Struggling with your child hitting or not listening? Learn how to discipline when your 3 year old’s behavior is out of control.
Many of us were warned about the “Terrible Twos,” but they don’t always tell you about what happens after. The days when your 3 year old talks back, is aggressive and mean (of course, only toward you), or won’t listen to anything you say.
When no amount of timeouts or taking privileges away does anything. Or when he totally ignores what you say, or yells “I don’t care!”
Maybe he bites, hits, and scratches when he doesn’t get what he wants, or cries and whines over every little thing. Full-blown tantrums seem to happen every day—it’s gotten so bad that you can’t even take him anywhere anymore.
His moods are unpredictable, and emotional outbursts are common. He refuses to share, won’t eat his meals, and insists on needing help when he can do the tasks himself. Everything is a fight with him.
In other words, your 3 year old’s behavior is out of control.
What to do when your 3 year old’s behavior is out of control
There’s nothing worse than feeling a loss of control over your child’s behavior, or dreading the antics he’ll come up with for the day.
My 3 year old would stall over everything, taking forever to put each leg through his shorts or to get out of the van. Even finishing dinner was another way for him to not do something I asked him to do.
He knew he got a reaction when he did this. He’d take things personally and couldn’t seem to just let it go. Or we’d fight about taking a bath or sharing a toy with his brothers.
I knew that if the problem persisted, it’s likely that what I was doing still wasn’t working. It was time to try different strategies, mindset shifts, and ways of being to turn things around. Rather than trying to change him, I focused on myself and the choices I made.
Take a look at several ways to improve not only your 3 year old’s behavior, but your relationship with him as well:
1. Follow through with consequences
Does your 3 year old blow off your warnings, or continue to do something you just asked him not to? The problem may be that he simply has not experienced consistent consequences.
Now is the time to mean what you say and follow through with what you said you’d do.
Let’s say you warned him you’d leave story time if he continues to misbehave. The next time he does, follow through and actually leave the library like you said you would. Yep, even despite his protests, or that your schedule is off, or that you had no intention of leaving right then and there.
And be consistent: don’t just follow through on the days you feel like it and let things slide on others. Consistency and following through makes him less likely to ignore your warnings when he knows you always mean what you say.
2. Give simple choices
Imagine having most of your day determined by someone else, from what you ate to the time you leave the house. It’s easy to feel like nothing you say or suggest matters, especially when you’re hardly asked for your opinion.
Instead, try giving your 3 year old simple choices to give him a sense of autonomy and control. Here are a few factors to keep in mind:
- Give only two choices. Any more than that, and your child will likely feel overwhelmed or take too much time to decide.
- Stick to parent-approved choices. You should be okay with either choice, no matter which one he picks.
- Follow through with those choices. If he chooses one over the other, don’t try to convince him otherwise, or worse, disregard his choice.
- Avoid offering choices all the time. He might assume that everything warrants a choice. Instead, give choices when you sense that he needs to feel heard.
3. Praise your child’s positive behavior
One of the best ways to manage your 3 year old’s behavior is to turn around and ask him for help.
You see, it’s tempting to label your child as a troublemaker, or to focus only on the times he misbehaves. You start to believe these stories, making you more likely to note when he acts up than the times he doesn’t.
Meanwhile, he lives up to your expectations, assuming he simply must be out of control or up to no good most of the time. He may have even discovered that negative behavior seems to get your attention.
But… what if you focused less on the negative and more on the positive?
For one thing, you’ll begin to notice more of his positive behavior, making you more likely to praise them even more. He’ll also relish the attention he gets from behaving well and will want to continue it even more. And finally, you’ll both rewrite the stories you’ve created about his behavior, steering it toward a more positive one.
Here are a few ways to praise his positive behavior:
- Ask him for help. He’ll be pleasantly surprised to feel responsible enough to help and contribute in ways you’ve never asked him to before.
- Give him autonomy. Let him do tasks his way sometimes, especially when doing so doesn’t really affect the end result.
- Praise him for good but often overlooked choices he makes. Maybe he shared a toy with the baby, or brushed off a potential cause for a tantrum.
4. Spend one-on-one time with your child
Your 3 year old isn’t likely going to walk up to you and declare, “I’m having a hard day, and I’d really like to feel comforted.” But that just may be how he feels, even if he can’t articulate it clearly. And if you haven’t been giving him that attention, he’ll resort to acting out of control to get it.
Instead, spend one-on-one time with him—every day.
Here’s the thing: the time you spend together doesn’t have to be elaborate or even that long. Ten minutes of snuggling in the morning—before you even do the Important Stuff—can be all he needs to start the day right.
And truly give him 100% of your attention—avoid checking your phone or doing chores during your time together.
5. Include plenty of play time (especially outdoors)
Busy schedules not only denies kids the chance to have down time at home, but can also overwhelm and stress them out. As you might imagine, feeling shuffled from place to place, or not having plenty of opportunities to play, can influence their behavior.
Make sure to include plenty of play time in your day, one where your 3 year old has absolute control over how and what to play.
