behavior development parenting preschooler toddler

Understanding and Managing Challenging Behavior in Your Three-Year-Old: Expert Tips for Parents

Parenting a three-year-old can be both rewarding and challenging, especially when faced with resistance to everyday activities. I think many parents now refer to this age as 'threenagers' -- appropriate given the level of defiance that many experience myself included.  I'm not going to lie, three was by far THE most challenging stage with my kids, especially my incredibly strong willed son.  There was no daily routine that was free of defiant behaviors which left me feeling triggered, overwhelmed and feeling like a failure.  Can you relate?  

Thankfully, there are simple and effective strategies that can be implemented during this stage.  And bonus:  some of them will work even when your kid is a teenager!  I'm all about working smarter, not harder.  Better yet, these strategies align with the 3 year olds developmental stage and promote positive behavior without resorting to physical discipline or external rewards.  Are you ready?

Understanding the Three-Year-Old Brain: If you are familiar with my approach, I always start with development.  It truly is one of the most important tools in your parenting toolbox allowing you to better understand your child's behavior and to implement developmentally APPROPRIATE strategies that work for both you and your child.  So let's start with a quick overview of a three-year-old's brain. I like the way Dan Siegel describes it in is book The Whole Brain Child  (an absolute must read for parents of young children!).  His "Upstairs Downstairs" analogy for brain development in young children refers to the distinction between the upstairs brain (cortex) and the downstairs brain (lower regions) in understanding emotional regulation. The upstairs brain, responsible for higher cognitive functions, like reasoning and problem-solving, develops gradually throughout childhood and adolescence. The downstairs brain, associated with instinctual responses and emotions, develops earlier and is crucial for survival but requires integration with the upstairs brain for effective emotional regulation and overall well-being in children.  

So here's the hard part of this with our three year olds:  because they have these growing vocabularies and imagination, we often times think that they SHOULD be able to 'know better' or have better control of their emotions.  The fact is, they are still primarily living in that downstairs brain. Just an FYI that true analytical thinking isn't usually in place until around the age of six or seven on average.  This is important to understand!  While your young child might be climbing up the steps to the upstairs brain and rooting around up there now and again, when faced with conflict, frustration, fear, etc., they tumble right back down those steps into the BIG emotions of the downstairs brain.  And remember, angry, scared, overwhelmed brains don't listen well so trying to 'talk' them down or 'talk some sense into them' is ineffective and leads to more frustration for them.  So, how does one navigate the big emotions of a preschooler?  I'm glad you asked...

Strategies for Positive Behavior:  All right, let's talk strategies that help teach emotional regulation, build connection and help to avoid power struggles...

  • Increase One-on-One Time: Boosting positive behaviors starts with increasing one-on-one time. Quality time with your child fills their emotional bucket, reducing the likelihood of challenging behaviors. Regular, focused attention helps create a secure connection.  Now you are probably thinking, 'my child gets my attention ALL THE TIME.'  Well, I'm going to challenge you there.  If you are seeing lots of challenging behaviors from your child, they need more.  You may feel like it should be enough, but it's not.  Or, you may not be filling their bucket they way that THEY need it filled.  What lights them up?  Is it playing with their cars?  Spend 30 minutes giving them and their favorite activity your complete and undivided attention -- no phones, put their sibling down for a nap, etc.  Send a clear message that in that moment they are seen and heard fully.  This one strategy can significantly decrease problematic behaviors.  

  • Implement the Three C's: Calm, Connect, Correct: When faced with defiant behavior, follow the three C's approach: first, calm the child; then, connect emotionally, emphasizing love and safety; and finally, correct behavior once emotions are regulated. Difficult conversations are more effective when everyone is in a positive mood.  This approach is based on brain development; remember, angry upset brains don't listen well.  

  • Enforceable Statements for Effective Communication: Utilize enforceable statements to communicate expectations without triggering power struggles. Instead of a direct "no," offer choices or alternatives, making it clear that cooperation leads to positive outcomes.  For example, saying 'you may feel free to go outside after you have picked up your toys!'  Or, ''crayons stay at the table' while taking them from your preschoolers hand as they run towards the wall for a big art project.  Oh, and just one more thing:  check your tone when using enforceable statements.  You need to use a happy, confident voice like you can handle anything your child dishes out.  

  • Avoid Physical Discipline: This probably goes without saying any more, but don't go the route of physical discipline.  The research is clear:  it isn't effective.  Yes, it may diminish a behavior temporarily but behavior will just turn into something else and so on and so on.  More importantly, it erodes the parent-child relationship.  Your number one job as a parent is to help your child feel safe and secure.   Doing this significantly decreases the likelihood of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression later on.  Creating a safe environment involves nurturing emotional safety, and physical discipline contradicts this fundamental need for security.

  • Minimize the Use of External Rewards: Instead of relying on external rewards, encourage positive behaviors by fostering internal validation. Teach children to make choices based on shared family values and the inherent goodness of their actions rather than expecting rewards.  You want your child to develop an internal dialogue that helps to guide them towards making good decisions for themselves and empathy and caring towards those around them.  For example, 'It was so nice of you to share your toy with your sister when she was sad.  It must make you feel good to know that you helped her to feel less sad.'

  • Increase Choices Throughout the Day: This is one of my FAVORITE strategies for avoiding power struggles.  Young kids are desperately looking for control.  When you front load with lots of choices throughout the day, they are less likely to feel the need to gain control in other ways.  Simple decisions, such as what to wear or which utensils to use, provide a sense of control and reduce the likelihood of tantrums.

  • Visual Picture Schedule: Consider implementing a visual picture schedule to outline daily routines. Involve your child in creating the schedule, allowing flexibility in the order of activities. Visual aids help them understand expectations and transitions and are another great way to reduce meltdowns and tantrums.  If you want to learn more about the benefits of visual picture schedules and how to implement them with young children, check out this video. 

In summary, parenting a three-year-old with challenging behaviors requires a nuanced approach that considers brain development and emotional well-being. By incorporating these strategies into your daily routine, you can foster positive behaviors, reduce power struggles, and create an environment that supports your child's emotional growth. Remember, every challenging moment is an opportunity for learning and strengthening your bond with your child. If you are looking for more support in managing your child's big emotions (and yours!), check out my Big Picture Parenting program which not only provides positive discipline strategies it provides support in implementing them via weekly coaching calls.

As always, I hope you found this information helpful.  I'd love to hear from you!  Feel free to reach out to me here should you have any questions or suggestions.  Until next time.