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Parenting Tips for Defiant 3-Year-Olds

As exasperating as her behavior is, your 3-year-old’s defiance is really about her asserting herself. While a 3-year-old defies her mom and dad because she's caught up in the excitement of her autonomy, a 3-year-old is likely to be reacting to something. When your youngster doesn't comply with a request you've made, what she's really saying is, "I don't like your rules."

When this happens (and it will — often), don't be harsh, but do be assertive and consistent. This lets your 3-year-old know that you have established rules that she has to follow, and that mom and dad are in charge. Most 3-year-olds understand the concept of rules, so take time to explain to your youngster what they are and why they're important. Explain, too, what will happen if she breaks them. Be specific (e.g., "If you go into the street, you'll have to play inside for the rest of the day"). Also, enlist your child’s suggestions, because she'll be more apt to cooperate if she helps determine the consequences for particular actions.

No two kids are alike.  Thinking about the following questions can help you adapt and apply the information below to your unique 3-year-old:
  • How do you respond when your youngster is being defiant? What works? What doesn’t? What can you learn from this?  
  • What does your youngster tend to be most oppositional about? What, if anything, do these things have in common? 
  • Why do you think these issues bring out your youngster's "oppositional" side?  How can this understanding help you help your youngster cope better?

Parenting Tips for Defiant 3-Year-Olds:

1. As much as possible, reward good behavior rather than punishing misbehavior. 3-year-olds respond well to positive reinforcement (e.g., charts and stickers), so use them liberally. Say your youngster gets out of bed every night, though you've repeatedly told him that he has to stay there after he's tucked in. Instead of chastising him for getting up, reward him with a sticker on a cheery chart each night that he complies. At the end of a successful week, treat him to a small toy or a trip to the park. Of course, you can't make charts (or even put your foot down) about every little thing. But when your 3-year-old really is being defiant, it's vital to let him know — firmly and calmly — who's in charge.

2. Avoid giving in. If you give in to tantrums, your youngster learns that if he pushes hard enough, he’ll get what he wants. This will also make it more difficult for you the next time you try to enforce a limit.

3. Avoid the “Okay?” pitfall. “Let's go to bed now, okay?” …or… “Time to get dressed, okay?” Although this is a very common way that adults communicate, it is confusing for young kids. They take your question at face value and think they have a choice to say, “No, I really would rather not go to bed right now.” This can create unnecessary power struggles.  Be sure to communicate what is and isn’t a choice very clearly.

4. Engage your youngster’s imagination. For a youngster refusing to go to bed, you might something like, “Elmo is so tired. He wants to go to sleep and wants you to cuddle with him.” Or, for a youngster refusing to clean up, you might say something like: “Our favorite books want to go back on the shelf with their friends.  Let's a have a race to see how fast we can get them back up there.”

5. Give kids a warning before a transition needs to be made. You can use a kitchen timer so they can actually see and track the time. Making a poster of pictures that show the steps in your daily routines can be very useful as well. For example, pictures of tooth-brushing, face washing, reading, and then bed will show kids what they can expect to happen next. Give some concrete cues about transitions (e.g., “Three more times down the slide before it’s time to go”). It’s very important to then follow through on your limit.
 
6. Ignoring the behaviors you want to eliminate is the fastest way to be rid of them. The only exception to this rule is if your youngster is being physically hurtful—hitting, slapping, punching, and so on—in which case you calmly but firmly stop the behavior and explain that he can feel mad but he cannot hit.

7. Offer a few choices. “Do you want to put your pajamas on before or after we read books?” Or, “Do you want to put your pajamas on or should mommy put them on for you?” You might also give a choice between two pairs of pajamas that he might want to wear. Giving choices offers kids a chance to feel in control in positive ways.  Giving choices can actually reduce defiance.

8. Set limits.  “It is time for bed now.  You need to sleep so your body can get some rest and grow big and strong.”  Use language your youngster understands.  Keep it short and clear, but non-threatening.

9. Think about your own behaviors:  Could you be sending mixed messages to your youngster? Sometimes our own choices and behavior as moms and dads can influence our kid's behaviors.

10. Think prevention. Anticipate the kinds of situations that lead to defiance from your youngster and help him problem solve and cope in advance. This might mean letting your 3-year-old know that you understand leaving the house to go to child care is difficult for him, and then offering him the choice of a book or toy to bring in the car to help him make the transition.

11. Use humor. This is a great way to take some of the intensity out of the situation and throw a monkey wrench into a power struggle. You might try to pull your youngster’s pajama bottoms over your head, or see if they fit onto her favorite stuffed animal.

12. Validate your youngster’s feelings. As moms and dads, we often skip this step and go right to setting the limit. But acknowledging a youngster’s feelings first is very important as it lets her know you understand where she’s coming from, and that her feelings matter. Keep in mind that it’s not the youngster’s feelings that are the problem, rather it’s what the youngster does with her feelings that is often the challenge. Labeling your 3-year-old’s feelings also helps her learn to be aware of her emotions and, eventually, to manage them. Keep language simple and direct (e.g., “I know you don’t want to put your pajamas on. It’s difficult to go from playtime to bedtime”). When you skip this “validation” step, kids often “pump up the volume” to show you—louder, harder, and stronger—just how upset they are.

Parenting Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder

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