Even better? Encourage him to play outdoors. Being cooped up indoors can make many kids antsy and unable to expel built-up energy. Playing outside with plenty of open space and closer to nature can bring them back to a feeling of calm.
6. Make staying calm your goal
It’s one thing to tell parents to “stay calm,” but another to give them permission to focus only on that. But when you do—when you make staying calm the only thing you need to pay attention to—you’re more likely to keep your cool.
Why the focus on staying calm instead of “fixing” your child’s behavior? His behavior is often a reflection of how you’re behaving. The calmer and more collected you are, the less likely he’ll misbehave, want to ruffle your feathers, or feel agitated himself.
In fact, the more worked up he gets, the calmer you need to be. He needs to learn how to control his own feelings—modeling that behavior for him is perhaps the best way to teach him those skills.
So much so that the goal isn’t necessarily to stop the tantrum or correct him for talking back. Instead, be patient and calm, even when you’re appalled by his behavior.
After all, staying calm gives you the clarity you need to decide what to do next. You can avoid yelling, snapping, or saying something you’ll later regret simply by focusing on staying calm.
And if you’re exhausted and feeling guilty from losing your temper with your child, rest assured you’re not alone. But here’s the thing: even if it seems like you’ve tried just about everything, you CAN stop losing your temper… if you start from the inside out and change from within.
In my PDF, How to Finally Stop Losing Your Temper, I’ll show you how to reflect on who you’re being, your habits and triggers, and what you can do when you feel that rush of anger rising within you. Join my newsletter and download your PDF below—at no cost to you:
7. Focus on your child’s most offending behavior
Can you list several ways your 3 year old’s behavior is out of control? It can sometimes feel like you spend the entire day policing him, correcting everything he does.
As you can imagine, this can feel wearisome for both you and your child.
Instead, focus only on his most offending behavior… and let everything else go, at least for now. What is he having the most trouble with?
Let’s say your biggest power struggles stem from his talking back to you. You might set expectations on how you want to be treated or put your foot down on his tone of voice. Perhaps you show him better ways to communicate how he feels, or reflect on whether you’re modeling the right behavior as well.
Meanwhile, nearly everything else can take a back seat. If he didn’t hang his jacket when you asked him to, let it slide. Skip the bath that he adamantly refuses to have. Let him deal with finding his toys amid the mess he made. This takes the pressure off the both of you.
Focus only on the worst offending behavior until you’ve worked through it, then move on to the next issue. Besides, fixing the biggest problem will more than likely trickle down to fixing the other issues as well.
8. Use positive language
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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my kids to stop yelling, not to be so rough, or that they can’t play with an item. For the most part, they’ll listen, but after a while, the negative language takes a toll on them.
But when I change the same objectives to positive language, they’re more likely to comply. Take a look at a few simple changes that will make your 3 year old listen:
- “Stop yelling” becomes “Use your inside voice”
- “Don’t be so rough” becomes “Pat the baby gently, like this”
- “Don’t play with that” becomes “Let’s use this soft ball to throw instead”
9. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep
You’d be surprised how much of behavior is tied to the quality and hours of sleep your 3 year old is getting.
If nothing seems to resolve his behavior, take a look at the quality of his sleep: Is he sleeping enough hours? Is he sleeping at a good time (no later than 8:30pm is ideal)? Does he sleep through the night, or does he wake up throughout? Is he waking up at a decent hour, or too early in the morning?
The better quality of sleep your child gets, the better able he is to manage the rest of the day, including making good choices. His “bucket” is filled, ready to cope with emotional challenges he faces. And a well-rested child usually means a well-rested parent, making you more patient and compassionate.
10. Ask yourself why
We’re quick to “fix” behavior issues, looking for the next solution to end the problem. But rather than only looking at how to stop the behavior, perhaps we need to look at why they’re happening in the first place.
How? Ask yourself why your 3 year old is behaving this way. What’s causing the outrageous outbursts? Could he be tired? Trying to assert control? Does he lack routine in his days? Is he going through changes, both big and small, in his life?
Asking yourself insightful questions will help you learn how to help your child.
We covered a lot of tips on handling your 3 year old’s behavior, from those that prevent outbursts in the first place, to responding intentionally when they happen.
For instance, follow through with consequences you say you’re going to enforce. Give him simple choices, and make staying calm a priority. Praise the times he does behave, and use positive language to tell him what to do (instead of what not to do).
Spend one-on-one time with him, even for as little as a few minutes. Include plenty of play time, especially outdoors. Focus on working on his worst behavior instead of hounding him for every little offense.
Make sure he’s getting enough good quality sleep, and finally, dig deep to discover the motivation behind his behavior—this will help guide your decisions.
When timeouts and taking away privileges aren’t serving you or your child, rely on these tactics to improve his behavior instead.
Get more tips:
- How to Respond when Your 3 Year Old Won’t Sleep
- 5 Unusual Ways to Deal with a Defiant 3 Year Old
- How to Discipline a Toddler Who Hits
- 7 Game-Changing Ways to Respond to Your Argumentative Child
- Consequences for Kids That Actually Work
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