Help My Daughter Is Misbehaving and Acting Out

Updated on October 09, 2008
B.M. asks from El Cajon, CA
12 answers

My three year old daughter seems to be misbehaving at the most inappropriate times. An example would be waiting in line after swim class to sign her up for the next class. Once I finally get to the front of the line and start talking to the clerk she starts screaming at the top of her lungs. Leaving at that exact moment only teaches her she can get her way (leaving) by screaming. She is great in school but is a stubborn child. When I am not around she will tow the line but when I'm present she turns into the tazmanian devil. Help!! Advice is greatly appreciated.

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answers from Los Angeles on

Wow - sounds like you've got a leader on your hands!

I highly recommend the book "You Can't Make Me (but I can be pursuaded)" by Cynthia Tobias. She is brilliant with strong willed children. This book has made all the difference in my relationship with my 3 year old daughter. She took me to my wit's end every single day, but then a Mamasource mom recommended this book to me and it was a revelation! Now my daughter and I get along great because I've learned a better way to parent her so that we each get what we want out of every situation. I saw a marked difference the very first day I started using Cynthia's advice.

Best of luck to you and your precious little girl!

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Reno on

When my daughter does this, it's because she wants to be the one and only center of attention, and she can't stand that the adults are speaking to each other and not her. Of course, much as I adore her, she is not the center of the universe and she needs to learn this. When she starts having a fit while I'm talking to someone else, I send her - or carry her, if I have to - to a nearby spot (usually just a few steps away) and tell her she must wait there if she wants to be noisy. If she's quiet, she can come back and stand with me. Yes, occasionally this makes it VERY hard to sign up, make appointments or whatever, it slows down the line and people glare at me, but that's better than teaching a misbehaving child that she controls the universe. Then, when I'm done doing the banking or whatever, I inform her that she's lost a privilege - say, TV - for the misbehavior. Good luck!

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answers from San Diego on

Hi B.,

I think some of this is the age. My son is four and he went through some particularly tazmanian devil times at 2 1/2 and 3 1/2. He is also a stubborn child and very intense. I find that being really consistent with discipline helps. For consequences, I use time-outs and taking away things he loves for a period of time.

We have also had embarrassing public tantrums from time-to-time. I can identify with your swimming lesson line fiasco! In those cases I turn into a calm broken record--e.g., "I'm sorry you're angry, but we have to sign up for swim lessons right now. If you continue to scream, then you will be in time-out/lose ____/not get to go for frozen yogurt, etc." I have given public time-outs--right in the middle of a store--I have taken my son out of the shopping cart and plunked him down in the aisle and refused to move until he stops screaming. Thankfully, this period of misbehavior ended, and I'm sure yours will too.

My son's problem sometimes is staying next to me in a store. If he can't do that, I hold his hand, which he hates. First I warn him that I will hold his hand. Then I hold it if he can't stay near me. I let go after a few minutes and we try again. If he cries because I'm holding his hand or runs off again, I continue to hold it and turn into the broken record again: "If you can't stay near me, I have to hold your hand. If you scream, I will continue to hold your hand." Sometimes his hand gets held the entire time and I just try to finish doing whatever I was doing quickly or I just leave. If he doesn't stop screaming or I have to leave before I was ready to do so, there is a consequence at home too (often losing something). I have this problem with him less and less now.

I think it's normal for kids to freak out with their parents and not with teachers or others. It has to do with their feeling safe with us--we'll always love them, so they don't have to be angels all of the time. (I still feel that way--my mom sees my ugly side sometimes and I'm over 30). :-)

My pediatrician told me to be consistent and appropriate with discipline starting when my son turned 15 months old. She said that these early years are the hardest since so much is off-limits to toddlers and preschoolers. She said that if you aren't consistent now, then you will have a 5, 6, or 7 year-old who throws public tantrums and is disrespectful. I keep this in mind often--who wants a bratty big kid?

Okay all you moms out there--a reminder--when someone else's kid is acting up in public, be sympathetic! I can't tell you how many times I've had nasty comments from especially older ladies even when I'm dealing with the situation. URGH! Let's remember how hard parenting small children is, ladies! Let's not turn into nasty older women!! (And God bless all of those moms and grandmas who have said supportive things or smiled when I'm in the thick of dealing with a tantrum!)

