Dealing with a defiant 3 year old is never easy. Take a look at 5 unusual ways to discipline a defiant toddler without yelling, and with respect instead.
He purposefully does something he’s not allowed to do, like slapping stickers on the coffee table (which never come off) or hitting his sister. He might throw a toy car across the room and not think anything wrong of it.
You’ve tried time-outs and confiscating toys and privileges. You’ve even spoke to him in a firm tone of voice and explained why his behavior is inappropriate. Except he shrugs it off and goes right back to doing it again.
It’s gotten to the point where—you hate to admit it—you don’t even want to be around him, especially when you get so frustrated and angry. You seriously don’t know what to do anymore.
How to deal with a defiant 3 year old
If you can relate, trust me: you’re not alone. Dealing with defiance in kids is emotionally and even physically exhausting. Sometimes you worry your child’s behavior sets a bad example for his siblings, and it’s easy to feel like you’ve run out of options to turn things around.
I totally know what it’s like to feel as though you can’t enjoy one day in peace or have calm, family time.
While typical parenting advice can work, sometimes children’s behavior goes deeper than what we’ve always heard we should do.
The longer I’ve been a parent and the more I read about our relationship with our kids, the more I can see why some things don’t work.
You see, we have a skewed view of what it means to be a parent. It’s not about “fixing” our kids or dealing with surface issues. The quicker we can change that and find a better balance, the healthier and more peaceful our interactions can be.
Take a look at these five unusual ways to think about parenting and help you deal with a defiant 3 year old. I hope you find it just as useful as this parent did:
“Thank you for this! I sat down in exhaustion and prayed for wisdom as a mom. I typed in ‘how to deal with disobedience in a three year old’ and clicked on your website. It was exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you so much.” -Wendy
1. Change your thoughts about you and your child
You’d be amazed at how powerful our thoughts and expectations are and how they can affect our environment. You might even harbor limiting beliefs about you and your child that are perpetuating your rocky interactions, even if you say you want to change them.
For instance, what expectations do you have of your child? How do you see him as a person? Are you already bracing for his next misbehavior before the morning even starts?
Kids will behave according to what we expect from them. Whether those expectations are set high or low is up to you. Already believing your child is a “troublemaker” or different from your other kids sets a strong message to both of you.
But imagine how different he’ll behave if you wipe that slate clean and expect him to behave and treat others well. Maybe you’ll change the way you talk to him, or stop using words like, “You always make things so difficult!”
Instead, you see him as the rambunctious boy who sees joy in little things, or who makes friends easily at the park. He’s the boy with a wild imagination and amazing problem-solving skills, and treats others with utmost respect.
And it doesn’t just apply to our kids. The way we think of ourselves also sets the stage for how we interact with them.
Do you tell yourself you’re always stressed and angry? That you’re not strong enough to handle your kids, that you’re making mistake after mistake?
Those words and the way you think affects your confidence and belief in yourself. From time to time you will feel stressed and angry, and you may crumble when faced with a challenge. But change your internal dialogue, and you’ll also change how you respond to your defiant 3 year old.
2. See yourselves as on the same side
The trouble with parenting is that we see ourselves as being on the opposite side of our kids. They don’t listen, so we up the ante with punishments and consequences and stern talking-to’s.
Except where does that get us? And is that really a fair balance, especially when we know who’s going to “win” (hint: us)? When we’re in “battle mode,” we’re out to triumph, sometimes at all costs.
Instead, see yourself as being on the same side as your child. Think of yourself as a teacher, and your child a student. A teacher wouldn’t try to prove a student wrong or come out “right.” No—she wants to guide the student and see him do well. They’re on the same side.
After all, discipline is nothing more than teaching. It’s not punishment or stern consequences. It’s simply teaching your child things like how to better communicate or cope with difficult emotions.
Avoid power struggles. When you’re faced with a challenge, don’t see it as yet another epic war to battle through. See it as a teachable moment, one where you can both learn something new, with your child’s best interest at the forefront.
Want to know how to deal with power struggles? Join my newsletter and get my PDF, 5 Tips to Raising a Strong-Willed Child—at no cost to you. Discover 5 ways to nurture and work with—not against—your child’s inner spirit and strong personality. As one mom said:
“Thanks for the tips. I’ve tried them and they worked wonders. My 3yo now has somehow, magically transformed into his normal, cheeky and playful self. Thank you!” -Shaliza Jamal
3. Change how you start your day
It’s never too late to turn a bad parenting day around. One stressful episode doesn’t mean the rest of your day has to go south.
That said, the way you start your day can have a huge impact in how you deal with a defiant 3 year old. The more intentional you can be with setting expectations for your day, the more positive you feel.
