Parenting Tips Logo
Inspired Parenting Advice Banner

Extreme Defiance In A 3 Year Old

My 3 year old son, who made it through the ''terrible twos'' without throwing a single tantrum, seems to have suddenly turned into a different child.

He is aggressive, disrespectful, and prone to throw fits at the slightest hint that he won't get his way! I am a stay-at-home Mom now, but I was a kindergarten and first grade teacher before he was born, so I have a lot of experience with young children and do not feel that the problem is my expectations or lack of consistency, boundaries, etc.

I have read many books, and tried everything that has worked for me with other children, with no results. The most worrisome part for me is that he seems to be completely unaffected by discipline. For instance, he recently picked up the word ''dumb-ass'' from an older cousin and calls my husband and I that word whenever he gets mad. Today I explained (for the millionth time) that this is not a nice word and it hurts my feelings when he says which he responded by sticking out his tongue and calling me the name again. So I gave him a warning that he would be sent to time out if he did it again, which of course he did. After he had done his 3 minutes, I came back to talk to him and he repeated the whole scene again.

Each time this happened I explained that I was leaving the room again, but that I would be back to get him when he was no longer screaming and able to talk to me without calling names. I would return again, and the process was repeated. Each time I left the room, he would scream bloody murder, as if he had no clue that his behavior would result in my leaving him in time out, even though I had specifically told him it would and experience had repeatedly shown him I meant it.

This went on for 45 minutes before my husband arrived home and was able to get a half-hearted apology out of him. I wonder how a child who is so bright seems completely unable to connect the dots when it comes to discipline.

Any advice anyone could give me about this would be wonderful! Also, I have read a lot of posts related to this issue, and I love the explanations being given, but I feel unable to explain things to my child in the way so many parents have suggested, because as I said, each time I try to talk to him about bad behavior, he immediately launches into a fit, or name calling, or some other type of aggressive behavior that trumps everything I was trying to talk to him about in the first place.

I have yet to be successful at even giving him a warning that he listened to, much less a discussion. If nothing else, I would love to have some advice on how I can get him to listen to me long enough to hear what I am saying!

Thanks for your help!

Comments for Extreme Defiance In A 3 Year Old

Click here to add your own comments

Getting A Three Year Old To Cooperate - Part One
by: Annie Desantis

Isn't it frustrating when our training sometimes does not seem to work when it comes to our own kids! Surprising though it may seem to you it sounds like your son is actually behaving pretty
normally for his stage of development. His temperament is not the passive quiet kind of child, he is bright, intelligent and very determined.

A lot of their learning at this age is about relationships, and that brings an awareness of personal power. Children's lives are pretty powerless, we decide when they eat, go to bed, stop playing, get ready for pre-school etc, and our time tables often interrupt what they are doing. We expect them to do what we want quite happily, but that is not really realistic.

A three year old does not have the neural pathways in the brain yet to be able to be rational, they simply react, and in his case, big time! Like you I did not have any two year old tantrums, but I had some massive 4 year old tantys to deal with!

You have clearly been working really hard to explain your rules and requirements and trying to teach him by discipline - and I am sorry, but to a large extent, that won't work so well.

When he is in reaction mode, he is unable to move to rational thinking, and all your explaining just adds fuel to his frustration. It is better to leave any explanations to when he is calmer, but even then keep it very simple, a long lecture
will just send him back to reacting.

It is actually better to have lots of discussions at other times - about being kind to people; "how can we help Daddy today?" "What can we do that would make Grandma happy?" "What's a nice thing you can say to your preschool teacher when you see her?" So instead of trying to do a lot of explaining why his bad behavior hurts people, instead focus much more on what he can do to treat people well - and at times outside of his tantrums.

He is starting to understand feelings - but has not yet developed a lot of empathy for how others feel. But he has learned that there are things he can say that have a BIG impact, so when he is frustrated and angry with you, he has figured out
how he can get some power in the situation but saying mean things. You have added a lot of energy to that by making a big thing out of it. This is the age when our kids start saying things like "I want a new Mommy" or "I don't love you anymore".

Heartbreaking though it is, they don't actually understand the concept fully and are simply showing you how frustrated and angry they are.

Part Two Follows . . .

