My Three Year Old Won't Listen to Me...

Updated on August 03, 2011
S.M. asks from Farmington, UT
21 answers

So I was hoping that old saying the "terrible two's" was true to its claim. My son has been so sweet his whole life, its only lately that he is telling me no, and hitting. He will not listen to me, and seems to love acting out. I am a single mom and have to work full time, so I have full time daycare, and I am not around him all day everyday. I have a hard time with discipline, partly because the few hours a day I have with him I want us to be happy, and partly because I really don't know what to do. How do you communicate with a three year old?

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So What Happened?

Wow!! I love this site! I am amazed on how much I can do to help my little guy become a great man (thanks Shawna). I think alot of my problem was that I didn't think my 3 year old could understand what he was doing or why he was doing it. My excuse was always.. "he's a baby, he doesn't understand". But since I have gotten all of your advice, I realized that he is very capable of comprehending his actions and consequences. I have tried the time-out deal, and even though I feel like crying along with him as he sits in his chair, it seems to be working. Especially, when I talk to him after he gets off time out, and explain to him that hitting is not nice and that I want him to be nice and happy! I also, LOVE all of the advice I was given on positive reinforcement for good behavior and helping. My son LOVES to help me clean up, I didn't know that before. Anyway, thank you so much for all of your advice, I really appreciate it! You guys are awesome! My goal for us being happy together seems to be closer then I thought! YAY!


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answers from Eugene on

I have found with my 3 year old daughter is to do a sticker chart. When she does what she is supposed to do then she gets to put a sticker on her chart. But when she is "bad" I tell her that she can't have a sticker. It seems to be working well.



answers from Boise on

Had the same trouble with my boy at that age! I even took him to a counselor because I thought he had an anger problem. Perfectly normal! The best thing for us is to picka discipline and stick to it. Time out worked best for him. He had a few minutes in his room and he would usually calm himself down. Even if it takes a few weeks to work, just don't give in! good luck! And next year will be much better!

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answers from Modesto on

No specific advice, but, I heard something that changed my thinking on discipline when my oldest son was a newborn. Elisa Morgan (MOPS president) said on a radio broadcast once, Moms, you need to remember that YOU are the first and most powerful example of women that your sons will ever see and experience. You have to make sure that he understands that "NO" means "NO" the First time! If you don't, you teach him to not respect you, and that girls don't really mean what they say. So when he is in the back seat of a car or some where else with a girl, and she says "No" - what will YOU have taught him that "NO" meant.
It is not an exact quote, but, it helps me to stay consistent now, almost 11 years later. because consistancy is THE KEY to any discipline. I have two of the most respectful, honoring little men that I have ever seen. Remember that you are raising a man, not a child. Do every thing to that end.
One more thing, "I have a hard time with discipline, partly because the few hours a day I have with him I want us to be happy,... " That statement really caught my eye. I want my kids to "like" me too, but, the reality is that we are not here for them to "like" and he is NOT going to be "happy" with you A LOT of the time ( we just enetered the teenage years over here!) It is your job to be his parent, not his friend. The friend part comes sooner than you think if you are his parent right now. And it will be so much greater if you raise him to be a honorable "man" not a child.... Good luck, we all need it, along with a lot of prayer!!!

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answers from Provo on

I have been a single parent for over 2 years now. From the time my son was 2 till nearly 5 in 3 months. He was use to daycare since his mom was in school. However he went thru what sounds like the same trauma when I moved him in to a better school. I'm not sure exactly when and where your son acts out but here was my experience.

Brayden (my son) started with throwing fits when dropping him off at school. He wanted to go to the shop with me every day. I made sure I left the house extra early so I could spend extra time with him at school before leaving. I slowly tapered the time back to only spending a minute with him and he is use to that, comfortable and most importantly HAPPY.

This wasn't just at school though, it started to come home also. He became a big butt head. He was cranky, ornery, and had to be like that while following me around the house while I'd be trying to do my domestic duties. This was easier for me then the school thing though because he responded faster. I made sure I included him in my chores and even made some up just for him. With the hitting I would tell him with a surprised expression that he was a good boy making bad choices. This is still a big part of my discipline today, I always ask him if he wants to make good choices of bad choices and he always sobs out a quiet "good choice?".

