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Effective Discipline Strategies for Managing a Spirited 3-Year-Old

July 3, 2024
Table of Contents

    Giving a toddler discipline when needed is important. You want to set the ground rules for them early on, teaching them what kind of behavior is and is not acceptable. However, you may wonder what kind of discipline is appropriate for kids around age three. Corporal punishment, like spanking, is not recommended for any child, regardless of their age group. There are appropriate discipline methods you can use instead. So, what are some effective strategies for managing a spirited three-year-old and helping them learn right from wrong?

    Parents can run into multiple challenges when working to find behavioral strategies for three-year-olds. For example, conflicting advice regarding discipline methods. You might also encounter challenges like aggressive behavior in kids, uncontrollable hyperactivity symptoms, or kids who act out to get attention, even if that attention is negative.

    Let's discuss research-backed and effective discipline strategies for your three-year-old, starting with understanding how their developmental stage could affect behavior. This article will cover techniques and helpful tips like setting clear expectations, communication strategies, and rewards for positive behavior, as well as when to seek professional help and how support from other parents can be advantageous.

    Understanding the mindset of a 3-year-old

    To discipline a three-year-old effectively, you must first understand their mindset. It can also be helpful to distinguish common behavioral challenges in three-year-olds from more concerning behaviors that might require additional support to help your child succeed in the long run (we'll talk about how to navigate those at the end of this article). Here's what parents should know.

    Developmental stage and capabilities

    Around age three, kids reach an array of new milestones, including but not limited to social, emotional, and language or communication-related milestones. Often, kids around age 3-5 are interested in new experiences and start to assert their independence more. Others will often understand about 75% of their words, and this can be a great time to start involving them in activities with other kids, both of which can be exciting. At the same time, a three-year-old may push boundaries more frequently than before or exhibit other common challenges.

    Common behaviors and challenges

    Many behaviors parents notice around this time are developmentally appropriate for a three-year-old. While kids may require re-direction due to safety issues or for another reason, it's important to remember that many actions requiring discipline and re-direction are related to your child's newfound curiosity or independence. Around age three, your child may:

    • Ignore your requests or commands (e.g., "It's time to leave the park").
    • Find it difficult to take turns or share things with others.
    • Say "no" or test limits more often.

    Sometimes, kids will push boundaries more in different environments or outside of the home. More extreme behavioral challenges are also possible. If a child experiences aggressive behavior, for example, it's ideal to get them support in the form of therapy or parent training as soon as you can (before age 7).

    Establishing a Consistent Routine and Why it Matters

    Kids should know what to expect. Your three-year-old needs to understand the behavior you expect and what they can expect to do that day. Even if routines differ and change under certain circumstances, such as on weekends or during Summer months, reliable routines can make a difference in a child's overall behavior, as well as in managing child care and family life overall.

    Setting clear expectations

    The first and most vital thing you can do to discipline a three-year-old or a child of any age is to set clear expectations. Make sure that they know ahead of time what the rules are and why the rule matters. For example, before walking into the grocery store, you can tell your child exactly what you expect (e.g., you need them to stay by you) and why (so they don't get lost).

    Creating a structured environment

    It may seem that structure is unrelated to behavior, but this isn't the case. Structure lets kids know what to expect and provides a sense of stability. Some routines may even help kids break negative behaviors. For example, having a consistent bedtime routine that is enforced every night could help kids who refuse to go to bed on time, even if it takes persistence on your end at first. Morning routines, chore routines, and other routines can similarly help all families.

    The Role of Positive Reinforcement and Praise

    Positive reinforcement is an evidence-based and healthy way to help kids achieve better behavior. It trumps punishment every time and is suitable for kids of all ages. The two primary components of positive reinforcement include:

    Encouraging good behavior

    Use verbal praise to encourage positive behavior. Even if the behavior seems small, provide extensive praise for desirable behaviors like staying by your side at the grocery store, putting their toys away, or being kind to others. This is far more likely to encourage continued good behavior than punishment for bad behavior alone.

    Using rewards effectively

    The reward systems that work for younger kids can differ from those you'd use for older children. One of the best tips for those with younger kids is to give rewards immediately. Explain to your child why they're getting the reward, and pair it with verbal praise. Rewards like stickers for a sticker chart or small, inexpensive toys tend to work well for kids around three years old. To keep it cost-effective, try looking for rewards like these at the dollar store.

    Redirecting and Distracting to Steer Kids Away From Negative Behavior

    When possible, help your child redirect their energy or attention to something else. This can be particularly helpful if the behavior is disruptive or risky, like running around indoors, but it isn't necessarily "bad." If you do have to provide a consequence, the best way to go is to use a natural consequence.

    Techniques for redirecting negative behavior

    Here are two common and beneficial strategies for redirecting negative behavior:

    • Providing an alternate activity. For example, if a child is running around inside, you might be able to redirect them pretty easily by giving them a high-energy activity to engage with, like running around outside, dancing, or playing a sport. If a behavior has a clear possible alternative, try this first.
    • Natural consequences. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) recommends directly linking punishment to poor behavior. Natural consequences are fair and effective, especially if they're consistent. An example of a natural consequence is letting a child know that they will not get to use a specific toy or item if they throw it because throwing the toy could hurt someone. If they do throw it, you will take it away so that it doesn't harm anyone.

