I have a nearly 3-year-old boy whose energy has become near-limitless, coupled with new neediness, aggression, and defiance. He wants to run around and be played with for the entire day. He is unable to sit still for more than about 10 seconds most of the time. We play with him and read him books as much as we can--hours at a time and lots of activities--but eventually we get tired or other things demand our attention. We can't be playing with him all day.

As he gets more tired from the playing and especially when we have to do something else or we start interacting with each other instead of him, he gets more and more agitated and starts hitting and throwing things for attention. At this point, we make him stay in his room or put him down for a nap, but he often gets mad about this and has started to deliberately pee and poop in his underpants (he's mostly potty trained and this is obviously deliberate). When we leave his bottom half naked, he pees and poops on the floor instead. He knows that these are naughty things and is doing them on purpose.

He often wakes up early from his nap cranky but refuses to be put back to bed, just getting out of his room instead. If we hold the door shut, he throws a fit, trashes his room, and goes back to the peeing-and-pooping on the floor routine. The pee and poop seem endless. Once he comes out (we can't keep him in his room forever...), he immediately hits and throws things the first second that somebody doesn't give him their 100% undivided attention. Then we get back to putting him in his room and the cycle continues...

We're going crazy. We don't believe in corporal punishment and are starting to feel like we're running out of disciplinary tools. I feel like his behavior is crying out for attention, but giving him as much as he seems to want just isn't helping! In fact, it's driving him nuts! And us too!

  • 38
    If you're not willing to consider corporal punishment, it's no surprise that you're running out of disciplinary tools for a strong-willed child. I know that viewpoint isn't popular on this web site, but we have found spankings (in conjunction with the reasoning, withholding privileges, considering what needs they may be trying to express, etc. that others have mentioned) very effective with our children. And the nice thing is that when you're consistent about physical punishment, you end up not having to use it very often.
    – LarsH
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 13:14
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    @LarsH whether or not corporal punishment is "popular on this web site" is irrelevant to whether the OP is interested in using it themselves.
    – Acire
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 13:22
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    @Erica, I don't think it's irrelevant to the OP, unless in a very narrow sense: the OP came to parenting.se to seek the input of this community. But I agree it shouldn't be a prime consideration. The OP has made clear that they don't believe in CP, but also that they are "going crazy," so it's possible they are open to changing their ideas if necessary. Some of us have to be open to that, sometimes. If they're not, that's their call.
    – LarsH
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 13:32
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    @LarsH What I would like to be clear about is that since the OP stated they "don't believe in corporal punishment", it would be nice if comments and answers respected that. The tone of your first comment's first sentence (it's no surprise you're running out of disciplinary tools) can be read as judgmental, and that's not generally conducive to encouraging reasoned consideration of alternative ideas.
    – Acire
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 13:50
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    It's okay. I have a thick skin. :) I'm willing to be told, "you have the wrong idea."
    – iLikeDirt
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 14:31

6 Answers 6


In my opinion, if you aren't willing to consider corporal punishment, you are unnecessarily restricting your options. If you don't believe in it but are willing to consider it, I will present the case for it as my experience shows it to be the most effective method for raising a happy, healthy, well-behaved child while fostering a loving relationship.

In my experience, most people opposed to corporal punishment feel that way because it makes them think of angry fathers beating their children with belts until DFS is called and the kids are taken away. That will certainly disadvantage your children and ruin your relationship with them.

Consequently, many people have fled to the opposite extreme: only using things like timeouts or taking away privileges. I don't like these because they rely on lengths of time to be effective. Instead of spanking a child's hand for 3 seconds then forgiving them and resuming to love them and play with them, you take away their toy for 30 minutes while they mull over how mean you are for taking their toy and how mad they are at you. I see people all around me using this method and producing children that are disobedient and, more importantly, unhappy.