OK, one last note.... Maybe this would border on manipulation but..... I would ask him if he wants to be happy or sad (what kid doesn't want to be happy, right?). Of course he would say "happy". Then I would say, "are you ever happy when daddy is sad?" and he'd reply "no". Then I'd tell him that I am not happy when he is sad either and that out jobs should be to make each other happy. We can't make ourselves happy cause it doesn't work. We rely on the people around us to make us happy.

Some may say that is just a BLABLABLA to a little kid but my son responded to it when he was 3 as long as I took the time to stop what I was doing and look him in the eyes at his level and talk to him.

I hope this helps. This is obviously a shortened version. I'm not the most patient person in the world and neither is my son but it worked for us after a bit if head butting.


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answers from San Diego on

The most important thing is consistancy. I have a 4 year old that I wasn't consistent with and I'm paying the price. You must consistently say "no". Don't "let them get away" without disciplining them, because they REMEMBER. Time out for 3 minutes is the best idea. Children do feel more secure when you are consistent with what you say and do.
Good luck.

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answers from Los Angeles on

S., I suspect that your trying to get him to listen is tied to trying to get him to do something or not. Sometimes, they'll do something like hit you when you want them to just get their shoes on. The phrase "Use your words" became one of our household mantras.

There IS a secret weapon with boys, though. Ask me how I know this! I have 3 boys, ages 6, 9 & 16.

The "secret weapon" is competition. Its something that seems to almost be on a cellular level with boys. You can get sooo much more accomplished with a boy if you turn things into a game. The "winner" doesn't have to be more than the declared "winner," so don't think you have to start taking them to Toys R Us every week. In fact, that is a huge mistake.

The reward for winning can be something as simple as getting to pick where to sit at the table, whether they are going to have peas or corn for the dinner veggie, or some other thing that involves them making a choice and empowering them, NOT rewarding behavior with material things. That will set you up for a gigantic headache. Ask me how I know THAT.

You'd be amazed at what you can get away with. The trick is, the younger you start this game, the better. If you try this on an older child, they'll call you on it. They see through the game. But, a two or three year old will buy it hook, line and sinker.

So, if you want them to get their shoes on, for example, you stage a race. Who can get them on the fastest? Kid or mommie? If its picking up toys, then find 2 containers -- they can be a paper grocery sack or, my personal favorite, 2 laundry baskets -- and just say "Wanna see who can pick up toys the fastest? Let's race! Ready, set, go!" Make a good show of effort, but let the kid win. Then, go nuts! Make a BIG DEAL out of their winning the game.

You will begin to see a change after doing this only a few times. Believe me, he'll start listening to you more when you turn whatever it is you have been trying to get him to listen to you about into a game.

In the past, I've used time out's for hitting or biting. I've also used the tactic when talking to them of "That's just NOT allowed in our family." Also, "Don't let other people teach you how to behave. You know in your heart that hitting and biting are not right. I don't care what they do in other families, but in OUR family, we don't do that." In doing so, I think I've set some perameters for defining what we are as a family. What we believe in. I'm not a hugely religious person, but the basic philosophy with us is to be a good person. Be honest. Don't hurt other people. Hittin' and bitin' just don't fall into any of those categories.

I think the real change in OVERALL behavior came when I recognized the competition factor. Once I discovered how to utilize rather than tolerate it by creating excuses to reward good behavior, the good behavior soon just came naturally to them. At first, during the "training phase," they craved the kuddos from me and their dad. Then, they began to really take pride in their own inner voice guiding them to do the right thing, be helpful or kind. They began to self-reward. The result, from what I can see, is positive self-esteem.

Like it or not, this IS thinly veiled bribery. Its reward system behavior modification. But, remember, your best tool is applause. Your best tactic is empowerment. 3 year old's want to help. They want to have tasks that give them a sense of accomplishment. The key is, set them up. Stage little tasks and "races" and then praise and get excited about their success. Essentially, this tactic is similar to "noticing what they do right" and verbally acknowledging it to get more of the same.

When my kids were as young as two, I used to have him "help" by doing things as silly as fluffing the pillows on the couch. Only, I didn't make light of the task. Its training. I started him out with tiny tasks, then, as he got older, larger ones. The key was setting them up for a guaranteed success. It was totally manufactured and they never caught on. Then, I started working in the REAL stuff we needed to get done in life.

