, and if you can help keep her frustration levels at a low roar, she will gradually learn that patience is the way to go.

This is an extremely frustrating time in a toddler's life. Most of her time is managed and scheduled by big people who don't see life from her perspective. She sees so many things that she wants to do and touch, and is not allowed very much of it. And when she does get to hold something, she may not yet have the ability to interact with it in a satisfying way. So she's frustrated a good part of every day.

Punishing her for being frustrated will only make her more frustrated. Helping her interact with all that fascinating stuff will help satisfy her need to understand and explore and manipulate.

Here's my favorite list of often-successful tips for managing your daughter over the next couple of years:

1. Your daughter is not "trying" to be naughty. Children don't really want to cause problems or get in trouble if they have any other way at all to meet their own growing need for autonomy, independence, and control of their circumstances.

2. Adults have the experience and control to make most of life meet our grownup expectations. Your toddler doesn't know any of that yet, and she will probably have a couple of years in which she just won't see very much from your point of view. Thats' completely normal – she can't help it.

3. Digging in heels and tantrums are a natural outcome of becoming more frustrated than they're able to endure. Many parents report that this "new" behavior seems to come out of the blue. The stress of travel and changing schedules, or illness, or any major change, may contribute.

4. Though you won't ever have a toddler who can behave like an adult and make all the choices you would make, there are tried and true methods for eliminating much of the mutual frustration that the mom and the child experience during the next couple of years. This may be challenging when you're busy, but overall, you'll expend less time and energy than you would if dealing with behavior that isn't evolving in a positive direction.

4. When she wants something, empathize. Big time, and in the child's language. I love the advice of Dr. Harvey Karp on how to get on a tantruming toddler's wavelength in this and several related videos: . Once your little girl realizes you do care about what she wants, she's more likely to be able to calm down and cooperate with what you need from her. And there are lots of positive ways to approach this, rather than just saying no to a child. They hear no so often, and they can be so frustrated. So look for ways of finding a mutual "yes," and save "no" for those occasions when children are trying something dangerous.

5. Keep it playful. Children lean primarily through play. You may need help with this if your parents didn't model a lighthearted and cheerful approach when you were little. The book Playful Parenting is a great resource. Your daughter's sense of humor is developing, crude though it may be. (Also be aware that some "behaviors" like throwing are a natural experimental activity for kids, a form of play that is programmed into them for the purpose of developing brain/body connections. Find plenty of "acceptable" outlets for those repeating behaviors.)

6. There will also be times when you must have her cooperation, like diapering or trips to the store, so keep a special toy that she gets to play with only at those times.

7. Here's a big one: give advance notice when you'll want her to be doing anything differently, especially when she's grooving on her activity/play. Children absolutely hate unexpected transitions. With my grandson, we let him know at least a couple of times that a change is coming ("We're going to go to the store / have lunch / take a nap pretty soon." … and then a second alert one minute before making the change.)

8. Whatever the next activity is, make it sound as desirable as possible. Give some detail about the ride in the car, or a favorite food at lunch, or sweet snuggles before nap. Be positive and enthusiastic. And be calm. Desperation will show, and even though she's too young to deliberately engage in a planned power struggle, she will quite naturally sense any cracks in your resolve. And this is where future power struggles truly can begin.

9. Try to keep demands low when she's tired, over-managed, hungry, or sick. An already frustrated child doesn't have any emotional reserves left with which to cooperate.

10. Get to know her most likely trouble-spots, and plan ahead. For many kids, it's when they want some tempting object or food they've seen. So keep those things out of sight when possible. Baby-proof your home. Be prepared with a distraction – for example, another toy she likes when you have to take something away from her, or a healthy treat when she wants a junky snack. Laughter, introducing a new game, a few twirls and bounces, hugs or tickles, a goofy song, can help break into her determination to get something she wants (that short attention span is both a curse and a blessing).

11. Avoid bribes, but let her work toward occasional rewards. Don't try to buy cooperation with "IF you'll do X, we'll let you have Y." Instead, phrase it as if she gets to assist in advancing something good for herself: "Hey, as soon as you help me get X done, then we get to do Y." It sounds like a small distinction, but it's important. It gives the child a chance to cooperate in what feels like choice, even when there's no "if" about it.

12. Be sure she gets lots and lots of physical activity during the day. Time outdoors in nature is calming for most children. If she has pent-up energy, it will have to come out some way, and unless channeled in a positive direction, it will likely to add to both your stress and hers.