Getting A Three Year Old To Cooperate - Part Two
by: Annie Desantis

I am sure you used a lot of strategies with your kids in school, but remember at home kids will test a lot more than at school.

We also have a lot more to do at home - busy though school was, that was your role, and that was your total focus when you were there. Shift away from discipline and punishment and forced respect, and move towards learning through fun, and creative ways to teach him good behavior, rather than too much emphasis on trying to make him understand why his behavior is bad. When
you are getting into a 45 minute battle with him trying to force him to be nice - it is totally counter productive, it has just become a battle of wills.

Having constant battles with a small child to have to say sorry, is not actually teaching him to want to be kind to people. It is basically a battle of power, and he ends up having to comply to get out of his room.

It is good to learn to make amends to someone you have hurt, but it has a lot more impact, both on him and someone else if he comes up with nice things to do or say, rather than a forced I'm sorry. Instead of it being a punishment, keep it light "What can we do that would make Daddy feel good?" This will work far better than lots of lectures from you about why his behavior is not acceptable. If kids are not listening, then we are not engaging them.

I am going to suggest you turn things around and ignore a lot of the issues like name calling. When you react back, firstly you are adding fuel to the conflict, and secondly you are reinforcing that calling names is a way for him to push your buttons.

Hard though it is, remain calm and quiet and focus on what you are asking him to do. If you find yourself getting angry and frustrated, then you take some time out - time out is MUCH better used to take a breath and get some calm, rather than as a punishment. If you show him how you get control of your feelings, then that is the BEST way he will learn to control his. Tell him you are going to sit down for 2 mins and take some deep breaths as you are starting to get mad, and you want to be able to talk to him nicely - or both take some time out together sitting on the couch taking some deep breaths.

"Lets sit down and take some deep breaths so we can feel calmer" and count together 20 breaths. This will diffuse his flying of the handle, plus you are teaching him a strategy for getting control of strong feelings and reactions.

Part Three Follows . . .

Getting A Three Year Old To Cooperate - Part Three
by: Annie Desantis

I would also recommend you focus much more time on positive reinforcement rather than discipline. So perhaps after he has had a meltdown, and been mean to you, sit down together and do some Yummy Mommy and Son posters. You do one for him and he does one for you - talk about all the things you love about him and write them down on the picture you are drawing (words or pictures), and then encourage him to draw pictures of all the things he loves about Mommy. That way he is focusing appreciating you, which is far more powerful than a forced I'm sorry.

Think about all the times he has a meltdown, and pick the issue that you most want him to comply with. It could be bedtime, or picking up the toys for example. Then focus just on that one issues, with positive reinforcement strategies. You can use a chart with stars or stickers, and you can find something he is really motivated to earn - like a new DVD or little Lego pack.

Start with 5 days, so he has to manage 5 days in a row without a meltdown over getting ready for bed. Make a short list (he can glue on pictures to the poster) of the positive things he has to do, rather than the NOTs - ie brush your teeth when Mommy asks, put on your PJs happily, choose a story. Keep it simple - 3 or 4 simple tasks to comply with is plenty. The important thing is to keep if fun, and focus on your positive expectations. Give him plenty of warning it is nearly time to get ready for bed, and nearly time to earn his next sticker. Focus on being positive
and telling him you know he is going to fill that row up with stickers really quickly - rather than saying things like "are you going to get ready for bed without a tantrum tonight?"

Keeping it simple and focusing on small tasks means he will quickly get success, which builds his self esteem and helps him to learn to chose to take control, instead of simply reacting in frustration.

When we come head on with our kids we simply push them into reaction, and we are not helping those neural pathways to grow.

If we can jump in quickly before they fly off the handle, then they have a moment to reflect, and that is how the pathways grow in the brain. You are absolutely right when you say he doesn't seem to connect the dots - it is a developmental process in the brain that has to grow for us to move from our reptilian brain (survival) to rational thinking.

Part Four Follows . . .

Getting A Three Year Old To Cooperate - Part Four
by: Annie Desantis

The more experiences he has of being able to halt the explosion the more he learns to switch to the rational brain. And the best way is firstly for him to see how you do it. Sadly many adults don't have a very good ability to switch from reacting, to being rational. Many parents fly off the handle, which simply teaches our kids the same.

