Behavioral Problems That Go Bump in the Night: Diffusing Nighttime Tantrums for Toddlers

When my eldest was a toddler, I remember calling Vivien to ask her for advice. I’d told her my 3-year-old’s behavior was out of control, and I felt like a failure.

She just laughed and assured me I was in no way a failure and that children of this age are changing in so many ways. We perceive it as difficult behavior, though the reality is that they’re not trying to be difficult.

Our babies weren’t born, plotting away while they suckled milk from us in the night. This is just another stage of growth. I know, I know. Just when you get used to handling parenting like a rockstar, something else changes, making you feel like a complete dummy.

You’re not a dummy, though. Those uncontrollable tantrums in the middle of the night and all that other weird behavior happen to us all. Here’s what you need to know about the whole thing.

Is it normal for a 3-year-old to be defiant?

Hahahahah! Normal? Absolutely. It’s so normal; there’s a reason people have called it the terrible three’s. Yes, there’s the terrible two’s too. And if you thought that would stop after you threw that third birthday party, sorry to ruin things for you.

However, this isn’t like teenage defiance.

Preschool-aged children are much less dependent on us. It’s nice to see them doing more stuff for themselves, right? But with that strength and security in identity comes a change.

Your toddler is learning how to assert themselves, which is good. But we need to steer them in the right direction so they’re not always defying everything.

Is your 3-year-old talking gibberish? Here is why!

Why does my 3-year-old have such a bad temper?

When it comes to toddlers, they aren’t quite as mentally evolved just yet. They’re still developing, so they respond with tantrums when something angers or frustrates them.

Children under 4 may have as many as 9 tantrums a week. Fortunately, the outbursts will most likely disappear when they start kindergarten.

Can you manage your emotions?

I ask as a friend because I’ll tell you I sometimes feel like I can’t. I may cry or scream into my pillow. But I’m an adult. And I know that I’m entitled to my feelings and have figured out ways to release that anger and frustration.

Toddlers, especially at age 3, don’t have this mental capacity yet. So, telling your 3-year-old she can’t pet the nice doggie at the store, which happens to be someone’s working service dog, may set her off with crying, screaming, kicking, stomping, biting, pushing, shoving, hitting, or throwing things in epic fashion.

When she’s calm, you’ll be able to tell her why she can’t pet someone’s service dog and teach her better ways to manage her feelings.

Generally, this is normal behavior for every 3-year-old child. However, suppose your toddler has many of these furious outbursts each day. In that case, they last a long time despite your efforts to manage them, or you worry they may harm themselves or others when they have tantrums; you may want to discuss this with your pediatrician.

Relevant: How to stop 14 months old tantrums and whining?

Why are 3-year-olds so difficult?

Well, when they feel a challenge is insurmountable, they may be unable to express what they want or feel like they’re being deprived of something.

It is vital to learn to spot the triggers here because it could save you some drama. Common toddler tantrum triggers are:

toddler crying hard at park
  • When your child is having trouble voicing the emotion they feel or the need they want to be fulfilled
  • Something like a toy or activity is too hard for them to understand, causing them frustration
  • They’re hungry or tired
  • Changes have thrown off your usual routine
  • Interactions with a sibling or friend
  • Not getting something they want

That doesn’t mean you give them everything they want either. We’re already surrounded by a sea of adults who were raised this way, a huge shame. Keep reading to find out how to manage it.

How do you handle a difficult 3-year-old?

Depending on what’s caused your child to throw a tantrum, you’ll want to know how to handle that defiance. These tips can help you master your 3-year-old’s behavior like a pro.

  • Try to understand

Show her you see her side of things. When she feels like you’re on her side, she’ll be more agreeable when you tell her it’s time to leave the park. A hug and simply saying, “I know it’s tough to leave when we’re having fun, but it’s time to have lunch.”

  • Enact limits

Children at this age need limitations. Tell them it’s ok to be angry, but things like hitting others or running through a parking lot are never ok.

  • Always build up good behavior

Praise makes us feel good, and for little ones, that’s especially true. So, build up that praise for good behavior. You’re likely to get a repeat performance of any behavior you make a big deal over, and that’s why when the behavior is bad, you shouldn’t harp.

  • Wait until they’re calm
cute baby cries

If discipline is needed, perhaps when your toddler hits her baby sister, you have to wait until she’s calmed to discuss things in a better way. Think about when you’re angry. Does it help when someone tells you to calm down? No? Yeah, same for me too.

