Am I Doing This Right? Disciplining Spirited Child

Updated on April 21, 2019
W.W. asks from Los Angeles, CA
18 answers

My 3 year old is very spirited. She's a happy and sweet little child most of the time but when she doesn't get something that she wants, she'll SCREAM and try to hit. I tell her to go to her room until she's ready to calm down and she will. She'll be in there for a few minutes and then she'll come out and say "I'm sorry Mommy" and it seems genuine, and I hug her and remind her to take deep breaths when she's upset and count to 4. I also tell her it's OK to be upset but it's not OK to scream like that or to hit, and she seems to understand and will hug me and be OK. But then the next day, it happens again. This doesn't happen every day but I'm worried that I'm not handling this right, because shouldn't she be getting better at not doing this? Today I got a note from her teacher that she was hitting a friend the other day and screaming at the top of her lungs. I'm at a loss as to what else I can do...

What can I do next?

  • Add yourAnswer own comment
  • Ask your own question Add Question
  • Join the Mamapedia community Mamapedia
  • as inappropriate
  • this with your friends

Featured Answers



answers from Springfield on

She's 3. Calmly telling her that she needs to go into her room until she can calm down is great. That is teaching her how to deal with her frustrations. If you keep doing this consistently, she will begin to recognize her feelings before she gets to the point of screaming, and she will begin to go to her room on her own or take deep breaths.

But stop talking to her about it. She's only 3. Teaching her how to deal with her feelings is great. Talking to her about them as much you are is an exercise in futility. It's just way above her head.

Model appropriate behavior. Praise appropriate behavior. Save the discussion for when she's old. For now, keep it simple.

And keep in mind that she's only 3. If she were doing this when she were 10 that would be one thing. But at 3, it's actually very normal for her age.

9 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

Anything you do with a three year old will take lots of repetition and time and growing up. That doesn’t mean something isn’t working.

Think about how you would like her to express being upset, besides calming down. Can she stomp her feet, show you a mad face, can she say “I’m mad”? How do you express being upset? Do you yell, do you tell her you’re mad? Do you not express angry feelings? Most people have trouble with anger, either holding it inside or exploding in some way, so think about what you’d like her to do, and then do it. When you see she’s upset, instead of sending her to her room, you can remind her, “I know you’re upset. You can’t hit me, you can do _______ instead. Counting until 4 to calm down is fine once she’s expressed herself, but first she needs a good way to express her anger.

5 moms found this helpful

More Answers



answers from Toledo on

I'm only going to comment on the note from her teacher, because there's really nothing I could say that these fabulous ladies haven't already said.

If you got a note from the teacher, it's because the school is required to do that. Your daughter hit someone, so they have to write a report about the incident and give you a copy and give the other parent a copy. These things happen, and the school is required to document it. Don't worry about it. Kids do things. They aren't supposed to hit (or kick or pinch) but they do. It's part of growing up, and the teacher should know how to deal with that.

It's normal to feel like you are suppose to address it at home and try to "fix" the problem. You can't. Whatever happened at school happened too long ago for anything you do to have any impact on your daughter. If the teacher thinks you need to address it at home (and is giving you that impression), then the teacher is likely in experienced. If you feel the teacher is expecting you to do something, turn it around and say, "How do you plan to address this so that I can best support your efforts?" The only thing you could do is try to be consistent at home. But this is something the teacher has to address.

10 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

"she'll come out and say "I'm sorry Mommy" and it seems genuine"

One piece of wisdom that I have learned from a long-time Mamapedia poster (who might chime in here if she sees this post) is the concept of very young children having no real comprehension of "sorry" - what does it mean, how does it work, is it an automatic reset button, is it a free do-over allower?

At this age - there is no "sorry", there is only action and consequence. The action of yelling and hitting results in the consequence of time out / calm down / someone needs a nap / etc.

When she says "I'm sorry Mommy", she could just as easily be saying "I'm a green alien Mommy". "That's nice dear - are you ready to use your quiet voice now?"

As for yelling and hitting at school, clearly the teacher needs to handle that in the moment. But of course it is great to show an interest in how the teacher handles it and see if you can both get onto the same page.

9 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

Seems to me that you are on the right track. I'd suggest two modifications.

