Child Behavior For A Three Year Old

Parenting Question

“I’m spiraling out of control with my three-year-old daughter. She won’t listen

to me and I know that the ‘naughty bench’ isn’t working. I’m at a total loss and

feel like such a failure. I don’t want to hit her or use the kind of strong

verbal yelling that my parents did. What do I do? I want her to understand that

I’m the boss and when I ask her to do something or obey something, she should do

it. My father was giving me parenting advice today and I feel so out of control.

Is this normal child behavior for a three-year-old?”–Out-of-Control Mom

Positive Parenting Tip for Child Behavior for a Three Year Old

Dear Out-of-Control Mom:

Firstly, you are NOT a failure–just a mom who needs some new tools.

My guess is that you haven’t had many courses on how to deal with three-year-old

behavior, so be gentle with yourself.

Many parents ask me what’s “normal” when it comes to child behavior for a

three-year-old. No matter what your child’s age, what it comes down to is this:

how is your child’s behavior working for you, and how is it working for them.

From your question, I sense it just ain’t working–period!

So let’s first look at what is going on for your daughter. Children at the

pre-school stage are developing a whole host of new skills, including: wanting

more independence (for example, “No, I want to do it by myself!”); asserting

their wants (“I want that!”); and learning about friendship (“Give that back!”).

One of the best things you can do when parenting a three-year-old is to support

your child in attaining these new skills without allowing them to become

demanding or spoiled. To ensure you don’t fall into unhealthy habits that

promote power struggles, choose to use a firm–but kind–approach and look for

ways that your child can learn from each situation.

The more you can allow your three-year-old to do things on her own (and they

won’t be perfect), the less likely she will be to fight you on everything. Look

for household tasks that she can do at her age and find ways that she can help

you out. Have her fill the dog bowl, hold the door open for you when you are

bringing groceries into the house, set the table, etc. The busier you can keep

her doing positive behaviors, the less chance she will move towards negative


Be warned: even if you take this approach, your daughter is still going to test

you. Below are six simple steps for dealing with three-year-olds when they just won’t


1. Let Go of Timeouts – Timeouts can work for some children (but there

are far better techniques). Ultimately, the only person we can control is

ourselves. If timeouts are not working (that is, your child refuses to go to the

“naughty bench”, stay on the “naughty bench”, or tells you they make their own

rules and have moved the “naughty bench”), look for other ways to inspire them

to want to be well-behaved (as suggested in the following five steps).

2. Fire Yourself as Boss of the Household! – Many parents buy into the

belief that mom should be the boss of the household and be in control. Yet, we

must remember that we are modeling for our children how to act every single

minute of the day. Our kids learn more from what we do than from what we say. If

they see us pulling rank as “boss”, they will attempt to be “boss” too.

Unfortunately, when this happens, they may outrank us and the real power

struggles will begin!

3. Provide Flexibility with Boundaries – Instead of boss, see yourself as

your child’s coach or guide, responsible for providing them with experiences to

learn from and allowing them to experience the consequences of their actions.

Give clear guidelines, but also give them flexibility too. For example, “Your

toys need to be cleaned up before we go to Grandma’s. Do you want to clean them

up now, or in 5 minutes from now?” If they still don’t clean up, then you might

not go to Grandma’s that day. Children need to know what the rules are and, more

importantly, they need to know you will follow-through with the rules. Once you

become consistent with your behavior, your children will learn to trust what you

say and will improve their behavior accordingly.

4. Stay Firm (but Kind) – If they fight, you follow-through. Do this

without yelling, scolding or punishing. Don’t buy into their tears, and

definitely don’t get into a debate. Stay firm, but stay kind. Tell them that

when they want a hug, to come find you. I know keeping your cool is easier said

than done. For more on this, check out the “Mom’s Time-Out” section (page

111-114) of When You’re About To Go Off The Deep End, Don’t Take Your Kids

With You.

5. Use Consequences That Relate to Their Behavior – Punishment teaches

our kids to feel bad, but rarely teaches them how to “do good”. If you are

encountering the same misbehaviors over and over again, your child is clearly

not learning from their mistakes. To facilitate learning, make certain any

consequences used are directly related to the misbehavior. For example, when

your child is rough with the computer, computer time is over; when your child is

splashing water out of the tub, bath time is over; or when your child is goofing

off with their food, dinner is over. Again, do these quickly, but kindly.

6. Thank and Appreciate Your Child for What They Do – Children want to

please and they want to know that their contributions make a difference.

Remember to tell them so–and often.

Learning how to motivate our children to want to be well-behaved takes time and

practice. Yet, taking the time now to learn these tools can save you years of

heartache and frustration. Keep reading, keep practicing, and keep empowering

that three-year-old of yours: then watch their behavior change for the better!

We have many more Parenting Help Articles Now Available.