My 3-year-old doesn't listen to me, my husband or his child care provider. When we ask him to do something, he ignores us, tells us he won't do it or throws a tantrum. Is this normal toddler behavior? How can we improve his attitude?

Answers from Jay L. Hoecker, M.D.

Three-year-olds often revel in an explosion of speech development and a newfound sense of independence. Sometimes these factors work together to fuel behavior problems and tantrums. These tips may help:

  • Set — and enforce — limits. Sometimes defiant toddler behavior is a child's response to a lack of limits. Consider what limits you've set for your son, and how those limits are enforced. Make sure your son knows what's expected of him, as well as the consequences of poor behavior. For example, perhaps you'd like your son to clean up his toys at the end of the day. When you ask him to do so, remind him that picking up toys is his job. Then clearly state the consequence of not picking up the toys, such as losing access to a prized toy for a day or two. If your son doesn't pick up his toys as asked, follow through on the consequence.
  • Provide ample transition time. It can be tough for young children to move quickly from one activity to the next. To improve cooperation, give your son several warnings about upcoming transitions. For example, you might say, "It's almost bedtime. You can play for 10 more minutes, and then we'll brush your teeth." Give him another warning at five minutes. When the time is up, be firm about moving to the next activity.
  • Praise good behavior. When your son follows directions or has other good behavior, praise him. Point out the specific behavior, and then tell your son how proud you are of the behavior. For example, you might say, "Thank you for sharing your toy with your sister. I'm so proud of you!" Make a point to "catch" your son behaving well throughout the day. At bedtime, you might spend a few minutes talking about the good behavior you observed that day.
  • Correct with care. When you need to correct poor toddler behavior, follow up with suggestions for better behavior. Make sure your son understands what's inappropriate — and then offer several alternatives for better behavior. When your son responds with appropriate behavior, praise him for making the right decision.

It's also important to consider whether any underlying conditions are influencing your son's oppositional behavior — such as impaired vision or hearing. Consult your son's doctor if you suspect an underlying problem, or if your son's poor behavior continues despite your efforts to improve his listening and cooperation.

Dec. 03, 2008