How to Handle a Defiant Three Year Old

Readers, what are your best tips for how to handle a defiant three-year-old, aka the threenager (or a kiddo in the terrible twos)? How do you deal with discipline as a working parent in general — and how do you get your nanny or babysitter on the same page?

Everyone says the that the twos are terrible, but for us it was the threes that have been truly, truly horrible with both kids. When my eldest, J, was a threenager, we were giving him time-outs on a regular basis. (That’s him pictured — after a particularly rough night we woke up to find that he had stripped the bookshelves in his room and thrown all of his books in a pile behind the couch in his room. Sadly, I have no good picture of the time he painted the same couch with poop.) We were constantly frustrated and screaming, and it felt like we were never, ever, ever going to be able to live in peace with our child again. Then, one day we sort of looked at each other and said, “Huh… we haven’t given J a time-out in a thousand years. That’s so weird.” It had just sort of ended. Now he’s a perfectly insane six-year-old who gets up to his own mischief, but thankfully we’re mostly past the screaming/time-out stage of things. But: now my youngest, H, is three and a half, and if the slightest thing goes wrong, he is screeching and screaming. He excels at making messes, and his favorite thing right now is taking a pillow and throwing it to knock things off of high shelves. Charming!

(It’s also interesting to note that in the classic, must-read POOPCUP article, this is a growth stage for parents also — the article was joking about how parenting is pretty easy for “parents of one perfect child under preschool” age, but stuff starts to hit the fan once you get into the preschool weeds. Here’s our whole roundup on great articles on pregnancy and motherhood…)

We’ve always favored time-outs in the tradition of the book 1-2-3 Magic (affiliate link) because things like sticker charts don’t seem to be sufficient motivation for either kiddo — but in writing this post I’ve realized there’s some drama around the theory of time-outs, so now I’d really love to hear what you guys say! How have you handled a defiant three-year-old in the past — and what disciplinary methods have you preferred? How do you generally handle discipline with your children? How have you communicated those desires to your nanny, au pair, babysitter, or other childcare provider? 

Looking for the best tips on how to handle your defiant three year old? Aren't we all! Kat and her working mom readers shared their best tips -- everything from time outs to sticker charts. Come share your tips on handling your threenager!


  1. So timely! I have a three year old and we have had these issues. DH likes to use tantrums as a time to teach a lesson and the difference between right and wrong. That usually escalates the tantrum and I have to step in. My approach is to be imaginative and create stories and play to get stuff done. Tough to do for every situation, especially after a long day at work.
    This post really helped:

    • Anon in NYC says:

      Thanks for sharing! I have a soon to be 3 year old, and this was really helpful.

    • just Karen says:

      This article is excellent! I did laugh out loud at this line “Two-year-olds will sit in timeout not because they realize what they did was wrong but because they want to please their parents.” because I have a strong-willed child who has NEVER willingly sat in time out – when she is out of control hitting/kicking/biting we literally have to hold the door shut to her room to keep her in a safe space until she can calm down (please don’t judge). Even with my special one, the developmental perspective is very helpful and I will be sharing with my partner.

      • Anonymous says:

        Just wanted to chime in and say: we had to do the same thing with our son and no permanent psychological damage was wrought; he doesn’t even remember we did that to him So no judgement and I hope you don’t stress about it. After my second bloody nose/black eye combo from getting headbutted (someone at work pulled me aside and asked me if I needed referral to a women’s shelter, no lie – I told her “that would be great as long as I can go to the shelter by myself and leave my three-year old at home”) I stopped trying to hold him during tantrums. We would put him in our guest room and shut the door until he calmed down enough to be held. Now, as a tween, if he needs to calm down, he automatically removes himself to his room or another quiet space and comes out when he’s ready to talk. So I think it worked out okay.

  2. NewMomAnon says:

    Umm, yes. I tell people with soon-to-be 3 year olds that the job of parenting becomes much more intellectual and emotionally draining, versus just “tending to physical needs and being tired.” I leaned heavily on “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen” (although there is a new one for little kids now!) and tried to be really empathetic, but establish firm boundaries with the help of All The Timeouts. I can understand that a kid is mad/frustrated/scared/upset, and still insist that we use inside voices, treat other people’s bodies with respect, and don’t destroy stuff.

    It feels like I’m entering a repeat stage now though – is this a normal thing at 4?

