I have a three year old son who is just awesome. He is advanced intellectually, loving, and he seems very empathetic. He does extremely well in daycare (it is at least an above average daycare), and most of the time at home at well. However, there are times when he becomes - for lack of a better word - unreachable. He'll start climbing on his mothers head; run around the room; throw things; etc - and all this would be tolerable to some extent if:

  • There was any way at all of getting him to listen.
  • He responded to requests to stop.
  • His behavior was not accompanied with what sounds like maniacal laughter.

A typical episode plays out something like this:

  1. He starts being disruptive beyond what I will tolerate.
  2. I go through various stages of firmness in disciplining him as his behavior continually worsens.
  3. I threaten him with the loss of something (I always keep my promises) to no avail.
  4. Eventually I take him to his room. I stand outside holding the door as he tries to get out (he doesn't know I am holding it).
  5. He starts throwing anything that has weight at the door or kicking the door or opening and slamming his trifold closet door.
  6. Eventually I realize that unless I intervene, his room / stuff / body will be damaged and I go in the room.
  7. Usually I still haven't lost my temper (but I'm getting close), and I go in. I sit on his bed with him, and hold him as gently as I can while attempting to keep him somewhat still (I hate this and it seems wrong but I see no alternative) while he alternates between laughing and crying hysterically to let him go, "you're hurting me" (I'm not), and if I let him go, well - one time I said 'if I let you go, are you going to hit me?' He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, 'Yes!' (I regret to say I was not able to stop myself from laughing)...

This all continues for a long time until he gives up sort of - and I do my very best to have him get why he was put in his room in the first place and that daddy loves him and is not mad and it is not ok to do x, etc.

And his behavior has greatly improved in many aspects - until he becomes unreachable. Whatever happens over their with him when he is in that space seems beyond my powers to interrupt.

Any suggestions for having this become workable?

  • 1
    The problem is that with your current activities list, your child wins: they get hugs from you, and they know that as long as they do misbehave like this you will give in - so the approach is not working at all. Please have a read of the top 5 questions in the Related bar to the right, as well as parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/10955/…
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 17:19
  • I'm not sure in what manner I give in here. Can you elaborate?
    – dgo
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 18:15
  • Further, the link you provided has nothing to do with this other than that both questions involve human toddlers.
    – dgo
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 18:34
  • Your step 7 - when that happens, all that comes before is effectively neutralised. Your child will know that if they keep going long enough, they get held, and get conversation with you.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 18:34
  • 1
    Your description of your child seems like most children of that age - this is pretty common.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 18:35

6 Answers 6


My suggestions:

First, do not threaten. A three year old is just not good with "if you ..., I will ...." Instead, do something as soon as things are past a limit. Single word directives like "no" or "stop" or "enough" can work (especially when you know they know the rules,) as can more specific directives like "quietly" or "careful" or "gently".

If you have said "get down from there" and the child doesn't get down, moving to "if you don't get down from there, no dessert" is just not going to work. Instead, get up and take them down from there. Or take the item from their hand. You can be gentle, there's no need to be grabbing, hurting, or scaring anyone, but take some action. If at all possible, redirect at the same time - you can play with this instead. Again, don't be offering the redirection as a treat or reward to get them to change what they're doing - make them change what they're doing and then if they are upset about having to stop A, offer B.

Try to use logical consequences and to say why you are imposing a particular consequence. "You are too noisy for the library and can't get quiet. We have to go so the others can have quiet." Repeat for grocery store, front lawn, etc. "You are not treating these toys properly so they are going up high." (A shelf they can't reach.) "You won't stop climbing on that, so I have to take you away from it." "You need some alone time to get calmed down." Then the consequence is that you take them to wherever you need to take them. Most people don't recommend the child's room as a timeout or punishment location. They can't see you, you can't tell if they are calming down, and there's generally a lot of stuff in a preschooler's room that an angry person can make a mess with or even hurt themselves with.

We didn't use timeout, but we did take kids out of situations and say "stay here until you feel more in control." We were generally nearby to monitor or to say "no, stay there, you are not in control of yourself yet."