But also we don't make it overt when we get ourselves calm. We feel ourselves getting mad, and take a breath and try to be patient. But that all happens internally, and it is much more powerful for kids if we can show them we have strong feelings too, but this is how I get control of them. So when you are mad, say so, and then say you are going to take some deep breaths because you want to say kind things, or you want to talk about something calmly. Showing our kids our internal process is very powerful. They pick up far more from what we do than all our lectures about what they should do!

The other thing I would recommend you have a think about, is what are his needs in the situation. As parents we are rushing about organizing our kid's lives - and of course that is one of our roles. But we expect our kids to simply comply with our timetables and ideas and then wonder why they fly off the handle. We want them to listen to US - but are we really listening to their needs?

Many MANY meltdowns are largely because we are not taking into account what the child needs. Am I suggesting they rule the roost or we give in to tantrums? Absolutely not. But I am suggesting we take more account of what a child needs to be ABLE to comply with our requirements. When I finally figured out my son needed much more time and a reminder process to be able to be ready to leave the house, the morning drama ended. We are often rushing or interrupting our children. They don't see that leaving the house on time is more important than playing with their train set. So we have to give them plenty of time and give them some awareness of the time structure so they can prepare themselves.

Using a timer with a bell is a good way to structure the use of time. It can be a great negotiating tool - they can have a say on how much time they need, and they can set the timer (gives them some power). You can build that into the star chart - so when the timer goes off he starts his bed preparation. My son needed a reminder timer in three stages - 15 minutes, then 5 minutes, then time to get ready for preschool. Most kids, 5 minutes before pack up time is a good length of time.

Part Five Follows . . .

Getting A Three Year Old To Cooperate - Part Five
by: Annie Desantis

It can be exhausting to have to cope with constant clashes with a preschooler! So drop a lot of the battles unless it is really necessary, and focus more on heaps of fun - a three year old
will have a race to get dressed, pick up toys. Make it a game to hop or skip to the bathroom - the more you make it fun to comply and do what you ask, the more motivated he will be to help. Try to avoid many of the head on clashes, and engage in his sense of humour instead. If you are always in the role of "I'm the boss and you have to do what I say now" the more he will have to push back. Give him a turn at being the boss - he has to tell you what to do for 15 minutes.

And don't forget - nothing lasts forever, he will grow out of this stage as he develops and learns more control. But it is not something you can force, and he is much more likely to learn control when he has a strategy or process to work with, and sees how you control your strong feelings.

Feel free to comment back or ask for any clarifications,
all the best,
Annie D :)

One More Question About Defiant 3 Year Old
by: Anonymous

Thanks for the great advice. In reading it I felt lucky that I do not have to deal with a lot of the day to day drama that many parents of preschoolers do. My son rarely has a meltdown over daily routines, etc. It is more about hearing the word "No" for him!

I especially think it will be helpful to talk out my process for calming myself down. He gives me plenty of opportunities to practice self control, but you were right in assuming that it is not something I talk through out loud. I think that will be helpful.

I also agree with you that some of the things that ignite power struggles, like name calling, are better off being ignored. That is how my husband and I started out dealing with it. However, when he starts doing or saying hurtful things to other children, I feel compelled to take some kind of action. Even if I didn't, other parents make it pretty clear that they don't have much tolerance for their child being the target of such behavior!

But you are right that as soon as I started engaging with him over these issues the power struggles got much worse. In the case of other children being hurt by his behavior, would you still try to ignore it, or is there a different approach you would use for this? I guess I fell into the trap of thinking that once I had drawn that line in the sand about not being hurtful to others, then I felt like I couldn't let it go at home either.

Minimise Confrontation And Power Struggles
by: Annie Desantis

It is easy to get stuck in power struggles with our kids, we make a stand and think we have to defend it to the death. However if it is not getting the results you want, then clearly what you are doing is not working.

Of course you want to intervene when he is being unkind to others (so long as it happens when you are there). But rather than focusing on the negatives - NO, Don't do that, Don't talk like that - focus on what you would prefer, and keep it light and fun and he will be much more responsive.

When we make our kids feel bad about themselves to try to stop bad behaviour, we are not teaching them to be kind, as really we are being unkind to them too. Instead keep it lighter, and say something like "Hey - what's something nice you could say to Suzy?" or "mmm I don't think suzy liked that, have you got a toy you would like to share with her?" Or afterwards he could make her a card or draw her a picture.


