3 Year Old Defiance

Dear Miss Faith,

My son is 3.5yo, and we’re struggling with defiance. I had been very permissive with him in the past, and it wasn’t serving us or him. Now I am struggling to establish new boundaries. I feel like this is the right thing to do, but it isn’t going so well. In the moment, when I am exercising my authority he either throws a tantrum (a new behavior from him), or he is completely defiant. I can handle the tantrum with love, but the defiance makes me see red and I just cannot summon up love or humor or distraction to deal with the situation.

Dear Mama,

Hugs to you! Clear boundaries in place make things easier for everyone, and changing boundaries is HARD! When boundaries change, children have to test them over and over and over again, so that they always know where they are. It will take some while for the new boundaries to become ‘normal.’ So, even though you know it will be better for your family to have these firmer boundaries, it makes sense that this transition is both difficult and uncomfortable. But it will be worth it.

The biggest thing is to keep your compassion firmly in the front of your mind. Poor little guy! He’s always had things his way, and suddenly he’s not. Of course he’s pushing back. Of course he doesn’t like it. You can be compassionate for him, even while you’re holding firm. Think of it as a kind of Firm Compassion. Take a step back to look at the situation with loving interest, and see what this little boy needs in order to learn what he needs to learn. Let’s look at a few different scenarios:

When He Doesn’t Want To:

You: “It’s time to go to bed.”Him: “No! I won’t!”

Acknowledge his feelings not by labeling them, but by focusing on what he loves:

You: “You’re having a fun time playing. You wish you could play for longer!”

If you have enough energy, try transforming his emotion through use of imagination (as I show in my post Dealing with Disappointment). But on this day, perhaps you can’t. You don’t have the energy for that, so do the second-best thing, and try to move him into action:

You: “These blocks are ready to leap back in their basket. Shall I help you, or will you do it by yourself?” (always have the preferable choice last.)

Him: “No!”

You: “Ok, I’ll help you.” Start putting the blocks away.

Him: “No! You’re wrecking it! Stop! Stop!”

You (compassionately): “I’m sorry, the time for choosing is done. This time we’ll do it together. Next time you can choose to do it for yourself when I ask.” Calmly continue picking up the blocks.

Him: “I don’t want to go! I won’t, I won’t!” (A tantrum is brewing)

At this point, step into this place of Firm Compassion. First stop, take a step back, and empathize. This is hard for him! Let him know that you really do ‘get it.’

You: Wow, you REALLY WISH you could stay, don’t you.” Stop what you’re doing and really look at him. “I can SEE that you want to stay. You’re making your hands into fists!” (I find listing physical things that anyone can see to be more useful than naming emotions, for young children.)

Then, take it a step further: stop and look inward to yourself for a moment, looking for compassion for him. When you find it, speak from that compassion.

You: “I do wish we could stay longer so you could be happy.” Pause, then say in a wondering voice, “I wonder if you could still be happy, even though it’s time to go?”

After getting that big dose of understanding, it may well be that he can. After all, what children long for more than anything is to connect with us, their loving adults. So perhaps he finds it in himself to move out of his disappointment, and the two of you finish cleaning up together. Or perhaps he can’t:

Him: “No!”

You: “You can’t be happy? That’s OK. I love you sooo much.” Give him a kiss on the top of the head and continue picking up the blocks. Chances are he’ll watch sullenly, tantrum averted. But it could be that he throws a fit. At that point, calmly continue what you’re doing, taking a deep breath and stepping back into that place of loving interest. It’s hard not to get what you want! And he’s so tired. Poor little guy. Then when you’re done with the blocks, pick him up and sit down with him on the couch till he’s calmer. “Wow, you had a hard time being disappointed, didn’t you. I love you. Let’s read this book together, and then we’ll be ready to go brush our teeth.”


When they Won’t Stop

Trying to get them to do what you want is one thing. But it can ‘push our buttons’ even more when we ask them to stop, and they don’t, especially if they’re being hurtful or unkind. Here’s a scenario where he’s running his truck into his little brother, again and again:

You: “Baby George is frowning. He’s saying, ‘please stop.’

Him: “I like running the truck into him.”

You: “I can see that! But it’s important for you to find things that both of you can like.”

Him: (keeps running the truck into George.)

You: “It looks like you need some help finding something different to do.”

Get up and give him some physical help to do what you’ve asked, taking him by the hand and leading him away from George.

You: “What else can you find that you like to do?”

Him: (Pulls his hand away from you and runs the truck into George again.)

You (take a breath, and speak from the place of Firm Compassion): “I’m sorry, I can’t let you do that. If you run the truck into George again, I will take it away. Do you understand?” He runs it into George again, and you take it away. He begins to throw a tantrum. You say compassionately, “You wished you could keep doing that, but it’s important to be gentle with everyone in our house.”

(On second thought, an easier strategy might have been to remove baby George instead of removing the truck. Oh well…there will always be a next time to practice.)

Does this approach make sense? You’re being firm, but you’re not in a state of reactivity. You’re not getting into a power-struggle, you’re just firmly and compassionately letting him know what’s expected, and the consequences of doing something different. Then you’re firmly and compassionately following through. And you can see how hard that is for him! You can see that his wishes were different from yours, and you understand how frustrating that must be for him.