An unreachable child is just that: unreachable. They dislike it as much as we do. What you really want is to prevent that from starting, or to reduce the number of times it starts. That's why I'm recommending a change from the pattern that you're using now, replacing the threats with directives, and doing something physical to enforce logical consequences much sooner in the incident, rather than waiting until there's no hope and then taking a tantrumming preschooler to their room.

For some kids, it's easy for an outsider to see that what the parent is doing is ratcheting the kid up to a melt down. Thing is, for another kid, an entirely different set of parent behaviors would ratchet that kid up to a meltdown, and for a third kid once they start, they go no matter what anyone says or does. So don't blame yourself. I am not saying what you're doing is making your child melt down - I can't know that. You can look back and try to establish what a trigger was, and you can certainly set your lives up to avoid those. For my kids, if they ate late, all hell broke loose just as the food was almost ready. Keeping their blood sugar up was more important than anything else. But your kid may not be like that at all.

  • Thank you for the great answer. What 'pisses me off' is that everything your saying I know absolutely to be true, and in the moment I remember it 50% of the time maybe. This is not a commentary on your answer - more just vented annoyance with myself. The part about not threatening is of particular value - because everytime that something like a threat comes out of my mouth, I know I am committing a crime of stupidity, and I hate myself for it. Probably over-dramatizing a bit, but I imagine you understand. Thanks
    – dgo
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 13:48
  • 2
    Parenting is HARD and preschoolers in some ways are harder than infants. It's so tempting to act as though they think like us, but they don't yet. Yours will learn not to climb on people by being stopped from climbing on people, not just from being told "we don't climb on people" and not from getting hysterical when climbing on people leads to its natural conclusions.
    – Chrys
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 14:41

It sounds like you have a clone of my almost three year old. Congratulations, you have a strong-willed child. Join the club!

I recommend stopping putting him in his room with the door held closed. That is the biggest mistake we made, and when we stopped doing it, things improved in fairly short order. We also don't hold him unless he's causing significant injury (which is very, very rare), and then only for a second or two until he stops (usually, biting). Both of these things are teaching him that physical superiority and physical, extrinsic control is the way to go. Pretty much the opposite of what you want to teach him - to control himself.

While it's impossible to avoid using your superior physical strength and size in some ways, at the end of the day you have to give him the chance to learn to control himself. Time outs can do this for many kids, mine included - who had almost the exact same problems. Tell him he needs to calm down, and that you're going to put him in a quiet area for a bit. Set a timer, preferably an audible or color-visible one. 1 minute per year, so 3 for you, is usually recommended, though you could start with fewer to get him in good habits.

Then, give him a book, or something similar, that he can focus on. Yes, this will be "fun", sort of; but no, it won't be truly fun (it's not like he can't have books at other times, right?). What it will do is give him something to focus his attention on, and increase the chances of him staying in the time out. For my son it became a ritual for a while - he's basically past needing it now, and goes to time out on his own, but for three or four months it was automatic 'Can I have a book' when we'd send him to time out.

While it didn't work perfectly immediately, it did work. Probably 95% of the time now that he has a "problem" - hitting younger brother, hitting/biting mommy, etc. - he goes to time out and stays for the duration either right in his spot or close enough that we count it - and comes out calmer, not repeating the behavior.

For those other (now, few) times, and for the more regular issues earlier, the biggest thing we did was teach him to say "calm" when he was out of control. This works both for 'hyper' out of control and crying out of control. It's basically a chant, like "Ommm", but for a two year old, "calm". He says it, and then he gets calmer. We might still have to restrain him briefly, but then we say 'calm', and he repeats it, and we can usually stop restraining him - and we're still teaching him to fix himself rather than rely on us.

Also, if time outs are already part of your bag of tricks and they just don't work, consider trying alternate methods for giving time outs. Google around, there are lots of methods, and perhaps one works better for your child. I particularly recommend methods involving some sort of focus object, be it a book, a magic bottle, whatever.

