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The Terrible (Horrible Not-So-Good Very Screechy) Threes

The Terrible (Horrible Not-So-Good Very Screechy) Threes

By Amalah

Dearest Amalah,

I have a wonderful, mostly agreeable, sweet 3 year old boy who I love with all my heart. What I do not love are some of the sounds that come out of his preshus little mouth. The screeeeeeeching and the whiiiiiiiining when he doesn’t get his way is really starting to get to me. We’ve tried ignoring him when he makes this sound, we’ve tried time-outs, we’ve taken away tv time, we acknowledge his feeling of frustration/anger/sadness. All to no avail. We constantly encourage him to use his big boy voice and words (which he has a ton of by the way. This kid is constantly chatting and telling detailed stories.) So what else can I try as a way to lessen the amount of whining and screeching? Sticker chart for good behavior? Or do we just have to wait for him to mature? Will this get better as we get closer to the age of 4 (that’s not til November).


Save my Ear Drums in Philadelphia

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: One of the main reasons I am not having any more children is because I do not care to deal with another 3 year old.

My current and last 3 year old turns 4 in less than two months and I am counting the minutes, y’all.

You’d think after three children I’d have an amazing answer to your question, or at least some vaguely helpful insight or guidance. Instead I’m thinking back to this morning, when my 3 year old started in with the whiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnning and the screeeeeeeeeching before he was even out of bed, and did not let it up for a single freaking minute until I dropped him off at school and maaaaayyyyyybe pealed away from the curbside drop off a little too enthusiastically. Everything was a problem, everything was not what he wanted, every request triggered an argument. He demanded custody of toys that were not his, he became violently and suddenly anti-sock for some reason (OKAY FINE WHO CARES), he did not want the strawberries I gave him until it was too late to eat the strawberries, and oh my God, it just went on and on.

We ignore. We redirect. We use three-minute time-outs and a star/behavior chart. We take away privileges if the behavior escalates into rule breaking (throwing toys, hitting his brothers, etc.). We send him to quiet time and often to bed early in an attempt to keep him well-rested. We offer frequent healthy snacks and meals to keep him from getting hangry. We try to stay calm and consistent. Sometimes we fail and raise our voices in a desperate attempt to just startle the freaking whining out of him, which I’m not proud of, but gaaaaaahhhhhhhhh child PLEASE.

I cannot lie. None of it really works all that well. I mean, sometimes, sure. We might win an individual tantrum battle now and again but overall we’re losing the overall “I am unhappy about something and am going to react in the most draining, annoying way possible” war.

(From what I’ve heard, he’s more or less perfectly behaved at school. Just a bit stubborn, is all. So I guess that’s good?)

So I don’t know. Maybe we are just spectacularly inept at just this one age, but after living through this three times I am tempted to say that the only way through 3 years old is through. It’s a maturity thing. Your 3 year old is like the preschool equivalent of an angsty tween, stuck in between true babyhood/toddlerhood and little kid-dom. He has many, many emotions and very little control over them, and while the vocabulary and expressive language skills are GREAT when he’s calm, they still tend to go right out the window when he’s upset and he reverts back to crying instead.

So you just have to do your best to teach him self-calming strategies, attempt to fend off the freak-outs before they happen, and keep on working and working on getting him to talk to you about what he wants and how he’s feeling instead of tantrumming. Let him know he is loved unconditionally, but set limits to what you’ll tolerate (especially out in public).

I know. That’s a garbage paragraph of advice because you’re doing all that, every day, over and over again. But you just gotta keep doing it and get through this age/stage. He will become a 100% lovely, non-screeching human being at some point, I promise. (Though I’m still waiting on my other two to hit the 100% mark…we still have a somewhat screechy household when they are all together and up in each other’s business.) Don’t take his behavior now too personally, or as a mark of your failing as a parent. He’s just 3. And it sounds like he’s REALLY GOOD AT IT.


