Here’s Why Your Three-Year-Old Acts Like a ‘Threenager’

by Wonder Years
4 years ago


Have you come across photos of a child making faces that come with the hashtag #threenager and wondered what that meant?

The term ‘threenager’ refers to the awkward in-between stage that children go through when they reach their third birthday. They’re not a baby or even a toddler anymore, yet they still lack some of the key motor and cognitive skills that will help them feel and act like a “big kid”.

Indeed, the threenager stage really puts you on a wild hunt for the patience that you didn’t get to use when your little one went through the ‘Terrible Twos’ not too long ago. But before you entertain thoughts of responding to your child who is going through this transitional stage with your own sassiness, do remember that it’s important to show a good example through your actions rather than to shut your threenager down. 

Why Three-Year-Olds Turn Into Threenagers 

Your little one is starting to grow his/her own sense of identity as he/she tries to find his/her own voice and independence in this world.

And here, you’ll find more reasons why your child behaves that way during this transitional stage. 

1. Learning to Express and Manage Emotions 

By the time your child turns three, he/she will start to understand his/her emotions a little bit more than before. Your little one might even be able to identify his/her feelings with words. However, your child still has a long way to go before he/she is developmentally ready to control his/her emotions.

With that, you’ll find your child shrieking with laughter when he/she finds or sees something funny. Similarly, do expect him/her to burst out in tears when he/she feels sad or frustrated.

At this stage, your little one feels things more intensely than you do and this can be overwhelming at times. The best thing you can do for your child is to try your best to be patient. Arm yourself with the understanding that at just three years old, your child won’t have the capacity to control his/her emotions in the same way you do just yet.

2. Learning to Solve Problems 

You might have seen or heard of three-year-olds who hit, bite or push others around. Don’t just write this off as bad behaviour just yet, as it’s just a way for threenagers to deal with conflicts and challenging situations.

Since children this age act on impulse, they have yet to learn the difference between what’s appropriate and what’s not when it comes to solving problems and resolving conflicts. It is important to show your threenager the proper and improper way to express his/her emotions and resolve issues with others.

Children learn best by example, so guide your child by being mindful of how you respond to conflicts. It is also helpful if you talk to him/her through a challenging situation as well. 

Read also: “My Child Talks to Herself. Should I Be Worried?”

3. Learning to Emphatise with Others 

Empathy might seem like a complicated concept for young children to understand, but in actual fact, empathy starts to develop in children around three years of age. They are able to feel and relate to others when they get hurt and they are able to respond when you ask how they are feeling. 

Above all, they might also cry if they think that they’ve caused you to feel hurt or disappointed, especially if they didn’t mean to do those things in the first place. 

4. The Need for Instant Gratification 

Remember the Marshmallow Experiment conducted by a professor at Stanford University? 

How many of the children that were studied could wait until the researcher came back without gobbling up the marshmallow? 

As most of their life skills are still developing, three-year-olds lack impulse control. With that, they feel the need to do something, and you’ll bet that they’ll do it without thinking twice. 

Delayed gratification is a concept that most of us learn over time as we grow. So, it is only natural to expect that your three-year-old will learn to understand what it means and how to control his/her impulses as the years go by.

5. Learning to Play with Others

One of the most exciting parts of turning three is that your child will finally learn to play with others. This is quite a huge shift from the parallel play that he/she was doing in toddlerhood. Now, your child is ready and eager to engage with others – and he/she might even request for you to play with him/her. 

Top Tips to Survive Living with a Threenager 


By now, you’ve figured out that your three-year-old is growing up and turning into his/her own person – and he/she years to do things for himself/herself. But your little one still has a long way to go before he/she develops the skills to do just that.

While doing your best to understand why your threenager does things a certain way helps you to empathise with him/her, here are some other things you can try out to make the situation better for everyone else at home.

Live on Repetition and Routine 

Yes, having to remind your child of things constantly can get frustrating. But instead of seeing this as willful resistance, take comfort in knowing that this is largely caused by his/her inability to keep track of time the way you do.

When you recognise that your child lives almost only to the current moment and is not developmentally ready to ‘plan ahead’, the next thing you can do is to give him/her comforting routines that he/she can easily follow. Early childhood experts have confirmed that young children take comfort in familiar routines and environments as they then feel like they are in control.  

Slow Down and Go with the Flow 

As with the saying,  “If you can’t beat them, join them”, it may be worthwhile to slow down and take things as they come according to your child’s pace. For example, you can get your child to wake up earlier so that he/she has more time to complete the morning routine to lessen the frustration before preschool. 

And although you might not agree with your child’s dressing choices (mismatched socks, anyone?), do allow him/her to explore putting together his/her outfits once in a while. You’ll save yourself the stress of a full-blown argument, and this could turn out to be a laughable memory that you’ll have the honour of retelling your child in the future!

Read also: Why Kids Ask ‘Why’ – and How to Handle Their Questions

When it comes to parenting a child at this delicate age, always remember that consistency and patience always win the race. In everything that you do, try not to take your child’s words personally and take a deep breath before you explain things to him/her to avoid letting your emotions get in the way.

Like every other phase that your child goes through, know that this too shall pass and it won’t be long before your threenager is done with having meltdowns as he/she learns to express himself/herself and regulate his/her emotions.