With this in mind, a great tool for your collection is to give him the words to ask you to reconsider:

You: “It’s time to go. Please put the blocks away.”

Him: “No!”

You (in a sweet voice): “Mom, please can we play a little longer?”

(If he doesn’t repeat after you, cup your hand around your ear to ‘hear’ him)

Him: “Please can we play a little longer?”

You: “Since you asked so nicely, I don’t mind if we stay for two more minutes.”

At this point, using some external indicator like a kitchen timer can be really helpful to know when your ‘two more minutes’ are up. “I’ll set the timer for two minutes, and when it goes off, we’ll have to clean up right away. Do you understand?” If you are outside the house, or you don’t want to use a timer, wait a minute and say, “Will you start cleaning up by yourself, or shall I bring out the Big Fat Hen?” The Big Fat Hen is how children at Rainbow Bridge know their turn with something is over: Recite or sing: “One two, buckle my shoe. Three four, shut the door. Five six, pick up sticks. Seven eight, lay them straight. Nine ten, a BIG FAT HEN!” Then jump into action and start cleaning up right away.

Warmly, ~Miss Faith


  1. Great blog! Really like your advice. Going to try this with my 2 year old!

  2. Annnd what do you do when you offer alternatives, choices, compromises, and he say he will or “promises” to do what you want, say leave in 5 more minutes. When the 5 minutes is up, he says “no” or “I dont want to right now” then the power struggle begins because you have already compromised, and when it becomes his turn, he backs out of his word? What to do then? I’ve done all of the above and still end up arguing after I do all he requests.

    • I think that once the minutes are up, then it’s time to move into that place of firm compassion again. Following through is hard, but we don’t have to feel mean inside when we do it–even if we’re annoyed that they’re upset.

      Another thing that can help is to help them move through their disappointment by making the follow-through fun by turning it into a game, bringing some imagination into it, or humor, or a silly song. Those things can help kids move beyond disappointment. But sometimes nothing works, and that’s when we can just feel internal compassion for them as we help them do what we’ve asked.

  3. Margo Dekker says

    We are desperate, my 3 year old grand son has been strong willed from the day he was born. He is also a very bad sleeper and has woken up crying/screaming from day one, we have been told it’s night terrors he will grow out of it but when is my question.
    Over the last 2 years he has become defiant, clingy and down right impossible and when I tell you time out, putting him in his room etc etc does not work I mean it. He will scream for up to an hour even longer demanding that his mom come and comfort him. He just wants to be picked up and cries huggie huggies all the time. No one else can comfort him and since his sister was born a year ago it has become increasingly difficult for her to split her self in two. He has also started lashing out at his mom.
    He loves his preschool and is happy there but as soon as he gets home it’s game on.
    His mom takes him to the park, plays with him but the problem is he wants her 24.
    She has tried bribery, threatening to take his toys away and he responds by saying things like.
    Ok I will help you. Or laughs at her.
    The other day mom went to put his sister to sleep and when I tell him that he can’t go in he must wait he starts whining saying he loves her and wants her any excuse.
    I have been in special needs education and have an adhd son but what my daughter is going through is a nightmare I have never come across this.
    Please can you give us some advice.

    • Margo, thanks for writing! My heart goes out to you, your daughter, and your grandson; it must feel miserable to him, too. I will see if I can write a blog post to give you and your daughter some ideas.

    • Margo Dekker – I have a grandson, age 3 acting much like yours! I can keep him in control most of the time when he is with me however, he consistently acts out, misbehaves, won’t follow direction, laughs when disciplined (thinks everything Mom/Dad says is a joke). They are at their wits end. He is not nice to his sister (age 5) yet loves and dotes on his new baby brother.
      Miss Faith – any suggestions I can pass along to my daughter? I have suggested the obvious, consistent, firm, good behavior praise and he is high energy so he needs an outlet to burn that energy.

      • Ahhh, what a challenge! When we see a child who will behave with certain people, but not with others, then that tells me that this is a “who’s in charge?” issue. But how do we support other people to become the kind-but-firm leader that we can see their children need? I wish I had some magic advice for you to give your daughter, but I don’t. When consistency comes hard to someone, we can tell them to be consistent until we’re blue in the face, but they don’t know how!

        One thing that strikes me from your message is what you say about him needing an outlet to burn his energy. I wonder if giving him space to get LOTS more big physical movement into his day might help. I notice with the kids I care for that the more time we spend outdoors, the more calm and peaceful things are when we are indoors. Even in the wintertime, I work hard to make sure that those three-year-old boys can get some solid outside time in, preferably at least twice per day.

        • Thank you for the reply Miss Faith – He is a challenge for sure especially to his parents. I totally agree with you on the “who’s in charge”. Although I am the Gamma here, I am strict and continue to discipline the grandkids just as I did my own children. My daughter seems to have trouble with carrying out how she was raised and by the way has thanked me over the years for the way she was raised and making her a successful, responsible adult. This 3 year old little boy is a much different personality type than his older sister of 5 and Mom/Dad are just beside themselves.
          And you are right about the consistency issue as well. I have “preached” it since day one as well as explaining to them how structure and schedules and routine is important too.
          Again, thank you for responding and I will continue to “preach” my philosophy on consistency and other key points. 🙂

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