However, there is a third option: do corporal punishment right. Sooner or later, we all have to learn that pooping on the floor is not an acceptable way to handle conflict. If we wait twenty years before addressing this problem, although it may not involve any hand-swatting, it will be much more painful than if we address it decisively at one or two years old by teaching them to associate bad behavior with hand swatting. Here is a simple list of all you need to know for teaching a young child how to handle conflict:

  • Be consistent. The first time they disobey and every time afterward until they resume obedience, immediately swat them on the hand. If you slack off on this, they will immediately resume misbehaving. Every time they disobey and you don't swat their hand, you're saying (with your actions) "It's ok to disobey at least once because it takes twice to make me punish you". You don't need to make them scream and cry, just teach them to associate disobedience with a swat to the hand.
  • Be loving. Don't ever spank them if you're angry or not in control. It is much better to be occasionally inconsistent than to turn healthy discipline into violence. Even while your're swatting their hand, don't raise your voice, don't make angry faces at them, etc. Whenever I swat my daughter's hand, I explain to her, using my gentlest tone of voice, what she did wrong.
  • Be forgiving. Straight away, as soon as they resume behaving, accept them back and continue loving them, playing with them, or doing whatever you were doing before you needed to discipline them.
  • Be graceful. Sometimes my daughter takes a second to do what I ask her. Sometimes she does something that's close but not what I wanted. Sometimes she tries but doesn't quite make it. I congratulate her anyway (we've been fist-bumping lately) and don't discipline her. It's her heart that counts, not whether she perfectly replaced whatever she took that she shouldn't have.

If you do this, I bet you will be amazed. It may take a while to sink in but, when they figure out that throwing a fit will get them a swat, they'll stop considering it. Instead of crying when you say "No juice for now", they'll continue playing and laughing like before. My wife and I get compliments all the time on how sweet and well-behaved our little girl is and I am certain this is why.

Keep in mind that doing this right is simple but not easy. Sometimes you will really not want to get up if they're misbehaving across the room. Sometimes, you may not be sure if they're disobeying or not. However, I am sure that with love, grace, and lots of conscious and deliberate effort, you can do a great job.

Note: Although I have not tried it, I highly doubt this is an effective strategy for raising teenagers. We started doing this when my daughter began throwing fits, hitting, etc around 15-18 months. She is now 21 months and an angel. If your child is old enough to engage in logical, reflective conversation, I would highly encourage that approach first. However, as you have a three-year-old who appears to be out of control, this is what I'd suggest.

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    This makes sense to me, but my objection is the seeming inconsistency of trying to teach him not to hit, but hitting him myself. It feels like that would be teaching that hitting is okay if you're bigger or in a position of authority or you feel you have a good reason. Those don't seem to be good lessons.
    – iLikeDirt
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 15:07
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    "if you aren't willing to consider corporal punishment, you are out of options" - be more strict, be more lenient, alternative activity options, focus on reinforcing wanted behaviors instead of the unwanted ones: all are options offered by others already. Choosing corporal punishment because it is the best option is one thing - but doing it because there is no other option is something else entirely, especially seeing as how it isn't the only option! If you just cut out the first two sentences such a problem would be removed, as your answer doesn't depend upon it and is worsened by it.
    – BrianH
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 15:30
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    @DanBeale No premise is violated, the OP stated she is willing to consider corporal punishment. I agree that hurting children or violence against them is unacceptable. My daughter feels very safe running to me if another child is hurting her because she knows I won't put up with it. She also knows that I will swat her hand if she misbehaves. I have never bruised her hand, drawn blood, or caused her any harm with the possible exception of a quickly-fading red spot on the top of her hand. She is healthy, smart, secure and has everything I could ever dream of.With respect, I highly (cont'd)
    – sirdank
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 16:40
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    So, I have to say, we settled on this and it's worked like magic. He started throwing heavy things right at our faces and we just didn't have anything else we felt like was working. Three light smacks on the butt immediately when he did that followed by a lot of cuddles and kissing made him stop doing it after only two episodes. He got the message. He actually seems happier now and is clearly not traumatized at all. I didn't want to do this, I really didn't, but I have to say, it seems to have been what was required. I had to grow a little but in the end, I think this was right.
    – iLikeDirt
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 15:07
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    The more I thought about it, the more I realized that forcibly holding him in a chair for 3 minutes seemed way more harsh and traumatic than three quick slaps on the butt followed by hugs and cuddles. We're much more comfortable doing than than our previous strategy which in retrospect seems far more physically objectionable--and it didn't work anyway!
    – iLikeDirt
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 15:14

When a toddler exhibits behaviour like this they are struggling to communicate, and they are struggling to regulate an emotion.

It is very hard for parents, when confronted by deliberate "naughtiness" like pooping on a floor, to maintain loving calmness.

As I understand it there are two aims:

1) help him develop confidence to play alone and entertain himself.

2) set appropriate boundaries and enforce these.

Working on the first will reduce the need for the second.

