How to Discipline Your Three-Year-Old

The "terrible twos" have a bad reputation, but some parents find three to be just as difficult when it comes to behaviors. Disciplining your 3-year-old child helps her learn boundaries and appropriate behavior, which helps her better function within society. Discipline goes beyond punishing your child when she does something wrong. It also includes preventing behavior problems. Each child's personality is slightly different, therefore the best approach to discipline also varies from one 3-year-old to the next. Trying different discipline methods helps you find the best way to handle your child.

Assess your 3-year-old child's behavior. Consider the negative behaviors he exhibits that you want to change. Identify the behaviors that present a safety risk and use them to create a set of simple, basic rules. This helps reduce your child's frustration.

Create a stimulating, interactive environment for your child. Keeping interesting items out that she is allowed to play with holds her attention, keeping her engaged so she doesn't find trouble. Remove dangerous or breakable items that may tempt your 3-year-old and lead to her getting in trouble.

Create a routine that works well for your family and your child. The routine gives him a predictable framework, allowing him to know what to expect.

Give your 3-year-old some choices when possible. For example, you might let her pick from two different outfits or ask her to pick the vegetable to go along with dinner. This gives her a sense of independence. Feeling more in control helps avoid some temper tantrums and behavior problems for some children.

Redirect your child when he makes a negative behavior decision. Give him something more acceptable to do instead of the inappropriate behavior. If he starts to draw on the floor with crayon, take him outside to draw with sidewalk chalk instead. Redirecting allows you to teach him a more acceptable activity while keeping a positive attitude about the discipline.

Establish consequences for your child if she doesn't respond to your redirection. Using natural or logical consequences helps teach your child about how her actions make an impact. For example, if she spills her dinner plate, make her help clean up the mess.

Consider timeout as a consequence if there isn't a logical consequence or if the logical consequence is inappropriate. A general guideline is to place your child in timeout the same number of minutes as his age, or 3 minutes for a 3-year-old.

Help your 3-year-old express her feelings. The inability to accurately express her needs or feelings sometimes leads to misbehavior. Practice identifying different emotions when your child is calm. Looking at pictures of faces or making faces yourself to show different emotions helps kids identify feelings. Talk about specific situations and how those events made your child feel. For example, if her brother broke her favorite toy, help her realize her feelings of anger and sadness.


Discuss discipline issues with your partner away from your 3-year-old. Make sure you are on the same page when it comes to disciplining your child. Arguing in front of your child or handling situations differently may cause him to push the limits with his behaviors.


Avoid using bribery to get your child to obey your directions. This may make her resist more when she doesn't get a reward.