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Angry 3 year old who hits, yells and talks back

by Jenn
(Queensland, Australia)


I have an intelligent, sensitive and very active little boy. He is also very fiery, stubborn and aggressive. He is very quick to anger and will often hit and yell at me and my husband.

My husband and I are trying to try teach him the benefits of behaving in a more calm and gentle way, telling him that he everyone is happier, including him, when he is doesn't yell or hit. We have tried time-out, talking to him and offering rewards for good behaviour, but we don't seem to be able to break the daily habit of quick anger.

My little boy has had a rough start in life. He was tiny when he was born and was very sick for the first year or so of his life. (My husband and I were also very stressed during this time of his life.) In many ways, we are very grateful for his fighting nature, because we don't think he would have survived if he was more timid about life. Now that he is healthier, how can we nurture him in a way that helps him to stop fighting life so much?

Any advice you can give will be greatly appreciated.

Thank you.

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Angry Child - Part One
by: Annie Desantis

Hi Jenn,

An angry child, particularly if they are aggressive, can be very hard to handle. It does sound like you have a little firecracker on your hands!

As you say, his fighting nature has got him through some tough times, and he has learned from the word go that he had to fight to survive. It is no surprise he is still fighting to get what he wants! So yes it is a good thing, but you definitely don't want him taking his anger out on you and your husband and you definitely don't want him going through life with the belief that if he doesn't fight he won't survive.

In developmental terms - round 3 - 4 he is also at the age where children want to be independent, want to make their own decisions and yet don't have much reasoning to be able to negotiate it. I'm not sure how much he has been set back developmentally from his illnesses, but I would think he would most likely be a bit less emotionally mature, so is far less likely to be able to control his reactions.

Now, first thing is to keep you and him safe, if he is throwing a tantrum and lashing out, get behind him and gently restrain him by wrapping your arms around him pinning his arms. He won't like it, but it stops him being able to hit or kick you, and stops him hurting himself. It is actually quite frightening sometimes for the child when they are out of control, but they also quickly learn it is a powerful position to be in.

Now, the key thing with this kind of restraint, is do not loose your temper! Hard when the situation will have already escalated. We'll talk about that in a minute. The restraint is NOT a punishment, it is to keep you all safe. When you are restraining him, just very quietly sooth him. He won't listen to start with, he will try to fight you. So it is essential that you don't react and fight him back. The idea is you are wanting to restrain him until he is soothed enough to stop reacting. So just quietly say things like Whoa, take a deep breath (you too!) I know you are angry, It's OK to be cross, shh, we'll work this out, I'm just going to hold you for a minute to keep you safe, It's OK, breathe .......

I know it is really hard not to be reacting to try to control his rage, particularly if you have just been whacked! And when you have been hit, the chances are you are angry too! But you are actually the key to helping him gain control. If he sees you getting angry back then he is seeing you react. If he sees you stopping him hurting you, but allowing him to be angry and not being angry back, then you are modeling a better way of reacting.

Part Two Follows . . . . .

Angry Child - Part Two - Talking Back
by: Annie Desantis

Part Two . . . .

You want him to learn, that getting angry is OK, it is fine to have strong feelings. We tend to make anger a bad thing, a negative emotion. It isn't. It is simply a very powerful way of our inner self saying this is not OK, I don't want this! What is NOT OK, is him hitting you. Now I am going to assume you don't smack him? If you do, then stop! If he has seen adults hit when they are angry, then how can he learn it is not OK to hit when he is angry?

At the time he has hit out , he is not going to be rational or able to take responsibility for his actions. But afterward when he has calmed down, then he needs to learn that when we hurt someone, then we need to put something positive/warm back into that relationship. Giving Mom a cuddle and saying sorry is a good thing when he is ready to - not when you say he has to!

Talking back, I wouldn't make a big deal out of. I think on the whole we are unfair to expect children not to be cross when we are making them comply with something they don't want to do. And to expect them not to be able to express it verbally means it is more likely to come out physically! What you can do though, is deflect that from you. I had a punching cushion when my children were young, and particularly with my stroppy 4 year old son, instead of yelling at me, or kicking the door, he could punch the pillow. Get a big cushion and make sure it is filled quite firmly. Inevitably his rage would end in giggling.

Again the key thing here is don't react to his back chat. The more you try to force him to be a sweet nice little boy, the more he is going to have to push back. You end up making more battles or escalating a situation by adding more layers of control, and lots of negative instructions at him. By that I mean you end up spending a lot of time telling him what he is not allowed to do.

Keep on with the rewards for good behaviour, Making up a chart and giving him a star for every time he gets dressed without a tantrum, or tidies his toys when you say, (or what ever the trigger times are) - then lead up into earning a bigger reward. But don't have it that he has to earn your love or attention. Give him lots of love and attention anyway!

Part Three Follows . . . .

Angry Child - Part Three - Trigger Points
by: Annie Desantis

Part Three . . .

Ok, now the next thing is look at what sets him off. It is quite likely to be similar situations and you are probably starting it! Of course kids have to learn to fit in with our schedules, and get ready for bed, get ready for Preschool etc. But they don't see any logical reason why your timetable should be more important than his! Playing with his cars is far more important than getting dressed!

So make a note of the situations and be creative about heading them off. Coming head on with a child to force them to do what you want, when you want and then expecting them to be happy is unrealistic. But if you make it more interesting or exciting to comply, or if he can see it is in his best interests then he will be more likely to go along with you. Motivation to avoid punishment just doesn't work.

