I have a 3-year-old who just loves to push my buttons. I'm a single mom who has him every night, but while I work he goes to his father. His dad says he tried to follow the same discipline and naps that work for me, but I'm still finding it very hard to keep my cool.

He regularly does things around the house he knows he should not do (pouring bottles of water onto the carpet, getting out of bed to play with toys at bed time, getting into the fridge, not coming to mom or dad when called, running across the street without holding hands and pulling books, clothes, jewelry out of drawers.) We do 2 warnings and if he continues then we do a 3 minute time out in the corner.

Bed time is always the hardest. I start at 8:30 pm and let him pick jammies (bath time is too much fun for at night) and then choose two books and we cuddle in bed and read two books, then I sing him a song and do five minutes of pretend sleep where I close my eyes and hold him. Often after I leave he will get out of bed and go pull his books off his bookcase, try to play with all his toys or run out of his room. He often makes excuses that he needs food or drinks. Usually he doesn't actually fall asleep until 10:30 or later.

As much as I would love to stay calm and collected I just can't anymore. I wake up at 4:30 am for work and just don't have the energy to do this anymore. It's been going on for about 4 months and I don't know what to do anymore. He doesn't show signs of autism or Down syndrome. Honestly a bright boy. I will mention he doesn't have full verbal skills. Can only say three or four word sentences, but he can keep a conversation of about 6 replies.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I have a very high energy, wild child and need some advice on how to help make our lives a little more stable so mommy doesn't lose it. I find with these challenges I'm faced with my happiness levels have dropped drastically and often take mommy timeout or have breakdowns from the stress. Please help!

  • 3
    Why go strait to autism or down syndrome when a toddler tests boundaries? Isn't that kind of extreme?
    – user7678
    May 18, 2015 at 14:03
  • 6
    I read that sentence more that she had considered some possible explanations, and wanted to ensure that Answers don't spend time on suggestions that she has ruled out.
    – Acire
    May 18, 2015 at 15:41
  • This is attention seeking behaviour. It's working, you describe the situation as "a child that likes to push your buttons". You need to put in place a lot more attention, activity and rewards for good behaviour before the child feels the need to seek attention. You might find "House of Tiny Tearaways" useful, by Dr Tanya Byron. amazon.com/s/…
    – DanBeale
    May 18, 2015 at 19:39
  • Boys tend to develop language later than girls. Make sure there's no deafness, and just keep talking to him.
    – DanBeale
    May 18, 2015 at 19:40
  • 8:30 is very late for a three year old, in my opinion. My two were both like this, both had autism (ADHD in one case) and nether will sleep. Both needed melatonin from a paediatrician Apr 5, 2018 at 13:27

4 Answers 4


Oh @Kate do I feel your pain! I have that kid too; he's 4, and the other morning he was up at 4:30 playing with his trucks in his room.

First thing I will suggest is that you take care of YOU. I know I'm a much more patient mom when I get exercise, or meditate, or do something to keep my body and mind together.

Have you tried cutting out the daytime naps? Mine gave those up much sooner than my daughter, and removing the naps helped quite a bit with the evening crazies. For weekdays, he's in preschool, and since they have naps, he gets extra exercise in the a.m. and p.m. to compensate.

I'd also suggest white noise in his bedroom if he doesn't already have something; my son has white noise as well as the crib soother he had when he was in his crib, and when he wakes up at night, he'll start the soother and go back to sleep.

This might seem a bit drastic, and may not work for your situation, but we also locked our son's door until he turned 4 and settled down a bit, largely because he WOULD get out and wander around and we were afraid he'd go outside and wander off, or get into the road, or any of the other horrible things a parent's imagination can come up with. Once he showed he would stay in his room after bedtime, and not leave until morning unless he needed to visit the potty, the lock was disabled. It certainly helped US sleep more soundly, rather than sleeping with one ear open. (Caveat: we do have a camera in his room, so we can see what's going on; no way we would've locked his door without being able to keep an eye on him.)

If nothing helps, talk to his pediatrician. S/he might have suggestions for how to help him settle down in the p.m. that the internet does not. :)

Hang in there, be good to yourself, and try to find the little things that make the crazy whirlwind of parenting worth it. I speak for at least this mother of crazy small humans in saying we have your back as much as we can.

