Characteristics of Three (and a half) Year Old Behavior

3.5 year old behaviour

Some time ago I wrote a post on the Characteristics of Two (and a half) Year Old Behavior. In recent weeks, my fourth child’s behaviour has become rather challenging. I was trying to work out what was going on with him and me, that could be contributing to the situation. Going over in my mind, the behaviors he had been exhibiting it came to be straight away, that he has entered another period of disequilibrium – he is the lovely age of three and a half!

Disequilibrium is the half year period before a child’s birthday, (in this instance from 3 1/2 until 4 years old) where children are confused, emotional, temperamental and may have difficulty completing tasks that they previously have easily accomplished. They then move into phases of equilibrium where they seem to have “got it all together”.

Characteristics Of Three and A Half Year Old Behaviour

Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy by Louise Bates Ames.

So I did some research on this stage of child development and came across these couple of paragraphs, which instantly gave me some heart. They are taken from Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy by Louise Bates Ames.

In fact, Three is a highly “we” age. The child likes to say “let’s,” as “let’s go for a walk, shall we?” The sense of togetherness or “we-ness” seems to make him depend on the adult and makes him lean on him or her, though he also enjoys the sense of sharing. The very child who has been so independent earlier may now ask his mother: “Help me,” “show me.”

Three is a conforming age. Three and a half is just the opposite. Refusing to obey is perhaps the key aspect of this turbulent, troubled period in the life of the young child. It sometimes seems to his mother that his main concern is to strengthen his will, and he strengthens this will by going against whatever is demanded of him by that still most important person in his life, his mother.

Many a mother discovers that even the simplest event or occasion can elicit total rebellion. Dressing, eating, going to the bathroom, getting up, going to bed – what ever the routine, it can be the scene and setting for an all-out, no-holds-barred fight. Techniques and tricks formerly useful can no longer be guaranteed to work. The mother’s equally resistant response may be tempered by knowing that soon, when he is Four, her child will have developed a self concept strong enough so that he can sometimes conform, and also that he will sometimes enjoy going out of bounds and saying and doing things he knows full well will not be permitted. But even when out of bounds at Four, he will usually be much less difficult to manage then now, at Three and a half.

How many months is it until April (he will be four then!)????? Seriously though, reminding myself of how turbulent this age can be and understanding that it is part of his developmental growth, has already given me some feeling of relief and started me thinking of better ways to manage his behaviour. I have listed below some of the characteristics and some “possible” solutions. The solutions are only “possible” because as noted above, they may work one day, but not the next, on these beautiful 3.5 year olds!

And of course three and a half is not only just challenging behaviours! There are plenty of gorgeous and fun moments in there too, so I have ended the list with some of the more endearing characteristics of this age.

1. Indecisive

Me: “What game would you like to play?”
Master 3.5: “I don’t know.”

Possible Solution: At this stage of development, going back to offering limited choices, has begun working much better. So by asking him something like “Do you want to play lego or do a puzzle?” it limits his options, but still gives him control in choosing his activity.

2. Whining

We have hit some peak levels with whining recently. But at least I know that it is completely normal for this age:

Tensional outlets increase. There may not be only eye blinking and stuttering, but rubbing of genitals, chewing on clothes, excessive salivation, spitting, tics and whining. In fact, whining is a hallmark of Three-and-a-half, and can be extremely irritating…..Emotional insecurity, which so many seem to feel at this age, may be due to a large extent on the temporary inadequacy of the motor system.

Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy by Louise Bates Ames.

Possible Solution: No solutions to eliminate this one unfortunately, but am just trying to work with him on it. I calmly state that when he asks for something, he needs to use a clear and calm voice so that I can understand him and respond only once he has done this.

3. Mum Do!

Many mornings master 3.5 is not interested in dressing himself and I am told “You dress me.”

Possible Solution: Firstly he needs to repeat the request using a happy voice and with manners. I then aim for a compromise, something along the lines of “I will do your t-shirt and you can do your shorts.” Knowing that he will move out of this stage and start wanting to dress himself again, and that there are many battle grounds at the moment, I am choosing carefully which ones that I take on!

