Help!! Dealing with 3 Year Old Behavior

Updated on May 24, 2011
T.W. asks from Winter Park, FL
12 answers

What works for you when your 3 year old throws a tantrum? Do you ignore the behavior, distract him, speak calmly to him over and over trying to redirect him??

What do you do if he hits or kicks you because he's not getting what he wants? (he doesn't get hit but has started doing this)
What do you do when he does these behaviors in public like the grocery store and you have a cart full of food?

Do you do timeouts and how do you handle it when they WON'T stay in timeout? I've tried putting him in his room over and over or sitting him in a timeout spot over and's not working.

Is he too young for a behavior chart of some sort?

My 3 year old son has always been relatively easy going and it's like his personality has flipped a switch in the past 2-3 weeks. I think sometimes it is because he doesn't eat. He has a younger brother (age 1) but he's always loved the baby so I don't think it's that. I'm trying to do the best I can with him, there are so many different opinions on how to handle this behavior. I always see such great advice from the mothers on this site so please help!!

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answers from Boston on

I agree with what others here have said about the methods in Happiest Toddler on the Block. It comes down to the idea that when they're tantrumming, they're trying to express strong emotions that they really don't know how to or are unable to express any other way. Often, letting them know that you understand will stop the tantrum. Saying something like "Are you mad? Are you MAD MAD MAD MAD MAD?" will get my little one to look up with tears in his eyes and say "yes!" and then I go on to say something like "Are you mad because you can't do X right now?" and he'll say yes again. So I say something along the line of I know, but I can't let you do it now because (simple reason) but we can do Y, or we can do it another time, or whatever I want to say. Then I give him a big hug, help him calm down a bit, and we move on. I like this method because not only does it stop the tantrum, but it also teaches them how to express the feelings that they're having trouble expressing, and therefore dealing with the reason that the tantrums continue to happen as well. Anyway, Dr. Karp explains it much better in his book than I can here. I highly recommend it.

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answers from Portland on

Most of your questions are addressed in my collection of favorite tips for dealing 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: . 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. Many, many parents have seen amazing changes for the better when trying this approach.

2. There are lots of positive ways to approach discipline (which actually means teaching, and not punishment), rather than just saying no and assigning consequences. Kids hear NO! often, and they can become terribly frustrated. So look for ways of finding a mutual "yes," and do your best to 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 now. (Also be aware that some "behaviors" like overhand throwing/hitting are a natural 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. When he tries to hit you, say, "You feel mad. That's okay – here, let's go hit this pillow!")

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 tried to 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 or even third alert 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 positive strokes are worth a lot to a child.

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. TV can put a young child into an altered state from which they have trouble emerging, and negative behavior can occur during that struggle.

11. Whatever you are trying to teach will need to be repeated hundreds of times over the next few years. That's completely normal (even adults need to hear things several times to "get" it). 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, time-outs, and depriving of toys or privileges don't work for every kid, and will sometimes actually backfire over time. (Many parents on this site complain that their kids have just stopped seeming to care about any form of punishment.) 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 is going on in that little head gets in the way of noticing what is actually going on for him. Adult concepts like "power struggle" of "defiance" are often, for a child, simply ways of expressing real needs.

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

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answers from Dallas on

During a tantrum, a child's ability to reason is out the door. So, anything you say during that time will only make him madder.

Simply ignore him and the behavior (as long as he's not hurting himself or anyone else).

When he "comes to", praise his good behavior (ex: I like it when you use your nice words). Don't even give his bad attention any mention.

He will soon realize he doesn't get anything from the behavior, and will learn to redirect.

Try reading "the happiest toddler on the block". It's an eye-opener.

Good luck!

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answers from Boston on

I can see that you've gotten a few great responses already, but I can't help but answer. I have a very stubborn, fiesty 3-year-old boy myself, and it has often been me asking questions on this site about how to deal with tantrums.

For us, time outs just don't work very well for most misbehaviors. They don't make him stop his behavior. It's not that he gets up, it's that he wants to stay there! So we only use them when he has hit or kicked us. The ONLY thing that really works for us when my son is having a tantrum is to turn our backs to him, completely ignoring him, and even to walk away to a place he cannot see us, depriving him of our company. The idea behind this is that we're not taking him away from the situation, we're removing OURSELVES. Before we do this, we do give him a chance to stop his behavior before we count to three (this is a little adaptation of "1-2-3 Magic"), and this works about 50% of the time. When this doesn't do the trick, we say something like "I don't like to be around you when you are acting like this, so I am leaving." And then go. If we aren't in public, I will even go into the bathroom and close the door, or into my bedroom and close the door so that I am really "away". We only have to do this for about a minute before my son is ready to stop whatever he was doing. He asks us too come back, and we say something like "Are you ready to listen and follow directions now?" He usually says yes, and we can continue, but sometimes he says no and starts again, at which point we leave again.