First, try to observe what is happening before she screams and tries to hit. Is there a ramp-up to this behavior, perhaps multiple demanding requests or being told to wait for too long. It's always helpful to prevent meltdowns if you can. So if it's her not being able to accept a limitation you have imposed, don't negotiate or explain. Send her to her room before she screams. And if it's because she's waiting too long for something, consider if you are asking too much of her. Just a possibility to thing about.

And don't discuss calming techniques after she comes out of her room. That loving attention might be quite rewarding to some children. Just welcome her back and continue on with what you were doing.

As for the school, I didn't get a good impression from your last post. I still don't know what they expect you to do from home.

8 moms found this helpful


answers from Norfolk on

She's 3 yrs old.
Haven't you ever heard of the terrible two's / terrible three's?

Sending her to her room to get over her tantrum is fine.
Trying to reason with a 3 yr old with explanations is pointless - as you are finding out.

At 3 she doesn't have any impulse control.
When she's tired and/or hungry she will flip out of control quickly and never remember any talks you had about it yesterday.
A lot of this has to do with how well you manage her around her being tired/hungry.
Don't even attempt to go anywhere if she hasn't slept well or hasn't had a meal/snack.
Not putting her into situations where she will lose it is your best bet to avoid meltdowns.
Once a melt down starts - off to her room she goes until she's done screaming.

As for dealing with this at school/preschool/daycare - well duh - 3 yr olds do not play well together - this is not new and it's not news.
What does the teacher expect you to do about it?
You are not there when it happens and dealing with it after school is too late.
If the school/preschool/daycare is not prepared to deal with typical toddler behavior then I have to W. how good a fit this place is for any 3 yr old.
What is the schools nap/snack schedule?
Perhaps they are letting her get tired/hungry which leads to the inevitable tantrum.
You posted about tantrums at school before - so it looks like these new teachers don't want to deal with toddlers.
Sending you notes is their backhanded way of telling you to take your daughter elsewhere.
You and your daughter will both be happier if you find a new school.

It will get better at around 4 yrs old.
She'll be just a tiny bit more mature and she'll have more words to express herself with.
Hang in there - it will get better eventually but it's going to take time.

8 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

I understand your frustration, and I'll remind you that it takes ages sometimes (or it seems so) for kids to get through this phase, or any other difficult phase.

Let me suggest 2 modifications:

1) She does not understand "I'm sorry" and her remorse is not "genuine"! Any early childhood expert will tell you that 3 (or 5, or even 7) year old kids don't have empathy. That's not a character flaw or the result of bad parenting - it's a normal developmental stage. Young kids are, by definition, self-centered and they do not yet have a world view. So your child has learned to say the magic words "I'm sorry" and with the right tone of voice, at which point you soften and give her all kinds of attention. You're reading into her voice a level of sophistication that just isn't there. She's imitating what she sees in others, sure, but she's not feeling it yet. In fact, she thinks "I'm sorry" is equivalent in meaning to "Do-over." So in her mind, it undoes and cancels out her transgression and gives her a clean slate.

2) Your post-tantrum speech about deep breaths and counting to 4 is well intentioned, but it's so distant from the time of the offense that it's useless. The time for that, if at all, is when she's on the edge or just now set off. So if she's hitting (or screaming, whatever), you give her a firm "No hitting! Stop! Count to 4. Breathe." And you put her in her room. You don't give a big discussion about how she goes to her room to calm down. You remove her from what she wants - which is you. You have to do it at the time, or it's a big monologue about nothing - she can't relate it to what happened 5 or 10 or 20 minutes ago. While I'm not saying kids are animals, they are immature - so it's the same logic as not rubbing my dog's nose in the urine puddle on the floor. The second she was done peeing, it was history, and she has no idea why I'm shoving her nose into urine 20 seconds or 3 minutes later. Kids don't make that association yet, and you're asking her to go back in time. What WILL work is more immediate consequences at the moment of the offense. That's why she's hitting at school - she's not associating that action with a consequence at home, so why should she at school? And I'm not sure what "Count to 4" is supposed to accomplish in a young child. Count first, then scream? Count first, then hit? I know what you mean - I just don't think she does.

There's a famous book about raising your spirited child - that may help you. Just find a technique that fits in with your life and be consistent. I think all the hugging and discussion is giving her attention that exceeds the negative consequence of being in her room though. I think you're making too big a deal out of it after the fact, and she's taking it as a reward. She needs to learn that self control means she can stay where others are, and hitting means she's on her own and not happy. And "I'm sorry" is something she can say when she's much older. Don't require that of her. It's like kids who interrupt and are told, "Don't interrupt. Say 'Excuse me.'" Then they do, and that makes the interruption okay. Bad idea.