Ignoring is kind of a continuum - children are learning through socialization at this age, and they do have to sort things out for themselves to some extent. If we interfere with everything they say or do that is not exactly the way we would like then they don't learn by experience. He will be more likely to stop being mean when Suzy moves away or doesn't want to play with him.

But if his behavior has become angry and aggressive, then yes he needs to be removed to protect the other children. But he will learn more by quiet reflective time out, than punishing time out. Just sitting to one side with him, until he calms down is better than shutting him in a room. You actually want his room to be a nice place to be, to sleep and to be special. You definitely don't want it to be associated with punishment, anger and frustration.

When he is getting aggressive or angry with other kids, don't forget he has needs too. What is going on that is triggering his anger - is he struggling learning to share, is he frustrated trying to express himself? Is he testing out power?

Most kids do want the others to play with them, and at this age, they all have their own ideas of what they want to do. It is better to help him find a way to get the other kids excited about his game, instead of being mad with them if they don't do what he wants.

If he is struggling learning to share, then play lots of turn taking games so he learns patience and to let the others participate. Games like Simon Says, where each child gets to be the boss or Statues. Learning control and participation, how to be in a group, learning to take turns at being the leader, learning to loose is all part of his development at present.

More Follows . . .

Minimise Confrontation And Power Struggles - Part 2
by: Annie Desantis

As a teacher, you understand learning outcomes for children, and although it is very different when it is our own child, just keep remembering he has a lot to learn, and he will take new things on board quicker if he feels good about himself and feels confident and comfortable in any situation. If he is getting stressed, angry or frustrated, then you can see he is right on the edge of a big learning curve. When we punish our kids for not behaving well, we actually add to that stress and we contribute to the frustration. Helping him learn strategies to cope better, and heading off big meltdowns works better than confrontation and punishment.

Choose fun and humor over anger and confrontation. He will respond far better.

all the best,
Annie D :)

Click here to add your own comments

Do you have a question or want to send a submission to Annie? Simply click here to return to ask-annie.

Problem Solving 4 Kids
Only $12.99

Problem Solving 4 Kids E-book

Learn my 7 Step Problem Solving 4 Kids Process
A step by step guide to teach your kids to be solution orientated.


  • Tips
  • Updates
  • Your Stories
  • Competitions
  • Questions Answered

My Subscribers Get Freebies!

Let me know how I can support you to be an Awesome Parent!

Featured Sponsor

Click N Kids would have to be one of my subscribers most popular programs, and from what they say, it is mostly because the kids have fun while they are learning. In fact they don't even realize they are learning! Click N kids are using the Looney Tune Characters now in their phonics program, which of course kids just love.


Home Page

Free Newsletter


Resources 4 Parents

Ask Annie
Parenting Questions

Tools 4 Parents


Parenting Tips


Child Education

Child Development

Parenting Styles

Activities For Kids

Art Activities 4 Kids

Best Educational Toys

Annie Desantis

Who is Annie D?

Parenting Coach


Terms & Conditions
Privacy & Cookies

Legal Stuff

[?] Subscribe To This Site

follow us in feedly
Add to My Yahoo!
Add to My MSN
Subscribe with Bloglines

Free Parenting Games
One of the best Parenting Tips we can offer is:

Free Family Games

Our Parenting Games Series are designed to support you to be an Inspirational Parent.

Featured Sponsor

Best Educational Toys and Games

Hearthsong brings magic into childhood with their stunning range of amazing toys, games, and activities. I've found things here I've not seen anywhere else. They even have a gift registry, which is a great idea for Christmas or birthdays.

Hearthsong are very generously offering my readers a 10% discount off orders over $50. Use coupon code: LNK10HS

Please note the 10% discount is not available on the deal of the week items - these already have HUGE discounts.

Free Book
Allowance Secrets
I was honoured to be included as one of the experts in this helpful book. Some great advice and ideas for teaching children about money.

Super Skills 4 Kids Home Study Course

Return to top | Home | General Enquiries | Ask Annie Parenting Questions
Free Parenting Newsletter | Free Parenting Games | Contests
Super Skills 4 Kids | EFT 4 Kids Program | Affiliate Program

      Copyright © 2008 - 2014 Inspired Parenting      Template Design