Emotional Development of a 3 Year Old

How To Handle Your Emotional 3 Year Old with Empathy

How To Handle Your Emotional 3 Year Old with Empathy

Our eldest son is 3.5 years old now. He is such a big boy and we’re very proud of the person he is becoming. But he’s also a very emotional 3 year old (welcome to 3s). So, we are also emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted, not to mention on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Because an emotional 3 year old is a force to be reckoned with.

I know most people fear their child turning 2 (you can read about it in Toddler Emotional Development – The Brain of a 2 year old and Positive Discipline for 2 Year Olds Based on Brain Science), but I personally think 3 should be feared much more.

Your 3 year old will test you in ways, their 2 year old self never could. Your 3 year old is much more verbal, self aware, has strong wants and needs, but no sense of delayed gratification, and overall poor self-control. This makes for a lethal combination. 

Their Feelings are at the forefront and they are strong. Almost like a hurricane coming at you multiple times a day.

You may look at the way your child behaves and believe that you need to get them under control before things get worse. But before you do that, I encourage you to read my post Parental Control – Real or Illusion. You may find that getting them under control is more about tweaking their environment and understanding their motivations than bringing the hammer down. 

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But back to the nervous breakdown state we are in. It’s been pretty rough. Our son has become like the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes. He is loud, full of energy, and destroys everything in his path. His listening skills could use some improvement, as well as his follow-through.

We do our best to expel his energy daily, but it’s not easy. Did I mention that we also have a 1 year old who only sleeps sometimes? There are days when both my husband and I are ready to call it quits and let our eldest do whatever, as long as he leaves us alone.

Those days are also the most tempting for us to use the “tried and true” methods of parenting like yelling, threatening, taking toys away, etc. And those techniques are used out of desperation, not because they actually work. So, no one comes out feeling good in those moments. And I know all parents go through days like that. It’s normal but absolutely not a productive way of dealing with a 3 year old.

How Brain Development Influences Emotions of Your 3 Year Old

First let’s revisit what is happening in the brain of our pre-schooler. It’s a busy and chaotic place. The growth and development is rapid, but just like at any stage, it is not unilateral.

So while the connections of the temporal lobe (responsible for emotions) grow and strengthen like rapid fire, the connections of the frontal lobe (responsible for emotional regulation) continue their growth at a snail’s pace.

Thus still leaving your child in a state where their wants and emotions rule above all else. Their self-control may have improved slightly over the last year but most likely they still erupt at a moment’s notice. But here is where you will see the most change in the coming year – their communication skills

Up until now, their receptive language (what they understand) was far more developed than their expressive (what they can say). But now is the time for the expressive language to catch up and amaze us every single day.

Our kids will tell us new words and new sentences almost every day. We will finally be able to see more into their world and understand it better. Along with their expressive skills, their imaginations will take off, and we can sit back and watch their imaginative play. It really is a wonderful time in their life.

But wait a minute, didn’t I just mention the mental breakdown my husband and I are suffering. Yes, you remembered right. Despite there being so much wonder surrounding our son’s development, he is very difficult to be around.

His favorite phrases now are “I want” and “All mine”. It’s not exactly easy dealing with this a million times a day (a bit of an exaggeration but that’s what it actually feels like). Not to mention having a younger sibling often brings out feelings of jealousy and possessiveness in him. He is also very physical when expressing his anger and often pinches, bites or squeezes the offending person or object. Nothing is more fun than watching a toddler bite a chair he just tripped over. (Sarcasm)

Strategies for Behavior Management of Your Emotional 3 Year Old

So how do we handle our 3 year old? Well, we do the best we can. We strive to only use positive parenting techniques but sometimes slip up. We’re only human and often sleep deprived.

Naming Emotions and Feelings For Your 3 Year Old

The number one thing we have always done with him and continue to do is name his feelings for him. It’s called emotion coaching. And something that I highly recommend every parent to do. While your 3 year old’s emotional vocabulary is growing, it won’t be growing without your help. So, in order for your child to learn how manage their emotions, they need to be able to identify them first.

Having proper names for his feelings, helps my son express what he’s feeling through words and not actions. If he’s crying and can tell me the reason, I can target my response better. I don’t have to sit and guess why he’s crying. Instead, we can come up with a solution to his problem together.

His teacher also does a great job teaching him names for his emotions. She taught him more complex emotions like anxious, enraged, frustrated. It’s been very helpful for all of us.

If you want to learn how to teach your child about emotions, read Teach Emotional Intelligence to Children Through Play. I go into more detail about teaching emotions using various games and toys.

Teaching Your 3 year old How to Calm Down

But just naming feelings doesn’t fully solve the emotional regulation problem. After we name the feelings for our children, we need to teach them how to calm down.

That may seem simple but it’s really not. An enraged child will fight calming down to the bitter end. He will yell louder, thwart any physical redirection, and just continue to escalate until he reaches a breaking point.

Some of the techniques we use to help him calm down are singing a song, demonstrating calm breathing, giving big tight hugs, counting.

