3 Year Old Tantrums (Is This Behaviour Completely Normal?)

By Paula McLaren •  Updated: 09/21/22 •  11 min read  •  Preschool » Preschooler Boundaries

Tantrums in 3 year olds can be very stressful for parents…

How does a child manage to produce such a loud continuous scream?!

Surely tantrums shouldn’t be happening at this age?

But some kids just LOVE to kick, wail and cry! (Right in the middle of a shopping aisle too…)

So why do tantrums in 3 year olds happen and how can we try and stop these 3 year old tantrums from happening again?

What Is A Tantrum?

Are 3 Year Old Tantrums Normal?

Yes, 3 year old tantrums are completely normal.

Children of this age are bursting with big emotions and an ever-increasing desire for independence. 

Their frustration and inability to communicate what they want, how to express themselves and how to control their emotions will often result in 3 year old tantrums.

Why Is My 3 Year Old Suddenly Having Tantrums?

There are lots of triggers for 3 year old tantrums. If your little one is suddenly having tantrums check to see if they are feeling any of the following:

1. They are tired. 3 year olds will often throw tantrums if they get overtired. It is very easy for this to happen especially if they have started nursery school or are fighting their afternoon rest time.

2. They are hungry. It is important that your 3 year old gets three regular meals a day supplemented by healthy snacks if necessary to avoid them becoming hangry.

3. They are frustrated. If your 3 year old is not developing appropriate self-regulating skills or does not have adequate language skills to express what they want, they may become aggressive and frustrated leading to a full-blown tantrum.

4. They are trying to cope with a new big event. Many 3 year olds will struggle with a big life event such as the arrival of a new sibling, moving house, starting nursery school or moving from a cot to a bed. Any of these events can trigger an increase in tantrums as they navigate new emotions and situations.

TOP TIP: Your approach to tantrums should be both about teaching your child preventative self-regulation skills as well as understanding how to stop them from happening.

How To Handle 3 Year Old Tantrums

Most 3 year old tantrums are a result of frustration and the desire for independence but the lack of ability to self-regulate these emotions or communicate their wants and desires adequately or appropriately.

6 Steps For Handling 3 Year Old Tantrums Anywhere

1. Stay calm no matter what. This is the hardest part of handling tantrums in 3 year olds. But taking a deep breath and staying calm is key to preventing a tantrum from escalating.

2. Acknowledge their frustration and anger. Tantrums usually occur when your little one feels ignored, unheard or misunderstood. So acknowledge their anger or frustration with minimal words or some helpful emotion flashcards.

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3. Talk in a slow low voice or not at all. Use as few words as possible. 3 year olds are looking for you to lose your temper and give them a reaction. Sometimes it is best not to say anything until the tantrum has passed.

4. Move your child to a safe place, if possible. If you can, move to a safe place where your child cannot hurt themselves, you or anyone and anything else.

5. Remove the audience, if possible. It can feel very embarrassing to have your child throw a tantrum in public so if you can, remove them from an audience. This allows you to concentrate on them without worrying about what others are thinking and very often, without people around your little one’s tantrum will lose momentum.

6. Wait it out and chat about their feelings afterwards. You cannot force a tantrum to come to an end. Nor can you expect your toddler to listen to you in the middle of a tantrum. Therefore, wait it out and sit down and have a chat about what happened afterwards. Talk about why it happened and help your 3 year old understand that there are more acceptable ways to express their feelings next time.

7. Don’t give in or negotiate. And I mean NEVER give in to a tantrum. Even if part way through you feel you may have denied them something that they could have had or done…Once you have said ‘no’ you must see it through. If you give in to a tantrum you reinforce that this behaviour gets results.

8. Do not leave them alone. While you may be tempted to walk away… do not leave your tantrum throwing 3 year old alone.

9. Never punish a tantrum. Punishing a tantrum will not stop them from happening again. Instead, talk about the incident afterwards and how better to handle extreme emotions in the future.

How To Prevent 3 Year Old Tantrums From Happening

Prevention is always better than reaction.

And having some tricks up your sleeve to prevent 3 year old tantrums from happening in the first place is hugely beneficial for the whole family.

9 Ways To Prevent 3 Year Old Tantrums From Happening

1. Create a calm-down corner. Having a safe space where your 3 year old can go when they feel things are getting too much can be hugely beneficial to help them reset their emotions. A canvas tent, cushions and a few cuddly toys is great place to start.

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2. Practice teddy bear breathing. This is a fun way to get your little one to practice deep breathing. Balance a teddy bear on their tummy and give it a ride with the rising and falling of your child’s breath. It is a great idea to make this part of the bedtime routine when they are lying down in bed.

