Tools for Your 3-Year-Old


Defiance and Power Struggles
for Your 3-Year-Old

Now Is the Right Time!

As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and helping your children learn to gain their own sense of control in healthy, appropriate ways is a perfect opportunity.

Three-to-four-year-olds are aware that they are their own individual person. They are more capable of doing everyday tasks and activities without the assistance of an adult. This realization of separateness and independence can lead to power struggles.

Three-to-four-year-olds are interested in demonstrating their independence though they are still learning everyday skills like putting on shoes or fastening a coat. This can lead to frustrations as they are not fully capable of acting independently. Their search and desire for power is a human need that each of us requires. Your support and guidance are invaluable in helping them learn how to gain power in ways that are healthy and constructive.

In addition, three-to-four-year-olds will follow their impulses and feel frustrated when they are unable to do what they want on their own or with competence. Children need practice in managing those frustrations so that they continue to try hard to master new skills and do no harm to themselves or others along the way.

Yet, you and your child will face challenges as they become frustrated with you stopping their actions for safety or other purposes or when they are unable to do something like put their shoes on without assistance. Whereas they were cooperative in the past, children may refuse to do something with a stern, “No, I can do it myself!” They may attempt to start a power struggle with you — refusing to put on their coat or fighting getting in the car when you need to leave your house.

The key to many parenting challenges including defiant behavior and power struggles is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you to help your child work through their roughest, most intense emotional times in ways that build up their resilience and skills for self-management.

Why Defiance and Power Struggles?

Whether your child is angrily telling you “no” when you need to get them dressed or crying hysterically while refusing to leave the house for a commitment, learning how to deal with defiance and your child’s attempts to gain power can become a regular challenge if you don’t create plans and strategies for managing those moments.

Today, in the short term, learning to manage defiance and power struggles can create

  • a sense of confidence that we can help our child regain calm and focus;
  • a greater opportunity for connection and enjoyment as we work together to get through our daily routines;
  • trust in each other that we have the competence to manage ourselves and our big feelings and seek help and support when needed; and
  • added daily peace of mind.

Tomorrow, in the long term, your child

  • builds skills in self-awareness;
  • builds skills in self-control and managing emotions;
  • learns independence, life skills competence, and self-sufficiency; and
  • builds assertive communication to communicate needs and boundaries, which are critical for keeping them safe and ready to manage healthy relationships.

Five Steps for Managing Defiance and Power Struggles Download a summary of the 5 steps

This five-step process helps you and your child manage defiant behavior and power struggles, which can frustrate and upset a child and a parent alike. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).

Tip

These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.

Tip

Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parent relationship will support these steps.

Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input

Three-to-four-year olds may use five to six word sentences to communicate and may end up frustrated that they don’t know all of the words to express how they are feeling. Paying close attention to your child’s facial expressions, body movements, and sounds helps you better understand what they are trying to communicate.

Your efforts to learn from your child build trust and create empathetic interactions that let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking. This will make a big difference in working through defiance and power struggles together.

In becoming sensitive to your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you

  • are showing them that they can trust you to notice how they feel;
  • are letting them know that you will help them to face challenges;
  • are growing their ability to advocate for themselves if something feels like too much for right now or if they need more support; and
  • are deepening your ability to communicate with one another.

Actions

  • Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “How do you feel? How do you think I feel?” Three-to-four-year olds are beginning to understand that their body, thoughts, and feelings are their own and are starting to grow in their sense of empathy for others.They will need your support to be successful in understanding and dealing with their big feelings.
    • For example, if your child is making a disagreeable facial expression, say, “Freeze,” like a game. Pull out the mirror, ask them to repeat the face, and ask about what that facial expression represents. For example, “Your eyebrows are squished down, and your mouth is frowning. Are you feeling mad?”
  • Ask about how they feel when they can do something on their own. Then, ask them about times when they need to ask for help. Let them know that every person has occasions when they need to ask for help, even parents!
  • When reading books, look at the images of children or animals and guess the feelings by asking, “What do you think this character is thinking? What do you think that character is feeling?”
  • Practicing naming feelings will enable your child to identify their own feelings as well as others and seek support when they need it. This can help reduce power struggles as your child gains competence.
  • Use your best listening skills! Remember, what makes a parent angry or frustrated can differ greatly from what angers or frustrates a child. Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.

Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling

As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding your child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all of this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build their confidence. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help a parent better understand what their child is going through.1

  • 3-4-year-olds are copying or mimicking adult words and actions.
  • 3-4-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
  • 3-4-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences but do not yet have a feelings vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes longer to develop.
  • 3-4-year-olds are eager to engage in pretend play by themselves and cooperatively with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
  • 3-4-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
  • 3-4-year-olds are able to show a wider range of feelings.
  • 3-4-year-olds may begin to experience separation anxiety when you leave them.
  • 3-4-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.

Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.

