My three-year-old is sometimes verbally and physically abusive with one parent, saying he doesn't like, want, or love the parent, and commands the parent to go away.

This seems to happen mostly when he is interacting with one parent, and the other parent arrives. I suspect that the behaviour stems from not wanting to change the current activity — and a second parent arriving often signals a change in family dynamics and activity.

Is there a way to dissuade or end this behaviour?

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    What types of discipline do you already use? If this is unwanted behavior, you can treat it as you would any other misbehavior. I recommend 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phelan, which was recommended to me by one of our top users anongoodnurse.
    – user11394
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 3:54
  • The way you wrote your question lets us assume that you don't know why the kid is acting like this. You should first question/active listen (without judgment) to find out the real reason. After that you can solve the problem together.
    – the_lotus
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 15:31
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    What I did not find in any answer: Does the child mean what you understand? Most presumably they don't have the vocabulary and experience to tell exactly what they mean, something that many a person still struggles with at older age.
    – dot_Sp0T
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 8:27

5 Answers 5


Expressing an opinion of not wanting to be near/liking another parent is for the most part very natural for someone of that age, and certainly the opinions need to be explored with the child. Appropriate questioning like "Tell me why you don't want [parent] to join us," spoken in a gentle fashion will help show the child that it is ok for him to have opinions. Once a dialogue is started, and you will need to give him the words to understand his feelings, then I think it's appropriate to say "Okay, that's how you feel. However talking to [parent] like that isn't okay/is sad behaviour and in this house we talk nicely to each other and if we don't like something someone else is doing we ask them to stop in a nice voice". By doing this, you're respecting the child as a person, acknowledging that the negative behaviour is outside boundaries, and giving the child the tools to express themselves in a manner that is appropriate and respectful to others.

If the child is hitting and reacting physically then the child needs to have time out until he is calm enough to engage; talking to him in that state won't do very much and it is very important that the child addresses the feelings that are leading their behaviour as soon as possible. Phrases like "If you're angry, that's ok, but we don't hit, hurt, break things including yourself and we do talk about it".

If the child won't talk about it at all, then you need to point out that the reaction is not ok and discipline appropriately with time out or what have you. Talking about it at another time is appropriate, trying to get the child to open up by talking about positive feelings first and then approaching the subject in hand. If that doesn't work, then you need to take the child to a trusted professional to rule out anything else.

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    +1 - Validating a child's natural feelings is important and a vital part of building trust in a relationship (they feel the way they do regardless of whether it's acceptable or not). Teaching them a good range of age-appropriate feeling words is also empowering to the child. Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 12:50

I have some good news and some bad news. Good news is, this behaviour is entirely normal. For the bad news, re-read the good news.

At around 2.5+, your child works out that one way to get a little bit more attention is to make you a little less secure about their affection. Anecdotally, my 2-year-old daughter occasionally says "I don't like Daddy", or pushes me away in favour of mummy. Note that they only do this to parents they feel secure with, because they wouldn't risk it if they were scared of your reaction. Which is not to say that it doesn't suck.

There's some good advice for coping strategies here, but the key thing is that you and the "preferred parent" work as a team. When your son says "I don't like Daddy", mummy needs to immediately go "poor Daddy! Well, I like Daddy!" and then to give you more attention. Also feel free to mope a bit, let your boy know he's hurt your feelings. We found my daughter would come over to help comfort, partly because "Daddy's sad", and partly because that's what the grown-ups do. Obviously vice-versa also applies.

This may seem like ridiculous play-acting, but it's actually just making it clearer to your boy what's going on, and what the effects are. Toddlers do not do "subtle".

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    You're not play-acting in this situation, you are expressing yourself! We adults hide our strong feelings, but here we should not.
    – jawo
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 6:41
  • There's a difference between "normal" negative sentiments/rejections and frequent such behavior. The article you refer to doesn't condone tolerating the latter. One recommendation: "Present an emphatic united front. Say, 'I know it's hard to wait for Mommy's attention, but Dad is staying. That's the way it's going to be.' You'll be setting limits that will help your child feel more secure." (Their words, not mine!) The OP feels their child is "abusive". Before you label it as normal, it might be prudent to ask why they label it as such. It might make a difference in your answer. Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 12:40
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    @anongoodnurse "Working as a team" is synonymous in this case with "emphatic united front". The symptoms they've focused on seemed on the normal end of that spectrum, though. "I don't like you" and pushing you away would be abusive if it was done between adults. If I got a comment or an edit from the OP saying "He's doing <really bad thing>", that would be different, but "doesn't like, want, or love the parent, and commands the parent to go away", is exactly the normal behaviour that link refers to.
    – deworde
    Commented Feb 13, 2015 at 13:12

There is undesirable behavior (food fights, toy chucking, etc.) and there is abusive behavior (biting, kicking, swearing, hitting, spitting, saying hurtful things purposfully, etc.) For the first kind of behavior, numerous approaches can be taken.

The abusive behavior, however, should elicit an immediate, consistent response which is relatively dramatic. In effect, the response sends the message "this is not tolerated here." Consistent means done the same way every time by both parents.