We also have some very public tantrums to deal with sometimes. Before I had my son, I was one of those people who had no sympathy for parents with tantruming toddlers, but boy has my attitude changed.

I have been known to abandon cart when I need to, but mostly, I just go about my business, trying to ignore the tantrum the best way I can, get through the line, and high-tail it out of there. What I find the hardest is if my son is out of the cart, and dealing with the tantrum requires me moving him somewhere (even back to the car) when he is stomping and screaming. In those cases, I just start to walk away from him, and eventually he follows me (reluctantly, and loudly). I have had to shake off my own embarrassment and deflect a lot of nasty looks and unwanted advice in those situations, but the fact is, everyone who has ever had a toddler has been there, and everyone who hasn't can go pound sand.

You are not alone. Good luck!


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answers from Boston on

Here's what NOT to do.... don't try to reason with your child during a tantrum. He's not in a situation where he can act or react at all reasonably. Also, don't keep escalating threats in an attempt to get him to comply. I've made this mistake before... and it doesn't work at all... but then I've had to follow through with my threats, some of which were too extreme, or just ridiculous! LOL. I usually tell the child what the consequence will be - give a 10-count - and then follow through if s/he can't calm down by 10.

Do your best to defuse the tantrum before it occurs. But if it does occur, I think it's important that there are consequences. Kids need to learn how to manage their emotions so that they don't constantly throw tantrums, especially in public... especially in school! And they need to learn that it's just not acceptable behavior.

If I were in a store with a cartload of groceries, I would finish up & pay as soon as possible. If I were in a store with fun things for the kids in the cart, the fun things would be abandoned! And if we're in a place that's fun for the kids - playground, library!, etc - we leave immediately.

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answers from New London on

Wow - you just took me back 3 years! Hang on, it will change soon.

All the techniques you mentioned can work - you need to do the hard work of figuring out what is happening just before the tantrum - what is your child trying to accomplish? He does need something (food, sleep, attention)? Is he asserting newly discovered autonomy? Is limited communication frustrated him? Clothing uncomfortable? Too much/little stimuli (music,sounds, fluorescent lights, number of toys, balance of calm time and activity)? Digestive issues? Molars coming in (I often forget this one - issue once again at 6 years)? Sometimes I engage his curiosity by saying we have a problem/mystery to solve - how can we all so what is needed/wanted? Use different techniques based on what is happening at that specific moment.

I found "Happiest Toddler on the Block" (planet?) very helpful book. Most libraries have it. Sure you feel silly joining the tantrum, but it really helps the child feel heard and understood, which helps get to stage of compliance with your rules/boundaries.

With my 6 yr old I can sometimes sense a tantrum on the way - so I have mine first so he can see how it doesn't really solve the problem.

Timeout does not work for all kids - time out in the sense of sit here in time out chair. It's not suppose to be a punishment, but to take time out from what is happening to regroup - only works if done before things escalate. So use timeout but not in usual way - rather, as originally designed. Have him take a break from what doing to regroup. My son had birth to three and his OT said to use timeout in a different way - sitting in a chair would not work for him. So his time outs are to learn techniques to regroup: sometimes he has to take a moment and breath deep into his belly button; do 10 jumping jacks and 3 somersaults (a sensory integration technique); sit and do deep massage on his legs, etc. Some children need the action.

Other issue with time out - the child may act up to get your attention - timeout does not help him get what he needs. Figure out what is happening just before the misbehavior or tantrum and address that need.

The other thing to look at - sleep and nutrition needs change week to week at this age. With the amazing amount of growth (physical and mental) your child may need down time even if he has given up naps. Find ways to get protein into the little one - will he eat hummus with tortilla chips? Great way to get protein in and the child feels like it's a special snack. I would offer "peanutbutter lollipops" - a spoonful of peanutbutter.

If you ignore a tantrum, understand that it will escalate before it stops. If you choose this approach, it is best to follow through (unless child is in danger of being hurt). To get to the peak and then intervene teaches child he needs to go over the top to get what he wants.

