My 3-Year Old is Not Being Disobedient. He’s Feeling.


I confess: sometimes I can be a bit of a know-it-all. Combine this with the fact that I took one Child Developmental Psychology class in college, and I’ve pretty much have dubbed myself the parenting expert of our home. Obviously, this is in no way fair to my husband. However, there is one area of parenting our toddler where I’m not budging:

My three-year old is not being disobedient. He’s feeling.

My three-year-old is not being disobedient. He's feeling.

So, let’s talk about life with toddlers. They are all emotions, all the time. There is no middle ground. They are ecstatic or they are “hell hath no fury”-level angry. They are sweet and affectionate, or they are fiercely stubborn and independent. They are experiencing every human emotion for the very first time. Sometimes, when I pause to think what that must be like, I can’t imagine how overwhelming and scary it must feel.

So, when we traveled three states over to visit my family post-holidays, my normally sweet three-year old had all the feelings. His routine was completely disrupted, he wasn’t napping, and we made a crucial error in not letting him know when we were about to leave him alone with his grandparents. By the time we were getting ready to return home, he was a complete mess. I’m talking about screaming, flailing his arms and legs, and crying hysterically because my husband was trying to dress him. It was awful.

And in that moment, when we were in a hurry to get on the road, it would have been so easy to scream at him or even swat his butt (I’m not a spanker, but I understand the temptation). Instead, I gave him some space to cry it out, and then when I felt he was ready, started getting to the root of his emotions. As it turned out, he was sad to leave Grandma and Grandpa. He was upset that we were taking away the toy he had just started playing with. He was overtired from a long weekend. He missed Mommy and Daddy after seeing very little of us all weekend. He was a bundle of things and asking him to get dressed when he would have preferred to stay cozy in his jammies was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Once he calmed down through our heart-to-heart, my usually non-affectionate son wrapped his arms around my neck and held me close. He didn’t need to be screamed at, reprimanded, or worse. He needed someone to help him identify all these awful, scary and overwhelming emotions (with a side helping of Mama love).

This is such an easy thing to forget. And an easy thing to say – but much harder to practice when your toddler is being an utter butthead. Sometimes, kids are just jerks (just like adults). But other times, tantruming over getting dressed is about something much deeper. And it’s up to us as parents to help our toddlers not only identify their emotions, but figure out how to regulate them.

Being frustrated, mad, or sad are natural human emotions. They are not inherently bad.

However, hitting out of anger or throwing toys out of frustration are not productive or appropriate ways of expressing those emotions. As parents, we need to teach our children that it’s natural to be frustrated, but we need to find healthy ways of releasing that frustration. Things like taking deep breaths, counting to 10, or spending some time alone in our room until we calm down.

When I say that my child isn’t being disobedient, he’s feeling, I know how that sounds. I do not let my child make the rules. However, I do believe in giving him extra space and grace to work out his feelings. I also believe that kids are smarter than we think they are. Sometimes, asking the question, “Why are you mad?” and giving them the opportunity to explore is really all they need.

So there you have it, from the world’s foremost expert on parenting. Stay tuned for when my entire theory goes out the window when my youngest child turns three.


  1. I just have to laugh because, yes, they have ALL the emotions! If my daughter weren’t 3, I would swear she’s bipolar. Their ability to understand language but lacking the ability to fully express themselves with it is completely frustrating! I think you’re on the right track. Giving him the opportunity to tell you in his way what’s going on, teaching empathy, patience, love. You’re doing good, mama. 🙂 P.S. I just read a book on raising the spirited child if that makes you feel any better.


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