Strong-Willed At Three and Four Years of Age

This is a question that comes up frequently in my local groups and in my email inbox: what to do with children of three and a half or four who have very strong wills, where everything is a struggle?

One thing I find interesting is that this question typically comes from parents about their first-born child.  It also comes from parents who have had all one gender of children and now have a child of the other gender approaching three and a half or four.  Just an interesting side-note I have observed over the years.

First of all, take a deep breath and step back for a minute and evaluate.  I have often talked about the shift in parenting that occurs (or should occur) at this age, which can be very challenging to attached parents who felt they were essentially one with their very small child.  Suddenly, the child has their own ideas and their own will, and for perhaps one of the first times the parent really has to figure out how to set boundaries as the child begins to exert some will and push against the forms of the day and the rhythms you have crafted.  This can be a hard task!

It very well may feel as if  your child is pushing against everything and anything.  So please take out a piece of paper and answer these questions before you read the rest of this post. I think one of the essential questions is:  is it really and truly everything, or what is it specifically?  Is it transitions?  Coming in from outside?  Or eating?  Or clothing?  What is your rhythm like, and what are you doing to take care of yourself?  If you are not a single parent, is your partner or spouse stepping in to help as well?  Does that change up the energy in a good way?  How does your spouse or partner feel about your child’s behavior?    How is your environment structured so you have thought about things ahead of time and your child can’t get into things you don’t want him or her into when you are not right there supervising?

What are the boundaries, how are you guiding this child toward those boundaries and what happens if the child is not working within the boundaries?  A strong, strong rhythm and unhurried life is really key with the three and four year old.  Even a five and six year old will get completely out of character when their rhythm is off and the family is doing too many things and going too many places and being outside of the home too much.   Try this post:  and this post for help:

The second thing I want you to do is to write down what language you are using when you are talking or thinking about this child on your piece of paper.   Are these words that are making you feel loving and connected to your child, words that make you feel like you can set boundaries for this child and guide this child toward those boundaries or are they words where you are creating a battlefield where you are one side of the line and your child is on the other side?   Many of you long-time readers know I have a particular aversion to the term, “high needs child” for older children…You can read my small rant about that here:

But, perhaps for you to really take a hand in this situation, your language must change.  Here is a back post on that:

Okay, now that you have some thoughts down on paper, let’s go on to some of the developmental hallmarks of three and a half or so….Three and a half is very, very little…I wrote a post about the three and a half year old awhile back and am including part of it for you here, take what resonates with you:

“AGE THREE: Three is very, very little. According to Waldorf parenting and pedagogy, the first three years are for the establishment for walking (which takes about two and a half years to be a very mature walker without needing the arms for balance, being able to run, etc); the development of speech and the development of thinking as first seen by use of the term “I”.

Typical developmental things about the three and a half -year-olds include (this is according to the Gesell Institute, not necessarily my personal opinion!):

  • Turbulent, troubled period of disequilibrium, the simplest event or occasion can elicit total rebellion; strong and secure gross motor abilities may turn more into stumbling, falling, at this age; new- found verbal ability such as “I’ll cut you in pieces!” and lots of whining
  • May refuse to do things a lot, or howl and scream, or say a lot of “I can’t” I won’t” kinds of things
  • Three and a half to four may be the height for the most “WHY?” “WHERE?” “WHAT?” kinds of questions
  • Demanding, bossy, turbulent, troubled but mainly due to emotional insecurity
  • May refuse to take part in daily routine – expect some pushing against what you do daily, and have some distraction plans at hand.

REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS:  I think one important things, especially for parents where this child is the first-born or an only child, please make sure the expectations for this age are reasonable.  Many times parents whose three or four year old is the oldest child in the house are expecting an awful lot.  Here are some realistic expectations from a traditional physical therapy/occupational therapy perspective -a three-year-old may most likely be able to:

**At three and a half to age four, may use a spoon for liquids; may use a fork with some spilling; may refill his or her glass from a container that holds less than the glass does; can drink from a water fountain an adult turns on.
**Can distinguish between a bowel movement and urination; around three and a half may or may not go to the bathroom at regular intervals
**Can turn off water in bathroom when you ask; may be able to put toothpaste on toothbrush and wet the toothbrush; can put comb or brush in hair; can pull pants up; can get clothing out and put it on by around three and a half, although the average age for complete dressing is age 5. Can pull off shoes and unzip and unsnap clothing.
**Probably knows own name and names of siblings, may know if they or their family members are male or female.
**Can string large beads; roll clay or other modeling material into a snake shape, probably can match objects, cut paper with scissors, may know primary colors, may be able to roll clay into a ball.
**May be able to play a game with another person, such as rolling a ball back and forth; they can usually talk about a game that just finished and start a new game; can take turns in a game at least 25 percent of the time
**Can sit quietly for at least one minute; this moves up to five minutes at three and a half
**Can say please and thank you; request help when needed
**COMPLETES 10 PERCENT OF A TASK WITH ATTENTION AND REINFORCING BY AN ADULT; will start a task only when reminded at around three and a half and at that point may be able to complete 10 percent of the task with little input from an adult. Carrie’s note: Waldorf expectations and ways of working with a child’s will is often more in line with this than mainstream methods we see out there!
**May sing parts and phrases of familiar songs.
(These milestones came from the Hawaii Early Learning Profile for Children ages 3-6).

I think the main thing to remember is that the consciousness of the tiny three and a half year old is completely different than older children or adults. They do not mutter under their breath, make faces or say things you perceive to be rude to be disrespectful or defiant….

Some things that may help:

  • Sit down and make a list of animals and how they move, so you can pull out some creative animal games to “hop over here like a kangaroo” or other animal movements you will need to get something accomplished. Think about what appeals to your boy or girl with moving objects or occupations so you can round up blocks like a shepherd rounding up sheep (clean-up) and other tasks.
  • Think about how to structure your environment so less toys are immediately available without your help; this avoids much clean-up.
  • Think about setting up play scenarios; at three they are just learning how to start fantasy play and making believe and they may need your help to get started!
  • Expect some struggles around bedtime perhaps; think about how to shorten your bedtime routine and how you will handle things when they are not going well and everyone is just tired.
  • Think about less choices and less words all the way around for this age.
    There are many posts on this blog regarding how to stop talking and less choices.
  • Figure out how to be strong and carry the work and rhythms of the day even if your child does not participate!
  • Most of all, you have to be strong, peaceful and centered.  Breathe, give the child a moment before you jump in, do things WITH the small three and four year old and don’t have the expectation they will do things with only a verbal command.  Three and four year olds are really tiny; they need constant supervision and structure.
  • Double check nutrition, media, sleep and food allergies…All of these can contribute toward making behavior better or worse.  Many children whose parents have reported were “out of control” ended up being diagnosed with food allergies.  Media is another culprit, as is lack of sleep.  Double check, double check, double check.
  • Boundaries are so important; there are so many posts on boundaries and respect and authority in parenting on this blog.  Please go back to those and re-read and see where you are and where your spouse or partner is and where your child is.  That could be a key piece to the whole thing.

Many blessings,


23 thoughts on “Strong-Willed At Three and Four Years of Age

  1. Wow. WoW!!! Thank you so much for this post. I’ve (we’ve) been struggling a bit lately around here…trying to figure out what we’re doing “wrong.” That our 4yo has been from 3.5yo or so doing all these things that are so very 3.5yo-typical. Just hearing that this is normal for this age–the pushing against norms, the trying out of completely the opposite of what is presented. Anyway, this post was so helpful…especially the reminder to use the “animal games” for distraction. It works EVERY TIME. Seriously. “Slither to the bath and play in the seafoam like a seal” has been a fav. Thanks again for all your posts. They’ve been a beacon for us!!!

  2. I have a daughter who will be 7 in June and a son who will be 3 in June. My son has been extremely defiant and strong willed the last couple of months. So much of what you are describing for a 3 1/2 to 4 yr old sounds just like my almost 3 yr old. After reading this, I feel that I have been having too many expectations for him. I think I have been expecting him to act like his 6 yr old sister instead of acting like a 2 yr old. That would completely explain his defiance and hostility. Because he is so little, he doesn’t understand my expectations and can’t meet them. My rhythm is set more for my oldest child while my son just runs around getting into trouble. Shame on me. This post has given me a light bulb moment! Thank you!

  3. Thank you Carrie, for this timely entry! My three and a half year old has been quite the rascal lately, and your article was a gentle reminder for me concerning the motivations behind his behavior!


  4. I hear this a lot too, Carrie. I actually sent one of my daycare parents your link about age 3/4. I think 3-4 is one of the hardest ages, and I warn parents not to put their patience away now that their children can talk and follow ( some ) directions. My just 4 year old is a wise and wild girly. And it can be trying, but I just don’t fight her. We are on the same side, if its something she can do and she is asking properly- I make it happen ( like putting all her play clothes in a trunk so she can change 55 times a day without destroying the closet). And if its not something that can be accomplished, then its not a discussion. She cried all the way home that she couldnt have tooties rolls today- and that is okay. My own parents think she is a lot more work than my eldest, but I just don’t fight her.

