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3-Year-Old Emotional Outbursts: How Best to Help Your Child and Restore Peace

Recently, my youngest son has been a little extra emotional. I caught myself looking at him the other day, thinking, “what in the world is up with you lately?” Then I remembered…. Oh Ya! He’s 3! Correctly dealing with 3-year-old emotional outbursts can mean all the difference between correcting bad behavior or perpetuating it.

While some children are naturally more laid back, it’s safe to say that tantrums, mood swings and explosive feelings will be an issue with your 3-year-old at some point.

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How you handle those 3-year-old emotions will determine how your child handles them herself. The crazy emotions of a 3-year-old are an opportunity for great child training if you play your cards right.

What’s Behind 3-year-old Emotional Outbursts?

Since the day your little one was born, you have cared for her. You’ve fed her, rocked her, bathed her, chased after her, kept her safe, and loved her.

In her developing mind, life has been all about her.

Around the third birthday or shortly thereafter, your child’s cognitive development has become (mostly) fully aware that she is not the center of the universe. She now understands there are other people, all around, just as important as her.

That’s a tough adjustment for a child to make. As she becomes more and more aware of the real world around her, accepting and adapting to those realities can be overwhelming.

Knowing how to deal with those emotions properly is a process. One that you have to guide her through if you expect her to do it well.

Fortunately, this is a child training window-of-opportunity that will largely shape who she is as she heads toward her 4th and 5th birthday! With good parenting, intention, and appropriate training, she can land at 5 years old, with a solid foundation of self-control and good behavior.

little girl having 3 year old emotional outburst while mom comforts her by holding her

How Do I Deal With my 3-year-old’s Emotional Outbursts?

Let’s walk through what the process of dealing with an emotional 3-year-old should look like.

#1. Validate the feelings.

  • Feelings are neither good nor bad. They are just feelings. It’s not “wrong” to feel frustrated when someone drives like an idiot and cuts you off in traffic. However, it is wrong to go crazy, flip him off, and yell obscenities at him.
  • When your child feels emotional (whether it’s rational or not), let him know that you see he is hurting, sad, or mad. Validating those feelings will help him understand that he is not alone. Loneliness and isolation are dangerous territories for humans to get into. Make sure your child understands he is seen.

#2. Comfort.

  • Hug your child (if he’ll let you.) Rub his back. Kiss the top of his head. Touch him. Doing so reinforces that you see what he’s going through. It also reiterates that he is not alone. He can physically feel you touching him. Touching him during a time of sadness will create neurodevelopmental pathways that teach empathy.

#3. Talk to him about his emotions (but just a little.)

  • Your 3-year-old is still too small for a whole lot of complex conceptual processing. Don’t enter into a long speech about what she’s feeling and why she’s feeling it. At this age, the best training is still – cause and effect. You’ll be far more effective to use only a few short sentences to communicate with your child during emotional times verbally.
  • Good examples would be: “I can help you feel better, but you have to tell me why you are upset.” – “You can control your feelings. They don’t have to control you.” (click here to read about improving your child’s speech)

#4. Get to the root of the emotion problem.

  • If your child will tell you what’s up, that’s great. Sometimes she’ll be too upset to talk about it. Stop and look around. Figure out what happened or why she is struggling. Is her lunch plate the wrong color? Can she not find the shoes she really wants to wear? Sometimes the feelings are rational; however, at this age, typically, they are not.
  • Your child will usually be upset over something that isn’t a big deal in the real-world scope of things. Determine if the problem is rational and can be fixed. If so, let her fix it on her own. If not, proceed to number five.

#5. Pray over your child.

  • Ask the Lord to soothe your child’s heart and provide peace as she navigates these emotional waters. Pray that as she’s leaving her last remnants of babyhood behind and stepping into big-kid-ness, she’ll be equipped to do it well.
  • This is huge. You are teaching your child that when heartache occurs (which it often will,) the very first thing to do is turn to her Creator. Give it to Him. Hand your emotions, the heartache, and the lack of understanding over to Him. That, my friend, is what teaching Faith looks like.

#6. It’s time to move on.

**This is where you have to be careful not to miss the mark. Most moms are pretty good at #’s 1-3 but then don’t know how to move past the issue.

  • Moving past the issue is where the real parenting happens. Moving on – so your child can get back to enjoying her life is tangible child training. After I’ve validated my child’s feelings, comforted him, made an effort to get to the bottom of it (fix it if possible), and prayed over him, I set a standard that requires him to move on.
  • For instance, if my child were upset because he didn’t get the color plate he wanted at lunch, I would go through all of the steps above. Once I finished praying for him, I would say, “I know you love the color green. I like green too. You can not have a green plate every single time you eat. I’m going to set a timer. You have 20 minutes to eat your food. After 20 minutes, I’ll be putting it in the fridge. You will have to wait until the next mealtime and eat it then.”
  • Then WALK AWAY. No more talking. No negotiating. Zero speeches. No threats. Nothing. Set a timer and move on. How your child will respond in this exact same scenario depends on how much child training you’ve been doing over the past 3 years.

How Long Will it Take to Get 3-Year-Old Emotional Outbursts Under Control?

If you’ve been approaching every obstacle as a training opportunity, then it’ll likely only take a couple of times before your child gets a good handle on his mood swings. If you’ve been over-talking and under-training during similar situations, it’s going to take longer.

Three-year-olds are a blast! Your little one is full of imagination, humor, and laughs! These traits are part of the budding development that is happening inside your child’s brain. However, with that development comes the not-so-fun stuff, such as 3-year-old emotional outbursts and other toddler trouble, as well.

Validate her feelings, comfort her, talk about it (a little), allow her to fix what she can on her own, pray, and then require her to move on. Lastly, I want to remind you that you are still the Momma.

When everything is said and done, consequences are acceptable and necessary. After you have walked through everything you can do for your child, and everything is said and done, negative consequences are in order if she chooses bad behavior. A good ending dialogue example would be, “you may be sad, but you may not mistreat people.”

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8 Comments

  1. Thank you, very relieving. I just prayed for him after his tantrums. I felt I was a bit too much now happy am not the only and it is notmal

    1. Thank you, I have been very frustrated with my daughter lately and other than training we have been fighting. I will start on this.

  2. It is important for the child to know that you love him/her but their are boundaries. Giving out consequences for appropriate age can be a learning experience.

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