Actions

  • Teach your child positive behaviors. Each time your child acts defiantly, ask yourself what positive behavior you need to teach and practice that can replace the defiant behavior.
  • Raising your voice and your level of upset in response to your child’s defiant behavior or power struggle will only increase the intensity and duration of your child’s upset. Yelling only communicates that you are raising the level of emotional intensity, not diminishing it.
  • Play together using power positively. Pinpoint a challenging time of day such as bedtime. Enlist a stuffed friend or doll for your child to teach. Ask, “How can we teach your bear about our bedtime routine?” And be sure to ask, “What does the bear find tough about going to bed? How could we make him more comfortable with it?” Use this as a time to empower your child with ways they can be successful with behaviors that typically challenge.
  • Brainstorm coping strategies. There are numerous coping strategies you and your child can use depending on what feels right. But when really angry and upset, it can be difficult to recall what will make you feel better. That’s why brainstorming a list, writing it down, and keeping it at the ready can come in handy when your child really needs it. Some ideas include imagining your favorite place, taking a walk, getting a drink of water, taking deep breaths, counting, drawing, or building something.
  • Reflect on your child’s defiant words and actions or times when they attempt to engage you in a power struggle so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself,
    • “How can my child gain power or control in healthy, acceptable ways?” Don’t forget that seeking power is a human need but how we seek power is key in building competence.
    • Think about your most challenging moments. Does it occur at a time when it makes sense to proactively offer your child two limited authentic choices – no matter how small – to offer them a sense of control? For example, “We need to pick up the toys before dinnertime. Do you want to start in the living room or your bedroom?”
    • Is a challenging moment an opportunity to build leadership skills? Can you ask for help when your child is seeking power? For example, if your child says, “No! I don’t want to leave the park,” you might say, “Our next activity is getting ready for lunch. I need your help to pick out the cups and plates we should use. Will you help me decide which ones are best for today?”
    • Find small opportunities to help your child mend relationships if there’s been harm caused between children. Siblings offer a regular chance to practice this! If there’s fighting, then talk to your child about how they feel first. When you’ve identified that they had a role in causing harm, brainstorm together how they might make their sibling feel better. You might ask, “What could you do?”
    • Allow your child to supply answers and you may be surprised at how many options they come up with. Support and guide them to follow through on selecting one and doing it.
Trap

If you tell or even command your child to make an apology, how will they ever learn to genuinely apologize with feeling? In fact, apologizing or making things right should never be assigned as a punishment, because the control lies with the adult and robs the child of the opportunity to learn the skill and internalize the value of repairing harm. Instead, ask the child how they feel they should make up for the hurt they’ve caused and help them implement their idea.

Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits

Your daily routines can be opportunities for your child to practice vital new skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themself.

Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s sense that they can manage their feelings successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes are part of learning.

Actions

  • Allow your child the chance to take steps to meet their big challenges, whether they are working on tasting new foods for the first time, exploring the objects in their environment, or attempting to communicate with new words or phrases.
  • Use “Show me…” When a power struggle typically ensues and you’ve taught them new ways to use their power, you can prompt by saying, “Show me how you can get ready to leave on time. I will set a timer.” This can be used when you observe their upset mounting.
  • Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I noticed how you started to get frustrated when you were buttoning your coat, but you took some deep breaths and kept trying. That’s excellent!”
  • Accept feelings. If you are going to help your child become emotionally intelligent in managing their biggest feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept their feelings – even ones you don’t like! When your child is upset, consider your response. You could say, “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better?”
  • Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple practice that can assist your child anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!2
    • Teddy Bear Belly Breathing. Balance a teddy bear on your child’s tummy and give it a ride with the rising and falling of their breath. This would be ideal to practice during your bedtime routine when you are lying down and wanting to calm down for the evening.
    • Blowing Out Birthday Candles Breathing. You can pretend you are blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Just the image in your head of a birthday cake brings about happy thoughts. And in order to blow out a number of small flames, you have to take in deep breaths.
  • Practice everyday skills. Because your three-to-four-year-old will be gaining independence to do simple, everyday tasks like buttoning their coat on their own,take time out to practice when you are not feeling pressured for time. Allow your child the opportunity, with your loving support, to go slowly as they attempt to button a coat.
  • Do a dry run if you sense your child might worry about or fear a new person or experience. Your child might act defiantly, refusing to try something new because they fear the situation. For example, if you have a trip planned, go to the airport together, buy a snack and sit and watch the travellers pass by you before your own trip occurs to help your child become comfortable in that new environment.

Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success

At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies for managing their intensely upset feelings so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.

Actions

  • Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “We are headed to the playground. I know it’s tough to leave when you’re having fun. Remember I’ll give a reminder to do your last fun activity before we go. If you feel upset, we can take some deep breaths together.”
  • Learn about your child’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s developmental milestones promotes your empathy and patience.
  • Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
  • Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should follow soon after the behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established (earlier in this tool in Step 2). Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.

Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation

No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.

If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your child manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.

You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior you want to see more of. For example, “You took a deep breath when you got frustrated– that is a great idea!”

Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you let me help you with your shoes, I will give you a sticker” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You worked hard to get your shoes on all by yourself. Love seeing that!”

Actions

  • Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed when you got upset, you came and asked for help. That’s a great idea.”
  • Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
  • Build celebrations into your routine. For example, after getting through your bedtime routine, snuggle together and read before bed. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.

Closing

Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.

References

1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Developmental Milestones: 3-4 Year Olds. Retrieved on 1/8/20 at https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Developmental-Milestones-3-to-4-Year-Olds.aspx.
2. Miller, J.S. (2017). Teaching young children about anger. Thrive Global.
Recommended Citation: Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2020). Defiance and Power Struggles. Ages 3-4. Retrieved from https://www.ParentingMontana.org.
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