Help! 3 Year Old Talking Back and Fits of 'Rage'

Updated on November 29, 2011
A.R. asks from Madison, WI
15 answers

We are struggling with how to deal with our son who is 3 (will be 4 in March). Overall its seem like 3 has been easier than 2, on terms of any behavior problems, but recently we are really struggling. My son is very verbal and smart, and has a very strong personality that includes stubbornness. The past month or so, he has these 'fits' where he won't listen, he will talk back and tell us what to do. He is acting like he is the parent or something. He takes whatever we say and turns it on to us. For example, something as easy as 'please pick up your toys before we leave.' He responds with 'no, you pick them up!' Then when a limit will try to be set, he acts out even more. We took a Love & Logic class a while back which taught us the 'oh oh song' which has you put the kid in his bedroom whenever he does an undesirable behavior. The door stays open, unless they come out, then door closed, if still come out, door locked until they calm down. Well we have tried that, he will never just sit in a time out and when door gets locked it just escalates him even more, to where he is hitting the door, screaming, talking in this mean voice, etc. Then 10 min later, he is done. It is so upsetting to me bc its like my sweet boy turns into this alter ego! All bc we asked him to do something very simple!!
I work in the area of mental health and in past I worked with delinquent teens and all I can think is Omg is that going to be my son in 10 years! I'm just looking for some advice on how to handle 3 year olds who talk back and don't follow directions. He is one tough, strong willed little boy!!!
.What has worked for you?? Also if you experienced this with your child, did he grow out of it?? He is really a great kid 90% of the time, but this 10% is affecting our family. My husband and I end up getting into arguments bc we don't know how to handle it effectively.
Lastly, I'm not looking for any judging comments, but instead just abt your experiences.
Thank you!!

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So What Happened?

Thank you so much for all of the great responses!! I've already started to try some of them out and do notice a difference. It was also helpful to hear that others are or have been in very similar situations with their little ones. Sometimes, I can't help but think I'm the only one experiencing "this." I often think that my experience in the area of mental health oftens does me a disservice since having my own kids because i spend too much time worrying that they may some day have similar struggles as my clients. It's as if I have a "warped" perception. Thanks again!!

More Answers



answers from Portland on

I agree with Dawn B. You and your husband have to get on the same page. Your arguing is upsetting to your son and increases his anxiety which is part of the cause of his tantrums. He's out of control and needs to feel that his parents are in control and will help him.

I'd treat the screaming and kicking door as a temper tantrum. Completely ignore it. When he realizes that his screaming does not get any attention he will stop it.

As to talking back. Tell him you cannot hear him when he talks back and then completely ignore him until he answers in a reasonable way.

I found with my grandchildren that when I ignored their refusal to do something and just waited for it to be done, they eventually did it. I have to be patient and non-confrontational. I just stand there with "that look" of expectation on my face and they most of the time do it. If not, they go to their room, when I'm watching them at their house.

When they've been sent to their room they cannot come out until they're ready to say sorry. Each time they come out take them back to their room, over and over if necessary. No emotion from me. Just a matter of fact, go back to your room.

Then when they say they're sorry remind them of why they were sent to their room. Ask them first and if they aren't able to tell you you tell them. Give them a hug and go on with what you're doing.

I would leave the door open even if he keeps coming back out. I'd just keep calmly putting him back in. No words. Just put him back. Closing the door can be really scary for a little one. At 3, he's still not confident that you're still there when he's shut away like that.

My mother would shut the door on me and even tho I was a preschooler I remember the panic that caused. I remember watching her walk out to the mail box and believing that she was leaving me forever.

Time outs didn't work with my daughter or my grandchildren. I agree with the going to their room until they can do what they've been told. For my grandchildren, they can play and in fact sometimes do as a way of calming down. Once they're calm they can think rationally and do come out and say they're sorry.

I love the Love and Logic way of disciplining. Be consistent and you will see results.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Minneapolis on

Asking a 3-year-old to "pick up your toys before we leave," is actually NOT a simple request. Try to be more precise, such as "Put your blocks in the block box." Vague instructions frustrate kids.