    • +1. Parenting is physically draining at first, but when the tantrums start, you move from “caretaker” to “actively raising a human being” and it’s very emotionally draining. Around 3, you start the process of teaching a kid how to become a functioning adult. Managing their emotions is the first step, but it only gets harder as you teach things like behaving in school, listening to adults, time management of homework, playing on a team, etc. I’m not there yet, but I assume teenage years will be even harder as you move into things like money and independence and peer pressure and other things that have actual damaging consequences if you get it wrong.

    • Emily S. says:

      I am not having success with the little kids version of “how to talk,” but I’m going to re-read and try to see if I can figure out what I’m missing. (DH says we’re not doing anything “wrong,” we’re just parenting an almost 3 year old. It’s only mildly comforting.)
      Also frustrating is that I’m the only one who reads the parenting books, because DH is a copywriter/ghostwriter and believes, from experience, that a lot of it is made up. We’re mostly on the same page, parenting-wise, but every now and again, I’m like but the book… and he doesn’t have the same reference.

  3. shortperson says:
  4. Ages 2.5-3.5 are the worst for my kids. The most effective preventative in my house is routine and consistency. It’s incredibly hard to do, but if I say “no more milk until you pick up your toys” I have to stick with it, even if I want to give in an hour later.

    Time outs work sometimes, but I have to totally ignore the kid. We never make it to the full minute-per-age because I basically use it as a way to let them think about the lesson on their own – as soon as they can get up, say sorry, and tell me the lesson (like “Never pull the dog’s tail”), they get to come get a big hug. But sometimes you can just tell they won’t calm down on their own, so I skip the time out and do a “time in” where I hold them on my lap and help them work through the big emotions.

    Neither DH nor I were raised in households where Big Emotions were okay, so we’re working hard to learn/model the right ways to express them. We do a lot of talking – “Are you sad because you wanted to play with the toy? You wanted him to give it to you? That would make me sad too. It’s hard to wait your turn, isn’t it? What would help you feel better while you wait? Oh, good idea, let me go get the play dough and we can play together while you wait.” A lot of times, just giving them a way to name the emotion and a way to think through it will help calm the tantrum. Other times, I’m the person carrying my screaming child through the grocery store parking lot. Cest la vie, I guess.

    • NewMomAnon says:

      On the topic of time-outs versus time-ins; I give time-outs ONLY when kiddo hurts someone intentionally. Just having a big emotion is an opportunity for connection and active parenting, not a reason to isolate a kid. Because my parents also punished Big Feelings, and I want to help kiddo learn to have them and recover in a more productive way.

  5. avocado says:

    The article linked above is indeed excellent, but I am exceedingly skeptical of the claim that 2-year-olds don’t understand that they are individual people and will do whatever the parents want them to do. I am pretty sure that my child was born understanding that she was her own person. One of her first and most oft-repeated sentences was “I do it myself!” And she never liked pancakes just because daddy liked pancakes, or sat in time-out to please us. Are there really 2-year-olds who think they are extensions of their parents? I don’t think I’ve ever met one.

    • are you my mother? That is one of my parents’ favorite stories about me at age 2-3: “I do it myself!”

    • Anonymous says:

      My son’s first full sentence: “I do that now.” He was 17 months old. Even at that age he had a very definitive idea of who he was and what he wanted.

  6. Maybe this isn’t helpful, but I’ve found that parenting my 3-4 yo became much easier after I pulled her from daycare. She was fine in daycare and liked her class and teachers, but she was exhausted all of the time (and often recovering from some daycare bug). By the time we picked her up in the evening she was overstimulated and spent. And waking up the next morning she never wanted to do anything but lounge in her PJs, despite us rushing her to get ready. We spent 5 days a week fighting, with her melting down over and over. Weekends were spent recovering from a week of stress. We always had a happy family on Sunday nights, but then the week would start over again.

    This year we switched to an au pair plus part time preschool. She’s a totally different kid. She’s able to handle minor grievances without melting in the evening and wakes up excited for the day’s adventure. She gets lots of playtime at home, tons of creative craft time, and daily trips to the playground. She gets to stay home longer when sick (instead of me rushing her back so I can go to work) so now she fully recovers from bugs. It’s been night and day for us. I don’t think any discipline or behavioral strategy works on a strung out kid. They’re just too spent to even try to cope.

  7. Thanks for all of the replies to this post, especially anon right above me. That has really struck a chord. I’m not sure we are ready to pull the plug on daycare, but it will help me be a little more patient and help my thinking about how to structure weekend days.

    • NewMomAnon says:

      I find that when I’m strung out in the morning, kiddo is strung out. We do lazy weekday mornings and I just get in to the office later (which could be relieved with a babysitter, except I kinda like the later start too). Kiddo became so much easier when we switched to a daycare that really emphasizes and fosters good naps. So you don’t have to cut the daycare cord; there might be small switches you could make to improve the daycare experience.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for posting this. We are struggling – struggling – with with our four year old. Time outs don’t work, talking doesn’t work. Trying out How to Talk So Kids will Listen…
    At wits end. Transitions are hard. He wont listen at all. Solidarity and please share if you found something that worked.

    • Anonymous says:

      Solidarity. We actually went to parenting coaching because we were having such a hard time. The person we law (parenting coach / social worker) suggested that around age 4.5 is when kids start having an ability to respond to logic and reasoning. So no suggestions, except that I think you are getting closer to the age where there will start to be some more grown up behavior! Our kiddo is now 5 and is still very strong willed but certainly improving.

      • Anonymous says:

        OP here. Thank you. I’m so glad to hear you saw improvement. Did the coaching work? We think we might need some outside help :)

    • Anonymous says:

      This is going to be a controversial response. But it worked for us. So here goes.

      The best piece of parenting advice I ever got was: you have a limited window with your kid, usually between ages 3 and 5, to make them understand that you are in charge and while they can have input, they are not the shot-caller in their own life until you decide they are ready to call certain shots. The parent who gave me this advice was basically advocating for a compassionate authoritarian style of parenting. Which not all kids will respond well to, but for our son, it was the ONLY way. When our son was your son’s age, if we gave him too much choice – with clothes, with food, with activities, books, etc. – he would then think he was now going to be allowed to choose everything for himself all the time, and reining that in created massive, explosive meltdowns. We learned to narrow down choices severely: you can have milk or water and you can choose the blue shirt or the yellow shirt. And maybe those were the only two choices we allowed him to have that day. It was definitely not the friendly, collaborative style of parenting I saw other people using with their kids, but if we did that we had a raging tyrant on our hands, and after a certain period of time, I just couldn’t do it any more.

      Just to be clear: we didn’t spank (we tried it twice and frankly, it did nothing, so why do it) and we didn’t yell or throw tantrums ourselves. The biggest thing was: when we said something, we stood firm and did not backtrack, negotiate or give one inch. If I said bedtime is in five minutes, in five minutes it is bedtime even if there is a small fire starting in the kitchen. If I say you’re getting a 5-minute timeout if you do that again, the timeout happens and it is exactly 5 minutes and there is no negotiation or wiggle room. I am normally a fairly easygoing person who thinks anything can be negotiated and any conflict can be worked out peacefully (and my professional job is dependent on me having that outlook), so becoming a mean unbending prison warden was a total change for me and it was really, really hard. We really had to be on it all the time, which was exhausting in itself but still less exhausting than the meltdowns and constant fighting. It felt weird and un-empathetic to me but it worked. He just learned, eventually, that we meant what we said when we said it and that’s that. And he still knows. We don’t have a ton of problems now, because he knows if we say something, we mean it.

      I don’t know if that will help and I know it’s not the fashionable way to do parenting these days. But with some strong-willed kids, I think the gentler approach just creates more problems. They have trouble setting boundaries for themselves and really need someone to draw the lines for them. So don’t be afraid to do that. Big, big, big internet hugs from another mom who has been there. I feel your pain, mama, but this too shall pass. Trust me.

      • Anonymous says:

        Ditto! I had no desire to use an authoritarian parenting style with my oldest but it is the ONLY thing that has worked. She enjoys making people upset (enjoy is the wrong word but she seems to crave negative attention even if she is being showered with attention) so she would raise the ante until one of us got angry. Yelling didn’t work because she would just scream louder. We never tried spanking because of the upping the ante- she would just get worse.

        We utilized 1-2-3 Magic and it works like a charm. Yes, she still has tantrums but it has greatly lessened the frequency of them. The not discussing and not getting emotional has really helped with the whole situation. Reminding my husband to count her has been a pain in the butt because he seems to always forget but rarely do I make it to “2” with her.

  9. ShaolinPunk says:

    Whole Brain Child, and No Drama Discipline by the same authors, have been incredibly helpful for our family. We don’t do time outs but try to lead our 3 year old to see natural consequences (and set a lot of boundaries so there are natural consequences). Tantrums still happen, but instead of focusing on punishment, just the mindset shift that to discipline is to teach has helped us keep the gray hairs to a minimum. Plus understanding the science behind what’s goibg on in our kids’ brains helps us from taking their behavior personally. These methods are A LOT of work, but I feel good about the impact they appear to be having on the kiddos.

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