Children & Discipline

How do I get my 3 yr-old to listen?

Published: 29 Jul 2015
How do I get my 3 yr-old to listen?

Hi Justin,

I attended one of your talks recently, and I purchased and read your book. Thank you.

Our 3yr old William is a lovely little boy who knows how to behave very well and use his manners. He even recognises sadness and shows concern and empathy. He does however most days also drive us to craziness at some point with defiance, insolence, and simply ignoring us. Often for hours, more predictably in the latter half of the day, but its not a hard and fast pattern.

There are many examples I could use, but I’ll use this to illustrate:

We say, ‘William, we need to leave soon, so you will need to stop what you are doing and put yours clothes on cause it is time to go to Stacey’s (his family daycare carer 3 days a week). Ok?’
(sometimes we get an “ok” reply)

We then give a 5 min warning – ‘William, in 5 min you need to stop what you are doing and get dressed for Staceys’.

Eventually we say – Its time to go, you need to get dressed now.

He will often say, “I just need to ………. (fill in the blank)” , or “Ok, but come and look at this”.

The conclusion is normally that we run out of time and end up having to step in to physically remove him from what he is doing, and put him in the car. It ends up highly emotionally charged now both of us since we are all now late etc etc.

It is the same for other such things as for mealtime, or “Please put on your shoes so we can leave”, or “Please stand still so we can dry you”, or “Please stop running away”, or “Please stop touching everything in this shop”, or “Please stay with us in the shop so you dont get lost”, etc…

Any practical help on what to say would be helpful.

Thanks in advance.

The energy and wilfulness of a three year-old can be taxing. As parents, we often find ourselves getting frustrated that they will not listen (!) and guilty that we respond to them in ways that feel punitive, controlling, or physical. Unfortunately, the behaviour you are describing is fairly typical behaviour for a child this age, particularly in the latter end of the day. Imagine being three for just a moment: he is getting tired by mid-afternoon. He is probably a bit hungry. And when he is feeling tired and hungry, he is likely to become at least a little irritable when he does not get his own way. (Sometimes adults can behave the same way.) Regardless of the time of day, however, it is always helpful when our children will listen to us.

Here is a short-list of things that might be helpful for you: 

Remember his developmental milestones

Psychologists will often speak about something called “Theory of mind” when dealing with children under about age 5. Why? Young children don’t have it, and it is what helps them to recognise that other people might have an agenda that is different to theirs. As far as most two, three, and four year-old children are concerned, when they want something everyone else wants them to have it. They become agitated and irritable when we tell them that they cannot have what they want, and they struggle to come to terms with the fact we are asking them to do something other than what they want.

Additionally, children are often as old as seven or eight years-old before they can regulate their emotions and behaviour competently. (Again, I know many adults who still struggle with this.) Therefore, when they cannot follow their own agenda, they may be prone to emotional and behavioural outbursts that can be difficult to contain. This is normal, but obviously challenging for parents. Therefore, the next few tips should be useful:

Stay calm

The simple truth is that sometimes we need to intervene and ‘make’ things happen. We should always remain calm. Our children need us to be calmer than they are at all times. Emotions are contagious, and since our children already struggle to regulate their emotions, they do not need to have us building up their emotions any more than they are already.

Make eye contact

When you speak to your child with an instruction, be right there. Look him in the eyes. When you do this, you will know you have been heard.

Speak softly

If you are in a position to make eye contact, you are also in a position to speak softly. Many parents seem to believe that their children are deaf. They raise their voice believing that they are more likely to be heard. When people yell, however, the person they are yelling at tends to become emotional, defensive, and listen less rather than more. Speaking softly increases your child’s need to pay attention.

Ask. Don’t tell or demand

You might say, “William, will you please get things ready so we can go now?” Then you could add a rationale: “It’s important that we leave in the next few minutes so we can have fun with Stacey!”

There are a couple of important points here. First, we are asking a question. Second, you are providing a rationale that is focused on the positive rather than the negative. Too often we say, “If we don’t leave now we will be late!” This does not mean much to a child. Plus, it sounds threatening. But the promise of something positive to look forward to is far more motivating.

Remember, this is about more than just this moment. This is about building our relationship with our child and that requires trust. Our focus with our three year-old is on keeping the relationship safe, but setting clear expectations and limits.

If your child does not respond to you, repeat the steps I have outlined while speaking softer each time, and wait until you get the appropriate response. You will find that when you sit quietly and calmly in front of William, hold his little hand, look into his eyes and softly ask him to get moving (and give him a clear, positive rationale), he will comply.

Invite reflection

Parents talk too much. Sometimes you may still have difficulties. Another useful strategy that can help internalise good behaviour and responsiveness is to ask questions and invite your son to reflect on why things need to be the way you ask for them to be. For example, you might say, “What do we need to do next? Why?” Or “Can you tell me why it is important to hold my hand in the shops?” Or “Why are seatbelts important?”

Consider the Timing

Is your child doing something he or she feels is important? Is your child hungry, angry, tired, or stressed? Does what you are asking need to be done right now? Does your child have an audience that makes giving and receiving instruction ineffective?

Consider Your Child’s Capability

Can your child competently complete what you are asking? Would your child benefit from your help?


Can you give your child a choice in what they’ll do and when they’ll do it?

You are giving your little William transition warnings and working with him in mostly positive ways. From time to time intervention is necessary. You may need to physically carry him to get the movement you require. With these hints and tips, hopefully things will become a little smoother and easier, and softer and kinder.


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