Discipline for 3 Year Old Son

Updated on May 16, 2011
E.T. asks from Plano, TX
14 answers

My son just turned 3. I also have a 9 month old daughter and expecting another baby in 2 months. My son seems to be really acting out lately. When he throws his tantrums, he displays a lot of anger and likes to throw stuff. Anything and everything. My husband and I have tried different forms of discipline but it doesn't seem to affect him in any way. Nothing scares him. The only thing that has worked so far is putting him in his room and closing the door. But I have to stand there to keep the door closed and listen to him cry and bang at the door. I don't like to do this but the only thing that my son doesn't like. Just wondering what other discipline techniques you use for your children.


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answers from St. Louis on

you know, discipline doesn't necessarily have to be something that he doesn't like or something such as you holding the door shut on him! As another poster mentioned, watch the "1-2-3 Magic" video & you'll find discipline much easier.

Legally, with my daycare, I can use my words only for discipline. This has taught me to "have a better handle" on the kids....& to be 100% consistent. One of my more effective methods is to step in ...the split second I see a meltdown beginning. I nip it in the bud & am usually able to prevent the full cycle. & what's interesting is how the older kids also use this method on the smaller ones, too!

Hope this helps....

2 moms found this helpful

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answers from Portland on

It sounds like you mean "punishment" when you say discipline. Discipline, in its original meaning, is teaching or correcting.

Your son is probably feeling many of the stresses you are with a baby coming, and his acting out is his childish but completely normal way of trying to find a way to get his own little needs met. His behaviors are not thought through, they are simply the many strategies all children have available to them before they develop more mature strategies. But if they "work," if they get him some result that is, for him, more satisfying than what's been happening already, they are more likely to stick.

Your attention and energy are probably spread pretty thin right now, and may be even more so when the new baby arrives, but my guess is that what your son most needs from you right now is your attention and energy. If he's feeling deprived, getting punished for being lonely or frustrated is only likely to make matters worse. He may comply, but end up emotionally disconnecting from you to make that work, and that will not bode well for your future relationship.

Here's my favorite list of techniques for surviving and thriving with toddlers:

1. When he wants something, empathize, big time, and in his language. I love the advice of Dr. Harvey Karp on how to get on a tantruming toddler's wavelength in this and several related videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6KnVPUdEgQ&feature=re... . Once your little guy realizes you do care about what he wants, he's more likely to be able to calm down and cooperate with what you need from him.

2. There are lots of positive ways to approach discipline (which actually means teaching, and not punishment), rather than just saying no. Kids hear NO! often, and they can be so frustrated. So look for ways of finding a mutual "yes," and save "no" for those occasions when children are trying something dangerous. Instead of "Put that remote down!" for example, try "Here, play with this (dead) cell phone!" There will also be times when you must have cooperation, like diapering or trips to the store, so keep a special toy or distraction that he gets to play with only at those times.

3. Keep it playful, and keep it respectful. Children learn primarily through play and imitation. You may need help with this if your parents didn't model a lighthearted and kind approach when you were little. The book Playful Parenting is a great resource. Your son's sense of humor is developing, crude though it may be. (Also be aware that some "behaviors" like throwing are a natural experimental activity for kids, a form of play that is programmed into them for the purpose of developing brain/body connections. Find plenty of "acceptable" outlets for those repeating behaviors.)

4. Here's a big one: give advance notice when you'll want him to be doing anything differently, especially when he's grooving on some activity/play. Children absolutely hate unexpected transitions. With my grandson, we let him know at least a couple of times that a change is coming ("We're going to go to the store / have lunch / take a nap pretty soon." … and then a second alert a minute before making the change.)

5. Whatever the next activity is, make it sound as desirable as possible. Give some detail about the ride in the car, or a favorite food at lunch, or sweet snuggles before nap. Be positive and enthusiastic. And be calm. Desperation will show, and even though he's too young to deliberately engage in a planned power struggle, he will quite naturally sense any cracks in your resolve. And this is where future power struggles truly can begin.

6. Learn his limits. Try to keep demands low when he's tired, over-managed, hungry, or sick. He won't have any emotional reserves left with which to cooperate.

7. Get to know his most likely trouble-spots, and plan ahead. For many kids, it's when they want some temptation they've seen. So keep those things out of sight when possible. Be prepared with a distraction – for example, another toy he likes when you have to take some fascinating object away, or a healthy treat when he wants a sweet snack. Laughter, introducing a new game, a few twirls and bounces, hugs or tickles, a goofy song, can help break into his determination to get something he wants (that short attention span is both a curse and a blessing). And those interactions will give him some of the positive strokes he might be missing now that a new baby is distracting you more.

8. Avoid bribes, but let him work toward occasional rewards. Don't try to buy cooperation with "IF you'll do X, we'll let you have Y." Instead, phrase it as if he gets to assist in advancing something good for himself: "Hey, as soon as you help me get X done, then we get to do Y." It sounds like a small distinction, but it's important. It gives the child a chance to cooperate in what feels like choice, even when there's no "if" about it.

9. Encourage lots and lots of physical activity during the day. Time outdoors in nature is calming for most children. If he has pent-up energy, it will have to come out some way, and unless channeled in a positive direction, it will likely to add to both your stress and his.

10. Limit TV time – the passive receptivity to all that fast editing seriously interferes with children's normal brainwave patterns, making focus, cooperative behavior, and engagement in the "real" world more difficult.

11. Whatever you are trying to teach will need to be repeated hundreds of times over the next few years. That's completely normal. Attention spans and impulse control are extremely limited in toddlers, and the areas of the brain where those connections are being made develop only gradually during the toddler years.

12. Spanking and time-outs don't work for every kid, and will sometimes actually backfire over time. Children may be annoyed, scared, shocked, or shamed into compliance, but behaving for the sake of avoiding discomfort is NOT the same thing as developing an internalized sense of "good." Consistent, calm guidance and modeling what you DO want from him will work better in the long run than punishing for what you DON'T want him to do. See more on this by googling The Science of Parenting or Emotion Coaching.

13. Pay attention to what you love and appreciate about your son, and make sure he knows. Treat him with calm and respectful authority. Children crave attention and approval, and if he knows you're noticing his good moments, he'll try to create more of them.

14. Be open to learning new things about your little boy daily, even hourly. Often, what we think or assume gets in the way of noticing what is actually happening (like your assumption that neighbors are judging you – for all you know, they could actually be sympathizing or approving!).

I wish you well. Enjoy your little boy – this is a challenging AND rewarding age!

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Dallas on

We use a "sticker reward chart" of sorts...went to the dollar store in the teacher section got everything for 2 bucks. I listed good character traits that I wanted to see; things like Respect, sharing, caring, kindness..etc. Divided it into realistic amounts....EVERY TIME I saw my oldest (now almost 4...my youngest started this at 1.5 too) doing one of those good traits, I gave him a sticker. Made it a BIG deal...let him put it on and lots of praises. When the goal was reached, he got a reward. Anything from a hot wheel, an ice cream from the icecream man, dinner out with dad...does NOT have to be big...but celebrate the good! After 15 years teaching HS, I learned it is exponentially easier to reward the good than punish the bad. He even does things on his own now and says,"hey mom, that was really kind of me, can I have a sticker?" the stickers mean nothing...but it is a lot easier to catch him doing good things that get really upset over the bad (and there still are bad, but it just is a mental shift that i had to make)....hope it helps.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Philadelphia on

Be consistent in whatever type of discipline you decide on. I would use time out since he is 3 yrs. You put him on the steps for 3 min. Afterwards tell him what I good listener he was that he stayed on the steps. Also tell him that other behavior is unacceptable...good luck.
Your kids are closer together than mine. I had 3 kids in 6 yrs. Which I think was all I could handle. When your having an especially hectic day..I know this sounds silly but it has helped me. I say "this too shall pass" Now my youngest will be turning 5 yrs old tomorrow. Then she starts kindergarten in Sept.



answers from Dallas on

I don know why its called terrible 2s, it really should be terrible 3s. My kids were so good and it seemed like the day they turned 3 the head started to spin. HAHA

I didnt read your responses, so if I repeat I'm sorry. Years ago I had a pediatrician tell me a trick, that I have used and it really works.
When your child is throwing this type of fit, it usually is to get a reaction from you. He suggested looking at your child with a disapproving look and turn around and walk away. Dont say anything. If you arent there to watch the tantrum and pretend that you dont even notice, it will stop faster. Eventually, your child will figure out that its a waste of time and stop.

If your concerned about him throwing and breaking things, put anything breakable out of the childs reach, then when he throws things, you dont care. 3yr old proof your house.

This method also works with hitting and bitting.



answers from Boston on

Welcome to the lovely age of 3 I'll take a 2 year old over a 3 year old any day.
I love the book 1-2-3 magic. It's also the book my pediatricians office recommends for disciplining. Time outs for my boys are only effective if they are in their rooms. For the most part my now 4 year will stay there but I occassionally have to do what you do. Just make sure that you're consistent.



answers from Dallas on

I think Page said it all.
Think about his behavior, and isolate a couple of trouble spots. For example, my nearly 3 year old has problems 1) following directions and 2) running away in public places. Talk about those behaviors in a calm moment, and explain what the consequence will be (timeout for 3 minutes, or whatever consequence you pick). The FIRST time he breaks the rule, give him the consequence. He WILL be angry. He may cry, kick, bang, etc. If you are doing timeout, you may have to put him over and over into the timeout spot. While you are doing it, be empathetic and calm. After he has calmed down and had his consequence, hug him and have him tell you why he went to time out.
The key is to be consistent - every time he breaks the rule, he gets the consequence.
Good luck!



answers from Cleveland on

We do the same thing for my son. Yelling,lectures etc don't work at this age. Can I recommend that you get the book parenting w/ love and logic!? We have had ALOT of behavior issues w/ our almost 3 year old, and have read MANY MANY other books but this was been AMAZINGLY helpful.
The methods behind it are quite simple and may even seem silly, but boy does it work!!! With a small baby and another coming, I really think you'll find it to be a life saver! Good luck and hang in there :)


answers from Lynchburg on

Hi Etran-

My eldest son was like that for time outs in his room...he kept popping out like a 'jack in the box'! He'd carry on like he was being boiled in oil rather than a few minute time out in his room! lol

After a few times of me 'wrestling' the door, I flipped the handle! I had a chair, a book or magazine and a timer on the other side. I would put him in...explain that it was 'X' minutes (one per year of age)...and that if he carried on...the clock was started over...til he could quietly have a time out, and we could 'discuss' whatever he did that resulted in the time out.

Seemed like it went on forever...lol...but he quickly learned I was dead serious! (so did his younger sibs...lol)

Best luck!



answers from Dallas on

We always let my son stay in the room with us but had to put his nose in the corner for a specific time. Worked like a charm until he was about 6.


answers from Washington DC on

discipline should teach. if you're trying to scare him into different behavior, you're punishing, not disciplining. i'm not sure what locking him in his room is supposed to teach him.
you need to help him find ways to express his anger, know that he's being understood, and direct it in different ways. tantrums are the result of utter frustration. you don't fix frustration by shutting him away.
i suggest a time-out chair where no toys (or anything else he can throw) but within sight of you. 3 minutes is a good amount of time for 3 year old. help him use words to express whatever it is that he's angry about.
it's tough to be a barely literate little guy in a busy family with constant changes (which is what the younger sibs are) going on. make sure he's getting some good one-on-one with both you and your husband, and make sure to praise him for good behavior.