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answers from Boston on

My 3YO girl has a switch that is flipped very easily, and we've noticed it's definitely exacerbated by not enough sleep or not eating. I'm sure some of this behavior is normal (or else there wouldn't be momma's writing in so much!). I did just get a flyer from my pedi about this exact thing called THE INCREDIBLE YEARS PROGRAM that we are tempted to try but are short on time and cash. here's the website Even if you can't do the class locally 10-12 weeks for $300, there's a book that goes with it you might be able to get called "The Incredible Years" by Carolyn Webster-Stratton. If you want the local class info, let me know and i'll email it to you.

Good luck!

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answers from Boston on

We do marbles, a reward system for catching doing good to help avoid tantrums. 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 8y/o a sleepover. 15 or 20 a trip to the $1 store. We started this with our now almost 9y/o and we have started it with 3y/o when she was almost 2.

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answers from Boston on

I first want to say that I heard all about the terrible twos and never really saw that with my first son (I have three). But three was TERRIBLE. It was like you said -- like someone hit a switch. Certainly you should look for other causes, but it might just be developmental, and if so it'll pass.

As for how to deal with the behavior, someone mentioned using corners for time out, and we have also found that to be much easier than a bedroom or a chair (which isn't always available; sometimes we do use a bedroom if a kid is really out of control, though; see below). If our kids don't stay in time out on their own, we hold them there (with their nose to the wall) by putting firm pressure at the nape of their neck with one hand (the thumb is on one side, the fingers are on the other). This prevents them from turning their necks, and they hate it, so they generally stay in time out on their own if we have to apply the pressure for even a second. The point of time out is to calm down the tantrum, so our rule is that they stay for one minute past whenever they calm down. Then we can discuss whatever happened prior to the tantrum -- as another poster said, discussion during a tantrum is not going to work.

If we are out in public, I place my hand at the nape of their neck and apply firm pressure while explaining that if their behavior continues, we will go to the car, a restroom, or whatever else I can think of -- I once used a deserted hallway in a library -- so they can have a time out (or a spanking, if things seem to be really escalating). Usually, this firm pressure alone is enough to let them know I am serious and get them to calm down (and make them think of being in time out). But I have had to take my kids out of a public place to deliver punishment -- you have to do it a few times to let them know you're good on your word.

My middle son (who is 3) sometimes gets himself so worked up that we don't want to put in the energy to make him stand up with his nose in the corner (he will slump to the floor if not held in an upright position). He's always been the most emotional and strong willed of our children. If he screams in response to something while we are at home, our immediate response is to put him in his bed and leave the room. He knows he must stay there until he calms down. If he gets out, he gets an immediate spanking, so he does not get out while he is screaming. He is allowed to come out only when his tantrum has stopped.

We use spankings sparingly in our house -- they are only to enforce time outs or to answer the most egregious or disrespectful behavior. But they are effective when used in a calm and pre-meditated manner, and once you apply them seriously and consistently, you'll find you don't need to give them out that often (note that a spanking over a diaper doesn't work, though, and actually we make sure to have skin contact even for our toilet-trained kids). Time outs seem to help our kids to learn how to calm down on their own and significantly reduce the amount of screaming we have to listen to.



answers from Dallas on

Ignore but if he tries to hit/kick then put him in the corner immediately. We always did time outs in a room we were in with nose to the wall. In the grocery store, maybe take him to the rest room and make him do a time out there.


answers from Williamsport on

We're spankers with 3 non tantrummers under age 5. One calm warning at the very beginning of an attempted fit, and a good sting if it continued stopped each kid after one or two tries. Just a warning sufficed after that. It's never been something we needed to live with, nor were my husband or I permitted to have them as kids. Once the child sees they will never get away with it, they quit trying.
All my non spanking friends give time outs or ignore and all of them have tantrummers.

I was convinced time outs didn't work for anything UNTIL I was at a McDonald's play yard a few weeks ago and a couple was there with their sons 3 and 5. The 3 year old pushed my son. I said it was OK, but his Dad snapped his fingers and said, "Come out!" The boy ran out of the jungle gym, stood with his nose to the side ON HIS OWN until the dad said he could go back to playing. ????!?!?! Prepared to eat my words I asked them if time outs always worked for them and how they got the kids to comply with them.
They said they used spanking to train them to comply with time outs, and if they go past a time out, they know they will be spanked, so that's why they stay in it. I asked about tantrums, and they said tantrums were always straight to spanking, and they don't have them.

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