  • Thank you so much for your advise. Back when we had an apartment and he got his own room we had a child safety on the door and we didnt have problems with his bed time but we just moved into a studio and i made him a faux room with curtain instead of door so we dont have the option of closing him off. This might be a reason why bedtime is so hard because he can see the rest of the house and just wants to go play.
    – Kate
    May 18, 2015 at 12:50
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    I think i will start an exercise routine for me thought to help keep my sanity
    – Kate
    May 18, 2015 at 12:50
  • 1
    Not a fan of locking doors, but otherwise agree. Especially with 'take care of yourself'.
    – Joe
    May 18, 2015 at 14:11
  • if you just moved into a new place, you can expect the little ones to have some trouble adjusting to their new home. that is totally fine. also, if a new baby comes to the family, that can trip up their bedtime routine as well. does the kiddo go to daycare too? what does he do with his dad? how much time does the kiddo get of genuine, direct, full attention from loved ones a day? first of all, like many said, take care of yourself. your kids feed off your energy–if your energy is low or not good–then they arent gonna feel good either. good luck!
    – zonabi
    May 18, 2015 at 20:13
  • 1
    +1 on naps. Both my boys went through a period where they were almost ready to give up naps - they would nap during the day then have trouble getting to sleep at night, getting up after they were put down, etc. Once they gave up on afternoon naps, they went right to sleep in the evening.
    – Kryten
    May 18, 2015 at 23:53

Just to add to Valkyrie's answer, which was full of great ideas (although I would go for an alarm system rather than locking the door, thinking of fire safety):

Your observation about his verbal skills is very important. If you take this observation to his primary care doctor, if your son has one, or to a clinic or emergency room, you can get an evaluation by an early intervention specialist. If he is found eligible for early intervention services, they will come to the child to provide the services (if your state is anything like mine).

When bedtime is much later than you would like in a pre-schooler, the first thing to try is generally to eliminate the nap. The next thing would be to cut down, or eliminate, if possible, simple carbohydrates, and get more physical activity in his day. If, after a couple of weeks, you're still finding his falling asleep time is significantly later than what you would expect, then I have two ideas: first, you could try temporarily moving his bedtime. Say he's falling asleep at about 10:30 consistently. You would aim for 10:15 initially, and then gradually try moving it a bit earlier and earlier until you find a time that works for him. Second, you could ask his father to keep an activity log for a couple of days. When you tell him about the log idea, try to avoid him thinking you suspect there's too much sedentary time in his day.

  • Good points, I like the idea to log his activities to get an idea of what's happening. I'd add screen time (computer, iPad, TV) to the log as well.
    – Stephie
    May 18, 2015 at 13:17
  • Simple carbohydrates (ie, sugars) aren't responsible for behavioral issues or hyperactivity (see this report for example). The opposite is often true, in fact, much of the time: low blood sugar often causes behavioral problems (I know I'm cranky when I need to eat). While sugar doesn't fix that in the long run and may sometimes end up replacing something that would help more, in the short run it often is helpful.
    – Joe
    May 18, 2015 at 14:16
  • @Joe: While I'm much in favour of studies and love busting of myths, the sugar-high theory is - unfortunately - something I can confirm it exists. Not in all children and certainly not as the sole factor, but I have one child that is very sensitive to his sugar levels. Both low (grumpy, bordering aggressive, up to teary) and high (unable to sit still and concentrate, fidgety, no self-control). My son would be happy if this myth indeed was a myth, but it isn't for him. And yes, we took precautions not to see what we believe, but what we really observe: there are better days and worse ones.
    – Stephie
    May 18, 2015 at 14:26
  • I'm sure kids vary from one to another, and I'd never say anything is impossible, but the studies are pretty consistent: the only thing sugar does for the average kid related to hyperactivity is cause their parents to think they're hyper. The crash afterwards can cause bad behavior - but that is an issue with not having sufficient other sources of blood sugar, from my understanding (perhaps one of the medical/scientists here can provide better information on that). I don't feed my kids very much sugar because I want them to eat better-for-them things, not to avoid hyperactivity.
    – Joe
    May 18, 2015 at 14:34
  • I think we're all talking about the same thing here -- the sugar low. By the way, I agree that some children are more susceptible to sugar lows than others. At any rate, without an evaluation, and without some logs, all we can do here is speculate.... For example, we don't know if this child is average in relation to hyperactivity. May 19, 2015 at 3:38

I have a 3 year old who also has difficulty going to bed and is definitely a strong willed guy, so I can definitely sympathize. I am fortunate not to have to be a single parent, and that definitely is hugely helpful when out of control myself - having another person take over often helps both the kids and me. However, you can't really control that, so you'll need to find other solutions.

First off, I'm a proponent of non-punishment based parenting. In this case, the major application is that you need to teach your child why he should not do the things that are major problems, such that he understands why, and is a cooperative agent in fixing the problems when possible.