It doesn't matter if your family is you and one or ten kids or even with two parents, if you don't begin to plant the seeds of teamwork in your family life, you are setting yourself up for a lot more work as a parent than is really necessary AND you end up with a spoiled adult man. Do you really want your daughter-in-law to come to you later and say "Thanks a LOT, lady" when your son turns out to be a spoiled, incompetent, 30 year old "mamma's boy".

In our family we still do these races today! We use competition when setting the table, sorting laundry, sorting socks, putting cans of food away in the cupboard, putting away and sorting clean silverware in the drawer, picking up toys, teeth brushing, getting into the car, and more. My 16 year old even does some of these "races" with his brothers. Its pretty funny to see him use my tactics.

When you use the attention and positive rewards like a carrot on the end of a stick, you get more of the kind of behavior that brings the positive result. When you only punish the unwanted behavior, then you get more bad behavior. The reason is, they want your attention, ultimately. So, you choose which you want: helpful or not. Either way, they're going to do things to get your attention.

As a result of using this method, I have three pretty helpful, happy kids. Bad behavior from them has been rare, because making a big deal out what they do RIGHT has gotten me more of that kind of behavior. Bit by bit, the good behavior just started taking over. After a while, I couldn't remember the last time one of my kids acted up. Then, my KIDS started noticing other kids in public acting out. Now, they comment to me "Momma, what's WRONG with that kid? Why are they doing that?" That kind of behavior is so unusual to them now, even they can't fathom pulling it.

Now, the creative parenting part for you is, how can you tap into this natural boy-tendency toward competition to get your son to stop hitting and cooperate a little better with you? My game playing may not seem so on-target for you right now. But, believe me, it is. Its training. You'll see. And, it will begin to impact the other behaviors that are driving you nuts.

My suggestion is, set yourself up to win, not fail by using games and positive rewards (praise) way more than punishments for NOT doing what you need them to do. You'll also be setting your son up to win in life. I think you'll be amazed at the results!

C. Solomon
[email protected]

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answers from Anchorage on

while I don't have a child in a daycare situation (my husband is a SAHD) I can give you advice on what has worked for us, embarking on our newly found 3 year old independent streak.

It is, just that... an independent streak. They are becoming their own people and feel very strongly that their opinion is the most valid in the home.

The latest with my daughter is screaming no at us, or telling us "DON'T DO THAT !" when we tell her a particular behavior is not acceptable. She usually follows our rebuttals with a complete meltdown and tantrum.

I tell her, that I am very sorry that she is so upset, and I do value her feelings, but xyz needs to be done (be it toys being put away, time for bed, she can't have that toy, etc.) but that if she is truly really upset, and she needs a few minutes to express her feelings and work through them, I understand. I generally at this point, encourage her to do so in her room (so I don't have to listen to the tirade LOL) but if she feels it's necessary to stay close by while she works through them, I don't push her away.

Basically... they are good kids, they are just battling their inner instincts to defy.. become their own people, yet at the same time, they so desperately seek our approval too. It's like a well choreographed ballet... finding the perfect balance.

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answers from Portland on

Have you tried timeouts? I found that they are really effective for my 2 1/2 year old, we almost never have to use them. Just make sure that if you tell him he is going to get time out that you actually follow through. The consequences for his actions need to be consistent and occur right after the action. If you wait or don't always follow through then he won't learn to relation between the two events.

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answers from Las Vegas on

Hi! this to shall pass. Maybe he is just know going through his terrible 2s. I know that I do believe that you sholud disipline you children but every mother is different. put you foot doen and be firm with him, when he says no you get down to his level and explain y he should not be telling you no give him a warning then put him in a chair that is time out only for 3 min because that is his age then once you take him out explain y you put him there and what he did remember to stay eye level also when he hits you do the samething stay eye level. He also may be just mimicing what he sees the other children at school doing. He also maybe just testing the waters to see how far he can pusj befor you rally show a different action. Just remeber be firm and you are more likely goig to discipline him in the way that works for you(Everyone does)



answers from Portland on

As someone said (and my husband often repeats), people who say the terrible twos haven't lived through the threes yet.

