Acting Out Behavior in a Three-Year-Old

Children won’t sit down and have a heart-to-heart with you when they’re upset or angry. Instead, you’ll get a definite sign that things aren’t right when your normally placid youngster turns into something out of a horror flick. When you get acting-out behavior in a 3-year-old, it’s time to get to the bottom of the issues and help your little one feel better.

Common Behaviors

By age 3, many youngsters are more reasonable and personable than they were at age 2. It’s normal for a child this age to begin acting out if he is overwhelmed, unhappy, scared or angry about a situation or issues going on in his life. Common behaviors include screaming, temper tantrums, throwing things, biting, hitting, talking back and an inability to get along with siblings or friends. You might even notice sleep disturbances and a change in eating habits.

Understanding the Physiology

It might help to know that physiology is working against you with your little bundle of terror. According to a CNN article, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps people regulate their emotions and maintain self-control. The hitch? The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop, and in your sweet angel, it won’t even begin to mature until she hits age 4. To make matters worse, any tenuous emotional control a 3-year-old has flies right out the window whenever strong emotions such as anger or fear take hold. When she gets upset, the release of cortisol into your kid’s system creates the flight or fight reaction, often spawning a meltdown of epic proportions.

Look for Reasons

Take a close look at what’s going on in your child’s life or your family situation. It usually isn’t too hard to figure out the reasons behind a 3-year-old’s crazy behavior. Some possibilities include a recent move, a divorce or separation, a new sibling, a death in the family, starting day care or preschool, mom returning to work or a serious illness in the family. A preschooler doesn’t have the cognitive and emotional maturity to tell you how much an issue or situation is bothering him. Instead, he’ll begin to have behavior issues as he attempts to deal with issues.

Special Time

A concerted effort by parents can often help a 3-year-old feel more secure and less angry. Once your preschooler has her emotional needs met, you should notice an improvement in her behavior. Create special time once or twice every day when a parent spends one-on-one time with the child. Remove any distractions and tell your child that this time is hers. Encourage her to pick an activity such as reading or playing a game and give your little one your undivided attention. This time might be only last 15 or 20 minutes, but it can make a big difference.


Use the "staylistening" technique to help your 3-year-old move through a temper tantrum, according to the Hand in Hand Parenting website. When you see those telltale signs begin, that’s your cue to move in close to your child. Get down on your child’s level or pull him onto your lap. Wrap your arms around him and look him in the eye. Tell him that you can see that he’s angry or upset but that you will help him feel better. Let your child cry and express his extreme emotions while you hold him close. After a short time, he will have expressed the emotions. He’ll also have worked through them in the safety of your arms, so he’ll feel connected and secure, which will help him feel better in the long term.

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