We also utilize a Time Out when necessary (read about how to properly implement a time out and see results in Successfully Manage Behavior With Time Outs). It works wonderfully as a reset for him. We don’t use it as a punishment, so there are no worries about how to keep him in time out for a specific time.

After he calms down enough to have a conversation, we talk to him about what happened, and try to teach him more appropriate responses.

Remember that trying to talk to your 3 year old while they’re mid-tantrum is absolutely useless! They can’t hear you! So be there for them, give a hug, a back rub, or leave them in their calm down corner, but don’t talk to them. Save the talking and emotion naming for when they calm down and ready to at least hear your words. Otherwise, you will just get frustrated and may even impede your child’s ability to calm down.

It honestly feels like talking to a wall because the effects are not immediate. But I know he’s internalizing this and eventually will be able to respond appropriately to situations. And that’s something to keep in mind – parenting is a long game. We can’t expect immediate results, and must be patient, and trust that we’re doing the right thing.

Besides talking, we use books to help explain his emotions and come up with calming down techniques. Being able to see a book character going through the emotions and making better choices helps my son visualize a better solution. Language is still overwhelming to a toddler, so having visual representation really helps.

And don’t forget cartoons like Daniel Tiger and Llama Llama. They help teach kids all sorts of useful behaviors. And it’s done by characters that kids love and can relate to. So make sure you’re using your screen time wisely. It can be a great resource.

These are the books that are a big hit in our house.

Buy these books on Amazon

If Sibling Jealousy is an Issue – Fight Jealousy with Love, Attention, and Empathy

The transition to older sibling may be a very difficult one for your child. They are likely to feel jealousy and resentment towards their younger sibling. It’s normal and expected. And needs to be dealt with with utmost love and care. After all, you want your children to get along for life. So, you want to help minimize conflict as much as possible.

We’ve been dealing with a fair bit of jealousy in our house. And to combat the feeling we make sure to give our eldest some undivided attention daily.

It is often hard to do because his little brother wants to be involved in everything. But we make sure that our eldest knows that he can ask for space and alone time with one of us. It conveys the message that even though he has a brother, that doesn’t mean he has to share absolutely everything with him all the time. He is allowed and encouraged to have time when he gets to play whatever he wants undisturbed.

It’s important for your child to know that he has not been replaced and also that attention is not a finite resource (even though it kind of is). Feeling loved and appreciated allows a child to grow and flourish. So make sure to hug and kiss and love on your child. But also don’t forget to give them some space and independent time when they request it. 

And most importantly remind them that even though they are now a Big Brother or Sister, they are still your baby no matter what! Because being dethroned from that position is painful. So, don’t treat your child as more mature than they really are. Your 3 year old may not look like a baby, but they still like to feel like a baby. And they like love and attention. So give it to them!

Good luck navigating this wonderful and infuriating period in your child’s life! I know we need it.

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32 thoughts on “How To Handle Your Emotional 3 Year Old with Empathy”

  1. Very well said! I was warned about terrible two’s but when my kid hit three it was a revelation altogether! I too practiced naming his emotions and tight hugs. They worked wonders during the times that were overwhelming for both of us.

  2. I’ll never forget when my best friend (whose eldest is 9mos ahead of mine) warned me about the “terrible threes.” Two had been pretty easy for both my girls, and she was right – having “threenagers” totally caught us off guard. Wish I’d had this informative post back then – it would have been so helpful!

    1. Thank you for sharing, Flossie. I had a friend warn me about 3s as well. So I was somewhat prepared. Emphasis on the somewhat. It’s been a ride for sure.

  3. I love these book ideas! I’ve found they go a long ways in teaching small children manners. Daniel Tiger is good too, especially if you bring up the lessons taught in the show to the child.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Shayla. I like Daniel Tiger too. I think it’s a great show and teaches a lot. My son hasn’t gravitated to it though. We’ll see if his brother will like it when he’s older.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Shannah. I like the renaming. Sounds much better than “threenager”. Has way too much of a negative connotation.

  4. I could have used this when I had my threenager. We didn’t experience terrible twos, but threes were a doozy. Thank you for sharing this helpful info.

  5. I remember thinking I was an amazing mom because my oldest didn’t have the terrible twos. But man, he had a rough 3-year-old year and I was completely humbled! We like the Little Animal series too!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Jen. I feel you. I felt the same way. My son, when he was 2 was pretty great. Almost too easy. Lol. But then the 3s hit and they haven’t slowed down since.

  6. This is SO important. I wish I had been more aware of my child’s development stage when she was 18 months to 2. It was hard for me to grasp and never studied these subjects academically. It’s so helpful when understanding that how your toddler is acting is usually a result of their developmental stage, and not an affront on you as a parent!

    1. Thank you for sharing, Catherine. Yes, it is so easy to believe that our child’s behavior is solely based on our parenting skills. Developmental stages play a huge role in their behavior.

  7. Every age has its trials, even when they get to be teenagers. When our kids were young we used to find it very helpful to discover their love language. It’s a great tool to help when trying to understand young children as well as older children with their emotional needs.

  8. I love this because we’re currently struggling with our 3 year old’s strongwilled personality lol. Thank you for this!

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