  • 2
    That is a really great answer, and I really appreciate it. My concern is mostly that he won't stay in time out, but I admit I've almost always related to it like a punishment, and rarely do I relate to it with (as I hear in the background of what you are saying) sort a spiritual / empowering opportunity for self-control and peace of mind. I think what I need to be responsible for is not allowing myself to relate to him as "doing it deliberately to piss me off" - which, even if true, isn't true in the way it seems at the moment, and doesn't give me the wherewithal to deal with him powerfully.
    – dgo
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 13:43

Many teachers, including Special Ed teachers, are trained in a particular method of holding that is not unlike what you are describing in your step 7. When a child is unable to control himself, he may need to be firmly held until he settles. My sister, who teaches Special Ed, described to me an incident when she held a child for quite a long time until she felt his body settle, then she talked to him quietly about what behavior she expected from him when she let go. As she let go, he immediately hit her, which she understood as his way of saying he was not ready for her to let go. So she held him longer.

Here's a brief decription of restraint process from education.com:

Holding an Out-of-Control Child (Restraint)

Occasionally a child may lose control so completely that she has to be physically restrained and removed from the scene to prevent her from hurting herself or others. Physical restraint and removal from the scene should not be viewed as punishment, but as a means of saying, "You can't do that." An adult should hold the child with just sufficient strength to protect the child or other children and help restore calm. With the child facing away from you, wrap one arm around the child's arms and your legs around the child's legs to prevent the child from hurting you or herself. Cup one hand behind the child's head to protect yourself from a possible head butt to your chest or chin. Before you begin this action, try to notify another adult (in the room or in the office) that you will be forcibly holding this child. This second adult can provide back-up protection to you and the other children as well as provide a witness to your action being carried out appropriately.

  • Adults provide the control in a calm, non-punitive manner, using a soothing voice.

  • "Carey, I'm going to hold you close so you won't hurt yourself or anyone else. I will let you go when you are calm and ready to talk."

If you are trying to picture this, picture it with the two of you sitting on the ground. You may find the whole article a worthwhile read, as there may be ways to short circuit the behavior before it gets out of control.

  • I really appreciate this answer, and I may accept it. I want to see if anyone can illuminate a blind spot for me.
    – dgo
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 18:18
  • Hopefully others in the community will respond with direct experience. If you haven't already, you might have your son evaluated by a doctor. There may be medical issues underlying the shifts in behavior, and there may be medicinal options available that you could consider.
    – MJ6
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 18:52
  • 2
    I don't know that I recommend holding unless you have a specific need (such as sensory-overloaded children). At minimum discuss this with your pediatrician. For many, holding will only alleviate symptoms but will not fix the underlying causes.
    – Joe
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 9:22
  1. I use time-out mainly as a way for my child to regain some measure of inner self-control. When he comes out of time-out, he's more in touch with himself and more in control. Instead of just riffing off others.

Our family therapist had us buy a triple hour glass gadget that had a different color sand for each hourglass -- for one minute, three minutes and five minutes. She wanted it to be very visual. For the first few years it tended to go as follows:

This example has to do with my son's proclivity to interrupt constantly at dinner, making it impossible to have any kind of conversation at the dinner table. At the first interruption, I reminded him of the expectation. The next time he interrupted, he was put in time-out for one minute. To put him in time-out, I would say, "Green chair, one minute. One... two... three." If he wasn't sitting in the green chair yet by the time I said "three," I would escalate: "Green chair, three minutes." I only rarely had to get to five minutes.

He knows he has to go there and sit down because if he doesn't, he'll get more time.

The rules for the green chair are, you have to sit quietly without playing with anything. Other family members have to be supportive by not interacting with the child in time-out.

If he talked while in the green chair, his time requirement started from the beginning again. In practice this meant that he would get a little more than a minute, because after flipping the egg timer back, I had to wait for the sand to run back to the starting point before saying, "begin."

If he got out of the green chair prematurely, he had to begin again from the beginning.

I made sure my son understood what he was in time-out for (if I thought there was any doubt) -- but not until the prescribed time was up. This was not usually necessary.

I tried to avoid a lecture, and just move on with life when the time had been served.

