Why Three is the New Terrible Two

Whoever came up with the term “terrible two’s” obviously never made it to the age of three. Yes, an energetic, just-learned-to use-the-word-NO two-year-old can seriously be exhausting. But what I am discovering is the closer we get to that third birthday (two months away) the word that replaces “terrible” is “DEFIANT.” Even more independent than a two-year-old, a three-year-old has opinions and can get even more frustrated about well… anything.

I’ll preface my rant with the fact that I have a wonderful child, who is very well-behaved, hilarious, a chatterbox and just plain adorable. However, let’s get real people. When that three-year-old does not want to do something, it’s either finding the exact bribe for that frantic moment or literally chasing the little monster around and forcing him to comply, because eventually, the bribes stop working. In my case it’s shoving those kicking legs into tiny pants (or putting on shoes, a shirt, brushing his hair, eating breakfast, eating lunch, eating dinner–and the list goes on and on).

What makes three so different than two is the older toddler is very aware of why they are behaving so badly. While it makes absolutely no sense to us, it makes perfect sense to them:

Mom: “Please put your pants on.”
Child (screaming): “Noooooo, I don’t wanna put paaaaaaaaaaants ooooooon.”
Mom (confused): “Why? I thought you wanted to go to the park.”
Child (calm): “Oh yes, I want to go to the park. The park is my favorite.
Mom (momentarily pleased): “Oh good, well let’s get dressed then.”
Child (pre-tantrum mode): “NOOOOOO, NO GET DRESSED. NO BRUSH HAIR, NO PUT SHOES ON, AHHHHHHHHH (running around screaming like a maniac).”

Complete irrationality.

My favorite piece of advice I get is “Oh, have you tried a little treat?” Have I tried a treat? Are you insane?!? I have a counter full of “treats” and I hope and pray every day that one of them will work, and work fast. Wasting an hour each day trying to get this child dressed is exhausting. And all I want to do when it finally happens is take a nap, NOT go to the park.

Although I am no expert, this is what I’ve learned and what seems to work for me:

Start with the Reward (not the bribe)

If you are trying to get your toddler to go somewhere, like the park or even the grocery store (which my son loves), my first attempt to get moving is reminding him how fun that place is. “Hey, don’t you want to sit in the race car cart?”  It’s about a one in five success rate at this point.

Let them Choose

I always try to let my child be independent. Offering options are almost a sure way of me getting my way and him thinking he got his. Getting dressed? Two shirts–he gets to pick. This makes him feel like he’s in control and to some extent, won that battle. This pretty much works with everything; cups, forks, shoes, toothbrushes, toys, pajamas–you get the picture.

Walk Away from the Tantrum

While I don’t experience as many knock down, drag out on the floor tantrums as most, of course, they happen. The last few months, Brendan has started screaming, out of frustration I suppose, or for no reason at all. Sometimes someone will just walk by him and he’ll scream. We just quietly laugh about it now, he’s not hurting anyone, and I can only guess that the person stepped into what he considers his personal space. So I let him scream and release any energy that needs to get out. The bottom line with tantrums is just to let it happen because you can’t fix it.

The Last Resort

This is when I’ve run out of time, out of patience and just need something to happen. These days a huge battle is getting in the car OR getting out of the car. Here are some of the go-to items I have on my counter: candy (obviously), specifically mini m&m’s, bubbles, random keys (he likes keys so much we actually bought some blank ones for fun), a small flashlight, guitar pics… and the one “prize” that usually wins maybe 7 out of 10 times, fruit snacks.

If for some reason, none of those tangible items work, I start making stuff up. I actually got Brendan to come inside the other day because I told him he could help me open the windows. Oh, the mind of a child.

Although these can be trying times, if you are a parent of a toddler, you have to admit this is a really fun age. This year Brendan actually “got” Halloween. He’s talking in full sentences, and his imagination is running wild (literally running, yelling “rocket boosters activate!”). He remembers things that happened at school and asks me questions now, like, “Mom, what’s your favorite color?” He is turning into a little boy.

So while I definitely think three is tougher than two, life is certainly more interesting than ever.


What are some of your best toddler-management Mom tricks? 

Vicky Lane
Vicky Lane is the co-owner and co-founder of Jacksonville Mom (formerly Jax Moms Blog). Since 2012, she has been overseeing the content and technical side of Jacksonville Mom. In this role, she manages over 30 writers and works closely with the managing editor to provide the most relevant content for the Jacksonville parenting community. In her previous career, Vicky obtained her Masters in Education and served as University Registrar at the University of North Florida. Wife to adoring husband John, her love for all things “Mom” began in 2010 when their son Brendan was born. Vicky chose to put her full-time career in higher education on hold to spend time with her new baby, giving her a new respect for motherhood and parenting. In June 2012, John and Vicky welcomed sweet Audrey to the family. Vicky has created an amazing circle of Moms who are continuously seeking new ways to enrich their children’s lives in and around Jacksonville. Being part of the creation of an online parenting resource and small business that serves the great Jacksonville area has allowed her to flourish in a successful career while remaining present for her family.


  1. Three is WAY worse than two! And now that my daughter is approaching four, I’m told that is even more challenging. What I want to know is – WHEN DOES IT START TO GET BETTER?!!! 🙂 And why do other moms wait until we are already struggling to say, “Oh yeah, that age/stage really sucks!” LOL

    Your suggestions are very good ones. Especially the letting them choose and walking away. Both have worked well for me.

    Hang in there, mama!

  2. Great post Vicky. Why have I never thought to make a keychain of real blank keys? My kids never enjoyed the fake plastic ones, but always want mine, and twice when they’ve had my keys I’ve walked up to my SUV with the back wide open for anyone to help themselves because my kid can actually push the button and hold it for the two seconds it takes to pop the back open. I’m off to Lowes now. Thanks.

  3. Agreed, age 3 is rough. It’s also my favorite though :). Giving Addy “options” works really well for us as well as the bribery of course. Another thing to try, the Elf on the Shelf! So far this is working at getting Addy to do nice things and behave, but it’s only day 2 so we’ll see how long it lasts 🙂

    • Haha you crack me up! We are definitely doing the Elf on the Shelf this year, so maybe we’ll have two months or so of extra good behavior 🙂

  4. Great post! So funny because we used the promise of fruit snacks to get O down the aisle at my sister’s wedding. He had just tried them for the first time the day before the wedding and became instantly obsessed. Bridget, I love that you started EOTS already! Not a bad idea.

  5. As I read this tonight I had to witness 2 super giant tantrums from my 3 year old. It’s exhausting! Great tips. I use mini Hershey Kisses and Dum Dum suckers and if I need to bring out the big guns I use Hot Wheels because you can buy a big pack of them for pretty cheap. Only 11 more months to go… **sigh**

  6. Threes are the WORST! It gets better at 5. It gets way better by 6. So far my oldest is 13, and I can say that 3 was the most challenging age so far, although 11 was a close second. In our house, girls 3s are even worse than boy 3s. My girls (who are generally pretty tough) started crying at age 3 and didn’t stop until almost age 5. The boys were just stubborn!


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