Whole Parenting Family

Lovingly Parenting a Sensitive Three Year Old


Where is the three year old in this photo? Outside the frame, bawling because someone took her favorite fill_in_the_blank.

Having a three year old girl, and this SweetPea with her particular temperament, feels so different than having had a three year old boy who is coming up on five in just a few days here (stop the sands of time!!!). His personality presented its own challenges, as does hers.

I wrote about his challenges:

Three steps to taming your tantruming toddler;

Three & a half year old habits & mama bad habits;

how I keep my kids from killing each other;

and more in the archives under “kid.”

In a way, I was prepared for the prefrontal cortex burgeoning and developing at a rapid, can’t-keep-up-with-the-spasm-de-jour pace. In many ways, I was not prepared for how sensitive to me and my moods she would be. Girl thing or her thing? Either way, I’ve learned the hard way about how to lovingly parent a sensitive three year old.

So naturally, I thought I would foist my experience on to you!

1) Hear her out.

When she starts freaking out, I try to take her aside and hear exactly what it is that’s bothering her, being sure to repeat it to her so she knows I get it//got it//good. Many times, this simple act of acknowledgment is a calming force. It may take 3-4 minutes to get it all out of her and restate it, but that could mean the difference between a relatively peaceful morning or a tornado. It’s worth it.

I think we all want to be heard and understood, toddlers notwithstanding.

2) Observe her triggers.

It’s just about everything. Her brothers looking or touching or thinking about something she wanted, could want, had wanted, or specifically did not want but did not want them to have.

Specifically, she seems most ignited by sharing, feeling helpless, and hunger // teeth hurting (may be a red herring for hunger or fatigue). I intercept when I can, which is maybe a little more than half the time. I just know better than to bring her with me to the bank’s waiting area at 5pm. Ahem. Maybe I tried this the other day. Waiting in small spaces, not her forte.


3) Say yes to (almost) everything even when it’s followed up by a not-right-now.

Life has enough no’s for a three year old middle child. She hears that word frequently. I try to respond with a “yes” as much as feasibly allowable.

Will you play with my doll house and bring up all my dollies? Yes. I’d love to. I can’t do it right now because I’m nursing and changing a poopy diaper and making dinner but I certainly will when I am done. Do you want to start without me and I’ll catch up?

I want you to hold me. I would love to hold you. I’m going to finish clearing the dishes and wiping the blueberries off every reachable surface in the dynamic radius of your high-chaired brother. And then I’ll head right to you. Why don’t you sit on the cosy couch and snuggle in a blanket while I’m finishing up?

Sometimes {oftentimes} I don’t actually get to her to do the requested activity, but she knows I’d like to and often will change her own course of direction before I could get there.


4) Pick so few battles, and win them.

Her sense of urgency isn’t shared by me or the rest of the household always. When she insists I do something RIGHT NOW and it’s not safe or the best thing, I’ll repeat that I can’t do it, but I can do an appropriate substitute. Or I can’t do it and I’m sorry but that’s life.

I want you to take off my shoes in the parking lot and let me run to the door of swimming lessons. I’m sorry but you will burn your feet. WAAAAAAAAAA. I’m happy to take them off right before we get in the pool because that’s when we do it. But I can give you my keys to hold if you would be in charge of them for me? WAAAAAA. I can’t give my keys to someone who is crying. Sniffle. I’ll hold them!! Great.


5) Be open to negotiation.

I’ve got three small kids. I don’t have a ton of energy to be constantly catering to everyone’s needs, but I do offer negotiation on about 50% of the decisions in our lives. She can carry the box of buttons, but only if she dumps them on my bed and not the floor. She can eat dozens of grape with her lunch, but only if she finishes a big bite of her almond butter sandwich first. She feels like she won. I feel like I didn’t completely lose. Win-win?


6) Lots of snuggles.

She quakes when I lose my temper and her face crumples. She’s very resilient though and a quick tickle snuggle after I apologize can mend her little heart fairly quickly. She’s an on-the-go girl so I try to sneak snuggles in anytime she’s willing.

Connecting and reconnecting through physical touch, which is one of her love languages, is far more important than the dishes, my iPhone, or ensuring no one is eating dirt. If possible, I try to response with a resounding YES when the opportunities arise to s n u g g l e!


The kids enjoyed a visit from their cousins so much, they couldn’t resist pouring sand in his hair. So kind of them!!



  1. Abbey @ Surviving Our Blessings on June 23, 2015 at 9:51 am

    Oh, I am SO THERE with you! Thank you for this thoughtful, timely post. You’re a great mom, and you are doing a fantastic job parenting with love and compassion. Sometimes, it’s just hard to parent three-years-old…but I bet it is even harder to *be* three years old, you know?

