Dealing With a Strong-Willed 3-Year-Old

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You mentioned family meetings as an approach to dealing with a strong-willed child, but indicated that it works for children 4 and older. What about a strong-willed 3-yr-old who absolutely has to have everything her own way and goes completely ballistic if we don't do exactly what she expects?


There are many factors that could be involved in your situation. You could be contributing to "power struggles" through your discipline methods. (I don't know, because you didn't tell me what you do.) Often, children who rebel have parents who use controlling methods. Your child's temperament is another factor. Another is your child's stage of emotional and psychological development—the stage of initiative vs. guilt, according to Erik Erickson. There are other factors, but let's put these three together and see how they might influence behavior and discipline.

Your child is obviously going after a strong sense of initiative in a big way. She needs lots of guidance with an absence of punishment. Since she has a strong-willed temperament, power struggles will only increase through punishment. Time-out might be helpful; however, it should never be used to punish, but to nurture and empower. Don't we all need "time out" once in awhile to cool off and calm down until we can behave more rationally? Children DO better when they FEEL better. Time out should be positive to help children feel better. Don't try to make your child sit on a chair, unless it is a comfortable chair with a teddy bear for him to cuddle. You might even take time out together to sit in the chair and cuddle. No, this is not reinforcing the misbehavior. It breaks the cycle of discouragement that creates the misbehavior and helps the child be ready to DO better. (When you take time out with her, it can help you feel nurtured and empowered to do better also.)

After you are both calm, you might work together (as soon as she is verbal) on solutions to the problem. A powerful positive discipline tool is to decide what you will do, not what you will make your child do. For example, when she has a tantrum, kindly and firmly leave the room. (Please read the article, "I Need a Hug". Another example: if bedtime is a problem, when she doesn't stay in bed (after a bedtime routine that has included stories and snuggling), kindly and firmly take her back to bed without saying anything punitive. You might repeat "It is bedtime" briefly, kindly, and firmly every time you take her back to bed. Remember the focus is on what you will do (take her back to bed) instead of trying to make her stay in bed.

You will notice I keep using the words kind and firm. Kindness shows respect for the child and yourself. Firmness shows respect for the needs of the situation. Avoid all lectures. She isn't hearing them anyway.Use very few words when words are needed: "Time to pick up toys." "Time to get dressed." When she argues, simply repeat the phrase. I hope you are giving her lots of limited choices: "Do you want to wear your blue pajamas or the yellow ones?" Children are more cooperative when they can have some power that is constructive. It is also effective to get her involved in helping you—cook dinner, clean, set the timer for how much time it might take to pick up toys.

I'll bet your daughter is very bright. Many advanced children are more difficult to work with. Ineffective discipline methods only increase the problems. Positive discipline methods not only are effective, they help your child learn important life skills. You may enjoy the books Positive Discipline for Preschoolers and Positive Discipline A-Z, both of which are filled with hundreds of nonpunitive methods that help children learn important life skills.





I am desperate to figure out a method that works for my daughter who is so similar to yours....getting her ready for school in the morning is an ABSOLUTE NIGHTMARE and she gets exactly what she wants...even the bottle :/

I can relate to a strong-willed 3-year-old child!

The struggle is real and I'm realizing I need tools to guide me to have a better way of going about things before I am too far into it. My Jade is bright, beautiful, sensitive, loving and very similar to myself when it comes to learning and listening(or not listening ;) ). I grew up with very controlling parents and discipline was no foreign language, so I know what I don't want to be like. But I also want respect which I know is earned, not demanded! I also struggled terribly with ADD/ADHD and know that we are creative people as well as intelligent but our society is not structured well for us! But knowing all those things and not wanting to be like my parents I am still struggling with Her! I never knew myself to get so much anxiety over a child! I start focusing on how it should be instead of enjoying her more! Then when she looks for any attention or wants it her way its like WW3! I find myself constantly raising my voice and trying to bribe her or use guilt unknowingly! And then I look in the mirror and realizing that iI am being the parent I don't want to be! Using force and installing fear in a childs life only makes them fear you!  On top of beating myself up over all those things; she is still on the bottle at night! she doesn't even care if there is water in it, it just soothes her down! When I tell her ways of getting rid of it, she just says " It's okay mom, its gonna be okay! stop!" Mind you, she's THREE!  If she doesn't get her way all the time she starts peeing or pooping in her pants! At school and Sunday school she is an angel, they rave about her! so I know we must be doing something right, but then I realize it must be the environment we have created!? Her dad and i are together, but not married and we dont always see eye to eye and i know she senses it! I just wish i could be that somewhat calm collective person like I was before i had her while with her lol!

I feel as though you took the words out of my mouth with some of the things you said "At school and Sunday school she is an angel, they rave about her! so I know we must be doing something right, but then I realize it must be the environment we have created". I wanted to cry because of this sudden realization and me just now seeing it. It makes me feel so horrible. But I'm hoping we can fix this. Loved this response. My son will be three in May and he is very very strong willed and not so negotiable. it gets good to know I'm not the only mother out there dealing and freaking this way

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