When Your 3 Year Old’s Behavior Is Out of Control

Struggling with your child hitting or not listening? Learn how to discipline when your 3 year old’s behavior is out of control.

3 Year Old 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.

My 3 year old would stall over everything, taking forever to put each leg through his shorts or get out of the van. He’d take things personally and couldn’t seem to let things go. We’d fight about taking a bath or sharing a toy with his brothers.

There’s nothing worse than feeling a loss of control over your child’s challenging behaviors or dreading the antics of a “threenager.”

I realized that what I was doing wasn’t working. It was time to try different strategies, mindset shifts, and ways of being to turn things around. So, 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 child’s behavior but your relationship with him as well:

Make staying calm your goal

It’s one thing to tell yourself to “stay calm,” but another to give yourself 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 and handle the situation well.

Why should you 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 or ruffle your feathers.

And the more meltdowns she has, the calmer you need to be. She needs to learn how to control her emotions—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 tantrums your 3 year old has every day or correct her for talking back. Instead, the goal is to be patient and calm, even when you’re appalled by her behavior.

Staying calm gives you the clarity you need to decide what to do next and avoid yelling or saying something you’ll later regret.

Free resource: If you’re exhausted and feeling guilty from losing your temper, rest assured you’re not alone. In How to Finally Stop Losing Your Temper, you can learn how to manage your habits and triggers and what you can do when you feel that rush of anger rising. Grab your PDF below—at no cost to you. You’ll also get my newsletters, which parents say they LOVE:

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How to Finally Stop Losing Your Temper

Praise positive behavior

It’s tempting to label your 3 year old as a troublemaker or to focus only on the times she misbehaves. You start to believe these stories, making you more likely to notice 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 might notice that she does behave, disputing your former belief that she never does. She might relish the attention she gets from behaving well and want to continue it even more. And finally, you can both rewrite the stories you’ve created about her behavior, steering it toward a more positive one.

Here are a few ways to praise positive behavior:

  • Ask her for help. She might be pleasantly surprised that you feel she’s 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 affect the result.
  • Praise her for the good but often overlooked choices she makes. Maybe she shared a toy with the baby or brushed off a potential cause for a tantrum.

Follow through with consequences

Does your child blow off your warnings or continue to do something you just asked her not to? The problem may be that she simply has not experienced consistent consequences.

Let’s say you warned her that you’d leave story time if she continues to misbehave. The next time she does, follow through and leave the library like you said you would. Yep, even despite her protests or that your daily schedule is off.

And be consistent with these boundaries. Don’t just follow through on the days you feel like it and let things slide on others. Consistency and following through make her less likely to ignore your warnings when she knows you always mean what you say.

Spend one-on-one time

Your 3 year old isn’t likely going to walk up to you and declare, “I’m having a hard day and would 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 attention, she might resort to acting out of control to get it.

Instead, spend one-on-one time with her every day.

The time you spend together doesn’t have to be elaborate or even that long. Ten minutes of snuggling in the morning—before you 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.

Give simple choices

Imagine having most of your day determined by someone else, from what you eat 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.

That’s why giving choices can be a fantastic way to empower your child and give her a sense of autonomy and control. When offering choices, keep these pointers in mind:

  • Give only two choices. Any more than that and she might 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 might assume that everything warrants a choice. Instead, give choices when you sense that doing so will help her better comply and feel heard.

Focus on the most offending behavior

Does it feel like you spend the entire day policing your child and correcting everything he does? I’m willing to bet that this feels wearisome for both of you.

Instead, focus 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 problem is his talking back to you. If so, set expectations on how you want to be treated or put your foot down on his tone of voice. 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. Don’t erupt in anger because he didn’t hang his jacket when you asked him to. Skip the bath that he adamantly refuses to have tonight. 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 can trickle down to fixing other behavior issues as well.

Include plenty of playtime

Busy schedules not only deny kids the chance to have downtime at home, but can also overwhelm and stress them out. As you might imagine, feeling shuffled from place to place and not having an opportunity to play can influence their behavior.