I do very much like 1-2-3 Magic, as noted by CreationEdge. It is my go-to book for disciplining because it works, even on 3 yr. olds. It also minimizes conflict between the parent and child (parents need do nothing but give a warning and count before taking a child to a time-out spot), and bargaining/acting out on the part of the child (parents can ignore this and just keep counting). It may not be clearly understood by the child as a teaching tool, but it is. As the child learns the system, he can decide to stop the behavior that will earn him a time out. Every time he makes that choice, he has chosen, himself, to control his reactions and frustrations. And controlling frustrations is such an important skill to learn.

Please read the book. Start using it when everyone will be home for a few days, so this particularly bothersome activity won't come up right away. When you have clearly set boundaries with your child ("We don't climb up on the kitchen table."), and simple redirection or distraction don't work, the parent says something to the effect of "Dear beloved child, you know you are not supposed to climb on the table. If you don't climb down now, that's a one." (You wait 5 seconds; no other talking). If he continues the behavior, you announce "That's a two." (You wait 5 seconds; no talking, no arguing that it's different now, he's just crawling on it, etc.) On the three ("That's a three: Time Out."), he is removed to a designated time out place where he sits quietly, hopefully thinking if it was worth it. When he's served his time out, a short talk can take place, but it's over. When the parent then might arrive at an "unwanted time", warn the child "Daddy/Mommy will be back soon. Remember to be kind, because it's important to be kind to people, especially those we love." (Or however you want to frame it.)

When he chooses to obey before you reach three, he gets a praise (for behavior he controls[1]) and a sticker. A certain number of stickers gets him a reward or privilege (at three years of age, the reward has to come pretty quickly, but that's discussed in the book). Eventually, the child chooses to give up the undesirable behavior early on more and more often.

The reason I discussed all that is that abusive behavior gets an immediate "That's a three: time out" (preferably by the parent with whom he wants to stay). The child is taken to his time out spot, gets no attention, no play activities, and has himself disrupted the behavior he wanted to continue.

It should go without saying that all children will at one time or another tell a parent that they don't love them, or they're mean, etc. These feelings may be valid, and should be discussed in any trusting relationship. Teaching a wide range of feeling words helps a child discuss disappointments more accurately. But repeated use of hurtful language as a means to an end is not healthy and should be discouraged.

All discipline methods must combine love and cherishing, respect for a child's valid feelings, times for discussing and negotiation of expectations, etc. But once the boundaries are worked out and understood in times of peace, this is an incredibly stress-free way of enforcing those boundaries.

Done well, the child will feel loved and respected, and will learn that his behaviors (good and bad) have consequences. This is real life to me.

1. Praise works in helping to shape behavior, but not all praise has the same effect. Sincere praise for things a child has control over, such as effort, has been shown to be beneficial, whereas praise for that which is uncontrollable (being "smart", pretty, etc.), comparisons, or insincere praise, has been shown to be detrimental to effort and self-esteem in the long run.


Instead of trying to "control" how a child feels or how they express their feelings, ask them calmly and with eye contact to explain their feelings to you. They know if you are sincere as well being that "feelings" are more of what they have experience with, in life, than anything else so far. Let them know you really want to understand them. If you try to control over their feelings about something, they would learn that their feelings and their voice about them are not very important. It is better to help them learn to understand and manage how they feel about people and things in life by patiently listening to them and relating to what they say in return. Out in the real world we need to have self-control when it comes to showing feelings in different situations and to relate to life in order to make healthy decisions about many things on a daily basis. Keep that in mind as you help your child relate to who they are in the world.

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    How does this answer the question (Is there a way to dissuade or end this behaviour)? Even if we offer an alternative, addressing the question directly is expected. Please edit to focus on the issue at hand a bit more clearly. Thanks. Commented Jul 13, 2018 at 11:24

I think the answers already here are completely valid. I just want to add that we humans are social beings; social: simply put, how to make sure I'm popular. Children are very quick to try to control their social surroundings (read: social status); for the first 20 years of their life, there's little else of any importance.

Effectively, the child is playing one parent on the other (perhaps trying to claim some importance in the 3 way relationship.

I want to site a study about social issues with threes, but I just did a Google search for such topics and found nothing... I was pretty sure there was a certain danger when leaving young (3 three year old?) children together, 2 of them will gang up on the other and they're too young to recognize the moral limits. Anyway, I digress; the point is that children know how to turn people against each other. (a strong statement that I'd hoped to back up with citations... I still think it's worth entertaining the idea though)

Coming back to the issue, my advise is always communication. Ask why. Ask why like you yourself are a child. Why don't you like mommy/daddy? what did they do? "is it because you want to keep doing what we're doing now?" why does it bother you? Remember the other day [cite situation] when you had fun with mommy/daddy? Why not now? Every answer, just ask why? (never assume what they're thinking, make them say it). Do your best to keep it from sounding as monotonous as it does when a child does it, the point is the question, not the tone.

Keep probing, test their level of moral. See if they would rather the other parent gone. Explain how much that would bother you, hurt you. It might not amount to much in the immediate conversation, but you plant seeds in the child's mind that the world is not just about them (many things in a child's life certainly point to them being the center of the universe; as a parent myself, they are!).

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