Dealing with a defiant 3 year old is never easy. Take a look at 5 unusual ways to discipline without yelling, and with respect instead.
Your 3 year old’s behavior is out of control.
She purposefully does something she’s not allowed to do, like putting stickers on the coffee table (which never come off) or hitting her sister. She’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 her in a firm tone of voice and explained why her bad behavior is inappropriate. Except she 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 her, 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” and this stage of childhood is emotionally and even physically exhausting. Sometimes you worry your child’s behavior sets a bad example for her 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 deal with problem behaviors and 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 found 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
“Thank you so much for sharing. I appreciate your advice and point of view. This is such a graceful and humbling approach. It’s been hard to discern how to discipline, empower, and nurture my children especially as a single mother. Your videos make me feel more and well equipped to handle the not-so-fun parts of parenting. So in other words, challenge received! I got this, I can do this. Much gratitude.” -Wrogue
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 she your student. A teacher wouldn’t try to prove her student wrong or come out “right.” No—she wants to guide and see her do well. They’re on the same side.
Go in teacher mode and think about your goals, which probably don’t include “winning” arguments or showing your child who’s boss.
After all, discipline is nothing more than teaching, not punishment or stern consequences. It’s simply offering guidance, like improving her communication skills or coping with anxiety.
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 her best interest at the forefront.
Free resource: Want to know how to deal with power struggles? Join my newsletter and grab 5 Tips to Raising a Strong-Willed Child—at no cost to you. Discover how to nurture and work with—not against—her 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.
Get more tips on starting a morning routine for toddlers.
4. Don’t own your child’s problems
Despite what you might think, your young child isn’t out to get you. He’s not sitting in his room plotting how to get you angry or devising ways to disobey.
But he does respond to your actions and behaviors, especially when he has roused a strong reaction in you. He’s curious and trying to make sense of the world, including how his parents respond to testing limits.
It’s so easy to “bite the bait” and fall for it, too. Not hanging up his backpack like you asked him to morphs into an argument over why he doesn’t get a snack until he 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 your daily routine, but you also need to ask yourself whether this is even your problem to begin with. Instead, show him 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 toy 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 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 defiant 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.
Learn what to do about toddler testing his limits.
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? Is a “successful” day when went well and life was easy—you had no tantrums that stressed you out or meltdowns that made you late?
Yes, those days are awesome and certainly easy. But I 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” when your child threw frequent temper tantrums 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 times you experience.
Phew, this was a lot to take in, and certainly not typical parenting advice you’d find about handling your 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 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
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and grab 5 Tips to Raising a Strong-Willed Child—at no cost to you:
I feel my 3 year old would prefer his father as he says he loves his father when he comes home, every 8 days for a week. When I pick him up he doesn’t want to go with me, doesn’t want me to pick him up from day care either Just prefers the people around him rather than me.
Nina Garcia says
Big hugs, Elizabeth! It’s tough when our kids prefer one parent over the other. I promise you this isn’t forever. I actually wrote an article about this: https://sleepingshouldbeeasy.com/2017/08/07/toddler-prefers-one-parent/ I hope that helps!
Kellie McDowell says
Reading your post has really turned my life around. I cannot thank you enough. I have a highly spirited & at times defiant 2 year old girl. She is my life & it is a miracle that we even have her (that is another story for another time)…..but lately I have been struggling in dealing with her . A lot.A LOT.
Reading your post gave me a whole new perspective on things. On reflection, I think my attitude had been a major factor in my struggle.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I have started to enjoy being a Mummy again & I cannot thank you enough.
You have a fan forever !!!!
Nina Garcia says
Oh that’s so awesome, Kellie! Nothing gives me more joy than hearing how the work I do is helping moms like yourself. I’m so glad the post resonated with you and provided that a-ha moment we sometimes need, that simple change in perspective that can help improve how we interact with our kids. It’s totally possible to enjoy motherhood like you said, even with the challenges that come with it. Thanks so much for sharing your story and letting me know—I truly appreciate you!
My three year old refuses to use the toilet, she says I will ask you if I need a wee but then has an accident, we have been in pants for 7 months but are now back to pull ups as the accidents were beginning to ruin our relationship, any advice greatfully received.
Nina Garcia says
Jenny yes—I actually wrote an article about potty training accidents, especially after they’ve already been potty trained. It should be out soon, but basically the gist is: stop the any type of rewards you’re doing, go back to the drawing board as if you were starting potty training again (eg 3-day potty training method, going frequently on a schedule, etc), watch your reaction (both disappointment and frustration), etc. Definitely stay tuned for that article when it comes out.