4. Volatile Emotions

Some days it takes only the smallest thing to set of a very loud and long outburst of tears. I may have said that he can only have one yoghurt or he may break his banana while opening it and its like his whole world has just fallen apart.

Possible Solution: I find trying to reason with him at this point is completely futile. I have had the best results by implementing the hug strategy. Bringing him into me and given him a hug and holding him has helped him regain his composure more quickly.

5. Falling Over

There have been many mornings recently on the walk to school where master 3.5 seems to trip over his own feet and ended up flat out on the ground. This usually then sees an episode of point 4 above, which is generally well out of proportion for the actual injury sustained.

Thus, there is at this age much stumbling and falling. Lack of smooth interplay between flexor and extensor muscles results not only in the gross motor coordination evidenced by stumbling and falling, but also by lack of coordination in the fine motor field as shown by a marked hand tremor in many children.

Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy by Louise Bates Ames.

Possible Solution: Encouraging him to slow down. He wants to get to places first (see the next point below). I also ask his siblings not to race him on the way to school and keep that activity for at home.

6. Winning

Master 3.5 now understands the concept of winning and likes to win. Conversely he can often become very unhappy when he loses.

Possible Solution: We have had numerous conversations about games being fun and winning not being the most important thing, but it hasn’t really done anything to change the situation. As I said at the beginning, the behaviour of 3.5 year old does vary day to day, if it looks like he is having a day where he is finding things particularly hard, then I will avoid playing competitive games. Also I make sure I choose times when he is less likely to be tired – early morning as opposed to evening, to play these types of games.

6. Attachment To Every Day Items

Particular items have taken on much more significance at the moment. He likes to eat his breakfast with a “shiny” spoon and he has a favourite colour cup he likes to drink out of. Volatile emotions can be freely flowing if substitute items are given.

Possible Solution: This is another one where it is a matter of choosing the right battles with him. It is not really a big deal for me to have the right spoon or cup available and I can then take up bigger issues, like not hitting his siblings when frustrated!

7. Enforcement Of Rules

Although he may not want to always follow the rules of the house, he certainly knows them and likes to keep an eye on every one else and see if they are following them. He will quite happily tell his eldest brother “stop swinging on your chair” or his sister “you need to pack up your mess”.

Possible Solution: It is great that he knows the rules, but I am having a number of chats with him about leaving the commenting on the other children’s behaviour to mum and dad.

8. Sense Of Humour

Master 3.5 has really started to display a sense of humour. He laughs at the jokes of his siblings and has started trying to make up his own jokes as well. Naturally the tag line involves either poo or wee, but he thinks they are hilarious and it is very cute to see him join in with the older kids.

9. Friends

Recently he has started talking about his “friends” and requesting to have them to play or go and visit them to play. He also on the whole has been managing to keep it together when he has his friends over and is so proud to tell his siblings he had his friend come to play. It is quite heart warming to see him interact with others his own age and have conversations with them.

10. Love

As he looks for more security at this stage of his life, I am having a lot more “huggles” as he likes to call them and time with him sitting on my knee. I especially love it when he has just woken up and is all warm and toasty from bed. So also on the plus side to this period of development is that I receiving a lot more physical affection.

This stage in a child’s life is definitely a challenging one and like all stages, I need to remind myself that this will too pass! In the mean time, I need to focus on choosing the right battles, removing points of conflict and helping him feel secure in his environment.

Can you recognise some of these characteristics in your three and a half year old?


  1. says

    We’ve been having trouble with our 3.5 yr old too. *sigh*

    I’ve also been told they (boys) get a surge of hormone release at this age which can make them more combative. Not sure if this is gospel truth, but hey its a theory.

  2. Rebecca says


    Im sitting here with tears in my eyes…. happiness of course, that someone has recognised the same behaviour in their 3.5yr old boy as I have…

    I did many a google searches on behaviour and 2.5 to 3.5 year olds and I was presented with ADD, ADHD and ODD!

    This post has just nailed it! THANKYOU SO MUCH

  3. says

    You could have described my son at that age. I note that now he goes through stages of equilibrium and the opposite but I don’t know if I could tie it down to his age.

    We also call them huggles.

