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

Effective Disciplinary Strategies for Children and Teens with Oppositional Defiant Disorder

The term “discipline” refers generally to the practices that parents use to teach their kids rules of conduct and to enforce those rules. Disciplinary practices for children and teens with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) include: (a) creation and discussion of rules and expectations, (b) reminders of rules, (c) positive consequences for adhering to rules, and (d) negative consequences for breaking rules. In discussions with children, rules can be referred to as “expectations.”

Experts describe at least four different approaches to discipline:

1. Inductive Discipline Style: The term “inductive discipline” is commonly used by psychologists to refer to the most effective type of parental discipline of kids. Inductive or positive discipline is designed to avoid power struggles, arbitrary use of parental authority, and other forms of negative interaction around discipline. This approach to discipline is often associated with “authoritative parenting,” which is the positive middle ground between extreme permissiveness on one side, and extreme arbitrariness or “authoritarian parenting” on the other.

“Authoritative” moms and dads maintain their proper role as their youngster’s authority figure, but also discuss and negotiate with their kids and turn over decision making to kids when it is proper to do so. When kids behave in ways that are considered positive, they receive positive reinforcement and the reason for the reinforcement is clearly explained. For example, “Jake, you’ve done a great job of keeping your room neat and your things in order. That means that I don’t have to nag or spend time cleaning up after you. That saves me time, so we can go to the movies.” Or in the case of negative behavior: “Jake, your room is a mess after you told me you would clean it up. Now we’re both going to have to spend extra time getting your room ready for guests. So we won’t be able to go to the movies. That’s what happens when you don’t do the little things that you promise to do.”

Moms and dads who use inductive or positive discipline also listen to their kids and invite them to explain why they did what they did. Discussion is frequent. Moms and dads are understanding, but also consistent in their enforcement of the important rules of the house.

Because of the clear explanations, ODD kids come to understand that there are clear rules for them to follow, good reasons for the rules, and natural and logical consequences that follow behavior that is consistent with the rules and or that is in violation of the rules. When homes are organized around inductive or positive discipline with more positive reinforcement than consequence, kids recognize the orderly organization of life around them and develop better self-regulation than kids who do not receive inductive discipline. Kids who are raised in these homes tend to have better self-regulation later in childhood and adolescence than kids whose moms and dads rely on less positive styles of parenting. In effect, kids “internalize” reasonable rules of conduct and their rationale, and they come to use these principles as their own decision-making system. Kids develop positive self-regulation in part because they have lived in a world that is organized and predictable, including well understood rules of conduct.

2. Deductive Discipline Style: In homes characterized by “deductive discipline,” rules are created and then enforced by moms and dads with consequences and rewards. The youngster is expected to “deduce” or figure out the rules by seeing how his behavior is rewarded or punished. There are few clear explanations given for rewards or consequences. Although enforcement might be consistent, consequence may come to be seen by the youngster as arbitrary, rather than a natural and logical consequence of violating a clearly understood rule. Power struggles may be common.

3. Arbitrary Consequence Style: In homes that use arbitrary consequence, moms and dads discipline their kids in ways that are not clearly related to any rules or standards. Often consequence is physical. A consequence can be imposed for whatever reason the parent decides on the spot is a good reason for the consequence. There is no consistency or obvious standard. Rules and standards are not discussed with the kids. There is little negotiation or respect for youngster decision making. Kids are confused about what they are supposed to do and come to fear their moms and dads. Power struggles or other forms of parent-child conflict are common.

This type of discipline is usually associated with poor child outcomes and, in particular, poorly self-regulated kids. If a physical consequence is used, the lesson learned by kids is to use physical power over others if you are bigger than they are. Peer relations are often poor among kids who come from homes in which a physical consequence is used.

4. Permissive Style: In contrast to homes in which arbitrary consequence is used frequently, permissive homes are characterized by very few rules and few disciplinary practices. Kid’s choices, including impulsive behaviors, are largely respected and accepted. Few boundaries are placed around the youngster’s behavior. Although on the surface, this may appear to be a “child-centered” home, the kids may not experience the regularity and organization they need to learn how to think for themselves and make good decisions. Because there are no boundaries, the kids may feel insecure and confused. ODD kids develop positive self-regulation in part because they have lived in a world that is organized and predictable, including well understood rules of conduct.