You want your child to enjoy playing by themselves. This will take some time to achieve. When you're playing with toys or drawing you can start the process of detaching from those activities. Start standing up and sitting down. Then walk to a different room, still talking to your child, and walk straight back. Then walk to a different room and stay there for a minute or two, and walk back. The aim here is to show your child that you are there and that he can play by himself without losing you. Remember to copiously praise good behaviour. Sticker charts and prizes help. Lots of attention after good behaviour helps.

You'll want to encourage him to use words, not actions, to express emotion. Children need some help to learn emotions. There are lots of picture books that can help. Describe the situation and ask your child "how do you think he feels in that situation? Happy, or sad?" (Start with obvious contrasts, work to more subtle differences). Once the child can name emotions you can move onto teaching your child about behaviour that works when he has a strong emotion vs behaviour that does not work.

You also need to acknowledge what your child is feeling. "I know you want to play with me. You really want to don't you? It's a little bit sad isn't it, that I can't play with you right now?"

You also want clear, easy to understand, firm, boundaries for acceptable behaviour. The punishment for breaking those boundaries needs to happen then, and should not last more than 5 minutes. (Your child's pre-frontal cortex does not fully develop until their early twenties, so longer punishments are not effective and probably counter productive.

When your child poops you say "No. We do not poop on the floor. We do not poop in our pants. You need to sit on the thinking step and think about it", then clean him up and take him to the thinking step. Don't let him turn this into a game. At his age three minutes on the step is an effective pength of time. When that's finished you ask him if he's thought about it; what he did wrong; what he should do in future; and what he's going to do now.

I found this website useful. Normally I'd copy bits of it here but it's long and all of it is useful.


I also like this websites nuanced discussion about "acting up", emphasing that he's not doing it to get your attention as much as he's doing it because he doesn't know how to express or control his strong emotion. http://www.gentleparenting.co.uk/kc/time-out-or-time-in/

  • I wont edit it back in if anyone wants to edit it out.
    – DanBeale
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 21:21

Some ideas:

Hunger/thirst: My cranky small humans get crankier when they're hungry or thirsty, and if I can see the clouds gathering, I can often head off the storm by offering a snack or a drink. Have you been able to see the grumpiness coming in time to head it off at all?

Independent play: We've had success with helping our kids learn to play independently. Our son is obsessed with trucks, so we pull out a few, get him started with some play scenarios, and then gently disengage from the play once he's gotten into it. With our daughter, it was cars or sand; now, it's legos.

Exercise: I am into martial arts (muay thai and kali) and am teaching my kids some of the kali fundamentals (using a pool noodle that I cut into appropriate lengths). This gives my son the physical exercise he might need to help him take the edge off, while also giving him an outlet for the crazies (we go into the backyard when he can't focus enough to practice, and just run around with the kali "sticks" screaming for a bit); this is something else that hopefully he can do independently (although the screaming in the house was cut out).

Finally, when one of mine is absolutely bananas and acting up, and they keep on pushing even after a time-out, I go for snuggles. Sometimes just taking five minutes to pull the cranky child into my lap and snuggle them (although they sometimes struggle) and tell them how much they are loved will help them at least calm down enough to engage the frontal lobe again.


A friend of mine had a similar problem. His seven year old boy was completely out of control. His tantrums were volcanic, and completely manipulative. They were terrified to go out in public because he would throw things at random strangers and break things just to get back at them for restricting him in any way.

A counselor who he went to see with his wife took him through a rather radical treatment. They removed everything from their son's room; books, toys, clothing, bed. (I don't remember whether this happened all at once or incrementally, for example, if he destroyed a toy or defaced his bed it was removed). He was left with an extremely bare (and, incidentally, easier to clean) room.

Then his son had to earn everything back. After a day of good behavior they would return one object to his room. At first they chose which object it was, then he was allowed to choose. Any significant misbehavior lost him the last thing he had earned. At least once that I know of they had to start at ground zero again. It was terribly draining for them, but I think the feeling that they at least had a path to recovery made it less draining than feeling like there was nothing they could do.

It all paid off. Their son is reasonably well behaved now. The occasional temper tantrum doesn't get much past scowling and the occasional stomp-off-to-his-room. No more breakage or cursing or screaming.

I wish I could remember the name of this form of therapy (anyone ever heard of it before?) Not sure if it would work for you, but don't try it just on a whim. You have to be totally committed and prepared to ride out what is going to be a very difficult and long-term process. I doubt they would have made it without the strong support of their counselor.

  • Wow, this sounds brilliant.
    – iLikeDirt
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 23:37
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    Curious to see how the child's attitude towards possessions plays out in later life after this.
    – Rob Grant
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 12:46

First of all, when did that start? How did it escalate? Was it gradual or just happened all of a sudden? Try to discover the source of this behavior, perhaps there is one. If you know it you may be able to handle the situation better.

For me, the defecation is crossing the line. Kids fuss, go through tantrums, we have to be understanding, but there also have to be boundaries. I don't think corporal punishment would work in this situation.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Make him clean the pee and poop in his room. At least make him attempt to, because he's not likely to manage to do it well. It's the attempt that matters, that he acknowledges what he had done and attempts to fix it. If he doesn't, don't clean it yourself. Be strict and don't give in. Cut all snacks and tv and games and give him only the most basic, nutricious but dull food to eat. You want to read a book, son? Clean the poop. You want the good juice instead of water? Clean the poop. And so on.

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    Depending on the carpeting, your proposal won't come cheap.
    – Alexander
    Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 15:51
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    The boy is not yet three, which I think seems a bit young to have him cleaning poop. I'd be afraid he would unintentionally make it worse. Maybe have him help clean. Commented Jun 2, 2015 at 19:12
  • @NoahSpurrier of course not, but an attempt to do so would mean that he acknowledges parents' authority. I'll clarify.
    – Dariusz
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 5:51
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    I don't particularly consider "authority" the reason for doing this. He should clean up (or help) because it's his mess.
    – Joe
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 14:30

I don't know your child, and I'm not a medical or mental health professional, but I've read quite a bit about ADHD (as I have a child with ADHD), and your outcry is quite typical of what parents of ADHD children tend to say before they get the diagnosis. (And sometimes after, as well!)

Your implied question is, What can we do about this untenable situation?

My answer is, start with his pediatrician or primary care doctor. When you make the appointment, tell the receptionist you would like the doctor to evaluate your child for ADHD. They may suggest that you fill out a screening questionnaires before your appointment, and this is a great option if you don't want to drag things out. Also, it would be helpful for you to print out your SE question and bring it to the appointment.

Try to bring your partner or someone else who knows the child well along for the appointment, to watch the child in the waiting room if there's anything you want to talk over with the doctor in private.

If indeed your child has ADHD, it just means that he's wired differently than the average child – it's not a bad thing. But knowing how he's wired can give you the key to understanding your child. There are a variety of coping mechanisms that become open to a family when there is an ADHD diagnosis. And an ADHD diagnosis doesn't automatically come stapled to a prescription for stimulant medications or any other medications, for that matter.

Whether your child turns out to have ADHD or not, one thing that you might find helpful is to schedule some play time out of the house for your child, such as nursery school, Head Start, or trading off play dates with another family. I am the parent of a child with immeasurable energy and initiative. I often feel like Superman's mother! I would not have made it this far (he is now 12) without some scheduled breaks.

Good luck.

(Edited for clarity 6/7, with thanks to @Erica for a helpful phrasing suggestion.)

  • Medicating an extremely young child for having a lot of energy… what could possibly go wrong!? No thanks.
    – iLikeDirt
    Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 17:42
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    @iLikeDirt It's extremely rare for medication to even be recommended for a toddler with ADHD due to the side effects. There are non-medication approaches that are useful for kids regardless of an ADHD diagnosis (e.g. this answer particularly the links to more resources), which may be helpful since they are oriented towards helping children with lots of energy.
    – Acire
    Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 20:12
  • @Erica, could you check the paragraph about medication in this version to see if this is now permissible? - - Note, it's pretty common for a family to be afraid to have their child evaluated for ADHD because there is a fairly widespread misconception that says, "if ADHD then stimulant medication." - - Also note that a diagnosis of ADHD can be done by a family practitioner or a pediatrician. Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 5:35
  • "Permissible", sure. "Useful", no. You've ended up answering a completely different question: "What can I expect if I try to get my toddler diagnosed for ADHD?"
    – Acire
    Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 10:46
  • A diagnosis can be done by a pediatrician, but referral is also very common in order to consider other possible conditions, especially in situations where it may be less obvious. Since ADHD toddlers are less "obviously" different from their peers than older ADHD children, this could easily be a situation where a specialist should be involved. I wouldn't want a parent to think it's going to be a simple discussion when it can take a great deal of time.
    – Acire
    Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 10:46

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