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3. Utilise emotional development toys, books and flashcards. These are excellent ways to get your little one to talk about their emotions in a healthy way. They will give you an insight into how your child is feeling and will give them the essential verbal tools to express themselves in a healthy way.

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4. Lead by example by modelling good listening. Leading by example and listening to your child first will go a long way in avoiding unnecessary tantrums in 3 year olds.

5. Always remain empathetic to their emotions. Your child needs to know that what they are feeling is not bad but perfectly normal and that we all struggle with strong feelings. Encouraging and helping your 3 year old process these emotions is what is most important and they will need your constant patience, understanding and support as they learn how to handle strong emotions.

6. Praise your child when they manage their emotions properly. When your child successfully processes or navigates a situation that could have resulted in a tantrum ensure that you give them plenty of praise and encouragement. Reinforcing a good outcome will definitely help to reduce tantrums moving forward.

7. Maintain a happy and positive family atmosphere. 3 year olds are very sensitive to their environment and the happier and calmer their surroundings are… the fewer tantrums they will have.

8. Ensure your child has a healthy age-appropriate sleep schedule and regular bedtime routine. Sleep and emotional behaviour go hand-in-hand. Help your child to maintain a consistent sleep schedule and bedtime to limit the possibility of overtiredness causing any tantrums.

9. Give your child the words to express their feelings. Very often tantrums are a result of your child’s inability to vocalise how they are feeling. Make sure there are plenty of opportunities for your 3 year old to talk about their emotions and give them the words to express themselves.

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What Is The Difference Between A Tantrum And A Meltdown?

The main difference between tantrums in 3 year olds and meltdowns is that:

Therefore, during a tantrum, your child will still have some element of control over their behaviour and the tantrum will usually end once they have got what they want.

But with an emotional meltdown, your child will struggle to calm down and will only do so once they have been removed from the situation that caused the meltdown in the first place. 

However, some tantrums can turn into meltdowns if they go on for a long time…

Characteristics Of A Tantrum:

Characteristics Of A Meltdown:

TOP TIP: If you suspect that your 3 year old is experiencing meltdowns instead of tantrums, click here to get specific advice on how to handle emotional meltdowns in young children.

When To Seek Help For 3 Year Old Tantrums

In some cases, tantrums in 3 year olds can be an indication of an underlying condition linked to the child not being able to process emotions effectively. 

If you notice any of the following signs, then I would advise having a chat with a medical professional to see if an emotional assessment would be useful:

Frequently Asked Questions About 3 Year Old Tantrums

Need more advice about 3 year old tantrums? Get the answers to the most common questions here: 

How Long Do 3 Year Old Tantrums Last?

A 3 year old tantrum can last anywhere from a few to 15 minutes. 

If your little one is consistently having tantrums that last longer than this you should consult a medical practitioner to see if an emotional assessment would be appropriate.

How Do You Discipline A 3 Year Old Who Doesn’t Listen?

I am not a fan of using the word discipline when dealing with young children. 

I prefer to use guidance. 

Young children need to learn the art of listening. 

You cannot expect them to listen without teaching them how. 

The best place to start is to lead by example and listen to your children first.

Only once you have put these strategies for learning how to listen and have given your little one the best opportunities to listen can you look at the consequences of not listening. 

REMEMBER: Once you lay down a consequence for not listening, it is important that you always follow through.

Should You Ignore A Child Having A Tantrum?

Yes and no.

You should not try and engage in conversation while your child is having a tantrum. 

And apart from ensuring your child is safe you should do little else until the tantrum has passed.

But staying close by is also important as your 3 year old is likely to gravitate towards you and look for comfort once the storm has passed.

TOP TIP: Sit down on the floor nearby and read a magazine or check your messages on your phone while your little one is having a tantrum (while keeping an eye on what they are doing, of course). This gives a clear message that you are totally unbothered by what they are doing and can often bring a tantrum to an end very quickly.

Do 3 Year Old Have Tantrums On Purpose?

Most 3 year old do not have tantrums on purpose.

By 3 years of age, your toddler will know the difference between right and wrong but will still struggle to handle strong emotions at times.

Dealing with our emotions is a lifelong lesson. 

Your 3 year old is at the start of this journey.

Sometimes they will get it right and sometimes they will not.

However, if you give in to tantrums and your 3 year old learns that they work… they may well see that as their default way to get what they want and then the tantrum-like behaviour will become a habit.

Further Reading

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Paula McLaren

Paul Mclaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the child care industry as a Norland Nanny since 1982. Since then, her mission has been to help parents become the best they can possibly be. And each year, she continues to help more families understand their child's development, the trials and joys of parenting and of course, how to care for their little ones.

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