EXPERT Q&A

Why won’t my 3-year-old listen to me?

Parents often talk about the terrible twos, but just wait until your young child turns 3! If your 3-year-old refuses to listen, we have some tips and tricks that can help you keep calm in your household and promote cooperation. Learn more here!

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Question

We are parents of a 3-year-old who just won’t listen. We started calling him our “threenager”! Is this common? And do you have any guidance on how we can navigate this stage of his development?

Answer

Oh, the threenager! This cute nickname was created to describe a 3-year-old who has the attitude, sass, and moodiness of a typical teenager. What a joy! Parents and caregivers will often joke, “If you think the terrible twos are rough, just wait until they turn three!” What you are experiencing is common, and we hope to help you out!

This phase is common because at the age of 3, young children are learning more about how the world works. Most children are verbal at this point, and boy, do they have opinions about everything! So it’s a typical time for children to start asserting their independence more than ever. Yet, due to a lack of impulse control and trouble regulating their emotions, this independence assertion usually goes hand-in-hand with attitude, defiance, and tantrums of epic proportions. This also tends to be the age at which children start asking why again and again, sometimes in defiance and sometimes because they are innately curious.

Helpful Tips

Here are some tips on thriving as a caregiver of a curious and opinionated three-year-old.

  1. Give Choices. Toddlers typically want to have as much control over their day as possible. This is where a lot of the “no” answers come from. You can combat this by providing as many choices throughout the day as possible. “Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the purple shirt?” “How many pieces of chicken would you like, 3 or 5?” “What do you want to do first, brush teeth or put on pajamas?” It’s tough at first, but once you get into the habit of offering choices, you’ll do so naturally throughout the day. Your child will feel that they have the control they crave, and by providing limited choices, you too will get what you want.
  2. Be Consistent. Often, toddlers won’t listen because they don’t think their caregiver will follow through. For example, if you say, “I need you to clean up your toys,” but you end up getting frustrated and cleaning them yourself, the child has learned they don’t always have to listen. Another example of this is telling the child, “No,” but then giving in after they ask 10 more times. It’s super important to be clear on what your expectations are with toddlers. If you give a command, make sure you are ready to see it through until the end. If you say “No,” be sure to stick to it. This isn’t always easy, but it is crucial!
  3. Stop Arguing. This is a big one. I’ve fallen into this trap more times than I’d like to admit, when I find myself arguing back and forth with a young child. From asking a 3-year-old to eat their vegetables to making sure they sit and not stand on the couch. I find myself wondering why I am arguing with my little one and quickly come to realize how unhelpful it is. I then provide a choice, as described above, which usually helps resolve the situation. Check out an article on how to navigate situations when your child refuses to follow rules.
  4. Teach Social-Emotional Skills. Teaching children social-emotional skills at an early age has major benefits. These skills include impulse control, identifying emotions, turn-taking, empathy, calming skills, and problem-solving. Caregivers can find opportunities throughout the day to practice these skills and name them for the child. For example, if the child has to wait for something, they will have to use their patience to wait nicely. If the child seems to be getting upset, let them know that they can use a calming skill such as taking a deep breath or use their problem-solving skills like asking for help. Learn more here!

We hope these tips help you navigate your threenager’s tough behavior. But rest assured, what you are experiencing is not uncommon! And please reach out with any other questions you have.

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Meet The Expert


Shenley Seabrook

Shenley Seabrook is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who works primarily with children and adolescents in a private practice setting. She is also a foster parent and lives with her husband and daughter in Indiana. Shenley recently wrote her first children’s book, We Have the Same Heart, which celebrates diversity, inclusion, and community service.