Behavior Problems in Three-Year-Olds

By Beth Greenwood
Three-year-olds usually enoy interacting with adults and other children.
Three-year-olds usually enoy interacting with adults and other children.

After you and your child have survived the “terrible twos,” you might think the next year starts smooth sailing. Three-year-olds still struggle with self-control and the need for independence and may revert to tantrums or other behavior when stressed, tired or hungry. It helps to know what normal 3-year-old behavior looks like. Although serious behavior problems are not common, potential trouble signs help you determine when you might need professional intervention.

Signs of Normality

By the time your child is 3, normal behavior should include signs of affection and concern for family and friends. Most 3-year-olds have grasped the concept of taking turns in games. Your 3-year-old should exhibit a range of emotions, and although Mom and Dad are the primary people in her world, she should separate easily from you. Three-year-olds can get upset with major changes in routines and often resist parental authority, use the word “no” frequently or have temper tantrums.

Temper Tantrums

An occasional temper tantrum is a normal part of a 3-year-old’s behavior, especially if he’s tired or hungry. Some signs point to other issues, however. Repeated melt-downs in the course of a day, inconsolable crying or tantrums that occur frequently raise a red flag. This sort of behavior could be a reaction to high levels of family stress, such as a death in the family, parental fighting or a divorce. Children who are ill or in pain might also be more prone to temper tantrums. Determining what's causing the problem is key to resolving it; seek professional help if necessary from a pediatrician or pediatric psychologist.

Aggressive Behavior

Three-year-olds might use aggressive behavior, especially if provoked. At this age, your child hasn’t developed the self-control to calmly discuss why it’s a problem when Johnny steals the toy your child has been playing with. A typical 3-year-old reaction is to grab the toy back and maybe give Johnny a smack in the process. Some 3-year-olds bite instead of hitting. A 3-year-old who handles all frustrations by kicking, hitting and biting, however, may have something else going on. A child who deliberately destroys things or harms pets is showing problem behavior. If you are concerned that your child is overly aggressive, talk to your pediatrician.

When Children Are Abused

Abuse impacts your child’s behavior. Children who are abused may regress -- return to behaviors they have outgrown -- such as bedwetting. A 3-year-old may suddenly lose acquired language skills, or become fearful of people or certain places. Abused children may also develop sleeping or eating problems. Children who are sexually abused may begin acting in a sexually explicit way. Any of these signs are cause for concern, especially if they begin suddenly or occur soon after a change in routine, such as new child care arrangements. If you are concerned that abuse may be a factor in your child's behavior, talk to your pediatrician or a mental health therapist immediately. (ref 5)

Other Issues

Three-year-olds may display other kinds of behavior problems. At times, they may be defiant and challenge parental authority by refusing to go to bed or leave the DVD player alone. The parents' perceptions or personality may also influence how they see a child's behavior. Parents who value structure and order may have more difficulty with the natural messiness of a 3-year-old. The parents' attempts to enforce neatness may provoke a behavior outburst.

Lying is not uncommon in 3-year-olds, who have not yet learned to distinguish between fact and fiction. Some may also experiment with the swear words they hear from adults. No matter what the problem behavior is, however, if it is pervasive, frequent and severe, consult your pediatrician.

Intervene Early

Parents often worry about a child’s behavior. The parents may not take action because they aren’t sure if there’s really a problem or they’re afraid their child may be labeled or stigmatized, particularly if a professional evaluation finds a serious problem such as a learning disorder or mental illness. Early intervention is key to dealing with serious behavior problems, according to the Child Mind Institute website. Trust your instincts -- if you are concerned about your child’s behavior, consult a medical or mental health professional.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.