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’ll 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 spoken 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 a “threenager” 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.
Sometimes children’s behavior goes deeper than typical parenting advice we’ve always heard we should do. The longer I’ve been a parent, the more I can see why popular but misleading discipline doesn’t work.
You see, we have a skewed view of what it means to be a parent. It’s not about “fixing” kids or dealing with surface issues. The quicker we can change that mindset 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 your defiant 3 year old. I hope you find it just as useful as these parents 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
“Found this article when I needed most. Great advice. Any change starts with changing our own thoughts and feelings.” -Sharvari
1. 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. When they don’t listen, we up the ante with punishments, 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 he your student. A teacher wouldn’t try to prove her student wrong or come out “right.” No—she wants to guide and see him do well. They’re on the same side.
Put yourself in teacher mode and think about your goals, which probably don’t include “winning” arguments or showing him who’s boss.
After all, discipline is nothing more than teaching, not punishment or stern consequences. It’s simply teaching him lessons, like how to better communicate or cope with difficult emotions.
When you’re faced with a challenge, don’t see it as yet another epic war to battle through, but as a teachable moment. One where you can both learn something new, with his best interest at the forefront.
Free resource: 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 how to nurture and work with—not against—his 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
2. Change your thoughts about you and your child
You’d be amazed at how powerful your thoughts and expectations can affect your environment. You might even harbor limiting beliefs that lead to your child’s defiance, even if you say you want to change.
For instance, what expectations do you have of him? How do you see him as a person? Are you already bracing for his next misbehavior before the morning even starts?
He will behave according to what you expect from him, but whether those expectations are set high or low is up to you. Already believing he’s 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’ll 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 respect.
And this change in expectations doesn’t just apply to him. The way you think of yourself also sets the stage for how you interact with him.
Do you tell yourself you’re always stressed and angry? That you’re not strong enough to handle his defiance, that you’re making mistake after mistake?
These 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.
3. Change how you start your day
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 can feel.
For instance, do you wake up groggy and bitter that you didn’t get enough sleep? If so, you’re already 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? You might gloss over all the positive things that happen because your mind is already on the lookout for the few negative ones.
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. You’ll have time for yourself to be present and collect 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 the tasks ahead of you. And you can use this time to remind yourself of your role as a parent so you’re better equipped with the patience you’ll need when you feel challenged.
4. Don’t own your child’s problems
Despite what you might think, your child isn’t out to get you. She’s not sitting in her room plotting how to get you angry or devising ways to disobey.
But she does respond to your actions and behaviors, especially when she has roused a strong reaction in you. She’s curious and trying to make sense of the world, including how her parents respond to testing limits.
It’s so easy to “bite the bait” and fall for it, too. Not hanging up her backpack like you asked her to morphs into an argument over why she doesn’t deserve to have a snack until she does what she’s told. You argue, yell, and cry for far longer than you’d hoped for.
All over a backpack.
Now, I’m all for being consistent, especially when it comes to rules, but you also need to ask yourself whether this is even your problem to begin with.
Instead, show her 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 she doesn’t want to put her favorite toy away, despite you explaining that she’s less likely to lose it if she puts it back in the same place. Let the consequence of losing it be the lesson she needed to learn. Putting a toy away has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with her.
But let’s say she’s not getting ready quick enough in the morning to get out of the house on time. Her behavior directly affects you, because then you’re late for work. That 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?
A “successful” day means all went well and life was easy—you had no tantrums that stressed you out or meltdowns that made you late.
And yes, those days are awesome and certainly easy. But I would encourage you to redefine what you think of as a good day. You might think of a good parenting day as anything that makes life easy… for you.
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 you wouldn’t be fulfilling your role as parent if that were the case.
Because those “bad days” where he 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.
Success might mean she learned to compromise and developed empathy for how others feel. Or she found ways to soothe herself from feeling upset, 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 experience.
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 his 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 him 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 his 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 his behavior, 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
- Parenting Doesn’t Have to Be So Overwhelming
- 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: