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How to Handle a Stubborn 3-Year-Old

by Daisy Peasblossom Fernchild, studioD

Your 3-year-old is stubborn because it is characteristic of the age group. At the beginning of age 3, your child might be cooperative and friendly. But about halfway through that third year, her motor skills become uncertain and she develops new fears about her world, says Louise B. Ames, author of "Your Three Year Old, Friend or Enemy." Add a desire to control her surroundings, and she becomes a challenge.

Maintain awareness of your child's physical changes. Growth of the flexor and extensor muscle can cause a slight loss of coordination around age 3 1/2 years. Children who could formerly complete a stack of blocks may have trouble because their hands shake, or they might fall down more often. This moderate regression can cause the child to feel unsure when performing large-motor physical tasks, such as stair climbing. Her desire for you to hold her hand or carry her might be a developmental adjustment, rather than stubbornness.

Listen to your child. Threes are developing an excellent grasp of language, and they love to talk. Use dialogue such as, "I like your picture, but I'm not sure what is going on. Can you tell me about it?", then listen to what she tells you. Validate her fears by saying things like, "You want the light on? Oh, so it will keep the monsters away." Let her take control of the conversation while you are doing routine tasks. This gives you both a comfortable way for her to have control some of the time, while letting you know what is going on in her mind.

Leave your child with a sitter, relative or friend when you go out, if your child develops a habit of throwing tantrums in public places. This gives you both a break from each other and the power struggles that are common to the middle part of the third year. Ames suggests that if you are a single parent, or if you do not have the resources to hire a sitter, connect with other parents who might be willing to trade childcare occasionally.

Maintain a general routine for eating and sleeping, but allow your 3-year-old some choices. This is about the time that some children stop taking naps, so you might offer to let her look at books or watch an age-appropriate video instead of sleeping at her former nap time. Use distracting techniques, such as telling her about the good things that are going to happen today while you are helping her get dressed. Avoid mealtime battles by keeping healthy snacks available. Engage in a shared activity at bedtime, such as reading a book together, to help her settle down and to assure her that she is your well-loved little girl.


  • Remember that age 4 is usually a better year, developmentally, than age 3.
  • Remain at hand for safety, but allow your 3-year-old to do things for herself.

About the Author

Daisy Peasblossom Fernchild has been writing for over 50 years. Her first online publication was a poem entitled "Safe," published in 2008. Her articles specialize in animals, handcrafts and sustainable living. Fernchild has a Bachelor of Science in education and a Master of Arts in library science.

Photo Credits

  • Christopher Robbins/Digital Vision/Getty Images