Also, try mimicry. If you need him to do a desired specific behavior, such as brushing his teeth, try this approach: "It's time for both of us to brush our teeth." And then YOU brush your teeth along with him, so he knows that this is something everyone has to do, not just him.

Whenever possible, catch him in the act of being good and tell him that you are proud of him! One example, if you see him eating over his plate, say "Wow! Look at Mikey eating over his plate so he stays neat and clean! Nice job, kid!" Or something like that.

Lastly, it's imperative that both parents back each other up on expectations about behavior. Don't let your son see or hear you two argue--it just gives him more power.

Age 3 is tough. Your son is probably quite normal and just testing his boundaries. So be careful about assuming that he may have a mental health issue, esp. since you're an expert!

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Honolulu on

Teach him HOW to communicate.
Teach him, HOW to say his feelings. In a palatable way.
A child or adult, can be grumpy or majorly irked... its human... but we ALL need to learn, HOW to say it and practice our tone of voice, and actions when we feel like that.
A child, does not come automatically with those skills. It is TAUGHT.
Not even some adults, are expert at it, right?
So for a mere 3 almost 4 year old.... it is doubly hard. They need to be taught, the skills for that. And that it takes PRACTICE.
Just like, for an adult.

My son, is similar. But, he is a great boy and very intelligent and he KNOWS his feelings and has great deductive reasoning, even at his young age. Still, I know he is a young child. He is 5. So we just continually teach him... more palatable ways of explaining to us... how he feels, why, and the situation. Instead of just telling him, be quiet or stop it. That just makes the child MORE frustrated and MORE pent-up.
A boy.... NEEDS to learn how to express himself... much like we women, because we are more verbal and emphatic.
If a boy learns he is not allowed to say things... nor is he helped with HOW to express that in more tangible and palatable ways... then, he will not learn. So, WE need to teach that, to a young child.
Otherwise, we CANNOT just 'expect'... the child to automatically know those skills nor to just do it.

3 & 4 years old, is developmentally hard.
People expect them to act 'older' even if they are not. They are on the CUSP of being a 'big boy'... but still, they are developmentally, learning. Not having those skills, intrinsically known.

So, for our son, instead of just punishing him or just saying stop it all the time... we talk WITH him, role-play, teach him ways of speaking/communicating/how to express his feelings (justified or not), and then, he realizes, that he is being understood AND that we are helping him... not just expecting something and leaving him to his own fumbling recourse. Because.... a child does NOT know sometimes, what to do or how to express thing, unless we help them. Instead of just 'expecting' it to happen.

NO kid, is 100% good all the time nor pleasant.
And, if a young child is always perceived as being a 'pain in the rear'... then they know that... and it will only make them, more frustrated. Especially if actions against them are always, negative.

You said, your son is 90% "good."
How about, instead of expecting him to be great all the time, you teach him to "try his best".... and then help him. And notice when he is trying.
That will encourage him more.

Do not assume, that he has all the skills or aptitude or ability... to self-manage. He is only a young child... he is only, 3 going on 4 years old.
A child this age... needs to be GUIDED. In how... to handle frustrations.
Again, not even many adults, know how to do that.

Just punishing, will not teach him these skills nor increase his aptitude, for managing his emotions.

And also, if a kid is tired or over-tired... they get more like this.
So he needs to nap.
My son, when he is tired or over-tired, he gets more argumentative.
And I have taught him, that he needs to rest and that napping is not 'bad' and that it helps him. He knows that.
He is 5 and will still nap.

Your son acts like that, because he is frustrated and/or does not 'know' how to express it.
So, guide him.
Teach him.
Give him the ability to 'problem solve.'
Teach him COPING-skills.
Kids, do not have those skills. It is taught.
Teach him, that there are MANY ways, to problem solve something and MANY ways to think about frustrations.
Even humor.
Don't feed off of his, outbursts or frustrations. Be his Guide.
That is what we do. With my son and daughter.
Then THEY gain "ability" to think about their own frustrations, too, in conjunction with our guidance.
When they are irked, we tell them "problem solve that... what can you do to feel better? What can we do to help? What can you do, instead of yelling?" And then, TOGETHER with them, we 'problem solve' the situation.
THAT.... teaches them, HOW to manage, how to look at things, how to think of MANY ways of handling difficulty.
THAT... is golden. Because, it teaches them the aptitude for long term, self management and handling of their emotions.

When my son has moments like that, even if it is hard... I will calm myself... sit down, and tell him "Okay, you are frustrated for some reason. Tell Mommy... why. Tell Mommy how you feel. Its okay. I want to understand where you are coming from...." and then he tells me. And sometimes.... I REALLY have assumed 'wrong' about him. And then, I realize... HOW complex his deductive reasoning is and how complex his reasons are, for feeling a certain way. Then I realize, I got him all wrong... and together as a TEAM... we figure it out. Then he feels all better. Problem solved.
I also do not just 'expect' him to perfect.
No child is.

And sometimes, a kid just needs to TRANSITION... to the next thing we want them to do.
So that means, telling the child "In 15 minutes, Mommy wants you to brush your teeth. You can finish playing with your cars until then." I do that with my son, and then in 15 minutes, I tell him. And then he simply says "Okay Mommy I'm done. I'm going to brush my teeth now." And he does. Transitioning.
Which also means, compromising, too.
Many kids, don't do well with 'abrupt' sudden orders.
Give the child a head's-up first. About what is coming up or what is coming up that you want them to do.

Many kids, are verbal, smart and stubborn.
But it is up to us, to guide them, and manage them.
They are young. They don't have these automatic skills.
And they feed off of us.
And they, catch our vibes. Too.

Teach your son, the word "compromise."
That is one of the first words I taught my kids, at 2 years old.
I told them it means taking turns and sharing... their time. With what we need to do.
They understood, even at 2 years old.

Don't assume, just because your son is 'smart and verbal' that he knows how to do everything.
Kids at 3 to 4 years old, is a very hard age.
They still need to be guided and practice, skills that you teach them.
It takes all of childhood.
Then in the teen years, things like this occurs too.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Kansas City on

This seems all fairly normal to me. My daughter just turned 4 in September and we've had those types of behaviors since about 3.5ish to now. It's a struggle some days for sure! Usually what I do is TRY (notice how I emphasize try, because we all have our moments!! ;) to focus also on my Love and Logic and go about things like this...

If you're leaving and they toys aren't picked up you can simply say oh I guess we aren't leaving until the toys are picked up. OR if that isn't an option and you have to leave then say, okay, I'll pick up your toys but just so you know whatever I pick up I get to keep and you won't get them back. Then do it. Either he picks them up at that point or you do and place them in a bag and put them somewhere that he doesn't get to use them.

I've also said things like, oh that's a bummer that you can't do that. I won't be able to turn on any shows for you, or play that game that we talked about, or whatever the case may be. This also usually helps. If this particular behavior continues for a few days in a row then I usually just stop telling my daughter what I'm going to do b/c she already knows. At that point I usually just have to say OK and she's realized her error and goes about at fixing it! Now, that is not to say that other areas of tantrums don't arise, but at least that one is fixed for now! ;)

Also remember to stick with choices too...when you're getting ready to leave, simply state that the toys need to be picked up. Then say...are you going to pick up toys or go potty first? Or Would you like to pick up toys with your jacket on or your jacket off? Or you could even give the option of picking up toys before you go or when you come home. This may not always be possible, but it is a really exciting option when you can do it, and for the record, my daughter doesn't always choose when we come home, now that she knows the drill she sometimes picks to do it right then so she can play with other stuff later.

Also just remember that most 3.5 year olds are slow at pretty much anything they do b/c they are so easily and constantly distracted! I help my daughter a lot with picking up and I make sure I give her plenty of warning time wise when something needs to be done.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Milwaukee on

When my son was around that age he changed too and same as you I wondered what happened to my sweet boy. He would fight me when I put him in time out and I would cry so many times because I didn't know what to do and didn't understand why he was acting like that. He grew out of it and is really sweet again and he is 5 now so hopefully it is just a phase for your son too. Good luck!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Santa Fe on

Hello, I just wanted to let you know that your son sounds a LOT like our son (ok, exactly) at that age. He was very strong willed and stubborn - more so than any other 3 yr olds we knew. The woman who has done the toddler and baby classes for the last 30 years where we lived said he was perhaps the hardest kid she had ever seen. We had to become much more black and white with him. At first it was more in our nature to try to explain everything to him and try to reason with him - of course with his personality this got us no where fast. We would get down in front of him and calmly tell him now it is time to do x (come to the table for breakfast). I would say, now if you do not come I am going to count to 3 and if you are coming by the count of 3 you will get XX as your consequence. Then most likely (at first) he would end up getting the consequence and he would scream and have a huge fit. Pretty much any time he had a time out in his room he would yell and kick the door and throw his toys at the door till he was totally exhausted (30 min or more). It was very trying. The other thing that would work was to take away a favorite toy. Basically, if the consequence made him terribly upset I knew it was working. Then over time he slowly got better at figuring all this out and handling his own emotions. We just had to be very black and white and not give in. For talking back and "mean words" we both sat him down and explained to him what the rules of our house were. No saying mean things. No talking back to mom and dad. We gave him examples so he knew what we were talking about. We told him as soon as he said one mean thing he had to go into his room for a time out. It took him a while to get this but he did. I remember this issue came up at age 5 also. We gave no warnings for this - if you were rude you immediately went to your room. We also would praise him like crazy when he did things right - jump up and down and reward him etc. I have to say he was a very hard 4 yr old and a very hard 5 year old. Then at age 6 he really got so much more mature and much easier. Now he is 7.5 and is doing well (of course not always - he is still quite strong willed and stubborn but now he is so much more reasonable and his emotions are not out of control). He knows we mean what we say and he knows he needs to do certain things or else there will be consequences. Hang in there! 3 is a very hard age. I think I read every single parenting the strong willed child book out there!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on

Some great advice here, especially about you and your husband getting on the same page and being sure you no longer argue about what tactics to use.

I would add: I'm not familiar with Love and Logic but putting a kid in his own room as a time out seems like a self-defeating tactic to me. His room is HIS room full of his stuff -- his toys, his books, his distractions. When you put him in there as discipline, isn't that the same as putting him in a place where he now has full access to all his things, or many of them? Even if he's distressed at being told he MUST stay in the room, he also is surrounded by his comforts. I have never heard of an effective time out that took place in a kid's own room. You need a place that is totally neutral, where he does not have access to (or even can see) anything of interest to him. Check out the books by "Supernanny" Jo Frost; she often sets up a regular time out space for kids in neutral and boring places like the bottom step of the stairs or some other spot that is utterly not interesting and not in the middle of things, and especially not in the child's own room or playroom.

Also, how long are these in-the-room time outs lasting? It sounds like they may go on and on at times. The general rule is usually one minute of time out for each year of the child's age, so his time outs probably should be three minutes. If he does get up, walk around, try to talk or leave time out, then yes, you do need to put him back in his time out place again so he completes the time out, and you need to do so repeatedly until the time out is done - and then conclude it with his apologizing to you and a hug and moving on with no further comment. Again, Jo Frost has terrific time out guidance.

One other detail: When you tell a child this age "Pick up your toys before we leave" that means little to him and is overwhelming. You know what you mean but he really doesn't; the order is overwhelming to him, so he is not very likely to do anything. Have you tried breaking down tasks for him simply? Instead of "Pick up your toys before we leave," try: "Please put the bears into the toy box. I'll set the timer for two minutes -- see how fast you can do it and see if you can beat the timer!" and so on.

Breaking things down may be tedious for adults, who know what it means to "pick up all your toys" etc. But if his floor is covered in toys and books and clothes he really does not know where to begin without further guidance. And "by the time we leave" has little meaning for him either. To him that may mean right now, so he's stressed that he's already behind before he begins. Or it may mean ages from now, so he's not bothered, and wanders off to do something else. One thing that was very effective with my daughter at that age (and sometimes still is, and she's 10) is to break down tasks and be specific with the child about what to do next. Good luck.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Allentown on

Alison, it doesn't sound very unusual. They talk about the terrible twos but from my experience and reading, threes the toughest. Toddlers are trying to become independent and really push their limits. As one author says, it's their job to test you. You need to be in charge and consistent, whatever you do. We found the book 1-2-3 Magic very useful. Another approach is the book "The Happiest Toddler on the block". It really helped us understand what goes on in their heads but I found the suggestions did not offer enough structure or consistency for my daughter. Also it's good if you can redirect him so that it doesn't end up being a battle of wills. For example, if he doesn't want to pick up his toys, you can say "Do you want to pick them up now or in two minutes?" So he feels that he has a choice but he's actually agreed to pick them up.

Good luck! We did feel like we had no idea what to do but it gets better!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Charlotte on

Alison, I can't say that I have had your experience, but I have to say that your last comments spoke volumes to me, and make me wonder if that is the cause of the problem: "My husband and I end up getting into arguments bc we don't know how to handle it effectively."

It is amazing what kids realize between their parents. And they act out more to cause more dissention. You and your husband need to get on the same page. And more than that, you both have to act like it. If you don't, it will continue. If your husband doesn't believe in Love and Logic, tell him that he has to find something that he CAN get behind, and talk about it with a counselor. It's really important.

I think that if he is only screaming for 10 minutes, that's not too bad, considering what some moms on here go through. However, I think that perhaps you should give him a consequence for it. Perhaps you should tell him that when he screams in his room, that several of his toys will have to go in the time out box until he learns to stop screaming in his room. When he loses most of his toys, he'll think twice about all the screaming.

There was a Wall Street Journal article that was very interesting a while back, talking about a new method that child pyschologists are recommending for children who have temper tantrums when they go out in public. They said to "practice" having a tantrum at home. Stomping and shouting in practice. "How" to do it. Then when you are at the store, and the child starts a tantrum, but lays in the floor instead of standing and stomping, telling them that they aren't doing it right and you have to go home. Practice more. When they get to the point that they are doing it like in practice, then cut out the stomping. Later, cut out the screaming. In other words, you teach them how to control the tantrum until they get to the point that they are thinking about it and don't do it anymore. It's a different concept than I used when my kids were little. But I do see value in it.

I would really give him the consequence I'm talking about if he doesn't stop hitting the door and screaming in his room. It will take time and losing lots of toys, but it's worth it.

Good luck!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Milwaukee on

I would personally stick with love and logic. it really does work. our boy did some similar things. he is 4.5 now and never gets bedroom time anymore. don't give up! hang in there!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Minneapolis on

I had a 3-4 year old boy just like that and had your same fear that he was going to be a rebellious, "juvenile delinquent" teenager. He is now 15, a freshman in high school and very responsbile, pleasant and successful (except for teasing and antagonizing his younger brother). At age 4, he was prematurely (and inaccurately as it turns out) diagnosed with both ADHD and and ODD. We held off on giving him any meds because of his young age and he began to mellow on his own about age 5-6 and by age 7 was a pretty typical, but high energy boy. I don't really know if anything we did contributed to his mellowing. I do recommend all of Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's books, especially the ones about "Spirited Children." I also enjoyed and found success with "How to Listen so your Kids will Talk and Talk so your Kids will Listen" (or vice versa, can't remember). We took Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) classes that are available in MN and he underwent occupational therapy for sensory integration issues at age 5. I always made sure he got plenty of daily exercise and made sleep a priority, although he wasn't a great sleeper so that was a challenge. Finally, kids go through cycles and developmental stages. Age 3 1/2 is typically an age when kids assert their independence and "test the waters." It is one of those "down" or difficult stages in their cycles. Good luck.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Rapid City on

He is trying to be the "alpha male" in your home, it is like with animals in the wild. The young buck always tries to work his way up to the top position. This is when it is nessessary to be the parent and strong then the friend who "talks" to them. Instead of arguing with him or putting him in time out when he is asked to pick up his toys and he replies "You do it" Just tell him "If I do it they get put up and you don't get to play with them again for a long time" If he refuses, box them up and put them somewhere he can't get them out. Remind him each time that the toys go bye bye if he doesn't pick them up and he will start missing them. When he wants toys when you go out shopping tell him no, that he doesn't pick up the ones he has so he doesn't need anymore. Most of all teach him to put away the toys he is playing with before he moves on to another toy so he isn't overwhelmed.