For instance, do you wake up groggy and bitter that you didn’t get enough sleep? Already you’re thinking about what you lack—time spent sleeping—instead of thinking about all the possibilities the day can bring.
Are you dreading something bad will happen? Then your mind is already looking for something bad to happen. You gloss over all the positive things because you were set on looking for negative things.
But if you focus on the positives and all that you’re grateful for, then that’s what your mind will zero in on and see more of. We notice what we tell ourselves, whether good or bad. Focus on the good.
One simple change is to go to sleep and wake up earlier so you have time for yourself. This includes typical morning routines but also being present and collecting your thoughts long before the rest of the family is awake.
You might also wake up feeling grateful for all that you have, instead of grumpy about all the tasks ahead of you. And you can use this time to remind yourself of your role as a parent. That way, you come better equipped with patience when you feel challenged.
4. Don’t own all of your child’s problems
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Despite what we think, our kids aren’t out to get us. They’re not sitting in their rooms plotting how to get us angry or devising ways to disobey.
But they do respond to our actions and behaviors, especially when they see they’ve roused a strong reaction in us. They’re curious and trying to make sense of their world, and that includes how their parents respond to testing limits.
It’s so easy for us to “bite the bait” and fall for it, too. Your defiant 3 year old not hanging up his backpack like you asked him to morphs into an argument over why he then doesn’t deserve to have a snack until he does what he’s told. You argue, yell, and cry for far longer than you’d hoped for.
All over a backpack.
Now, I’m all about being consistent, especially when it comes to rules. You can guide your child and even explain the importance of doing chores. But at some point, we also need to ask ourselves whether this is even our problem to begin with.
Instead, show your child that “you’ve got this.” Don’t overreact, especially over issues that, in the end, have very little to do with you. What do I mean by that?
Let’s say he doesn’t want to put his favorite action figure away, despite you explaining that he’s less likely to lose it if he puts it back in the same place. Let the consequence of him losing it be the lesson he needed to learn. Putting a toy away has nothing to do with you and everything to do with him.
But let’s say he’s not getting ready quick enough in the morning to get out of the house on time. His behavior directly affects you, because then you’re late for work. That then becomes an appropriate time to step in, more so than arguing about putting a toy away.
5. Redefine “success”
What does a good day with your child mean to you? Is it when she obeys and listens without any nagging? That you didn’t fight, and no one cried?
For many of us, a “successful” day means all went well and life was easy. We had no tantrums that stressed us out or meltdowns that made us late.
And yes, those days are awesome and certainly easy. But I would argue that we need to redefine what we think of as a good day. You see, we think of a good parenting day as anything that makes life easy… for us.
But as we all know, raising kids isn’t about raising robots who do as they’re told. Life would definitely be easy that way, wouldn’t it? But we wouldn’t be fulfilling our roles as parents if that were the case.
Because those “bad days” where your defiant 3 year old threw the worst tantrum ever, or cried all the way to school? They were hard, but they could also have provided some of the best lessons she’s had and even the bonding both of you needed.
So maybe success means your child learns to compromise and develops empathy for how others feel. Or maybe it means she found ways to soothe herself from feeling upset, or learned to apologize to her sister, or felt true remorse for her actions.
Change how you think of success—it’s not just about making sure all is happy and fuzzy. A successful parenting day could also come during some of the hardest and rawest episodes you and your child have.
Phew, this was a lot to take in, and certainly not typical parenting advice you’d find about handling a defiant 3 year old. It’s never easy to admit problems with your child’s behavior, especially when nothing you’ve tried in the past seems to have worked.
But now you know the changes you need to make at a deeper level, however difficult it may be to change those habits. Start by changing the way you think about your child and even yourself, and see the both of you as being on the same side.
Change how you start your day, and don’t take it upon yourself to own all of your child’s problems. And finally, redefine “success” and what a good parenting day really is—sometimes it’s those difficult days that offer the most teachable moments for both of you.
No more exhausting episodes, my friend. Now you know how to deal with a defiant 3 year old, even as you find yet another sticker slapped on your coffee table.
Get more tips:
- Effective Ways to Handle Your 3 Year Old Not Sleeping
- How to Discipline a Toddler Who Hits
- 7 Game-Changing Ways to Respond to Your Argumentative Child
- 7 Proven Strategies to Handle Bedtime Tantrums
- Consequences for Kids That Actually Work
Want to know how to deal with power struggles? Join my newsletter and get my PDF, 5 Tips to Raising a Strong-Willed Child—at no cost to you. Discover 5 ways to nurture and work with—not against—your child’s inner spirit and strong personality:
Tell me in the comments: What are your biggest struggles with your defiant 3 year old?