:-) D.
P.S. I really like SH's advice. I also tell my son that being mad is okay but that you just can't scream in public, but he can scream alone in his room if he needs to. When we have time-outs, he is left alone until he's "ready to talk" about what happened. Sometimes I give myself a time-out during a difficult time (mommy needs to cool down too). Like SH, I also tell my son that I love him, but not his behavior. I tell him to act nicely because he IS a nice boy.

I would guess that B.'s swimming lesson line problem has nothing to do with her daughter not liking swimming--if she's anything like my son, then it's just that she doesn't want to do something at that moment, like stand in line, or have mom talk to someone other than her (this kills me when my son pulls this, since I talk to him A LOT)--it must be him getting used to the concept of sharing--yep, you have to share mom, too...

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answers from Los Angeles on

Children scream and act out when they don't have the words to express what they are feeling. It seems to me that you are asking a lot of a 3 year old to have her finish a swimming class, wait in line, and then have a conversation with the clerk. Take a look at it from her angle. She's cold, tired, and probably hungry. The next time that you know you will be waiting in a line, talk to her about it ahead of time. Ask her if she would like to have you bring a snack for her to eat while you wait and a toy or paper and crayons. In other words, talk to her ahead of time and give her choices. If she still acts out, get down on her level, look her in the eye, and ask her questions, one at a time, until you find out how she feels and what she wants. It could sound like: "When you scream, I don't know how you are feeling or what you want. Are you feeling tired and you want to eat? (if no) Are you feeling angry and you want to leave? (if yes). Good! Now I know how you feel and what you want. (then communicate what will happen next and what choice she has) I will do my best to be as quick as I can to finish this. Would you like to hold my hand while I finish or, would you like to read a book? (FYI, strong willed children are very bright and often have a need to be in control. This is not a bad thing. It does need to be understood. You are not in a war with a 3 year old. It's not an issue of who is going to be in control. Your understanding allows her to be in control OF HERSELF while you are exercising control in the situation. For your child, being in control OF HERSELF allows her to feel safe. And, that is the best gift that you can give your child - a feeling of safety when she is with you.

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answers from Los Angeles on

I agree with Michel-Joy. Look at the scenarios where it is happening. Your example - it was a lot to ask of a 3 year old. Older children and adults are fine with multiple errands tasks, but young children WILL have a tantrum. Next time, sign up for the class at another time. I know that is harder for you, but so is having her tantrum.

And no, you are not teaching her that it's OK to tantrum when you remove her from a difficult situation.

Why Do Children Misbehave? by Aletha Solter

Understanding Tears & Tantrums

I have attended Solter's excellent free workshops in Santa B. on discipline and her "Broken Cookie" explanation and demonstration was very eye-opening.

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answers from Honolulu on

This is a good book:
1) Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy (Paperback)
by Louise Bates Ames (Author), Frances L. Ilg (Author)
2) Raising Girls (Paperback)
by Melissa Trevathan (Author), Sissy Goff (Author)
You can get it both at

Or there are books on "spirited children."

But mostly, I believe each age carries with it a certain "problem" and trade-mark behaviors whether it be positive or "negative." Any child expert will say that in addition to any "discipline" method.... you need to also "see" what a child is like at any given's all about stages and ages.

Okay so to solve the problem is always many-pronged. Main thing is you are not being too hard, but firm. There is a difference between "discipline" and 'teaching.' But in some situations you have to be hard-lined and they have to learn boundaries and cause/effect of their behavior, on and on.

For some kids, (like my daughter), simply just asking her "WHY are you doing that/behaving like that/yelling like that/screaming like that...." does the trick. For my girl, she NEEDS to be able to "talk" about it... instead of just me always putting her at the end of a short stick and talking "at" her. Other times, I just say "NO." and walk away... in the midst of her screaming... and do not interact, period. I also tell her that when she is like that, she can go in her room and scream all she wants...BUT she cannot take it out on anyone else. I "teach" her that we all have GRUMPY intolerable moments, and it's okay (even adults get grumpy...)...BUT we do NOT take it out on anyone else, we are Family and we are a "team." Then I tell her... how would you like Mommy to be like that to YOU?" Of course her answer is that she would NOT like a Mommy like that.... so then I tell her to reflect on that.. and to realize....what she is doing. For my girl, being the way she is, it works. If I tell her about the situation and then shine a mirror of it back at her... her light-bulb switches on and she has an "a-ha" moment.

