Disobedient 3-Year-Olds: What to Do?

Disobedient 3-year-olds need clarity and consistency in their day-to-day life. Discover how to correct them with love and respect.
Disobedient 3-Year-Olds: What to Do?

Last update: 11 October, 2022

From the position of parents, an obedient child is a blessing. Those docile, calm little kids who follow the rules without question are the envy of all parents. However, a certain dose of rebellion is necessary and positive, especially at certain times in childhood. For this reason, to those who deal with disobedient 3-year-olds, we want to offer a series of guidelines that may be useful.

We know that it’s exasperating when your child lets go of your hand while you’re walking down the street, that you have to repeat everything 10 times to get them to pay attention, or that it takes forever to get them dressed or to go to sleep. But don’t lose your cool, because there are ways to correct and redirect children’s behavior from respect and love and thus avoid many of these conflicts.

Disobedient 3-year-olds: A natural and healthy phenomenon

First of all, it’s important to understand that the age of 3 is a particularly complicated stage.

At this age, children have already developed many motor and cognitive skills and want to put them into practice. They know how to walk, run, climb and jump. They can speak and express their opinion (albeit in a limited way) and, above all, they’ve discovered themselves as individual beings and want to assert themselves.

For this reason, it’s common for refusals, opposition, the challenging of limits, and a certain need for independence to arise at 3 years of age. It’s essential to understand that infants don’t act maliciously and that their goal isn’t to annoy us or make us lose our patience. They’re simply beginning to explore and understand the world and it will be our guide to help them do so.

A child crossing his arms surrounded by the word "no".
If your 3-year-old says no to everything, it’s probably part of the normal process of their personality development.

How to act with disobedient 3-year-olds?

Numerous investigations have shown that the democratic parenting style is the most effective in achieving child cooperation and also in building strong and healthy bonds between parents and children.

So, we shouldn’t be permissive and indulgent, nor should we be tyrannical and authoritarian. And to find this beneficial balance, it’s worth putting the following guidelines into practice.

Clear rules and limits

In order to obey, children have to know what’s expected of them at all times.

Start by setting clear and concise rules and make sure your child understands and remembers them. To do this, explain each rule you set and why. And at the end, ask them to repeat them to you.

It’s also very useful to place visual aids, such as a list on the fridge or on a bulletin board that indicates the rules to follow through images. For example, talking with the family while sitting at the table.

Routines are also excellent allies, as they give children security and help them remember what to do at all times. For example, they make it possible to anticipate washing hands before eating or brushing teeth before going to sleep.

Once these behaviors are automated, you’ll be less likely to have to remind them of them on a daily basis.

Coherence and teamwork

The key for little ones to obey is for them to find coherence and consistency in their environment. In other words, there need to be clear consequences for each behavior. These must always occur and they must be carried out by all the adults of reference.

If you’ve decided that the television turns off at six, you can’t give up half of the days and leave it on until seven. Nor is it positive for mom to set a rule and for dad to allow the kids to break it when he’s alone with them. All regular caregivers (including grandparents and nannies) need to apply the same principles.

Positive education

Many parents of disobedient 3-year-olds go through the day with “don’t” in their mouths. “Don’t run”, “don’t put your elbows on the table”, “don’t leave everything lying around”. In the end, children get used to these types of expressions and stop taking them seriously.

For this reason, it’s preferable to reserve the “don’ts” for important situations, and the rest of the time, try to redirect the behavior and indicate what should be done. For example: “Walk next to me” or “pick up the toys when you finish playing.”

You can also offer alternatives to the behavior you want your child to stop doing. So, if you want them to stop turning the light switch on and off, instead of focusing on that misbehavior, you can redirect them to another activity that they like. For example, suggest that they make a drawing.

We have the advantage that, for little ones, the attention and affection of their parents are great reinforcers. Therefore, in general, they’ll respond well when we show pleasure in the face of their positive behaviors.

Mother talking to her angry son.
When your child gets angry about a limit you’ve placed on them, respond to them with respect and empathy. They really feel that discomfort and need your help to learn to manage their emotions.

Empathy and respect

Finally, let’s remember that the main objective isn’t to achieve obedience, but to offer our children a quality upbringing.

So, if your little one has a tantrum because they want to eat some treats, you don’t have to give in. But it’s important that you validate their emotions and help them manage them. Take a moment to catch up with them, explain that you know they’re upset and that’s normal, but it’s almost time for dinner.

Their anger may not go away, and part of your task is to tolerate the discomfort that it may cause you, as it’s a natural emotional expression. However, knowing that they’re heard, understood, and cared for will make your child’s disposition much better next time, and these tantrums will gradually reduce.

Disobedient three-years-old are developing their self-esteem

Keep in mind that it’s a good thing for your child not to be totally submissive and docile, for them to question the rules and reasons, for them to want to express themself and assert their opinion. This is a sign of healthy self-esteem.

So, arm yourself with patience and affection to guide you through this stage and, if you feel that the situation overwhelms you, don’t hesitate to consult a professional who can guide and accompany you.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Díaz, P., & Bonet, C. (2005). Las rabietas en la infancia: qué son y cómo aconsejar a los padres. Revista Pediatría de Atención Primaria7(25).
  • Duarte-Rico, L., García-Ramírez, N., Rodríguez-Cruz, E. & Bermúdez-Jaimes. M. (2016). Las prácticas de crianza y su relación con el Vínculo Afectivo. Revista Iberoamericana de Psicología: Ciencia y Tecnología, 9 (2), 113- 124

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.