1. When it comes to parenting ODD children and teens, it is critical to focus primary effort on preventing negative behavior rather than reacting to that negative behavior. This is common sense when dealing with toddlers who are famous for being impulsive. Moms and dads try hard to “child proof” the environment so that they do not have to spend their days reacting to the difficulties that an impulsive toddler will inevitably get into. Many kids with ODD, ADHD, and other diagnoses are like toddlers with respect to impulsiveness. Thus prevention is the key.

2. When ODD children behave in ways that are difficult to live with, it is easy to fall into the trap of attending only to the negative behavior. But even children with severe behavior problems act in acceptable ways some of the time. It is critical to pay attention to positive behavior, call attention to it, and reward it with praise or some other reward. Otherwise the child will learn that he only comes to the attention of parents when misbehaving, and may also develop a sense of personal identity associated with negative behavior. This can easily create a cycle of negative behavior followed by negative consequences, breeding more negative behavior, and so on. Moms and dads should work to create opportunities for positive behavior, which can then be highlighted and rewarded.

==> Parenting Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder

3. At home and at school, the rules and expectations should be very clear. They may need to be posted and reminders may need to be frequent. Written reminders in a child’s organizer and reminders to review these notes are often necessary. There may need to be frequent review and discussion of the reasons for the rules. These discussions should take place when the child and parents are calm rather than during a time of behavioral crisis.

4. Complete consistency in implementing behavior or discipline programs from person to person, from and time to time, and across parents and educators is a desirable goal, but fraught with limitations and sure to lead to frustration. However, it is important for all parents and educators to “be on the same page” with respect to rules, their implementation, and consequences for violations. Substantial inconsistencies will likely lead to increased behavior problems.

5. ODD children should have a clear understanding of why specific rules exist and why specific consequences are associated with violations. These discussions should occur during periods of calm, not during a behavioral crisis, and should be available in written format for the child to use as a cue in future task assignments.

6. Many children with ODD do not learn efficiently from the consequences of their behavior. Therefore, their behavior management plans are primarily focused on antecedent (advance) supports to prevent negative behavior. Nevertheless, when they do behave in negative ways, there should be consequences so that the child learns that certain behaviors are followed by specific consequences. These consequences may not modify the behavior, but at least the child learns about how the world works. Ideally these consequences are naturally and logically related to the behavior so that they make sense to the child. For example, if a child trashes his room, a natural and logical consequence is to have him clean it up. It is not a natural and logical consequence, for example, to be forced to sit in the corner for an hour.

7. When it is necessary to discipline an ODD youngster, this should be done calmly and quickly with the youngster removed from other kids. There should be no conflict over who is in control. The focus is on rule violation only. Parents must choose their battles wisely so that they know that they will successfully administer discipline if it is required.

8. When the child AND the parent are extremely upset, it is not the time to administer any consequences. Under these emotionally charged circumstances, the net effect of a consequence is to increase anger, not to learn anything. The goal when ODD children are in crisis or emotionally upset is simply to end the crisis and reduce the emotionality of the situation without anybody getting hurt. Thus, the most immediate action is to remove the child from the environment or stop the environmental stimulation. The time to discuss the consequences of negative behavior is later when the child is calm. Again, prevention is the key to minimizing aggressive or angry outbursts.

9. When a child engages in negative behavior as a result of neurologically-based impulsiveness, lack of initiation, inability to recall the appropriate response, or reduced “reading” of social cues and situations, moms and dads must first understand the source of the difficulty. However, understanding is not the same as excusing. Inexcusable behavior is inexcusable even if it is in part a product of the child’s neurological difficulties. Rather than excusing behavior, moms and dads should redouble their efforts to help the child avoid the negative behavior in the future.

10. In a classroom or home, rules should be formulated positively, in terms of what parents and teachers want the children “to do” versus what they want them “to avoid.” For example: 
  • “Be sure to put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher” -- versus -- “Don’t leave your dirty dishes in the living room!”
  • “Pack you back pack the night before and be ready for your bus” -- versus -- “Don’t dawdle in the morning”
  • “Say goodbye and leave quietly, please” -- versus -- “Don’t bang the door when you leave!”
  • “Speak nicely to your little sister” -- versus -- “Don’t yell at your sister!”

==> Parenting Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder