Discipline Issues with 3 1/2 Year Old

Updated on June 22, 2010
L.R. asks from Georgetown, MA
14 answers

My oldest son is quickly approaching 3 and a half years old. If you say "black", he says "white". Cognitively, he is on target or ahead of most 3 year olds. He doesn't have any problem socializing with peers his age or participating in activites. However, when I ask him to stop doing something, there's usually a tantrum. When we leave a place he enjoys he practically refuses to go by throwing himself down on the ground. I usually have my 6 month old in the baby bjorn. This makes it difficult to pick the 3 year old up and just leave. Sometimes I find myself struggling for up to 30 minutes to get him to leave and I have to take toys away, threaten to not come back...etc. I'm so tired of this behavior. People suggest to stop some of our activities, but that just makes my day brutal because he is so hyper active. He definitely needs an outlet for this energy. I've tried the timeouts, counting, taking things away. There's been no progress with this discipline. Any suggestions appreciated! Thanks!

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answers from Dallas on

Tantrums are so nerve-wracking! This book has tons of great advice on how to help. Such as planning ahead for his triggers that target tantrums and fixing them before they happen.

The Discipline Book: Everything You Need to Know to Have a Better-Behaved Child : For Birth to Age Ten by D. William Sears


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answers from Houston on

Don't have any real advice except to tell you, it's not your fault!! You aren't responsible for the tempermant your child was born with, only to learn how to handle it:) I have a three year old boy that is very similar to what you describe. There is an organiztion called "Focus on the Family" with Dr. James Dobson. He deals a lot with how to handle a strong willed child. I read this little book called "Tempering your Child's Tantrums" and I felt so much better about myself!! I do get tired of the battle of wills but I am getting much better at learning how to discipline and train my child without resorting to angry battles of the will. It is still tough and he also has this book called The New Strong Willed Child. I am going to get it bc just after reading some excerpts from it, I was much better. He talks a lot about the difference in strong willed kids and compliant kids and that people who have compliant kids will tend to blame the parents of the strong willed kid simply bc they don't know there is a difference and they haven't experienced training a child who has an iron will. A couple basic things I have gotten are 1. Keep your cool(I struggle with this!) 2. If he wants a fight, don't back down, do whatever discipline you say you are going to do 3. After discipline, talk to him about what happened. As you comfort him, explain what you expect lovingly and reaffirm your love. Of course he explains it better, and I read some of this when mine was two and not three, so I am definitely in a new place now! Also I have a 5month old and I know that mine is still struggling with feeling a bit jealous. I know this is causing him to act out more so I just try to still be consistent in discipline and attention. Best wishes!! You are not alone or a bad parent:) oh one more thing PLEASE don't let the looks or opinions of others affect you when your kid acts out, they are dealing with their own issues, don't take them on, just do what you need to do and keep movin'!

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answers from San Diego on

Hi L., wow you have your hands full. if I can give you some old school advice from a mom of 3 great grown children. You mentioned there's been no progress with the discipline, it's because what you are doing falls under punishment not discipline, I guareentee you if you start discipline his behavior will get better. J.

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answers from Portland on

Hi L.,

I've been working with toddlers & preschoolers for 16+ years, and I can tell you it's not the terrible 's but 3& 4 year olds that do me in.

When I work with parents as a coach, I recommednd the give warnings and transition activities. Here is an example:

At the park, walk over to your son, touch his arm & make eye contact and say "we need to leave in 5 minutes, you can still play now." about 1 minute to go walk over and say "it's time to choose your last activity, will it me 3 slides down the slide or 3 pushes on the swing." "It's time to leave now, we will have snack & water in the car, if you leave without a fight you'll get 4 pushes next time we come."

Here are a few points:
Touch & make contact, often parents yell from across the playground, and kids don't hear, the dragon they're fighting is taking up all their attention, so when the "it's time to go" comes, it's a bad suprise. When you touch & make eye contact with your child, they are listening to you & process what you're saying

Transition- kids need transition activities to get ready for something else. With my background as a preschool teacher, we would play a clap game or flash the lights when it was time to transition. This helps your child's brain stop what it's doing and get ready for the next event.

Stating your expectations, clearly tell your child what is next, (snack in the car) and what you want (him to leave nice). It sounds simple, but kids often forget how to behave.

Try this for a few trips, it won't work every time, but if you keep it up, it will work fast.

Good Luck

R. Magby

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answers from Boston on

Hi L.,

My kids are 23 mos apart (Daughter will be 4 in aug and son will be 2 in July). my daughter has always been very independent and stubborn. her favorite items are her baby jaguar, and her unicorn pillow pet. if she's doing something repetedly after i tell her to stop i take one of them away and they sit on a shelf for the rest of the day.... here's the kicker she doesn't get them when she goes to bed... she'll pitch a fit.., but you have to stick to it and not give it back until the next day - where it's a new day to start over with a new attitude.

Timer - i use it for everything. it's a small little ditigtal kitchen timer with a clip too. i tell her i'm settign the timer for x amount of minutes and when it goes off it's time to do x. i let her play in the morning while i'm getting ready - when the timer goes off, i'm finished and it's her turn to get dressed etc. there are never any arguments when the timer goes off. i bring it to the park with me. i tell her 10 more minutes, and set it..... when it goes off she's ready to go - she still stops at every station on the way out for one more slide, or climb etc... but she's making her way to the gate. i use it for toy struggles between the kids... they both want something. i set the timer when it goes off, they need to trade toys. i use it for dinner - when it goes off, time to stop playing and sit down to eat etc.

from the beginning i've tried to include my DD in everything i was doing for DS. changing diapers - she hands me the wipes, diaper etc... and i praise her for doing a good job, being my helper etc. so now i say, ok i need my helper with X and she helps me lead her brother to the car from the house etc... she's turned around to me and said "mommy i need my helper" when she wants me to do something.

our new one is "leading by example" b/c everythign she does he does too now. so i give her a little pep talk. Ok. we're going into the store now, no running away, yelling, etc.... and i need you to set a good example for your brother, remember what ever you do he's going to do and i need to you to be a good teacher for him. if you do a really good job i will give you a prize.

i have a bucket of $1 store treats to use as rewards. that has recently been taken over for the ice cream man, we have a little box, and she earns money by being good. so she can get an icecream when he comes by on fridays.

it's all about rewards and consequenses - yes you will have to throw out a favorite toy - but you'll only have to do it once so he'll know you mean business. what ever you use for your reward/consequence you have to carry through.

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answers from Providence on

In my experience (mom of 4, one a 3 year old!), kids respond best to positive re-enforcement. Your son knows you are not able to physically remove him and he can resist you. What you need to do is make him want to listen and mind you. Come up with a reward system - perhaps a jar which he can add marbles to, a sticker chart, or coupons. When he listens he gets a marble and once he reaches your goal, he is rewarded with something he wants - a small toy or game. It has worked wonders with my kids (we do marbles).

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answers from Portland on

Kids live in the moment, especially three year olds.

I'd warn him 15 minutes ahead of time. "Son, we are going to pick up our things and leave soon, so get ready to stop in 15 minutes." He may not know what 15 minutes is, but he will learn after repetition.

That's one reason why I think potty training little kids too early is hard. They are so engrossed with what they are doing that they forget about the bathroom thing until they have to really go and then they can't make it on time.

Also, threatening and taking things away: power struggle you can't win. Three year old's are smart and kids learn very early how to push Mom's buttons. He knows you can't pick him up with the baby in the carrier so he's got you over a barrel.

Can you ask someone to hold the baby for you while you deal with him? Tantrums are a sign he's feeling out of control and while it's embarrassing, all parents go through it, whether it's asking for something at the grocery store and not getting it, or leaving play time with friends, etc.

I read somewhere, a long time ago, that you have to give toddlers a choice. "Do you want to wear the black shirt or the white shirt?" Not, "you are wearing the white shirt today." Because then for sure he will want to wear the black one, or even worse, the turtleneck on a hot day or plaid with stripes, etc.

My daughter got her little girl into gymnastics, because she was bebopping all over the house, not listening, and in general, wearing my daughter out every day. She wouldn't go to bed at night and was up till midnight tormenting her mom and dad with her demands to stay up and play. Since taking gymnastics, she's got a sense of pride in herself, a physical activity to do several times a week, and can follow directions from a teacher and has learned social interaction with other kids. She was in preschool for a while but think she's off for the summer.

Also, when he does something right, catch him at it and praise him! Try to ignore the tantrums and look bored. Say, "okay, son, see you later! Baby and I are going home for a snack!" Or just stand there and yawn. You might see him stop and look to see if you're watching him. If he sees you getting distressed and trying to calm him down, he will keep at it! Just take a "yeah, whatever" attitude and let him learn to calm himself down, as long as he's not hurting himself or others. Or if you can't stand it, ask someone to hold the baby or watch her in her car seat and cheerfully pick him and say, "time to go! We'll be back another day!" But IGNORE the tantrum.

Also, if it comes to food or clothing choices, let him have his way when it's possible. Be consistent with things like routines though, because that makes kids feel secure, even if they do have a tantrum. I know it's hard when you are stressed and embarrassed but he knows you are stressed and embarrassed! Kids aren't mean or doing it on purpose, it's just a way for them to break away from the baby stage and sometimes it's painful for Mom!

Do you have any routines, like at bedtime, where it's just you and him? I did a bath, with songs and talking, then drying off with more songs, then getting the jammies on (always an adventure, because my son knew jammies meant bedtime was coming soon so he'd try to run away), letting everyone smell his hair, maybe a relaxing TV show, or straight to the bedroom for story time and more talking. "Just stay 5 more minutes, Mom!" and this at 9 p.m. Yikes! Then it was hugs and lights out, music on the tape player, and maybe going back again to flip it over at 9:30.

So if you can get Dad to help with a routine, or have Dad help with the baby so you can spend even 20 minutes quiet time with him before bed, he might really enjoy that. Maybe you do that already. If you have to bring the baby in the room and nurse or feed, go ahead but make sure he gets his time.

Or you can buy a Wii or Dance Dance Revolution Mat. My daughter has the Wii fit as well as the gym class. Her daughter is 4 now but same stuff when she was 3. Good luck!!! Hang in there! It will pass eventually, just try and remain calm and have bananas on hand (they are supposed to relax you so if he won't eat one, you eat it!).

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answers from Kansas City on

he's only 3 1/2 and you've tried all of these things, which means you haven't been consistent with any of them. you have to find something that speaks to him, and stick with it. i fully believe that timeouts work, even if you have a "hyperactive" child. it's just, the more energy and "spunk" your kiddo has, you have to have more, to overcome it and get him used to doing timeouts. pick a time when you have help with the baby, and go supernanny on his tushie. MAKE him stay there, don't talk to him, and keep putting him back, as many times as it takes for him to stay on his own. eventually he WILL stay there. commit to at least an hour, maybe a couple, and just bite the bullet. and stick with it. every time he is disobedient. no matter where you are. it will get easier. my son is 3 1/2 and completely overwhelms me sometimes with his energy. he would get out of hand QUICK if we didn't keep a firm hand on him. good luck! the sooner you do it the happier you'll all be! :)

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answers from Seattle on

Stroller. With straps. He pitches a fit, and he gets strapped in. As you roll to the car with the screaming meme, you just keep repeating he doesn't get to walk, because he threw a fit. Next time when it's time to go and you don't throw a fit you can walk on your own. It's too dangerous for you to be throwing a fit. Etc. Etc. Etc. Just the constant monologue of "It's not going to happen, and here's why." No need to break a sweat or be upset. We've all been there.

You can ALSO lie. ((I know, gasp.))