Published April 24, 2015. Last updated August 19, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Claire

    April 24, 2015 at 10:16 am

    I have a 3yo, a little bit younger than yours, but not by much, and this is it. He’s had a language delay and we’re working on assessments and suchlike but we’re a firmly stuck in threenager behaviour. He wont do everything, or anything. He wont eat breakfast, or pee or any one of a million things you ask him to do. Then you give up and say fine, don’t. He replies with ‘I will!’ and still doesn’t sodding do it! My poor husband is the SAHP and is dealing with it more – we recently upped his nursery time to help. He’s also teaching his younger sister the same things so we have a nearly 23 month old refusing too!
    My point is this, it’s normal. I keep saying this to my husband. It is normal behaviour. It doesn’t make it easier to cope with, or less of an annoying, pain in the ass, wishing for bedtime thing, but it’s normal. He’s normal. But being utterly fed up and peed off by it is normal too! I’m just praying that the nearly 2 yo has had this phase already and we skip it in a years time… which yes, I know, utterly wishful thinking!!

  • Stef

    April 24, 2015 at 11:53 am

    Yes. This. OMG 3. I cannot wait for 3 to be over. Forget cherishing every preshus moment, 3 is just not my jam.

    I though we got off the hook when our oldest seemed to be such a mellow 2yo but nope, just saving all his drama for 3. Sometimes, in fleeting moments, I can see the rational and reasonable child he will eventually mature into, but most of the time all I can see is the drama of 3. When they have ALL THE EMOTIONS at once and it’s just so overwhelming and hard.

    Patience. Alcohol. Naps. All our friend. We also upped his daycare/preschool for the sake of all our sanity.

    Best of luck surviving the threenager. At least it’s giving a good preview for what the teenage years will look like?

  • Tiffany

    April 24, 2015 at 1:52 pm

    Yes to all of this!! It’s my personal opinion that it’s no coincidence that preschool starts at age three, because (even back in the days before daycare) that’s the age when you all start needing a little breathing room from each other! 
    And then they turn 4/5 and they’re an absolute joy, and now I hate sending them to kindergarten all day! It’s not fair!

  • trish

    April 24, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    I am also waiting for my 3 yo to age into 4. The thing I hate most about this age is the completely irrational insistence that he has to be “first” every time. My 5 yo did the same thing at this age and it was at the root of such a huge proportion of the freak outs. 

    now my 5 yo can be convinced to let the 3 YO go first sometimes, but it’s not fair to be holding him back all the time. And, yeah, the 5 yo just is faster running, on the bike, etc. 

    • Kate

      April 26, 2015 at 10:26 pm

      You just described my life right now. We had at least 3 freakouts today from the 3.5 year old  because her almost 6 year old brother is faster than her. 

    • C

      April 28, 2015 at 4:14 pm

      My son has been 4 for 2 months now, and I see no end of the three’s in sight. He also still poops in the bath on occasion. Awesome.

      • Caroline

        April 29, 2015 at 11:52 am

        What’s the consequence for the bath-pooping? A 4 year old, unless ill or seriously caught short, can definitely be expected not to crap in the bath.

        • C

          May 7, 2015 at 11:57 am

          He’s not trying to make a statement or be defiant by pooping in the bath, Caroline, so there’s no “consequence”. Of course we expect him not to poop in the bath, and generally doesn’t, but we also recognize that kids don’t always pay attention to their body’s signals when they’re doing something they enjoy and have accidents.

  • Lauren

    April 24, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    Threenagers!!! It’s not so fun. I’m right there with you– our phase may have just ended? But we did the same things Amy recommended and that you are already doing. Good luck!! And find some one else to care for them for a few hours. A break works wonders!

  • chelsea

    April 24, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    This maybe isn’t the most top notch parenting, but sometimes it worked for me, and it made me feel a little better.
     I wouldn’t do this all the time, but every now and again I would whine back at mine, just kind of mimic him so he could see how it looked. Often it was such an opposite reaction of what he was expecting(time outs, ect) he’d laugh or snap out of it.
    If he was really upset I wouldn’t do this, just those whinnnning times. 
    I actually still do this sometimes (he’s 5.5 now) and he’ll take on the parent role- we act out his frustrations with me being the irrational one. Its hard to see beyond your own rage sometimes, especially when you’re small.
    3 is hell, God speed.