Hello. This past month with my 3 year old son has been extremely tough in terms of how much he wants everything to go his way. Some days he’s an angel and listens to us when we calmly explain why he should or shouldnt do something but there are days including today when im reduced to tears because of his tantrums. Do you think too much screen time has anything to do with it? These past few weeks he has also been having more candy than i would normally allow? When he tantrums he screams and cries until we let him do what he wants. We try talking calmly and lovingly first but if that doesnt work id hate to admit we also resort to shouting at him but that makes it even worse. What do we do when nothing works? Telling him nicely, firmly, angrily? Not even consequences. Plz do reply
Nina Garcia says
Hi Mehru! It’s definitely challenging when these episodes happen. It’s a good thing that you notice that there are many days when he does listen and behave appropriately. Like any of us, he’s not perfect and will have his off days—it’s just that he’s still at the age where he’s learning how to manage and cope with his overwhelming feelings.
Either way, it can feel so shocking and frustrating to parents, like it has triggered something in us. Notice though that we sometimes behave in the exact way we don’t want our kids to behave. We throw our own tantrums, we also raise our voices, all while expecting our kids not do just that. This is understandable, but you can see why resorting down that path, like you said, doesn’t work and makes it even worse.
In those cases when you feel yourself bubbling up with anger, pause… do something to lean away from that frustration. Maybe it’s walking away, going into another room, giving him a hug, letting him know you need a break for a moment, focus on something else and shift your attention elsewhere. You don’t HAVE to continue to engage with him when he’s throwing a fit—it’s totally okay to say you need a break for a moment and you can calm down first. It’s extremely difficult to connect with our kids much less get anything productive done when both of you are too upset to process things.
Once you’re calm, then you can work on calming him down. And I’m willing to bet that you calming down will also rub off on him and make him calm down as well. Only later once you’re both calm and collected can you then talk about discipline and what to do and how to behave, because that’s when he’ll be receptive to it anyway.
Rest assured you are not alone! We’ve all had these moments. Focus on the positive times when he does do a good job and acknowledge him for those moments as well. I hope that helps!
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.
Nina Garcia says
I’m so, so happy to hear that, Wendy! I’m glad you found my site, too—sometimes it takes those breakdowns to see the breakthroughs 🙂 And definitely keep me posted on any insights and changes you get from the articles and ebooks—I’d love to hear how it goes!
This article helped me a lot today as I dealt with a screaming toddler this morning and felt like a total failure as a mom. I always look at the other moms at the daycare centre and they all look like supermoms and then this feeling of failure deepens. The biggest challenge I have at the moment is the throwing of things business and the “not listening”.
I will try some of the suggestions above and let you know if it worked.
Nina Garcia says
I’m glad the article helped, Marianne! And yes, please keep me posted on how it goes. You’re definitely not a failure, mama! You’re doing your best, as we all are, and every supermom has her moments too 🙂
Sharvari Dhote says
Found this article when I needed most. Great advice. Any change starts with changing our own thoughts and feelings.
Nina Garcia says
I’m so glad the article helped, Sharvani!
I like these tips – could you provide some concrete examples of phrases and vocabulary to use? I like the idea of looking at a problem from the same team but what does that actually look like in action? I felt this post did a good job of scratching the surface but I didn’t get any of the specific answers I was hoping for.
Nina Garcia says
Hi Emma! Thank you for your kind words 🙂 One example of being on the same side as our kids is how we phrase what they have to do. Let’s say we want to get our kids to stop playing and take a bath. It’s easy to get frustrated or even threaten punishments if they don’t stop playing and take that bath. We can start by showing empathy first by saying, “It’s pretty hard to stop playing when you’re having fun, isn’t it? I know if it were me, I’d have a hard time, too.” It’s really important to actually listen and let them share how they feel, instead of rushing them through it. I find that if given the chance to crumble in our arms, whatever few minutes that took for them to express themselves is much shorter than if they threw a tantrum.
We can then share why taking a bath is important, and that it’s not because it’s the rules or because we say so. “We do need to take a bath tonight though because we played so much at the park and you got really sticky and dirty, remember? You’ll feel so much fresher and cleaner after.”
Then, we can show our support and guidance in some way. “I can help you get your pajamas for you if you’d like,” or “Want me to add some bubbles to the bath to make it fun, too?”
I hope that offers more clarity, Emma 🙂
Thanks for your work..it really put some insights on me. Being a mom of a threenager and a 6 months baby is really tough..but at times like the elder one throwing tantrums, really putting me on my nerves. After reading your work,i can possibly understand the one thing which am neglecting for a while..afterall she is also a kid who needs attention. Am really grateful for your work and will be trying to be a better mom. Thank you.
Nina Garcia says
I’m glad to hear that, Suganya!