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 time outs or taking privileges away does anything. Or when she totally ignores what you say, or yells “I don’t care!”
Maybe she bites, hits, and scratches when she doesn’t get what she wants, or whines and cries over everything. Full-blown tantrums seem to happen every day—it’s gotten so bad that you can’t even take her anywhere anymore.
Her moods are unpredictable, and emotional outbursts are common. She refuses to share, won’t eat her meals, and insists on needing help when she can do the tasks herself. Everything is a fight with her.
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 of a “threenager.”
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 let things 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.
So, how do you discipline an out of control 3 year old? Take a look at several ways to improve not only your child’s behavior, but your relationship with him as well:
1. 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? Her behavior is often a reflection of how you’re behaving. The calmer and more collected you are, the less likely she’ll misbehave, want to ruffle your feathers, or feel agitated.
In fact, the more worked up she gets, the calmer you need to be. She needs to learn how to control her own feelings—modeling that behavior for her is the best way to teach her those skills.
So much so that the goal isn’t to stop the tantrum or correct her for talking back. Instead, be patient and calm, even when you’re appalled by her 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.
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2. 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 daily 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.
3. 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, give your 3 year old simple choices to give her a sense of autonomy and control. Here are a few factors to keep in mind:
- Give only two choices. Any more than that, and she’ll 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 she picks.
- Follow through with those choices. If she chooses one over the other, don’t try to convince her otherwise, or worse, disregard her choice.
- Avoid offering choices all the time. She’ll assume that everything warrants a choice. Instead, give choices when you sense that she needs to feel heard.
4. 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 her for help.
You see, it’s tempting to label her as a troublemaker, or to focus only on the times she misbehaves. You start to believe these stories, making you more likely to note when she acts up than the times she doesn’t.
Meanwhile, she lives up to your expectations, assuming she simply must be out of control or up to no good most of the time. She may have even discovered that negative behavior guarantees that she gets your attention.
But… what if you focused less on the negative and more on the positive?
You’ll begin to notice more of her positive behavior, making you more likely to praise her even more. She’ll relish the attention she gets from behaving well and will want to continue it even more. And finally, you’ll both rewrite the stories you’ve created about her behavior, steering it toward a more positive one.
Here are a few ways to praise her positive behavior:
- Ask her for help. She’ll be pleasantly surprised to feel responsible enough to help and contribute in ways you’ve never asked her to before.
- Give her autonomy. Let her do tasks her way sometimes, especially when doing so doesn’t really affect the end result.
- Praise her for good but often overlooked choices she makes. Maybe she shared a toy with the baby, or brushed off a potential cause for a tantrum.
5. 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 she feels, even if she can’t articulate it clearly. And if you haven’t been giving her that attention, she’ll resort to acting out of control to get it.
Instead, spend one-on-one time with her 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 she needs to start the day right.
And truly give her 100% of your attention—avoid checking your phone or doing chores during your time together.
6. 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.
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
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 child 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”
As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:
“Think about a child’s willingness to oblige. Telling someone not to do something feels like an attack or a restriction. He might follow, but he’ll do so begrudgingly.
But if we phrase it in a positive way, we remove any hint of restrictions or attacks. Yes, we’re still asking them to do something, but in a way that facilitates teamwork and guidance instead of orders and limits.”
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 her behavior, take a look at the quality of her sleep.
Is she sleeping enough hours? Is she sleeping at a good time (no later than 8:30pm is ideal)? Does she sleep through the night, or does she wake up crying throughout? Is she waking up at a decent hour, or too early in the morning?
The better quality of sleep she gets, the better able she is to manage the rest of the day, including making good choices. Her “bucket” is filled, ready to cope with emotional challenges she 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” issues, looking for the next solution to end behavior problems. But rather than only looking at how to stop the behavior, 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 she be tired? Trying to assert control? Does she lack routine in her days? Is she going through changes, both big and small, in her life?
Asking yourself insightful questions will help you learn how to help her best.
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 her simple choices, and make staying calm a priority. Praise the times she does behave, and use positive language to tell her what to do (instead of what not to do).
Spend one-on-one time with her, even for as little as a few minutes. Include plenty of play time, especially outdoors. Focus on working on her worst behavior instead of hounding her for every little offense.
Make sure she’s getting enough good quality sleep, and finally, dig deep to discover the motivation behind her behavior—this will help guide your decisions.
When time outs and taking away privileges aren’t serving either of you, rely on these tactics to improve her 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
- The Biggest Reason Parents Should Stand Their Ground
- 7 Game-Changing Ways to Respond to Your Argumentative Child
- Consequences for Kids That Actually Work
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