A few things I've found useful with my own son:

when he's in a good mood spend 4-5 minutes in good snuggling, just hugging every day, it's part of our morning ritual. Even if it doesn't help him (and I think it does) it helps me.

a book called 1-2-3 Magic which really helped me clarify my discipline and what rules I wanted to have and what consequences I thought there should be. And once it was clearer in my own head then it became much easier to teach them to him. Don't think of having to discipline, think of having to teach him to be a nice human being.

remembering to reevaluate often what his capabilities really are and expanding what I allow him to do and help with. He's now big enough to make choices about food to eat, pick clothes, whatever.

And I couch everything in his choice. It's his choice to hit, and when he hits then he has a timeout. I enforce it, but it's his choice. It sort of takes me out of the argument.



answers from Salt Lake City on

There is always that part of you that feels guilty because your son doesn't have both of his parents together. And the guilt that you have to work and not spend all the time with your son that you would like. But you need to dicipline you child and be consistant because that is what he needs is consistancy. Eveything around him is changing and that confuses a child and makes them act out. If you can make things constant for him, he will start to feel more secure and will probably start to calm down, it may be the late terrible two's also. It will pass. You need to remeber that your job is to make him the best adult you can and dicipline is all apart of that, as long as the time you do spend with him is quality time than the quantity is just peanuts!
Good luck



answers from Boise on

It's been awhile since my kids were 3 but for my son who went thru the whole terrible 2's we started time out's. It worked for him but not my daughter. He had his own little chair the faced the wall and after awhile when he knew he was in trouble he went to it himself. After that we had to come up with alternative methods. At that age i think they are just testing thier boundrys how far can I push mom and dad. My son was 4 when he started hitting his head on walls when he didn't get his own way. Our pediatrician said to ignore him and he'd stop. We found a new doctor. Good luck and I hope you find a way that works best for you and your son.



answers from Portland on


We had this similar problem with our oldest child. We thought hey the two's were a snap then the threes came! Our child seemed to change so much I asked our pediatrition about were our sweet girl had gone. She explained to me that at age three children have a larger vocabulary but there logic skills are not yet up to par. Result, a BIG challenge for parents! It seemed to be a long year ( Sorry I know that doesn't sound encouraging) but, we made it through and four was much better. I think the more consistant we were with schedule and discipline the better things got. I know how hard consistancy is and I feel for you as a single mom. But, I really believe kids crave consistancy in discipline. Good Luck! C.



answers from Salt Lake City on

Hey S.!

Kudos to you for doing it all! That alone is a feat. The problem I think here is that its a power struggle. If he thinks he can get away with talking to you rudely, he will. Its important that he knows he CANNOT talk to you that way and needs to be polite. The other thing is that it needs to be a joint effort. If the sitter is letting him talk to her/him that way, then he will think he can talk to anyone that way. Sit down with your sitter and discuss discipline so that it doesn't vary too much.

When you do discipline him make sure he understands WHY he's in trouble, and that if he continues to talk to you that way, he'll be in the same position over and over. I think that once he grasps that talking back = time out, he'll stop. And when he's happy, everyone is happy. You might not enjoy it at first because he'll be mad, but eventually it'll settle down and you'll enjoy your time more!

Its important to remember kids need limits and structure and him talking back to you is probably him testing his limits. You are the grown up and he wants you to give him rules! It also is part power struggle I think so don't let him boss YOU around. :D

Good luck!



answers from Boise on

Sounds like he's testing his boundaries and also trying to exercise some independence. I've got a little guy right now doing the same thing. I tell him, "It's a good thing you're cute!" ;0) Every child responds differently, but, this is what I've been doing with mine....(attempts at)consistency on discipline; picking my battles w/him, verbalizing to him what is ok and NOT ok, and reminding him when he needs reminding; I give him a choice of "blessing or trouble", I tell him that obedience brings blessings and disobedience brings trouble. I know this seems like alot for a little person to understand, but you can word it in a way that works for him. I basically have given my son the opportunity to make the decision of consequence or no consequence. As I mentioned earlier, this may or may not work for you and your son. But, I hope it can encourage you. Even though kids will never admit this, but they crave structure in the home.