ETA: OMG I just read the response that you should tell her a monster will take her. Don't do that! It doesn't teach her a thing, first of all, and down the road when she figures out you lied her her, she'll have no reason to change her behavior because she had a consequence.

8 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

well, the first problem is that she's 3. it's a marvelous age for all manner of adventures, discoveries and new skills, but with them come intense new emotions and frustrations. most 3 year olds are 'very spirited.' it's part of the deal.

it actually sounds as if your banishing technique (and i'm not using that pejoratively, it's a valid coping mechanism) is working well. she IS calming down, and fairly quickly.

'i'm sorry, mommy,' is a learned response, not an expression of genuine contrition. we all teach our kids to say it, but then we tend to forget what it actually means. don't hang too much hope on 'sorry' meaning she gets it. it's a rote response.

explaining to her afterwards is understandable but won't do much to help in the moment. she's only 3. she's moved on emotionally from the crisis du moment, and is simply basking in your approval and attention. she's not actually internalizing the lesson you think you're imparting.

it's probably more effective to just catch that flying little fist and say NO and then send her off than to explain and count. NO is a complete sentence always, and especially for 3 year olds. if she hears NO and is removed from your presence, that's the lesson right there.

did the note from the teacher seem to indicate that you should do something about it? i'm assuming that if there are professional teachers on staff, they're handling it well in the moment and simply informing you that something happened. they should do that. it's a good thing.

if they're expecting you to retroactively discipline her, that's another thing altogether. i wouldn't keep in her in a pre-school that doesn't understand 3 year olds.

but i'm betting it's simply a 'this happened, we handled it' notification.

keep calm and forge ahead. frustrating as the 3s are, they're also charming, magical, and over far too soon.

ETA there is something very wrong with 'reality chick.'


7 moms found this helpful


answers from Abilene on

This is not a reflection of your parenting, it is a reflection of her being 3. If I had a dollar for every time I repeated hands are for hugging not hitting I’d be sipping an umbrella drink on the beach somewhere.

I liked to catch my daughter before she lost it and would say “you are getting frustrated how about a quiet time for a few minutes.” I purposely didn’t want her to think of it as punishment. I wanted her to have a couple of minutes to hopefully gain her composure so she didn’t blow.

I have struggled with a temper all my life. My parents spanked me regularly. I don’t fault them, but it didn’t give me tools to keep control. When I did lose it, sometimes I was scared by how volatile I was.

When I saw it in my daughter, I knew I wanted to give her tools to help. Eventually she would recognize she was about to lose it and give herself down time to recover.

Keep it short when you correct her. I used to tell mine it hurt my ears when she yelled or whined so I couldn’t listen until she found her big girl voice.

Keep correcting her without anger. She will get it eventually. Threes are a hard age.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from Portland on

I always said said "if you would like to join us - you'll have to use your nice quiet voice so you don't hurt our ears". Until they are capable of doing so, they can't join in. I didn't make them go to their room (or time out) at that age. If they were screaming - I moved to another room where I could still see them. I didn't rationalize or talk.

If it's just a tantrum because they are very young - then they are tired or hungry and may just need to be taken aside, held and a nap.

That's what worked for me.

As for notes from school/daycares/preschools, etc. they are required to send one home - like an incident report, especially if it involves another child. They handle it at the time, but it's how they communicate this stuff with parents. Sometimes parents drop and dash and same at end of day. This ensures they've communicated what went on, if they don't get a chance to talk to all parents.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

3 yr olds have the attention of a goldfish, so the fact that she isn't "getting it" yet is really no surprise. I think the first thing I would do is meet with the school/daycare and share your concerns and get on the same page as far as handling these behaviors so everyone is doing EXACTLY the same thing EVERY single time. Repetition, repetition, repetition is the way to go.

Perhaps asking if the school thinks an evaluation is necessary is a good idea. If for no other reason than to show them that you are genuinely interested in solving the issue.

Good luck!

