The beginning of Three is often a breath of fresh air after the “terrible twos.” Three has an easier time cooperating and sharing with those they are close to. Three loves to be with people, make them laugh, and share stories. It is common for Three to prefer one parent over the other (which is often the one of the opposite sex). Threes love to laugh!
Three often has a positive outlook on the world and is curious to explore their surroundings and try new things. Remember when Two was so fond of the word “NO!”? Well Three has a new word in their vocabulary--- “Yes!” Three is a people-pleaser and wants to show their affections by caring for others and helping out around the house. Three’s interest in doing tasks the “right” way, so they may frequently ask for help or seek encouraging statements from others. This is a wonderful time for you to encourage Three to help you put toys away, put clothes in the hamper, carry their plate to the sink after a meal, and wipe up spills. At this stage, it is appropriate to encourage and help your Three to do things more independently than ever before!
Three is more confident in their ability to walk, run, and use their fine motor skills. Threes are better able to get dressed on their own, brush their teeth (with assistance), and use a fork, spoon, and butter knife at the table.
Three is booming in their language development. Developmental markers for this stage of communication include: clear speech, sentences with 4-6 words, use “I” and “me,” asking a lot of questions, and remember stories. Three wants to spend time with others, particularly their immediate family, and will often ask you to read to them or play with them.
Play time for Three should include a variety of hands-on activities: such as sand, water tables, and art supplies (paint, crayons, markers), as these materials will promote stimulation and integration across multiple parts of Three’s developing brain. It is crucial to Three’s development to allow room for exploration and imagination to play make believe. Three is a wonderful time to practice getting on the floor and letting your child lead in the play! You will be amazed at how imaginative Three can be.
Three has a radar for emotions, particularly those of their parents. Three has a wide range of emotions too. This is a good time to engage your Three in playgroups or preschool, as Three will be interested in playing with peers. As Three views themselves as the center of the world, they will have a difficult time putting others thoughts and needs above their own. Playing with peers or siblings often ends in fighting, yelling, or hitting. Three cannot problem solve these distressing interactions and will need the help of an adult mediator.
Three struggles with emotional control or regulation, particularly when doing a task they have little interest in (like running errands). A grocery store meltdown provides an opportunity for you to practice being with your child through these big emotions, and helping them know that they are safe in your care. Threats of leaving your children behind in stores should not be used, as Three is unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and therefore may respond with immense fear. Fear is not something to use with developing brains of young children like Three, as it can have long lasting effects on their self esteem and mood regulation.
There is a complicated part to Three.
Just as all ages have a developmental “easy” stage and a challenging one, Three becomes challenging as they are approaching Four, due to an intense shift in their growth and development. It is common that your once curious and easy-going Three will start to experience difficulties in their social, emotional, physical, and cognitive abilities, as they are approaching Four. Threes at this stage are less confident and secure in themselves, and will use whatever strategies they can to demand attention from adults. This often looks like more crying, whining, and difficulty separating from caregivers.
Older Threes are strong willed and frequently refuse to follow rules. Threes at this stage can fluctuate between loud, dramatic actions and shy, withdrawn behaviors. Three often experiences distress around meal times: when presented with a favorite snack, Three may happily enjoy it one day and refuse, scream, and deny any alternatives the next. Understandably, this unpredictability makes Three challenging to be around at times. As a parent if you find this shift challenging, reaching out to a play therapist and child mental health specialist can be quite helpful. They can help Three to learn emotion regulation and help parents to build up and support the emotional Three with parenting strategies that strengthen connection and improve healthy integration of their brains.
The brain of Three is 2.5x more active than an adult brain! This makes them prime for learning, and as cognitive and emotional growth progresses rapidly, physical growth and abilities will visibly slow down.
It is common for older Threes to demonstrate regressive behaviors; which can look like: clumsiness, frequent stumbling and falling, stuttering over words, and shakiness when holding a fork or building with blocks. These presenting behaviors are due to the tremendous changes occurring in Three’s brain. Three is also the stage for mastery of potty training. It is typical for boys to master this skill later than girls, but overall accidents will become less frequent at this stage. It is common for accidents to occur when Three is enveloped in their play, so when accidents do occur, it is important that they be treated with empathy and acceptance. If your Three is showing signs of regression in toileting, it may be a response to dramatic changes in their life, such as: the birth of a sibling, parental divorce, or possibly the result of a medical issue.
Three’s are naturally curious and this is true of their bodies as well. Three’s enjoy being naked. It is natural for Three to ask questions about body parts and be more aware of the difference between adult and child genital areas. Three will try on new words like “potty” language. It is very important that the correct words are used with Three when identifying the genital areas of male and females. Be aware that Three will pick up on parent embarrassment or avoidance of this topic. Talking about our genitals is natural, as they are just another body part like hands, elbows, penis, hip, and vulva. If your Three sees strong emotions in parents on this topic it is setting them up to have concern or fear of their own when talking about body parts. Teaching Three body safety and awareness is essential and protective for Three to be empowered to name all parts of their bodies. It is common for Three to masturbate particularly when tired or upset. It is a soothing behavior. Encouraging your Three to be in privacy when masturbating will work to decrease shame and allow them to be free to be Three.
Sexuality and gender are concepts Three becomes aware of now. Learning about differences and identifying who they are and how they are different than others. How a Three is introduced to gender and sexuality will impact them for the rest of their development. Encouraging acknowledgement of differences and all the possibilities there are with an understanding of acceptance. Will decrease the likelihood of confusion for Three as they develop.
What Three Sees, Three does.
Three is absorbing the world through modeling of behaviors, their brains take in everything they see. This is a good reminder for parents to be mindful of their own behaviors and how they are being received by Three! This is particularly true around screen use. It is so hard for a child to compete with a screen! Put down your devices when you play with Three, so that you can experience their world and build connection with your child. If you choose to allow Three to have some screen use, the recommendations for this age is to use screen time as a form of play between child and adult. If parents cannot supervise screen time, then there should be free play time instead. Let your child play! Play with toys is much more beneficial to your child’s developing brain than watching a show or playing a game that is marketed as “educational.” Children’s bedrooms should be screen free and screen time should be limited after lunchtime.
Three is a wonderful age. Taking the time to enjoy your Three, give them independence and free play to allow for their brains to develop and integrate all the information they are absorbing. Three is when healthy habits can be formed; parents can make a huge difference at this time by modelling the healthy habits that they aspire to instill in their children. Personalities are being defined and self esteem is building. Shame-based parenting skills will leave a lasting impact at this age. Strive to connect and develop a healthy relationship of respect and communication and you will be providing Three key skills to take into Four.
If you are concerned about your child please talk to a licensed mental health professional specialized in working with children, like a Registered Play Therapist.