Is there such a thing as the terrible threes and fours?

Is there such a thing as the terrible threes and fours?
Does your child constantly argue with you and try to negotiate? Do the terrible threes and fours really exist?

Many parents of 3- or 4-year-olds notice that their child is constantly arguing, negotiating, and questioning the rules. Is it possible that the terrible twos are a lead-in to the terrible threes and fours?

Teenage-size tantrums

Around the age of 3 or 4, some children go through a sort of mini teenage crisis. This stage of development is less well defined and researched than the terrible twos, but many children experience it. Your child may start to argue with you and question the rules on a daily basis.

This stems from the fact that your child can express themself far better than before. They’re now able to verbalize their tastes, preferences, and desires. What’s more, they’ve learned how to negotiate to get what they want.

Examples of behaviour at age 3 or 4

Your child wants to do things by themself

However, they still have trouble with certain tasks and often need your help (e.g., getting dressed). This can lead to frustration, as your little one’s desire for autonomy is greater than their actual abilities.

How to react

Give them age-appropriate responsibilities. For example, ask them to choose between two outfits in the morning or to help you set the table. This way, you can acknowledge their growing autonomy and give them a sense of pride.

They understand rules and instructions, but don’t always follow them.

Your child may also want to change the rules of a game, especially when they’re losing, or insist on continuing to play even though you’ve asked them to clean up.

At age 3 and 4, children still need your help as they learn to assert themselves, follow rules, and manage their emotions.

How to react

Repeat the rules as many times as necessary. Your child is still struggling with impulse control and may also want to assert their independence. When they question the rules of a game or in your household, explain why the rules are necessary. This will help your child understand the reasons behind them. For example, explain that they’re not allowed to run after their ball if it rolls into the street because you want to keep them safe. 

They try to negotiate or test boundaries when you make a request.

For example, your child might refuse to put their toys away while arguing that they’re just going to play with them again later. Or they might sulk and refuse to take their bath when you ask them to.

How to react

Reiterate the rules and don’t give in to your child’s behaviour. Your little one will understand that the rules are important to you. Plus, knowing that the rules never change will actually reassure them. To get your child’s attention, crouch down so you can look them in the eye when you speak.

These behaviours usually ease up around the age of 5 or 6, when your child understands a little better that rules are necessary to ensure things go smoothly, whether at home, at daycare, or at school.

Valuable lessons

How you respond to your child’s behaviour can go a long way in helping them develop their social skills. At age 3 or 4, they like learning with you and see you as their role model.

Little by little, your child is beginning to do the following:

  • Understand that rules are essential to ensure everyone feels respected
  • Listen to adults and participate in family and social life
  • Be more independent and do more things without help
  • Speak calmly instead of shouting when expressing a need or desire
Do not resort to physical punishment
Even when kids misbehave, physical punishment (hitting, shaking, shoving, etc.) is not an effective form of discipline. In fact, it has a negative effect on their psychological and social development.

Things to keep in mind

  • Around the age of 3 or 4, children often start to negotiate and question the rules.
  • Responding in a consistent manner helps reassure them.
  • With your help, your child will find positive ways to assert themself.


Naître et grandir

Research and copywriting: Solène Bourque, psychoeducator

December 2019


Photo: GettyImages/Juanmonino



  • Doyon, Nancy. Parent, gros bon sens. Éditions Midi trente, 2017, 224 pp.
  • Racine, Brigitte. Le respect, une valeur pour la vie. Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2016, 236 pp.