13. Whatever you are trying to teach will need to be repeated hundreds of times over the next few years. That's completely normal. Attention spans and impulse control are extremely limited in toddlers. Look at your parenting contract, and you'll find it in tiny print under "I agree to the following terms and sacrifices."

14. Spanking and time-outs don't work for every kid, and will sometimes actually backfire over time. Especially with spanking: children may be scared, shocked, or shamed into cooperating, but behaving for the sake of avoiding pain isn't the same thing as developing an internalized sense of "good." Consistent, calm guidance and demonstrations of what you DO want from her will work better in the long run than punishing for what you DON'T want her to do. See more on this by googling The Science of Parenting or Emotion Coaching.

15. Pay attention to what you love and appreciate about your daughter, and make sure she knows. Children seek attention and approval, and if she knows you're noticing her good moments, she'll try to create more of them. If she doesn't get that positive notice from you, she'll seek attention in other ways, and that often turns out to be misbehavior, because you notice it.

I wish you both well. Enjoy this magical and all-to-short time in your daughter's life.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Denver on

I found the "three's" to be the challenging year vs. "terrible twos". It's tough. Kids - all kids will have tantrums. In our case, much of it was b/c she wanted to be more independent and was testing her boundaries. By setting clear ones (where you can be predictable - i.e sit in your chair at dinner..) and giving choices when we can (do you want to wear the red or blue shirt)... it gives them some room to assert independence safely. When they are hard and fast rules maintain your composure even when they can't. Explain calmly what is going on and then give them time to calm down. Don't try to rationalize during the tanturm. Don't fuel the behavior either - give them space to tell them to "have their fit and then come back to play etc). Remain calm... (this is my challenge... : )) Know it's normal development and our job is to teach them how to react appropriately and process their feelings. After the tantrum, you can ask and acknowledge their feelings. Love and Logic books are great in my opinion. Good job on the ice cream situation - quickly move forward and they do calm down.

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answers from Fort Wayne on

The best advice I can give is to ignore it. She's most likely doing it for attention. If you've given in to her demands while she's throwing a tantrum, or constantly tried to calm her down, then she knows it's working!
When she starts on her tantrum, move her to a safe place so she doesn't get hurt, and walk away. Go in the other room. Its' going to SUCK at first. She's going to SCREAM like something you've never heard before. You're going to think that she's going to hate you for the rest of her life. She won't. You're teaching her that we can't always get what we want. You're teaching her that when she doesn't get what she wants, when she wants it, there are better ways to deal with the disappointment.
When she's done throwing her fit, she needs to apologize to you for acting out of line. Explain to her Mommy said no ice cream until you eat your lunch. If you're ready to eat, we can talk about ice cream after you're finished.
I have found that if I explain things to my kids, they seem to get it better.
It might take a few weeks of walking away from her fits for her to understand that Mommy's not giving in anymore.

My daughter was a HORRIBLE eater when she was 3. I talked about it to my chiropractor (of all people!) and she gave us a suggestion that really worked. My daughter had to take 3 "No thank you bites" of each item on her plate. If she ate her 3 bites, she didn't have to eat anymore. She didn't get any treat or snack though. She was allowed to eat more of her meal, but nothing else. She wasn't allowed to get down from the table though. She had to sit at the table until the rest of us were finished eating. Now, getting her to take the 3 bites was sometimes a struggle. I tried to fix 2 things that I knew she liked and 1 thing that she thought she didn't like. It's been about a year since we implemented the "No thank you bites" rule and now she eats almost everything we put in front of her. I think the real trick is to not push the issue. Don't hound her. Don't make it a big production. Simply say "Ok, I understand that you dont' like the green beans. Take 3 bites and you can be done." You might even want to consider putting JUST 3 bites of the food she doesn't like on the plate. You can even let her help pick the menu for mealtimes.
If you don't have set meal times at the table, start. All of your meals should be at the dinner table. If you don't have a table, the living room is ok, but don't turn on the TV.
3 is a TOUGH age. They're really starting to discover their independence and to form opinions. Personally, I'll take the terrible 2's any day over the TERRORIZING 3's :D

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answers from Kansas City on

my daughter has major meltdowns if she gets too hungry, my husband does also, although being a grown up, he melts down in a different way. :-) I just try to make sure they both have something for a snack in case they get too hungry between meals. I keep crackers and fruit snacks in my big purse, and if we're at home and dinner is late for some reason, I try to give them a little snack while I'm cooking so they dont freak out on me. It drives my husband crazy, because he knows I'm right, but he hates that he can get so irrational over something as stupid as blood sugar.

