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Understanding Your Three Year Old

Help! There is a Threenager in My Home!

As your child transitions from 3 to 3 ½, the cooperative, easy going attitude of your child seems to evaporate overnight and is replaced by a child that is more demanding, controlling, and rigid.

Welcome to the threenage period of growth!

Many parents welcome the calmness and stability in their 3-year-old that appears after completing the “Terrible Twos” stage of development, but this period of stability is unfortunately short-lived and as the child gets older and approaches the age of 3 ½, they rapidly enter a new phase of development, causing an abrupt shift in mood and behavior.

A good word used to describe most 3 ½-year-olds would be insecure. Children at this phase of growth experience instability in all areas of their development, including social, emotional, physical, and cognitive. Three and a half year olds are much less secure within themselves, often leading to increased bouts of crying, whining, increased need for attention and reassurance, and difficulty separating from caregivers (even when they went with others easily at 3 years). The insecurity 3 ½-year-olds experience causes difficulties in their relationships with others, with an increased need for reassurance from Mom or Dad that they are loved and accepted despite all their high demands. Three and a half year old children are demanding of attention and often become extremely jealous of any attention given to other family members- especially the younger baby.

Tensional outlets can be exaggerated for this age group as 3 ½-year-olds display more of a need to self-soothe and self-regulate through any means available: blinking their eyes, biting nails, picking their nose, pulling hair, masturbating, or sucking their thumb excessively. This is also the age that some anxiety behaviors may begin to manifest, as the child feels extremely insecure and lacks confidence in his or her abilities. The emergence of tensional outlets usually signifies something distressful for your child, and they use these behaviors as a way to self-soothe and calm their brain.

The difficult period of insecurity, disequilibrium, and incoordination at 3 ½ may only be temporary in some children, and may be long and extremely challenging for others. Although situations in the environment may contribute or exaggerate this phase of growth, most children will enter this period of insecurity completely on their own based on their age and innate drive towards greater maturity. As parents, it is helpful to see this phase of growth as a necessary step to help the child gain security and confidence so they are able to be curious and expansive when they approach the age of 4.

The incoordination of this age period may extend into all areas of the child’s life and in all fields of behavior. It is common for 3 ½ year old children to lose muscle coordination and stability previously gained at 3 years, causing the child to trip, stumble, or fall more often. Sustained fine motor coordination is difficult for these children as they tire easily, with some children even developing a slight hand tremor as exhaustion sets in.

Incoordination interferes with the 3 ½-year-olds language development. Stuttering is common among 3 ½-year-old children, even if they did not stutter before at 3 years. Parents are encouraged to be patient with their child and allow the child to finish his or her statement without being rushed, as the child is most likely experiencing great frustration as they are not able to state his or her needs as quickly and smoothly.

Strategies for Living with Threenagers

1. Give extra one-on-one time

When parents are understanding of their child’s difficulties and see them as developmentally appropriate and necessary stages of growth, parents are able to show the child extra affection and understanding which the child so desperately needs at this age. Giving your child a little extra one-on-one time will go a long way during this stage. This helps to combat the feelings of insecurity your child is experiencing and helps to develop the child’s inner sense of worthiness, competency, and greater security. The more connected children feel to parents, the more secure they feel within themselves.

2. Streamline Routines

Just as you did when your child was 2 ½, streamline as many things as possible for your child at this age. Three and a half year old children are simply not secure enough to handle choices all the time- sometimes they need a parent to take control and help them accomplish tasks. Children at this age are able to hold in their mind 3 steps or instructions- so try to keep all routines and requests to 3 things total. It also helps having the same plate/cup/etc that your child uses each time, so you don’t even begin the battle of your child choosing one over the other.

3. Maintain Your Level of Patience and Empathy

As difficult as it may be, this stage is vital for parents to remain accepting and patient with their 3 ½-year-old. Parents that are able to remain attuned to their child and can respond to their child’s demands with empathy in mind are able to safeguard their child from emotional, social, and behavioral obstacles typical of this age. Through empathy and attachment, parents help nurture the insecure 3 ½-year-old so that they can continue to grow into a rich stage of fantasy, imagination, and playfulness that enters full force at 4 years old.

Laura McLaughlin is the Founder and Therapist at HeadFirst Counseling in Dallas, TX. Laura works with children, teens, and parents to foster secure attachments and create an environment for families to thrive. Read more about Laura and HeadFirst Counseling at

Laura can be reached by contacting the HeadFirst Office at (469) 665-9416 or

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