Time pressure is often a big one for Preschoolers. Parents are rushing around trying to get them out the door, or tired at the end of the day and wanting to get kids into bed. I know my son often had a meltdown when I was rushing him to go to Playcentre and he was totally engrossed in constructing something. We often expect kids to drop everything right now and get ready for bed, or get their shoes on. How would you react if your husband suddenly said, we have to go right now, drop what you are doing and get in the car!

Kids need plenty of time to transition from one activity to another. Transition points are usually the time when conflict will arise. My son needed about 20 mins to get his head around changing activities - not 20 mins to get ready! It worked really well to start to teach him to understand a clock, and I would remind him every five minutes to have a look at the clock and where the big hand was. We sometimes used a timer, so he would get a beep when he had ten minutes left, then a beep at 5 minutes, then 2 mins.

This is very different from Nagging! I was not nagging him to get dressed. I was reminding him to take notice of the time and to start winding up his game. You are starting to teach them to be responsible for themselves. If you allow plenty of time for them to do their activities, to dress themselves without being rushed then they are learning to take care of themselves.

Another trick is making everything into a game. Sing, dance, march around picking up the toys, or putting clothes on your head. Being silly takes the pressure off and breaks the tension before it can start. Have a race, can he get his pajamas on before you get the table cleared?

Part Four Follows . . . .

Angry Child - Part Four - Using EFT
by: Annie Desantis

Part Four . . . .

Time out? I use time out completely differently - It doesn't work as a punishment. Punishments are not a useful way of changing behaviour. But time out, can be useful as a regrouping time, or a centering time. Often it is the parents that need time out! If you say, hey, I need some time out to calm down and feel better, then you are showing him a better way to react.

Going outside and taking some deep breaths, sitting on the couch and having a cuddle, Making a cup of tea, putting on some calming music. Find the things that calm you and show him how to do it. Then you can make a list with him of the things that calm him down. Reading a story, having a cuddle, water is often soothing - so having a bath or shower. Going for a walk.

Now, given his early years with illness and struggle, I would think about doing something to help clear that - in all of you! You are all carrying the stress and anxiety from that difficult time. A tool that can work really well is Emotional Freedom Technique. I have 2 pages about EFT on our site, so have a look and try it out. EFT is simply a tapping technique using meridians similar to acupuncture. You tap on the EFT points, and tap out the trauma or issue, and then tap in a new belief or affirmation.

This article is an overview of using EFT with Children: EFT for Kids

This article shows the actual EFT Tapping points and gives examples of using it.
EFT Tapping Points

Well worth a try. Kids also respond really well with Tappy Bear, a cuddly bear with EFT buttons. It can work well for tapping in new behaviours. But first I would use Tappy Bear as a way of tapping out the anger - when he has calmed down enough - let's tap out the crossness with Tappy Bear. He can say what he is angry about, or can just tap the feelings. It will make more sense when you read the articles!

I hope this has given you some ideas. Most of all just continue to love and enjoy your little boy, make the most of each precious moment!

Wishing you Joy in your Parenting Journey,
Annie Desantis

Thanks Annie!!
by: Judith

Hi! I was searching for answers to help my 3 year old granddaughter.

She gets angry and wants to do her will. She has started to hit me too and though I try to be most patient and loving there is a moment my patience runs out and I yell at her :(

That only makes things worse and even scares her which I really hate. I've noticed that her behavior is getting worse as I'm yelling more and getting angry too faster than before, so it is a vicious circle.

I want to stop yelling, I want to reach her in a loving way and found your reply to a Mother who posted asking for advice. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for such a long, detailed advice plus the mention and links to the tapping technique.

I'm going to put into practice all of it in the hope that it will make my little girls life a happier one.

Her mum ( my daughter) is not as close to her as I am and I have looked after my granddaughter since she was born.

I'm trying my best but it makes me crumble down so often. I do not want a traumatized child I dread it. I want her to be happy as a child and as an adult.

Thank you again.

Reply To Judith - Grandparent Raising A Child
by: Annie Desantis

Hi Judith,
Wow I take my hat off to you, increasingly there are more and more Grandparents who are taking on the role of primary parent with their Grandchildren, and that is not always easy.

You have to really take very good care of YOU as you are not likely to have the same levels of energy a 25 year old might have, and there may also be some additional emotional baggage around the whole issue of taking on that responsibility in the first place.

You are offering a wonderful gift to both your daughter and your Grand-daughter in raising her - and of course there are some very special times for you as well.

If you recognize MUCH earlier that you are starting to feel stressed - that is the time to stop.

I suspect you are running on empty and to cope are trying to "Force" her to comply. But in the long run it takes more energy - so stopping sooner and just sit with her and ask what she needs - AND check in with yourself about what you need.

You most likely need more TLC for you. So make sure you have plenty of ways to top yourself up - time out with friends - activities that nourish you and ways to recharge.

Feel free to submit your own question at any time, and let me know how I can support you.

Annie D :)

Bad Language At Age 3!
by: Anonymous

My grandson is the light of my life....even when he says shut up and go're not my friend.

I read once that when a child acts his worst, he needs love the most. I use a soft voice to counteract his screeches of anger and I ignore when he is mean to me. I hug him and say it hurts my heart to hear you talk like that and slowly it is working in my favor.

We have a lot less of those moments now.

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