Once she’s calmed, lead in with a loving statement and explain how our feelings are ours to have, but we must express them in the right way. Ask her to give you an example of a good way to express anger or frustration. When she feels like you’re on her side and approaching her with love, she’ll be able to grow from it.

What do I do when my toddler throws a tantrum in the middle of the night?

Daytime is the most common time for toddler tantrums. But sometimes, you’ll be blessed with these in the dead of night. Are you being punished?

Not exactly.

See, your child will make leaps and bounds in development by day at this age. They’re on constant overdrive, which may make for difficulties if they wake in the night.

baby on crib crying at night

As you teach self-regulation by day and how your child can settle herself and soothe herself, it may not always come to mind in the middle of the night. Sometimes, there are fears at play, a significant change like a new sibling or potty training, nap troubles by day, night terrors at night, or even separation anxiety, leading to a toddler tantrum in the middle of the night.

It’s hard work being a mama. I know. And you won’t always be able to avoid being woken by your toddler at this age. Sometimes, they’re sick, or a stressful family event has occurred, but you can work through those special instances.

For regular tantrums at night, try these tips to help avoid them.

Get them to sleep on time

This goes for bedtime and naps. The right amount of sleep can prevent tantrums at any time, especially at night. If your toddler is overtired, get them to bed earlier and ensure they take a nap during the day.

Conversely, there comes a time when naps by day are no longer needed. You can shorten them until your child no longer takes them. I recommend making sure you’re not letting your child nap too close to bedtime.

Solidify that bedtime routine

At this age, your bedtime routine should be engraved in stone. It should be a relaxing time where lights are dimmed, the bath is taken, and there is a quiet storytime. Give hugs and get out of there while she’s still awake. She needs to learn how to soothe herself to sleep on her own.

Focus on comfort

co-sleeping family

Kids can grow so fast. I remember it seemed like it was overnight when my youngest outgrew her toddler bed. Once we changed to a big girl bed and let her pick the sheets, she was so happy to cozy up in there.

Additionally, the temperature in your child’s room should be comfortable – not too hot or cold. And if outside noise bothers her, perhaps a little white noise can help. My eldest, to this day, hates when I leave her window open on a cold night. She loves the cold weather but hates the sounds from outside.

Keep programming friendly

My husband and I will never watch a scary movie or read scary kid stories before bed. If we want to watch something like that, we wait until the kids have long gone to bed. We’ve been doing this since they were toddlers because the one time we didn’t, when our eldest was little, she was too scared to sleep.

And speaking of screens

TV time and tablets can affect how your toddler sleeps. Power off devices an hour before bed and set limits on screen time. The AAP says that children over 2 shouldn’t have more than an hour of quality children’s programming per day.

A few final words about difficult 3-year-olds…

Just like every other phase, you’ll go through with your kids, this one will end too. In the meantime, try to stay calm and be a pillar of reassurance for your child. The root of this is that they feel insecure.

So, if you help your child feel more secure in herself, she will be less likely to throw a tantrum.

As a mom who has been through this stage twice, I can tell you that avoiding taking tired and hungry children anywhere has been a massive help in avoiding tantrums.

When our eldest was a toddler, we always had a stash of little snacks and juice boxes with us. We also did our best to avoid taking her somewhere during nap time unless it was unavoidable.

Doing that reduced our tantrums. Once we had our youngest, we knew what to do. Clingy as that child is, she didn’t throw as many tantrums as her sister did.

Sometimes, a hug is really all your child will need. But in the thick of a tantrum, try to stay calm and remember it will pass. I know you feel like everyone is looking at you and hates you.

Guess what?

99% of those people are sympathetic because they’ve been there too. I always offer a smile and try to help when I see a mama going through this at Target or the supermarket.

Not everyone will be kind, but that’s their problem. Obviously, if you’re at a restaurant, take your kid outside so she’s not bothering other patrons. But if you’re online at the store buying eggs and things you need, you can’t exactly just ditch the cart you worked so hard to fill up.

Sure, you could order your groceries, but if you avoid living life while raising a toddler, you’re missing out on teaching them these experiences. Kids learn by seeing and doing. They want to help as they are naturally inclined.

In this example, don’t go during nap time. Make sure your child is fed and have snacks/drinks in your bag. Then have them help you. “We need apples. Can you help Mommy pick some and put them in the cart?”

Of course, there will be other times that nothing works. In the end, though, it will all work out. Just remember that difficult stages don’t last forever.

And if it helps, just remember that in a few years, one of my children will be a teenager, and I will be longing for toddler tantrums instead!

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