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answers from Los Angeles on

Don't give in to the tantrums. I think that's the most important thing; if you give in to whatever the tantrum is, then you have just taught your daughter that it is an effective way to get what she wants. This is especially challenging in public places, but sometimes you have to cut an experience short because of the way they act. For example, we were at a bookstore one day and my son threw a huge tantrum because he wanted me to buy him something. I told him that if he didn't stop, we would go home. He cried even louder, so I counted to three; and when he still didn't stop, I picked him up and we left right away. It was awful (it happened three years ago, and I still remember it) but he realized that when I say something, I mean it. Like Andrea C. wrote in her response, time-outs also worked well for him. If he started having a meltdown, I'd send him to his room for five minutes. If he cried to try and get out of it, I'd tell him he'd have to stay even longer. Once he realized I'd follow through, his tantrums were a LOT fewer. They didn't disappear completely (everyone has their off days), but they weren't nearly as bad as they were before.

I also like what Sara B. said about low blood sugar being a factor-this is the case with my son. One time he had a major crying fest at the doctor, and I had no idea why. I finally realized he might be hungry,so I gave him a granola bar to snack on and he calmed down almost immediately. It was amazing. So see if that might be a factor, and definitely put down those boundaries of what behavior is acceptable and what isn't acceptable (and follow through immediately on the discipline if she tries to cross the boundaries). And just remember that they will eventually grow out of it. Good luck! :-)


answers from Detroit on

Completely agree with that 3's being worse than the 2's stage. AND everything that Peg M. said.

I will say that when my son goes into his meltdown/tantrum, I let him have that meltdown/tantrum. I feel that I need to do that sometimes too. That's the only way they know how to show their anger and frustration. And as soon as he's done, he'll come hug me, and I will suggest (for example), 'Now, do you feel better?' (he'll say uh huh) 'Good. Now lets decide on something to eat together for supper and THEN we can have a popcicle. How's that sound?' Usually then, he'll blurt out, 'YEAH! I want (insert food here)!'

As far as the inconsistant and poor eating habits... That too shall pass. However, you have to remember, they're just getting out of the 'feed on demand' stage. It takes time to adjust. My daughter is now almost 8 and still has days that she's 'off' of her eating schedule... Heck... I have those days still!!! : )

Poor eating habits - 2 pediatricians have told me to get them to try whatever it is we're eating. If they don't like it, don't force it. Find something they will eat and let them have it. My kids have had cereal for dinner. Or fruit and yogurt for lunch... Because that is what they would eat. My kids are now 7 (near 8) and 2 (near 3). Having them take a vitamin in the morning isn't always a bad thing. Or, my son still likes the toddler formula (non-flavored) and the Pediasure drinks. They're loaded with vitamins.

I just say go with your mommy gut. : )



answers from Boca Raton on

Just close your eyes and wait until 4, it is soooo much better!
Seriously we would do a quick healthy snack as soon as we saw one coming on (mine doesn't eat well either), if we couldn't prevent it she would get an alone timeout, either sitting in the car (with me right outside the door) or in her room and she would scream and yell but she had to get through it and then she would be fine. The timeout was also to prevent us from getting more mad. But never give in to the tantrums! It is an annoying, trying time, but 4 has been great!



answers from Miami on

Poor eater+ behavioral problems=Sensory Processing Issues. Have her fully evaluated by an experienced occupational therapist who knows how to set up a sensory diet of activities to modulate her emotions to the environment. The brainstem portion of the brain gets overwhelmed very quickly and the child goes into meltdown/shutdown mode. It cannot handle everything at once. Also seek out Brain Gym and Masgutova Method practitioners to teach you exercises that will make a huge difference in her life now and throughout school.



answers from Tampa on

No sugar, none, never none.
A study years ago showed that children choose good food until they are exposed to sugar. And that awful tv ad is correct- corn syrup is just as awful as sugar.
After Halloween- ever seen kids then? Cut out sugar, and after the initial withdrawal(yip- withdrawal!) sanity will come back to your home.
best, k



answers from Boston on

Three year olds are terrible.

I think you've gotten a lot of good advice. Sometimes it helps my son if I can lay out very clear expectations for him - i.e. we're going out to dinner, and I expect that you won't whine or cry, that you will use your polite words, and that you won't throw anything. Or "No, you can't have any chocolate milk right now butdon'tfreakout! because you can have some with dinner in 15 minutes."

But three year olds are irrational little beings with the real ability to commit to the tantrum, not like those distractable two year olds. The good news is that four year olds are generally pleasant : )

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