5 moms found this helpful


answers from Chicago on

I applaud your patience and keep on it. You are doing one of those important things in parenting and that is being consistent and pointing out right from wrong. And letting the child know there are some consequences which can be that it hurts others and someone might not like you. Keep up the good work! She is only 3 and this too will pass. No matter what you do, she will be in school one day and the other kids would make it loud and clear that they don't want to be hit or screamed at.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Denver on

She'll probably be a creative, energetic, wonderful person eventually, but 3 is a tough age. You're doing well by sending her to her room, but it seems like a few tweaks could improve things.

First, you might want to send her to another place besides her room. I'm only guessing, of course, but probably her room has toys and books and dolls, and maybe even a tv or a toddler video game kind of thing. Send her to a barren place, with a chair, where there's nothing to do. Keep your interaction with her to a bare minimum, no smiles, no "good job, sweetie, staying in time out", only "get back to that chair".

Then, don't let her decide when to come out with that sweet little face, saying "I'm sorry, Mommy". Set a timer. She doesn't come out until it rings. And as others have said, she can't comprehend "sorry" right now.

My final piece of advice is to have something in place when the meltdown is starting, before not after. A sign language signal, like opening your hand wide and suddenly closing it (like a conductor when he's telling the orchestra or choir to be silent). Or hand over your mouth or something. Or placing both hands behind her back. You teach her this method at a calm peaceful time, and role play it. Do it lots of times during the day, and you do it too. Meltdown starts, physical signal from you, and you both put your hands behind your back and zip your lips shut tight. A physical, rather than verbal, reminder might work well. Then you can remind her in words that we don't hit.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

Oh goodness I remember 3 (with a shudder). Three is the worst, honestly. I found it way worse than two...they are just like little untamed animals and so darn angry, and angry with gusto! This sounds totally normal to're handling it fine, and she will really improve most with the passage of time and maturing to a point where her feelings don't overwhelm her and she can use words instead of screaming and hitting. I found that my kids became much more manageable little people at around their fourth birthday.

If you haven't read the book "Raising your spirited child" I highly recommend it. It's probably been updated since I first read it almost 20 years ago, but it was a lifesaver with helping me to better understand my oldest son (spirited to the max!) and head off those situations most likely to frustrate and overwhelm him.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from New London on

Kids at 3 are tough....Spirited kids are tough... times 10.
I know because I have one.

The book about Spirited Children is a great read!

I used the 1-2-3 Magic technique, too. Do not over use it. Just like time-out!

Get a mini-trampoline with a handle ! Have a tape that u both love and dance to it for ten minutes every day....She needs to move!

She hits because she is MORE INTENSE! Make sure there is not tv or technology after 7pm.

Occupational Theraphy helped my child so much! I found one and she understood sensory and had the extra training in sensory!

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Miami on

She’s 3. You are expecting her to act like a tiny adult. Three year old spirited kids have to be managed all the time.

You are doing the right things here except for expecting her to behave overnight. What you must do is be 100 percent consistent. Every single time she starts this stuff, in her room she goes. Ask the teacher what her consequences are. She should have similar consequences and lots of attention directed to the child she hit. NO attention to her. (Children try to get attention with these behaviors, even negative attention.)

Outside of the home, if she acts like this in public, right back to the car you go, strap her back in her seat unceremoniously, close the car door and just wait outside of the car pretending to read your book or phone. Ever so often, open the door and say “Are you done?” Only when she stops crying do you pay any attention to her.

It’s hard. You will get very weary of it. But you must do it. And also so important is to never give her what she wants when she acts like this. You will just prove to her that anything she wants is possible to get if she is just beastly enough.

That being said, give both of you the benefit of making sure she has had a snack and is not tired before going out. Hungry and tired children have meltdowns, and you don’t need to make it harder on you both by leaving that out of the equation.

My children’s daycare long ago said to children “Use your words” to try to help them to communicate appropriately. If the children yelled, they were told “use your inside voice”.

You must expect to do this over and over until she develops enough intellectually and emotionally. Meanwhile, give her positive attention when she is being good.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Louisville on

Ah 3... No one tells you about 3! 3 is such a hard age and much worse than 2! Shes learning her way around this big world and learning how to interact with others around her. You are doing the right thing by giving her cool down time but try doing it in a room other than hers, you dont ever want to associate her room with something bad. So try a chair in the kitchen or dining room. Hang in there momma!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Cleveland on

It kind of sounds like she could be hyperactive. There are lots of different forms of it

For Updates and Special Promotions
Follow Us

Related Questions