Thrilling Threes

What can you Expect?

Everyone talks about the 'Terrible Twos', so perhaps you were hanging out for the Threes thinking they would be smooth sailing? Well the 'Thrilling Threes' provide many wonderful aspects of development but they certainly come with their own set of challenges too.

Three year old's are meant to push against you in order to establish that they are a separate person from you. They are experimenting with a stronger awareness that their thoughts, feelings and ideas are there own.  It is developmentally normal to see strong push, pull behaviours. They seem extremely torn between being a 'big kid' and yet still craving to be babied.

Developmental Spotlight


Physical Development

  • Increased fine and gross motor control
  • Improved balance
  • Improved hand-eye coordination
  • Jump with two feet
  • Ride a tricycle or push bike (may even be competent on a three wheeled scooter)
  • Can dress themselves quite well - may need help with buttons & zips but fine motor control is improving
  • Hold a pencil with their fingers instead of fist

Emotional/Social Development

  • Increased feelings of frustration
  • Struggles to process disappointments
  • Changes in developments will inevitably lead to tantrums (TANTRUMS PEAK)
  • Increased fears - may suddenly be unsure to try things they have previously tried
  • Still struggles with sharing but will become more capable of turn taking and social play
  • Express upset leaving caregivers - even if they enjoy daycare

Cognitive Development

  • More aware & interested in their surrounding environment
  • Seek to understand concepts & reasoning
  • Asks LOTS of questions
  • Familiar with patterns, routines of daily life
  • More aware of others presence in social situations
  • Can recognise others feelings & experiences more - 'Sally is sad, she fell over.'
  • More aware of cause & effect - If I go in the puddle, I might get wet.'
  • Increased memory capacity


  • Sleep anywhere from 10 to 13 hours over a 24hr period
  • May transition from one day nap to no day naps
  • Around their third birthday there is a sleep regression
  • Delay bedtime
  • Respond well to a visual bedtime routine
  • Might begin to or continue to crave caregivers at bedtime
  • May experience nighttime fears
  • May lead to increased separation anxiety at bedtime
  • Sleep can be impacted by the birth of a baby


  • Surge in independence
  • Surge in capabilities
  • Wanting to do things for themselves
  • Wanting to do things their own way
  • Wanting to do things in their own time
  • Craves more control
  • Increased demands and complaints
  • On the flip side they  still want to be babied in  some ways (this can be more intense if you have welcomed another baby)
  • Prone to saying no even when they mean yes


  • Often understand more words than they may have in their vocabulary
  • Comprehension skills are stronger
  • Able to follow two part simple instructions
  • Talk in simple sentences
  • It will become easier for you and others to understand most of what your toddler says
  • Able to express themselves (almost too well)
  • They can tell you their needs, feelings & thoughts
  • Increased word bank in their vocabulary


  • Move from parallel play toward more interactive social play
  • Increased attention
  • Imagination peaks
  • Role play daily life experiences
  • Play out various roles
  • Get lost in fantasy
  • Enjoy pretend world play
  • Still explore play schemas but often in a mixed & more complex way


  • Some toddlers may be using the toilet or potty during the day
  • Some toddlers may still have accidents semi-regularly
  • It isn't unlikely to see some toileting regressions around 3.5 years due to cognitive growth
  • Toilet regressions can also happen with changes in routine or life transitions e.g. house move, new baby, holiday
  • Many toddlers are still wearing a nappy at night
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“I am going to ask you to do something for me, but I am going to freak out if you don't let me do it myself!”

- 3 Year Old's-

Top Tips to Navigate the Thrilling Threes

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    Remind yourself that this is an intense phase and it will pass!

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    Offer more appropriate opportunities for them to be in charge - this can be in play or in setting up the environment for increased autonomy in practical life or self care tasks 

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    Stay connected -  remind them often that they are a good kid,  having a hard time

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    When they ask questions, instead of providing endless answers, ask them what they think

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    Validate the desire underneath their 'NO'S', to be seen as their own person with their own great thoughts & ideas

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    Set & Keep Boundaries -  remain the leader, they may seem like they want to govern their own lives, but they need to feel safe in your leadership

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    Always decide where the boundaries lie and offer them freedoms within the set boundaries
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    Engage in Attachment Play to invite cooperation and allow them to feel powerful and connected

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    Provide lots of opportunities for them to be in charge of their own play too, play is therapy to toddlers

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    Always prepare them for transitions & use visual cue routine cards to help you both

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    Set aside time for yourself too reboot and recharge, threenager parenting is tough work!

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    Have predictable routines and rhythms that you can participate in, this will provide them with that sense of control they are seeking

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“Sometimes you need to talk to a three year old, so you can understand life again!”


* This information reflects some of the developments you may notice between 3 and 4 years of age, please be aware that all children develop at their own pace, if you are unsure about anything please feel free to discuss this further with any of your child's healthcare professionals.

Next Steps

Learn more about your toddlers three year old's stage of development. You may find the sections below helpful:

  • Pretend Play
  • Attachment Play
  • Toddler Toileting

You may like to revisit the videos in our Toddler Topics section too!


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