When he talks to you in a not nice way tell him you only hear nice talk, pretend to turn off your ears to bad talk and ignore his bad talk... he will excelerate with it before he believes you can't hear his naughty talk. I use to tell my granddaughter "I see your mouth moving but it must not be nice talk since I can't hear it" They want to be heard so they will start talking nicer. Also watch how you talk to him. Is he just mimicking you? I noticed this with my granddaughter when she talks to her mom. Watching my daughter in law talk with her mom, I knew where she was getting it. Pointing out that we teach by example and when mom treats her mom bad, that tells them it is ok to treat their mom bad too. When my kids were young I would count to three and if I got to three they would get a swat on the bottom. I didn't have to swat hardly at all since they knew what was coming and didn't want to chance it.

Teaching self control at this age is so important because if they don't have it when they are teens it won't be pretty.

Good luck and bless you.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Williamsport on

Before you started the Love and Logic program, were you FIRMER than that, or less firm for bad behavior? Sometimes people are not offering consequences to things at all for defiance and angry outbursts, so the Love and Logic is a step up, and may work, but for many, it is still not nearly firm enough (especially for boys).

OR, were you very harsh disciplinarians and it was having no effect so you wanted a more loving approach, therefore scaled it down to the Love and Logic approach to avoid firm discipline? I have many friends who have used the Love and Logic approach, and it's fine until there is a big challenge, like aggression and total parental defiance, and then it's just way too soft, imo. I think you are right to be concerned about his future if you don't get through to him with behavior this severe.

If you have not been firmer than Love and Logic in the past, I would try to be much more firm for a few weeks and see if he improves. You can see a change right away even in tough kids this age if you are confident and consistent with something effective. You can still be very loving and positive, you just need to effectively address very wrong actions very firmly and immediately when they occur. He should never succeed at screaming, hitting the door and saying mean things. My son (almost 4 and also very spirited and strong willed) would have way more to reckon with than being put in his room (so passive aggressive to stick them in their rooms...actually, it's just passive) if he tried that (which he wouldn't).

Back to Basics Discipline by Janet Campbell Matson is a great, basic, effective, timeless approach which works wonders. Boys were born with enough raw testosterone to hunt and conquer and survive, they need very firm boundaries when it comes to parental disrespect and violent outbursts. Sometimes, the gentle, logical approach makes them madder. That's what I've seen in boys I know anyway. Now, if you've already been very very firm and it backfired and you feel you need to lighten up on him, that is a different story. Scan the book on Amazon and see if it is up your alley and if the problems and solutions pertain to you.



answers from Orlando on

O My. I could have written this exact post, except for the fact that my daughter is 11 months younger.

I will be reading your answers very closely.

Good luck!


answers from Appleton on

First of all, thank you for posting this. I know now that I am not alone. My son is also 3, turning 4 in March and has the same fits a rage and talks back to me. What I have found is he takes things I say and turns them around like you described. If I say please pick up your toys, he tells me to pick them up or has actually told me to throw them away. I have in the past said to him that if he does not pick them up they will be taken away and possibly donated. I took a couple classes within the Love & Logic course and try to use punishment for the "crime" and now he uses it against me. Ugh! I found that making the picking up toys a competition with mom works best for my son who is also stubborn. With this age there appears to be a lot od defiance and independence and at the same time a lot of needing me right by his side. For example, if he needs to use the bathroom he insists that I stand in the bathroom with him even though he is capable of taking care of business on his own. He has actually peed his pants because I refused to go to the restroom with him. Back to picking up......I have found that if I make it a race between him and I he actually picks things up. In the end if he is not picking up I end up cleaning things up myself, so for me to offer a little assistance is much easier than doing it all on my own. While "racing" to clean I tell him that mommy is going to beat you at picking up and he instantly springs into action. If he persists and continues to refuse I continually remind him, playfully, mommy is beating you and you better hurry so you can win and beat mommy. Sooner or later he jumps in and rushes to get things put away. Now it is not always in the right place, bucket, toy box, etc. but it is not in the middle of the floor.

I look forward to reading other's responses as I have some of the same difficulties. Fits at the grocery store etc. that have left me not wanting to take my son anywhere! Good luck and hopefully this helps. I am sure you are a doing a good job and understand how frustrating this is!!!

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