“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
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!
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