    • M.

      April 24, 2015 at 4:53 pm

      I do this too! My daughter often starts down the road to tantrumville with “BUT I WANT TO DO IT” and sometimes I can head her off at the pass by saying over her, “no I want to!” every time she starts to whine. I just keep repeating it and being silly, and it usually gives her the giggles.

      And then there are the times when I just turn around, roll my eyes, and walk away.

  • Jeannie

    April 24, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    I”m just replying because Amy’s first sentence made me laugh out loud (in my office, at work). I love my kids as do you all, of course, and they are now 9 and almost 5, and you could not pay me enough to do three over again. I love babies. I love toddlers, and school age kids are a total joy (most of the time). But I gotta say it: three is the one age I could really do without. Yes, sure, there were plenty of nice times. But three was the only time my kids threw full out tantrums, and I am still scarred.

    My only advice is, unfortunately: four is better. Keep on doing what you’re doing, because it absolutely will pay off. Just … not for a couple more months.

  • kimm

    April 24, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    Shop for some cool stickers together and start a sticker chart, draw a line on it to show how many he needs to earn a special toy, game on his leap pad, etc and use it every day, it helps. We call it the YES chart cause if he says no he does not earn a sticker. We just put brush teeth, eat supper, TT in potty, basic stuff BUT he only gets a sticker for doing each thing without saying NO. It helps sometimes:)

  • elizabeth_k

    April 24, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    What Amalah said. Whoever said terrible twos is wrong, wrong, wrong — all three of our two year olds have been charming. We are only 6 months into our last three year old, and I often say to my husband, “Is it possible the third three year old is the one that will do us in?” Four is infinity better, and we are just counting down the days, and appreciating the rare sunshine moments when they happen … 

  • Sara

    April 24, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    I needed this tonight! I have a 3 1/2 year old who is awesome most of the time, but today…was a day. It helps me to be reminded that the totally irrational meltdowns are normal and will mostly pass.

  • Brigitte

    April 26, 2015 at 3:31 am

    I heard somewhere that whining is actually a sign of maturity and progression.  That’s what they do when they’re trying desperately *not* to throw a tantrum. So maybe the next time you hear whining, realize that this is one less tantrum and one step closer to maturity, and hopefully it will soften your heart toward him a bit and help you to handle it with your best self on board.  Meanwhile, just hang in there.  It will pass.  I agree, the only way past whining is to wait it out.

  • Mona

    April 26, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    I agree, the only way through three is… Through. I think they’re all in the grip of temporary insanity and there’s no sense in making yourself crazy trying too hard to correct the behavior- it tends to fade away with normal corrections and mostly time.
    My second three year old is the sweetest and the funniest ever and also the most stubborn person on earth. Don’t get me started on how he has to “pick one” of everything from jelly beans to crackers. Never mind it’s a box of identical stuff.
    Also, while I was reading this he rolled up, shrieked, stole my phone and hurled it across the room.

  • S

    April 27, 2015 at 5:36 am

    Yeah. Those things. I have three-year-old twins.

  • April

    April 27, 2015 at 9:19 pm

    Is my 2.5 year old secretly 3 or does what’s happening now (which sounds just like this) actually get worse? God help me!

  • S

    April 28, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    It gets worse! But also at 3 they start being able to actually talk through their emotions behind it all and that’s super awesome to hear/super guilt inducing.

  • Caroline

    April 29, 2015 at 11:50 am

    I find flatly ignoring them – assuming they are in no danger, of course – works. It takes time, but once they learn that they get nothing, they tend to stop. So for example, ”hystericalhystericalhysterical” Me …. ….
    If it goes on too much I tend to gently place the child in his room and shut the door. If it’s something obviously fixable or that is a fair enough reason to be upset, I do a bit of consoling and redirecting, but for the tantrum madness, no. Just ignore them and / or put them somewhere safe and with a shut door so that you don’t have to listen. Takes about… a month before they twig that this genuinely is the consequence and no one cares about their screaming.

  • Amie

    May 6, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    No advice, just commiseration. My 3yo is also very, very good at being 3.