    • Natural Mama Nell on June 23, 2015 at 8:06 pm

      How beautifully put. I bet it is way harder to be three!!

  2. Tori on June 23, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    So much great advice, but I absolutely love #3. I’m always looking for the balance between getting things done and quality time, and also good ways to say “no” when I need to. I like your approach.

    And I love the little conversation in #4, hehe.

    • Natural Mama Nell on June 23, 2015 at 8:06 pm

      I used to feel like I was lying to her, but I’m not. I’m simply telling her I always want to be with her, even though realistically I can’t–that’s okay, right??

  3. Amy @ Motherhood and Miscellany on June 23, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    My middle daughter is so sensitive, and I have had to find special ways to respond to her too. I might steal a few of these though to add to my repertoire 🙂

    • Natural Mama Nell on June 23, 2015 at 8:05 pm

      Sensitive girls are so wonderful! But I have to work on myself so I’m an equally wonderful mother.

  4. veronica on June 23, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    So needed this…I think our kiddos are the same ages, except my middle is a precious and sensitive boy! United, we stand!!

    • Natural Mama Nell on June 23, 2015 at 8:05 pm


  5. Kim on June 23, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Have you met my daughter? Because you just described all her triggers. I love the way you explain saying yes, all the time. It’s not spoiling her, it’s acknowledging her. My daughter is a little ray of sunshine, but if she feels pushed aside, she’s a tornado. It truly is hard to be 3…..or in her case, 4 (with a very confident twin sister and 2 little brothers, bless her heart!). Sounds like you’ve figured out a lot of what I am just starting to understand. Way to go, Mama!

    • Natural Mama Nell on June 23, 2015 at 8:03 pm

      We’re all on this journey together!! And tornado: describes my girl to a teeeeeee.

  6. Shelley on June 23, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    Ahh, such a lovely blueprint. I agree whole-heartedly with each of these…which doesn’t happen everyday on the internet. Parenting styles are very diverse so it’s nice when you find a post that just ‘fits’. My kids are 8 and 10 so things are waaaay easier but dealing with emotional outbursts has always been the kryptonite of my parenting journey. Even with older kids, the above steps are really useful. A great blueprint. I’m deeply impressed that you have discovered, and can articulate, these steps whilst still in ‘the trenches of early childhood.’ There is one or two of those listed above that I only learnt in later years. I think my ongoing challenge is to forgive myself when I forget one or all of the above and things just escalate and escalate…. Parenting is so much a skill that you build on each day. I love and hate this! Depending on the day. I named my daughter ‘Grace’ to remind myself of the need for it but I still forget. I suppose it would be wrong to have another child and name them “MORE Grace”

    • Natural Mama Nell on June 23, 2015 at 8:02 pm

      I love it–MORE GRACE! I need more grace all the time. Thank you for your kind words!!

  7. Annery on June 24, 2015 at 6:35 am

    My biggest coping skill with the three year old is speaking slowly and softly. I did the yes, not now with my oldest until she told me as she got older how frustrating it was for her that I wasn’t doing what I said I would do in the instances I wasn’t able to get to her before she’d moved on to something else. So that became something I changed when I saw how it affected her trust in me.

    With my youngest, now I verbalize more of her feelings back to her to diffuse, You want me to come downstairs with you and you’re frustrated that I can’t right now. I’m so sorry you’re frustrated.

    Yesterday’s big tantrum was over me getting pizza bread, not pizza. I just kept asking calmly, Can I show you what I got so you can decide if you’d like some? When she agreed to see it, she realized she actually loves it and we moved on….until the next tantrum. Three is so exhausting as a mama! Hang in there. It gets so much more awesome!

    • Natural Mama Nell on June 25, 2015 at 3:44 pm

      So much wisdom. THANK YOU for letting me know it gets more awesome!!!

  8. […] lovingly parenting a sensitive three year old – just lots of good tips here. three year olds can be tough sometimes […]

  9. Sarah on September 1, 2015 at 12:01 am

    This is beautiful. Thank you for advocating gentle tender dignified parenting most especially for this age-I just came from reading a blog that talked of slapping, ignoring, punishing little ones. So wrong to me. What you have written is right and true-there is an art to parenting toddlers and at the base is connection and awareness of their world.

    • Natural Mama Nell on September 1, 2015 at 8:48 pm

      You’re so kind. I am appalled about the blog you came over from!! Connection and awareness is the only way our kids will grow up to be connected and loving!