Make sure to include plenty of time to play and tinker in your day, one where your child has absolute control over how and what to do.

Even better? Find outdoor activities for 3 year olds that she can do. Being cooped up indoors can make many kids antsy and unable to expel built-up energy. Playing outside and especially close to nature can bring a feeling of calm.

Outdoor Activities for 3 Year Olds

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 snack a zillion times a day. For the most part, they might listen, but after a while, the negative language takes a toll on them.

But when I change the same objectives to positive ones, they’re more likely to comply. Take a look at a few simple changes that can 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.”

Make sure your child is getting enough sleep

You’d be surprised how much behavior is tied to the quality and hours of sleep kids get.

Does your 3 year old wake up crying every night or does she sleep all the way through? Is she waking up too early in the morning or at a decent hour? Is she sleeping enough hours and at a good time (no later than 8:30pm is ideal)?

The better quality of sleep she gets, the better she can manage the rest of the day, including making good choices. Her “bucket” is filled, ready to cope with the emotional challenges she faces. And a well-rested child usually means a well-rested parent, making you more patient and compassionate.

3 Year Old Wakes up Crying Every Night

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.

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? Is he going through changes, both big and small, in his life?

Asking yourself insightful questions can help you learn how to help him best. Packing snacks can help a hungry child but won’t do much if he’s going through separation anxiety.

Frequently asked questions

How can I motivate my child who uses stall tactics and doesn’t comply even when given choices?

It’s definitely rough when kids use all kinds of stall tactics when we just want them to hurry up and get things done. If giving choices isn’t really working, I would rely on natural consequences instead. They should tie in to the behavior as much as possible. Let’s say he is taking forever to finish dinner. And let’s say that one of the activities he gets to do is watch a favorite show at night. Let him know that the longer he takes, the more the activities for the night are pushed back and he may not get to watch all of the show. I he stalls for 15 minutes, now everything will get pushed back 15 minutes, including watching 15 minutes less of his show.

Or let’s say he is going to be late for school. Allow him to be late, and maybe even let the teacher in on the plan. That way, when he gets to school, he can experience what it’s like to be late (and his teacher can even talk to him about it).

By adopting a no-nonsense, “these are the consequences” approach along with patience and understanding, your son will learn the true consequences of his actions when he stalls.

The bottom line

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. Hopefully, now he’ll no longer stall putting on his shorts or getting out of the van.

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  1. With my husband, my 3 year old plays independently for periods of time, but with me, he seems to want to do all the things we don’t do like him to do, like pull food out of cupboard randomly or run the taps or stand on things, the list goes on. If I try to do something like cook or go to the toilet he tries to obstruct me either verbally or physically or starts to whine, cry or melt down. I feel like all I do is tell him “don’t do this and that…” and then get irritated by the dynamic we are in, usually ending in me raising my voice and losing my empathy. How do I deal with this behavior?

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      It sounds like something in the way you react is causing him to egg you on, considering that he doesn’t do the same with his dad. I would set some boundaries so he knows what is and isn’t allowed. Try to stay calm when you respond, and sometimes you don’t have to explain and explain, especially if you feel like it just cycles into a downward spiral. Also, see if you can have some natural consequences for his choices. Let’s say he pulls food out of the cupboard—make sure that he’s responsible for putting them back. If he refuses, then perhaps you can’t cook his favorite meal because all the food is on the floor.

  2. We are having a hard time with my almost 3 year old listening to instructions. He throws a fit when we ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do, but it’s getting out of hand and somewhat dangerous. For example, not listening to me tell him to stop before running into the parking lot.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Meg, I totally know what you mean. One of my twins would do the same thing and run off to the street, way too far and fast for me to keep an eye on him (in a crowd of people, no less).

      In those cases, safety was first and I began to hold a firm grip on his wrist all the way until we got to our car, no matter how much he hated it. On the day he ran off, I made sure to set expectations for the following day (this would happen at school pick ups), letting him know that I’ll be holding onto him the whole time no matter what.