If he makes a mess spilling water on the floor, why is that a problem? It's a problem because it needs to be cleaned up. So - he needs to clean up the mess before he plays with anything else. He might need a few minutes of calm-down time to get in the mood to fix the problem of course - but the idea is that it's not a punishment, it's simply fixing the problem, same as if he did it by accident (except perhaps I help more when it's an accident).

If he gets into the fridge, why is that a problem? Either because he shouldn't eat things without asking - or because he makes a mess pulling things out, right? The latter is the same as the water above: he has to clean up the mess, and if he wastes a lot of food, take it out from his allowance or toy budget or whatever; explain to him that you only have so much money, and every time he wastes something it's money you don't have to buy something more fun.

The former is more easily fixed by setting up the fridge in a way that the foods he has immediate access to are things you're okay with him eating - veggies, milk, things like that. You should also discuss with him nutrition and balanced eating, such that he understands what foods are "good foods" and which are not particularly good for him. My three year old likes to ask me what's good for him in everything he eats, and it can be a fun conversation, especially when I don't know and have to look it up - instant learning experience.

Ultimately, though, one of the main reasons you may be having trouble is simply that he wants more attention, and one way to get that attention is to misbehave such that you have to pay attention to him. Negative attention is still attention. This may not be something you have a lot of control over, given you're a single parent and have lots of work to do I'm sure to keep the household running, but it may be something to think about: particularly if there are places where you can add a little bit of interaction even while doing household work.

Maybe let him stand on a stool in the kitchen while you cook and do a little bit of stirring and such, or even let him color on the kitchen table while you cook. Teach him to fold towels (easily done by a three year old) so he can help you with the laundry. Little things like that make a big difference to a young child, and may both cut down on the opportunities for bad behavior as well as increase his comfort level with your attention.

As far as bedtimes go, there's other questions on the site that discuss that issue specifically; but for you specifically, all I can say is that to me there are two approaches that I think are good ideas. One is to stay with him until he falls asleep; if you put him to bed at the 'right' time for him, that won't be very long. We ended up having to put our kids to bed later than we originally thought was right - around 8:30 start, 9:30-10 final sleep time usually - but it's very smooth now and they usually fall asleep within five to ten minutes.

The other is to be very clear with him about what is acceptable and what is not, but make sure 'acceptable' is sufficiently wide that he can succeed most of the time. That might mean you allow him to bounce about some. For us, the rule is a few non-noisemaking toys are allowed on the bed - trains, cars, etc. - as long as they stay on the bed (no body parts touching the floor). Other than that, anything goes as long as they aren't noisy. That's sufficiently wide latitude that if one of them is bored and not sleepy, he can play quietly with his toys, but won't disturb the other one.

We also have a bottle of water near the bed to deal with the 'get me drink/food'. No food is ever allowed, but drinking the water is. (We're fortunate that the potty trained one, the three year old, has a great bladder and even gets up to pee in the middle of the night when needed. Of course this won't work for everyone.)

  • 1
    I really like this answer - our kids are very willful, and we do something similar. The main thing I would add is to let him have good alternatives - no, you should not pour water on the floor, but if you want to play with water, you can undress and play in the bathtub. For bed times, consider allowing him to read and play in his bed until he sleeps. If he stays in his room, quietly, does it matter if he sleeps? Allowing him to play with cars in his bed helped our toddler go to bed.
    – Ida
    May 18, 2015 at 19:36
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    Alternatives, absolutely - that's largely what I was going after with the bedtime side of things, almost exactly what you said. I am a big fan of redirection, which is basically the same idea: whatever he is upset about not being able to do, or whatever he is trying to do that he shouldn't, push him towards something similar but more appropriate rather than simply "No".
    – Joe
    May 18, 2015 at 19:41

My oldest son was just like what you are describing. I was also a single mom and had no time to take for just me. It was work, kids, and take care of the house. I about lost it to. I made a game plan and I'm not saying it would work for you but I will share.

First I had to get Chase in a bedtime routine which did not involve me laying with him until he fell asleep. Take daytime naps out. Make sure he eats dinner at a reasonable time to where he isn't hungry close to bedtime. Do or plan things he can do to burn some energy; playing outside, drawing, puzzles, Legos (I hate them), but something; bath time same time every night and then bedtime. Now, bedtime was horrible for about 3 weeks until he finally realized that I wasn't going to give in. Do not show frustration or fear lol. Read a story, get a drink, go pee, whatever the routine; then tuck him in, turn out the light, and walk out. If he gets up calmly take him back to bed, every time he gets up put him back, if he cries let him cry. DO NOT ARGUE OR NEGOTIATE. I know it sounds cruel but it works. It took me 3 weeks. And trust me no matter how bad it seems to him he will still love you.

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