Remember, you're a great mom and you are loved greatly by your kiddos. Keep up the good work!

Blessings to you.



answers from Seattle on

Have you tried time out? I am a mother of 4 and this technique seems to work well. It drives kids crazy when they have to be seperated from the rest of the fam. Try to spend more one on one time with him. I found it is actually fun to get on the floor with the kids and play wrestle mania, hot wheels, and so fourth. It is just hard for little ones to be away from their mommies and he needs that special time with you.



answers from Provo on

Train Up A Child by Michael and Debbie Pearl



answers from Cheyenne on

Hi i am having the same problem with my 3yr old and even though you dont get to spend a whole lot of time with him and you just want to be happy together it is important to set rules and guidelines and he may not understand them completly but read them to him anyways and be consistant with any punishments or rewards you give him. just dont give up he will eventually start listening



answers from Sacramento on

Definitely Sticker boards I call them reward boards... I have 3 year old son who has a reward board where he gets "I caught you..." stickers (I caught you stickers are earned by him doing something like cleaning using manners without me having to tell him to do" Basically I caught you doing something good reward and every 10 stickers he gets to redeem them for a prize (my son loves Disney Cars Movie so every 10 stickers he gets to buy a cars character to add to his collection) but he also has a Daily Routine Board too. It has a paper clock on it, stickers that say nap time, sleep time. outside time, story time and my personal favorite Bed Time, and a list of THINGS TO DO TO OCCUPY MY TIME...Under the activity stickers are stickers with a particular time of day starting from 9:00am (eat breakfast) 9:30am (get dressed) so on and so on. So when he comes to me and demands my attention I ask him what time it is and to go to his board and find the corresponding sticker not only is he developing a daily schedule he is also learning to tell time. I went from fighting with my 3 yeard old to take a nap or take and bath and go to bed to him going to the Daily Routine Board and telling me that its time for nap or bath and no joke the difference in behavior night and day... The trick to communicating with a 3 year old is not it over communicate to a 3 year old!! and a simple board with stickers and a paper clock... Another helpful tip is to discuss activities that he can do and that are fun to do before he gets bored and starts bugging you because we all know that when a 3 year old has his mind set on doing something and you try and tell him to do something else never ends with a "ok mommy your idea is so much better". Hope this helps! Good Luck!



answers from Las Vegas on

Hi S.,

I know how hard it is to discipline a child. I have 4 and believe me it breaks my heart to have to discipline them. Esp my 2 year old who is one of the sweetest little boys there is (In my opinion lol) All kids misbehave but if you dont try to stop the bad behavior now you are only going to make things worse later. I was at a party this past weekend for kids. One of the little girls there was as cute as a button. Thats where it stopped. Looking at her you would think she was very polite and nice but NOPE that wasnt the case. She was a rude demanding, mean little girl. Her Aunt told me that she did not have any kind of discipline at all at home. I didnt want to be around her. She wouldnt listen to a thing anyone said and people were not wanting to be around her. I am very tolerant of children, but not with that little girl. Its not her fault, she didnt know better. So please try to do a time out or what ever other people suggest here. Its so hard. My husband works 12-14 hours a day and it breaks his heart to have to come home and discipline the kids. He rather come home and love them and play with them. But when they are acting up he steps in and lets them know its not ok. Its not the quantity of time but the quality of time. When he is being good reward him. Have him help you with dinner or cleaning up. Kids LOVE to help. But when he is not being good have him go sit on the bed or whatever. Then when the time is up spend some quality time with him. Show him that he will not get good attention while he is misbehaiving. Show him he will get wonderful attention when he is being the cute little spazzyou talk about. I Hope this helps you and you dont take offense to what I wrote. You dont want your son being the kid no one wants to be around. Its so hard being a single Mom I was one at your age as well. Make your time together count as much as possible. Good Luck!



answers from Salt Lake City on

I have 4 kids the oldest just turned 18 and off to college. (that was harder than I ever thought it would be) I felt like when my kids went through that stage it wasn't that they were terrible but just trying to insert some independence. Try changing your way of thinking and the way you deal with him on an older level and you will view his behavior differently. I never felt like my kids went through the terrible two's just a new stage in life for them.

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