  4. says

    Wow, this is almost EXACTLY the kind of behaviour we are seeing in our 3yr4mnth old. Thank you for laying it out so clearly, I am going to direct my husband to this post because it seems he is the one struggling the most to cope with the combative, whiny, crying, fall-to-the-floor dramatics and I think it will really help him to understand why its all happening.

  5. Lee L says

    did you sneakily pop over to my house before you wrote that…LOL!

    I have a boy who will be 4 in April. The whining is a big issue, as is correctly speaking and asking for things (ie May I please have, instead of Give Me or I want).

    With both situations I find getting to his level and making direct eye contact is key.

    For the wingeing – I simply have a no whingeing clause in my house, pure and simple. If a child is whingeing about wanting a particular thing, they simply do not get it until they calm down and request it nicely. My boy does know how to do that, but i think for him that the whinging is simpler or easier than thinking about the correct words to use, even though he does know how to say it. SO they get a warning of “I think I hear whingeing” with the direct eye contact and then I leave the child to ponder for second. 9 times out of 10 they calm down and use their manners ask. Our now 9 year old daughter was treated the same way, and now she nearly always displays very lovely manners with regard to requesting things, it is great to see, especially when some of her friends who are old enough to know better rarely say please or thank you, and make demands for things instead of requests – you would swear they are worse than my 3.5yr old at times!

    For the word useage, I just look at him blankly until the comes up with the correct words to nicely ask – and then give him a verbal reward for speaking correctly (“thank you for asking so nicely” etc)and then assist him with what he was wanting.

    But both times it is within reason, there are times he may very nicely request something using beautiful manners and without whingeing, but he simply is not allowed to have it.

    This can then bring on a tantrum. Harder to deal with, but he bascially needs to lean that there are times where the answer will be no, and he then has to deal with it. He is getting better now, but still will do the full drop-down scream fest, especially if we are out.

    IN this situation he is left with a warning (Ie that is not acceptable, please hop up now and come with mummy). If he does not follow the request, he then risks having a treat or special thing taken away. I explain this in his ear so he does hear me, and now he knows from past experience that mummy will do just as she says, he generally then stops and comes along.

    The win/lose scenario is also one that can trigger stuff, but again, kids need to learn that they will not win every time, and that people won’t necessarily let them win either. Yes it is hard for them, but it is a fact-of-life lesson they must know. IN this case I talk to him about what it means to win etc, so that he can learn what being a “good loser” is. I also sometimes in advance warn him that he may not be first but that it is OK, he will get his turn and still be able to have a go, etc. This can sometimes help stop the drop-downs.

    But as impish as my little boy might be, I love him dearly, and even in amongst his mischief making he displays his clever mind with problem solving (much to my horror at times!!), and he is developing a wicked sense of humour (which fits right in with us..LOL), and is such a snuggly little guy, I shall be quite sad when he decides he is too big for mummy cuddles…!

    Anyway thanks for such a timely article – I love your blog!


    Lee :)

  6. says

    Wow. Wish this post was around a year ago – I just read through this and recognised all the things my (now) 4 yo was doing in the 6 months or so before his last birthday. Perfect and fully recommend any parent with a child the same age to study. Great hints and tips on getting over some of the difficult periods.
    PS We have some of these behaviours in the 2yo twins too and already using these techniques with them. That’ll go on for some time, while they develop these 3.5 yo habits further! At least we’re getting in earlier with the positive feedbacks! :) Thanks PQ!!

  7. says

    Ahhh … yes the old 3.5 year old behaviour! With my oldest boy, I was feeling quite lucky that we cruised past the “dreaded 2 year old tantrums” but gosh when he hit 3.5 … that was interesting! We are now also going through this with my second son! Great to see that it’s not just my little one going through this. Great hints and tips you’ve given!

    I can handle most things, but the constant whining … it’s very tiring!