Other times, she loses a privilege. Cut and dry. No choice. But I pick my battles.

At this age, 3 years old IS a tough age... they are changing a great deal in intellect, emotionally they are developing 'new' feelings, and in impulse control and in 'patience' and expectations upon them. At this age, they are typically "expected" to be "a big girl...." and to know better...but I feel, 3 years old is still a "baby-child" age. They are still kinda "baby" but also realizing that they are "growing up." THIS throws them for a doozy. It's not easy for them....

My girl is now 5 going on 6 years old. But, in light of that... I manage my response to my girl. I "discipline" her under the veil of "teaching." And, for many girls, their relationship with the "Mom" goes hot and cold. It's not's just a thing they go through as they find themselves in the process of developing and "finding" their own opinions etc. A Mom is the most dear thing to them... and as often happens...those that are closest to someone ALSO suffers their wrath. Same for a child.

Adults are never the same mood everyday, we get stressed and moody and grumpy and have "ugly" moods too... so to "expect" a child to be even-keeled every moment is not going to happen. BUT we have to manage them and teach them... THIS is the thing.

Find your daughter's achilles heel... reach out to her that way... use it positively instead of just as a "punishment" or "discipline" route. A child's heart is tender.... and the way I deflate my daughter's "monster" I immediately tell her "I love you....even when you are like this..." then I hug her... and I give her that moment...and it composes her. daughter tells me that "I'm just a little girl Mommy...please don't expect me to be grown up...." or she'll tell me "please don't rush me... I can't keep up..." or, "wait Mommy, I need time to think...." or "I need a break..." And it REALLY puts my brain in perspective. Fast. But no, my daughter is not the "boss" and she knows completely what the boundaries are. I trust her... and she trusts that I trust her.

As one Mom told me "it's great our kids are good students and well behaved at school, they know their place. But at home...this is where they feel safe and can vent. It's okay... at least they know we are there for them..."

Sure, discipline as you see appropriate. But hopefully, age appropriately. Lots of times, a child is EXPECTED to act a lot older than they are.

Sorry for rambling, just my own thoughts. That book is really great though and has great's an easy fast read... and simply gives you a "window" into the minds and emotions of a 3 year old... so we can understand "their" world.

*Going back to her screaming at the sign-up for swim, okay, is this something that she hates taking, or does she really enjoy it? I'm not saying give in or let her dictate what classes/recreation she takes...but, if she hates it, she will fight it tooth and nail. Maybe she might benefit more from something she does enjoy. Then maybe later, revisit swim classes. That is what we did, and some of my friends. My daughter enjoyed it a lot better when she have the "want" to take it.

I know sometimes, my daughter will turn on a "monster mood" when she is wanting attention... or feels that I am not "there" for her.

All the best,

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answers from Honolulu on

Yup, she is three! Three is way harder than two - I don't know why this is the biggest secret in parenting, but it is. She is testing you and it is really hard. I read this book: Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. There are many good books out there, but I really got a lot out of this one and I still use its advice now that my oldest is 6 and youngest is 3. The first book I read by James Dobson advised beating your child and then praying for them, and assured the reader that this was imperative for the child's development left me shaken. I threw it away.

This "stage" is part of her development and she needs guidance and strength from you. The age of three is when parenting stops being magical and starts to be "work"! But there is much joy ahead, so don't despair! It is a very good thing that she tows the line in school - that means you are doing a good job teaching her social rules, but she is ready to start testing authority now, so it is a good thing that she is testing you and not someone else! Stay strong, mommy!