    Using distractions to diffuse tantrums

    Most tantrums are another normal part of childhood development. Distractions can help diffuse tantrums in kids around age three. To help your child feel more calm during a tantrum, you might point out something interesting that's going on around them, start playing a simple and easy game, or guide them toward a toy or activity. If your child seems frustrated or angry, you can ask if they want to talk about it, listen, or offer a hug.

    Time-Outs and Consequences

    At times, the most ideal consequence to use can depend on the specific behavior a child is exhibiting. Being consistent and ensuring that your child understands the reason for a specific consequence is worth it, even on tough days.

    Implementing time-outs appropriately

    Times-outs are sometimes helpful. The circumstances and how you communicate the reason for a time-out can make a difference. When you give your child a time-out, do it immediately after the negative behavior and explain why they're getting a time-out. Try to reserve time-outs for more serious negative behaviors, like hitting, where there may not be other consequences, but the behavior does need to be corrected. Time outs should also be developmentally appropriate and not overly lengthy. One rule of thumb that is sometimes used is that a time out should be no longer than one minute for every year of age (e.g., no longer than 3 minutes for a 3 year old).

    Consistent consequences for misbehavior

    If you let your three-year-old know that a specific punishment will occur as the result of a certain behavior, it’s vital you follow through. Using time-outs as an example, if you say that your child will get a time-out if they hit one more time, you must give it to them even if they hit just once more — don't wait or threaten it again. 

    When you follow through, you show your child that what you say is what you mean. If you don't follow through, your three-year-old will learn that you don't mean it and that if they don't listen to you, there won't actually be consequences for their actions. 

    Why Communication and Empathy Matter 

    Parenting experts recommend modeling good behavior for kids for a reason. Young children tend to copy their parents, other adults, and older kids. Set a good example by listening to your child, working to understand their emotions, showing respect, and teaching them about why logical consequences happen.

    Use active listening and understand emotions

    Active listening is a crucial life skill that helps people feel understood and aids communication. Teach your kids active listening skills at a young age by modeling them. When a child misbehaves, work to understand the cause. Avoid interrupting your child when they speak, and paraphrase what they said when they're done talking, asking, "Did I get that right?"

    Teaching empathy and understanding of consequences

    If your child gives an explanation (this could be anything from "I was mad" to "I don't know"), show understanding. Remember that understanding a behavior doesn't mean that you condone it. 

    Share empathy for the fact that your child is upset, frustrated, angry, or even that they did something without thinking about it, which is common in kids with ADHD. Then, express or re-assert why the rule they broke is important. Even with young kids around age three, you can collaborate to find solutions.

    When you come to an understanding, giving hugs or saying "I love you" is a great way to end the conversation. Although consequences will still occur, show your child that you love and are here for them. This isn't the same as giving positive attention to bad behavior.

    Seeking Support and Resources

    All kids are different. Parents face more power struggles, defiant behavior, and other challenges with some children than others. Individualized advice can be necessary, especially if you've tried everything and can't find solutions. Remember that the care you have for your child will go a long way and that no family is perfect.

    Consulting with experts or professionals

    If your child has behavioral challenges and common positive discipline techniques like the ones in this article aren't working, it's time to consult with a professional. An expert in childhood development, like a child psychologist, can work with you and help you discover the cause of your child's behavior and how to navigate it. Pediatricians can provide referrals to child psychologists and therapy providers.

    Joining parenting groups or seeking advice from other parents

    Sometimes, talking to other parents who understand can help, especially if you feel alone or stressed out. Parenting groups and support groups are one place to turn. The Joon Parenting ADHD Support Group on Facebook is a great example. Parents in the group have kids of all ages and may have advice or emotional support to offer regarding your unique situation.


    Finding effective discipline strategies for managing a three-year-old's behavior requires patience and consistency. Three-year-olds are often fun and funny to be around, and it's likely that your three-year-old is meeting new and exciting developmental milestones rapidly. Still, setting limits is integral for children. Ensure that you clearly explain expectations to your three-year-old, why they matter, and what consequences will occur if those expectations are unmet. Stay consistent and follow through with any consequences or rewards you mention to a child.

    If you have an older child, consider using Joon. The Joon App is a behavior management solution for kids around ages 6-12+. How does it work? 

    First, parents download the Joon Parent App and make a task list for their child. When kids finish tasks, parents approve them, and the child reviews in-app rewards that allow them to care for a virtual pet called a Doter. New rewards are added frequently to keep kids interested. 90% of kids who use Joon complete all of the tasks, called "Quests," their parents assign. Joon may be suitable for a three-year-old's older sibling or another child in your life.

    Click here to try it for free.


    Dr. Joe Raiker, PhD

    Joe Raiker, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has extensive training and clinical experience in the principles of behavior modification and cognitive restructuring (i.e., CBT). He provides assessment and psychotherapeutic services to patients of all ages, primarily via Telehealth, including treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to seeing patients, Dr. Raiker also provides Clinical Supervision for Therapy and Assessment Services at South Florida Integrative Medicine.


    Dr. Joe Raiker, PhD

    Joe Raiker, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has extensive training and clinical experience in the principles of behavior modification and cognitive restructuring (i.e., CBT). He provides assessment and psychotherapeutic services to patients of all ages, primarily via Telehealth, including treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to seeing patients, Dr. Raiker also provides Clinical Supervision for Therapy and Assessment Services at South Florida Integrative Medicine.