Behavior problems in three-year-olds

Updated April 17, 2017

When it comes to early-childhood behaviour, its usually "terrible" 2-year-olds who get a bad rap. Unfortunately, the tantrums, rudeness and failure to listen continue after most children turn 3. Three-year-olds have unique behavioural problems that stem from their lack of self-control and understanding combined with their ability to verbally communicate. With patience and empathy, however, parents can usually reason with their 3-year-old tyrant.


Screaming, crying, turning red in the face; these are all signs of old-fashioned tantrums. Many children enter the tantrum phase when they're 2, but for some, 3 years old is peak tantrum time. Tantrums are usually a result of pure frustration. The child is either frustrated over not getting what he wants or not being able to properly communicate what he wants. While tantrums can be annoying and make the parent just as frustrated as the child, they are a normal part of childhood development and will eventually pass.

Lack of Attention Span

Most 3-year-olds are capable of listening to a story or having a short conversation, but compared to older children, they still have relatively short attention spans. For this reason, your child may not be able to sit still or be appropriately quiet in certain situations. She may also tend to dawdle or wander off if you are shopping or running some errands. Try to understand that your child is incapable of paying attention for long periods, and keep her out of scenarios that put her or yourself in a difficult situation.

Problems Interacting

Three is the age when many children start preschool, which means that they begin to interact with other kids their age. Throw a bunch of children who are still learning about self-control together, and there are bound to be problems. Three-year-olds are likely to be reluctant to share toys with each other, and reasoning won't usually prompt them to be more generous with their friends. Three-year-olds are also prone to bouts of physical fighting, biting, pushing and pinching. While you do not want your child to hurt other children, understand that this is not abnormal behaviour.

How to Deal

You will be able to reason with your 3-year-old more effectively than you did when he was 2, but he will still not be able to control himself in many situations. Try your best to listen to him when he tries to communicate his emotions and be empathetic to his feelings. Try to gently put a stop to bad behaviour, and discipline appropriately without losing your temper. While 3-year-olds do tend to have behavioural problems, they also have many good moments, so be sure to praise your child's good behaviour, in addition to dealing with his missteps.

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About the Author

As a professional journalist since 1998, Lisbeth Booth has worked as a writer and an editor at several magazines. Her career has focused on music and film criticism but she has also written about lifestyle topics such as parenting and home design. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Calgary.