1 mom found this helpful


answers from Los Angeles on

Hi B.:
I'm a single mother of a 2 year old daughter and she has been acting out so much, to the point that her pre-school calls me at least once a week to let me know that they have no control over her. I have no idea what to do anymore, but I can tell you that I finally bought a book that's starting to shed some light as to how to handle situations that are impossible to handle, especially in public. The book is called "The happiest toddler on the block" and it's written by Harvey Karp, M.D.
So far, it's a great read and he really puts certain situations into perspective and you learn how to handle those rough times with your child in a calm and collective manner, which I'm nothing! I'm just as spastic as my daughter is and that's probably where she gets it from. But this book really guides you step by step and it it has helped, when applied, and I would recommend it to anyone going thru this patch with their kids. Good luck with everything and if you need someone to talk to that would understand, just email me.
BTW: I agree with Michel-JoyD, the book pretty much lets you understand the development of your child's left side and right side of the brain. The right side of the brain is the emotional side, the impulsive side, the wild side, the rude side and that's the side that your child mostly uses, until they learn how to use the left side, the logical and calm side and until then, it's up to us parents to be patient and consistant with the way we treat and talk to our kids. Get down to your daughter's level and repeat what she is saying so that she knows that you are acknowledging her and understanding why she is upset, it should help calm her down.
Look into the books that everyone is mentioning and read about them and see which one best fits your way of thinking and being and you'll find that it's going to help....the book I mentioned has helped me tremendously and I love it. Good luck! W.



answers from Los Angeles on


Oddly, my son acts out when he's around me... not around my husband so much.

At school he's great, family sleep overs he's great, when with my husband only he's great... but let mom get home and oh my god taz lets loose.

I must admit he's gotten a bit better about it and very oddly I'm the one that's more strict with him when it comes to getting away with things. On the other hand, I'm also the one that's teaching him 1st hand how to be independent.



answers from Los Angeles on

My daughter also had the "terrible threes" instead of twos. It will pass. And it's very normal for your child to misbehave more when mom is around. My daughter is a perfect angel at my mom's or even here when my mom is in the room with her and as soon as I enter the room she starts acting up. I understand how you feel about leaving a store (her getting what she wants) so if you're willing to ride through it, you could try to just let her have the tantrum (tell her what the consequence will be - taking a privilege or toy away) and if she continues to throw a fit, just ignore it. The hard part is worrying about others when you are in public. If you're not going to be somewhere for too long, then you can just ride through it and not worry about what others think. If you remain calm and are not yelling or flustered, they will see you have it in control and the child is just being a three year old. And if anyone is being judgmental, ignore it. They are just another human being no better than you and it doesn't mean you are doing anything the wrong way. My daughter acts up when she's feeling I'm more attentive to her sister (only 18mos) so it's her way of getting my attention (even though it's negative) and I have to remind myself that she's still getting what she wants even if it's negative attention, it's still attention. So what I've tried to do is ask her what she is feeling - validating her feelings - giving her the words that she could not otherwise express. So you might want to try (the next time you're in public and she's having a fit), bend down at her eye level and calmly say, "I think you are feeling bad because you'd rather be playing than in this store, huh?" or whatever you suspect it is. If she feels that you are "hearing" her she might be more apt to negotiating a deal - "Give Mommy a few more minutes and if you're a good girl and don't scream, I will play a game with you in the car" (I spy, or Going on a trip) or whatever the incentive might be. Some people see this as rewarding a child for bad behavior. I don't agree. I think it is validating their very real feelings and acknowledging how hard it is for them to be patient, but making it clear that they still need to do it, but if they do it, they will be rewarded for the good behavior. This is turning something negative into positive, and there can still be a consequence if the behavior doesn't change. However you're doing it in a loving calm and collective way rather than letting her get you all flustered which only makes it worse (although it's totally normal to lose it once in a while). So I guess I'm saying the trick is to help her figure out why she is feeling so angry or frustrated and teaching her to find the words to express it rather than screaming or whatever. Hope this helps. Hang in there, 4 is easier than 3 for us.



answers from San Diego on

Hi B., I think you handle it the right way by not leaving when she started screaming, what I would do, is the next time she does that give her a warning, the next time you start screaming when mommy is talikng, when we leave mommy is going to swat your buttm, I don't know if you do that or not, I know with our kids my husband did 2 swats on the butt that was it, and it was a rare thing if my husband had to swat our kids for the same thing more than once. Let me know hat you decide. J. L.



answers from San Diego on

My girls both had the terrible three's instead of twos. Ignore her outbursts in public, if you can, then punish her with timeouts at home and if there was a special treat she was going to get, don't let her have it.

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