When you get in the car or back home talk about the place you WERE going to go, but now aren't because of the tantrum. Serious guilt tripping. You never had to ACTUALLY be planning on going, but he doesn't know that. And that way you get your get out of the house time AND he feels the pain of not getting to go do something fun. So you get to have your cake and eat it, too.

THEN, the first time he doesn't pitch a fit... make a big deal about how proud you are of him, and now you guys get to _________. (go get icecream, climb trees, go to the bookstore, whatever... someplace fun that he "hasn't" ;) been getting to go, because of his behavior.

And ditto Rebecca M on the transitional adv. :) :) :)

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answers from Boston on

First, I've always given the 15 minute, 10 minute and 5 minute warnings about how much time was left. I know I wouldn't like it if I had no idea and suddenly my time was up. You might also warn - and I don't expect any tantrums either - I would have talked to him about some new set of rules already before having left . First rule - you will tell him how much time he has left so he knows and isn't surprised. Second rule - if you have a tantrum we will never return to that place. I know this may sound devious - but I have 2 kids and we have only ever had 1 tantrum in our lives because I vowed I would never be in that situation. I always pointed out other kids who had tantrums and told my kids that if they ever did that - we would NEVER go back to that place - our rule. I always said it's okay to be a little bummed out to leave somewhere, but no reason to be so dramatic when we can always come back another time - unless of course you have a tantrum. Then the very first time my oldest daughter ever pulled a tantrum - I was true to my word and told her we were NEVER coming back there. (Luckily for me, it was a place I didn't care about every going back to. If you try this strategy - you might time introducing it at a place you know you won't care about ever going back to.) Then I made sure in the next couple of weeks to drive by that place a few times - each time pointing out that we can never go back there. My youngest was only an infant at the time - but she got the message too because my oldest always told her - "Don't have a tantrum when we leave or we can never come back. I did that once and we never went back." I also tell children who visit our house and start to pull a tantrum when it is time to leave "The rule in our house is no tantrums. If you have a tantrum, you won't be allowed back - and you want to come back, don't you?" They always stop the tantrum immediately. Good luck!

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answers from Bangor on

Wow! Just substitute daughter for son and you are living my life. Is this the wonderful time that everyone tells me I should enjoy because "they grow up so fast"? I could, quite honestly, stand for speeding this particular time in her life up a bit! Just remember, this, too, shall pass. And some day we will watch our grown children deal with their three year old's temper tantrums, too!

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answers from Detroit on

leave him! walk somewhere that you can see him but he can;t see you and watch what he does. i tried that with my 3 year old and he stopped looked around for me and i casually walked back in sight and said" are you going with me because you acted like you didn't want to go with me", and he got himself together and came on to the car with me. it may not be that you were inconsistant some children are just more stubborn then others and my son was very stubborn. he worked to way to whoopings too! but the walk away thing gets them everytime! just make sure you can see him. ggod luck.

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answers from Boston on

I agree with Cindy D. We do marbles as well. This is how we do- child decorates own cup- plastic/ paper with stickers, markers puts name on it. This gives the child ownership. For good behavior, whatever you are working on at the time, give a marble or two depend on how good the behavior was. We give extra marbles if they do it somehting on their own like cleaning up thier toys. With naughty behavior THE CHILD has to give you one or two depending on the crime after you give a 3 count. This is our routine for leaving the park- I give a 10 minute and 5 minute warning and remind them if they are good about getting into the car or leaving they get a marble. Works wonders!! As for rewards- 10 marbles= make cookies or for our 7y/o a sleepover. 15 or 20 a trip to the $1 store. We started this with our now almost 8y/o and we have started it with 2y/o now too.

Good luck!

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answers from Boston on

Rebecca M has the right approach. The reward system (marbles) should help too. All I would add is to think about congratulating your son on doing a good job being a three year old. He's on target and his behavior is normal. Be grateful. He is in a learning phase and how you handle it will determine his behavior later. Why would he want to leave a place and activity where he is having fun? Would you? It's your job to help him learn how to make transitions. Good luck

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