    We’ve recently had a lot of major outburts/tantrums for things that wouldn’t have bothered him before. I find that it’s quite hard to help him calm down in these situations. Strategies of talking calmly but firmly, reasoning and trying to get his attention onto something else doesn’t seem to work. We’ve tried everything (it seems!!) but nothing works when he’s got himself worked up … so we have resorted to “warning” him that if he doesn’t calm down, we will have to leave. Unfortunately for me, this has happen after turning up to “public” places to meet friends (typical)! I’ve literally had to say “hi … bye” and wrangle him back into the car (kicking and screaming!)… he tends to calm down after awhile. I have to say a few times “when you have calmed down … I can talk to you”.

    I have also had to change my strategy a bit with him. Before 3.5 year old “surge” he was pretty easy going … now he will flip if he doesn’t understand what is going on. So I now try to better explain what we are going to do for that day at the beginning of each day. Sounds very structured … but it seems to work better.

    PQ – thanks for your great tips. BTW – we call them “cuggles”!!

  8. says

    I wish I had read this a few months ago. My son now 4 is finally moving out of this behaviour. And everyone tells you about terrible 2s but no-one tells you about terrible 3s (although one mother of 4 did say to me that they are 2 until they’re 4)

  9. says

    Thanks for the reminder about this – our biggest problem is the transition of activities at the moment. I think we are almost there. Who knew being a kid (and parent) was so tricky with all this disequilibrium. Hope to get a chance to check out some of your podcasts too in the next couple of weeks…….

  10. says

    oh wow.
    i needed that!
    I’ve been at the end of my rope with my little man, left wondering what has possessed his beautiful little body and soul!
    Does this mean that there is light at the end of the tunnel?
    what a fascinating balance of equlibrium/disequlibrium.
    Thanks for sharing. I will have to stop by again!

  11. Melissa says

    Thank u so much for this! I was at the end of my rope today and locked myself in my room crying! I hate doing online research because I tend to panic and self diagnose when its not necessary but this really put my mind at ease. Im so glad he’s just like other kids! I thought for sure it was just mine and that something was wrong. Thank you!!! Im going to sleep a little better tonight!

  12. Bree says

    Oh he is so normal!!!! My son that is… I was so worried last night to get this email this morning was so comforting. He may just be three but most of these behaiours are there, I was begining to wonder what I was doing wrong???? This together with responses from other Mums & with my Mum’s very gentle reminder of “remember he really is still a baby, maybe not a tiny hold in your arms baby, but a baby none the less” has made me feel much more confident to continue on as we have been (and forward this to hubby!).

  13. says

    Melissa – I am so glad it helped and I hope you have a great night’s sleep! Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment, I always appreciate the feedback.

    Bree – So lovely to see your comments here. I have had such a great reaction to this post I think because this stage can make you wonder if you have lost your parenting skills. I do keep telling myself that this time will pass!

  14. Nancy says

    Finally, I have found something which addresses where we are at. I was going to take my daughter to the doctor tomorrow for a complete blood workup. I’ve been convinced that there is something lacking which is throwing her so out of control on a daily basis. And I’ve started becoming depressed because her emotions are basically running our family. They determine where we go, if we stay, how long we stay, if we go at all, … It’s good to know that this is a stage, and it will pass. I feel like now I can make it … except for the twins coming behind her lol.

  15. says


    I think most mums have felt the way you have with a three and a half year old. My one has just turned 4 and I am seeing glimspes of a new child. Pretty soon this should be more consistent. Hang in there! Although the thought of two 3.5 years old is pretty scary!

  16. May says

    That was me when my daughter was 3.5. The worst behaviour I have ever seen, I was thinking she needed a shrink. Tantrums, hitting me, yelling, whining refusing to get dressed / let me put her seat belt on / fights about socks! But it’s been a roller coaster since then – some months golden, some horrid. She’s now nearly 4.5, and we’ve been good for a while, but time will tell if we’ve peaked and its back down tomorrow.

    I often antedotally hear that boys have hormonal surges around 3.5 – 4. However when I dwelve this all appears traced back to the same author (Bringing up boys). Leaves us with tantruming girls a little lost., even dismissed as “oh girls are easy” or that if my girl plays up, its a poor parenting issue. It’d be nice if there was some proper science on this one.


  1. […] he has done before, not even as a two year old!!!!!*****I have written on the blog before about the periods of disequilibrium that children can go through once they reach a half year point (eg, 2.5 years old), and these […]