answers from Abilene on

I love the Love and Logic series. There is a book called Love and Logic How to Get Your Toddler to Do Just About Anything You Want. They also have a website that has a lot of great examples and strategies in raising children. I have a lot of their books (currently on Parenting Teens with Love and Logic for my soon to be 12 year old) and they are GREAT.




answers from Dallas on

at this age it is VERY typical for them to throw tantrums. Your son may be a little more difficult because of the changes going on. he's 3 and has done this before and has an idea of what is to come after you have you newest addition. But like i said, it is very typical for children to start full blown tantrums at this age.
have you tried putting him in the corner? Maybe try laying a timeout mat down on the ground and let him know what it is for. as soon as he does something he knows that he shouldn't be doing, tell him to go to his timeout mat.
then tell him that once he stops crying you guys can talk about what he did and why it is wrong. if he doesn't want to listen then tell him that once he can tell you why he is sitting in timeout and that he will not do it again, he will be aloud to leave timeout.
I also think that it is important to tell him why he isn't aloud to do what he is doing and the consequences that may happen from him doing it.
and once he understands tell him that you love him and that he makes you very happy when he is behaving.
hope that helps...


answers from Dallas on

What you're dealing with is normal, I promise! He's feeling a lot of feelings and doesn't know how to control them yet. I know they call age two the terrible twos, but I've found it to be the terrible threes for my boy!

With my four (almost five) little ones, I've come to discover that I don't like punitive discipline (where the parent demands a certain type of behavior and tries to force the child to comply with punishments and negativity). I used to do the Super Nanny way, but it just seemed to be lacking in teaching how to actually deal with emotions and behavior. Before you think I'm crazy, just hear me out...hehe.

Back when I was first a mom, I didn't realize there was something called Positive Discipline. It's not to be confused with wimpy or spineless discipline where the child gets what they want and the parent just lets them do whatever. There is definitely discipline and helping of molding the child - it's just done in a very different way than most of us were taught. And it *teaches* the child how to deal with their emotions and deal with life situations, etc. I'm a total fan now! Someone mentioned Love & Logics. It's similar to those lines, only for me, I like these books more.

There are several books by the same author, and I've yet to read them all, but for your three year old, you might find this one the most helpful. As they get older, you'd probably want to read some of her other books.


I'm still working on reading those books, but I change my approach with tantrums. When they are that age, they have lots of feelings and they don't know how to control them yet. I feel like I want to teach them it's okay to feel those feelings, but *how* or *where* they express them is the problem. So, when my son throws a big fit and is screaming about something, I'll try talking to him about it and will let him know I know how frustrating it is - I try to view the issue from his point of view, and not my own. I'll see if he wants a hug. Sometimes all he needs is that so he feels heard and comforted and can move along (and this does not encourage poor behavior like I used to think! He's improved tremendously when I started responding more like this). But other times, he's too mad about whatever it is and stays very upset. In those cases I'll let him know that it's okay that he's feeling mad, but he's not behaving in a way that is okay to be around other people. So, I go sit him on his bed (I am not angry or disciplining him to stop it or anything). I tell him he can yell & scream on his bed and that it's okay and that he's not in trouble. If I can, I'll sometimes sit in with him and we'll talk about it all. He usually calms down very quickly and comes out laughing. And, again, it has not caused him to have poor behavior because of this. It's really improved his behavior. And, it teaches him for when he's older when you feel angry, sometimes you need to remove yourself from other people until you can calm down enough. As a kid I was spanked and punished until I learned that getting angry was wrong no matter what. It didn't mean I didn't feel angry still - it just meant I had no idea how to deal with it! So, I feel like this is more of a teaching type of method.

Each child is different, though. My almost 3 year old is quite the spicy little girl! But the book will give you different ideas to figure out what works best for your child. I really like her approach and like that it does more teaching instead of punishing without much teaching.

And just remember, we all know what you're going through. You're a good mom and kids this age can be so confusing and it's hard to know what to do! Good luck;-)

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