  1. I do sometimes have to hold him to help him calm down. My focus is generally on helping him slow down his breathing.

  2. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Lots of exercise and fresh air seem to help. And we have a hand-me-down drumset -- that's great for getting energy out in a non-destructive way. I try to get the school to give him less sit-still time and more active time.

  3. A regular bedtime is my religion.

  4. Unless damage is being done -- your primary disciplinary tool may be to withdraw attention when he is so revved up. Consider -- the more excited he gets, the more excited you get, and when you get very excited, he does not calm down until there's been a big theatrical scene. (Please don't be offended -- I can't tell you how many times my husband or I have fallen into this trap.)

See if you can get some early intervention occupational therapy. If the therapist is good, this can help with self-regulation.


This question is very old but I will offer my opinion in the hope that others find this useful. He sounds like a normal little boy to me, kids can have lots of energy and that can be exacerbated if they have a poor diet. So there would be a couple of things I would suggest. Look at his diet and try and regulate the amount of sugary food he gets as what he eats greatly affects his mood and energy levels. In addition his diet will only have a certain impact, he's still a young energetic boy and sounds like he needs to release some of that energy. So the second thing I think he needs is some form of exercise that he enjoys. A trip to the park or the woods, a ride on a cycle, a kickabout etc where he can release some of that energy in a more acceptable manner.


Disciplining him can give him the attention he craves, even if it's negative attention. My suggestion would be to put him in a quiet, dimly lit room by himself. This could be his bedroom or a playroom. He still has plenty of toys in the room (or he should) to keep himself busy. Don't do this for a long time, start with 5 minutes once per night and increase each day so that at the end of the week, he should be approaching 15-20 mins of quiet time. Just make sure there's nothing dangerous.

Ignore him if he kicks or screams at the door. It's only a short time that he'll be by himself and as long as he's had a snack or a drink and a trip to the bathroom beforehand there shouldn't be anything he really needs. If he leaves the room (even if you tell him not to) pretend as if he is invisible, no matter what he does (unless it's dangerous to his safety or yours.) He will eventually learn that entertaining himself in his room is the best choice. He may even fall asleep.

I understand you're probably concerned about him vandalizing or breaking items in the room. Do your best to curb any possibilities for this. (ex: replace any crayons he could use to draw on the wall with a chalkboard and some chalk) if he does happen to vandalize, simply pretend as if you don't notice and take care of it without addressing him at all. He will soon learn that this is not a way to gain attention.

You're also probably worried that not addressing the issue would mean he thinks he can get away with anything. This isn't the case. Address any wrongdoings done outside of quiet time and any wrongdoing done during quiet time the next day, after it is all taken care of.

Mentioning it causally (the next day) like saying, "Hey buddy, remember when you instert action here? That wasn't okay. Let's not do that again." Can avoid giving him attention while addressing the issue.

He might be calmed down or tired after quiet time to where he is approachable enough to deal with the consequences likely without complaint. Adjust the time as necessary.

  • care to explain the downvote? plenty of personal experiences, sources, and time went into this answer. Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 15:13
  • The first line. I have a 3yo and I can say that she is just as hyperactive as this, because it is normal for 3yo. Jumping to ADHD is not appropriate for this age. See drgreene.com/qa-articles/adhd and all the criteria required, also note " normal children at this age can exhibit all of these behaviors." and "Less than half of those actually diagnosed with ADHD at age three, and only 10 percent of those who concern their early teachers, will be the ones who turn out to have ADHD in the long run" and "There is still no reliable way to make the diagnosis of ADHD in a 3-year-old".
    – stan
    Commented Oct 8, 2021 at 8:49
  • Unless you have particular experience with ADHD in 3yo kids, I'd recommend either removing the first line - which isn't elaborated on at all in the rest of the answer - or justifying your statement with sources explaining why they should consider ADHD at this age.
    – stan
    Commented Oct 8, 2021 at 8:51
  • @stan actually, i do have some personal experience with ADHD in 3 year olds Commented Oct 8, 2021 at 12:25

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