  5. I am so grateful for you and your timely, thorough and thoughtful guidance.

    To me, your words are like a giant, warm hug and a pat on the back as you say, “now, get back in there!”

    love to you!

  6. Thanks Carrie, I really needed this today. I am struggling with white hot screaming meltdowns and a complete lack of co-operation from my four and a half year old. It is REALLY difficult to handle, especially as I have a 10 month old and PND. My partner and I are completely bewildered by her fiery and very fast changes of mood and consequences don’t work with her. We have ended up using very authoritarian methods which don’t sit well with us but seem to be the only way to get things under control. She is so extraordinarly defiant and resists even the softest of requests. I will go and read all the posts on boundaries and try to reset my thinking because I do feel as if there is a very large wall between us and has been for a really long time. (She has never been an ‘easy’ child and I have been rather an angry, frustrated mother). If you have any other ideas that might help or if there is something else that I need to know about the 4.5 to 5 yr old child, then please let me know. We are a bit desperate and demoralised and I want to feel connected with my girl again.

  7. Carrie, a Waldorf teacher recently mentioned to me “the four year change.” Do you know about this or have you read about this somewhere? Is what you write here about that “change”? Just curious in case you have time…. elizabeth

    • Elizabeth – I have not heard of this at all in a Steiner perspective, although the “thinking” and declaration of “I” is a shift at age three..perhaps that is what this teacher is referring to?
      Many blessings,

  8. Hi Carrie
    Thanks again for your timely post. I am in a similar situation to Kat – I feel very disconnected from my three year old son. I feel he doesn’t like me very much and I seem to revert to my own three year old behaviour regularly. I have an eleven month old who seems to bear the brunt of what ever is going through my son’s mind. He is relentless with her – pushing, shouting and now, he’s started to dig his nails into her. I just don’t know what to do. Today he dug his nails into his friend’s arm. I am worried that other mothers will stop seeing him (and me) if this continues. I see so much of his behaviour in the three year list above but I don’t know how to resolve it.
    Thank you.

  9. Hi Carrie, I just wanted to thank you for this wonderful post! I stumbled across your blog for the first time the other day and it resonates so strongly with me that I am very slowly working through the archives. Anyway, I have a very sunny 2 year old who gets himself into major tantrums every now and then and the other day in desperation for a distraction technique I tried “let’s hop like a bunny into the living room” … and the tantrum switched off immediately! He loved it and I was blown away!

  10. My friend sent me a link to this blog and I’m so thankful she did. like all of the other coments here, this blog came by at the perfect time for us. I’ve been questioning my son’s recent behaviour. i am reminded now to take a look at how things are going at home and to keep calm.

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  12. Thank you for your always helpful posts! I was wondering if you have any tips on transitions. My 4 year old has a really hard time when it’s time for our next door neighbor to leave after playing for awhile. He does fine if he is there and has to come home, but if they are playing here and I tell him that it’s time for dinner or his friend has to leave, he melts down – hard. I try to give him a warning a few minutes before and it doesn’t seem to do anything. He cries and cries as they are leaving and then for awhile afterward. Tonight he cried, yelled, screamed and blocked me from the room his little friend was in. I don’t know what to do. And any tips on getting my child to stop backtalking and yelling at me would be great appreciated as well. I know part of the problem is that I am very tired and have been raising my voice a lot, but my bag of tricks is low on tricks because I am so exhausted. Thank you!

  13. I am late to this post…very late. I found you through a google search today. I am relieved after reading your article except for one thing. My 3.5 year old DOES mutter under his breath, make rude faces and in general wants to have the last word. It is like he is a small, angry lawyer. Is this totally abnormal? I often feel like I am having conversations with an 11 or 12 year old when trying to reason with my son. I often have to just walk away and cry…he is just so bold and in your face. I swear we discipline, maybe too much? I just don’t know what to do..

  14. This morning i woke up before my 3 1/2 year old to get ready for our day. i work full time and she goes to day care full time. I am a single mom-no family or friend support. I am constantly reaching out to make play dates/make friends but it is very challenging with time and because everyone has their own life. This morning was the worst morning we have ever had. It has been getting harder to get her ready. she wont do anything-wont get dressed wont eat wont listen. Today she ignore me and just sat by the door in her panties eating the cookies she took out of my lunch. Often she wakes up whining and then quickly progressing into screams as she stands up. She starts demanding things right away. Often it is something that would be wrong for me to give to her-like a popsicle or ice cream. This morning it was a push up pop. I felt like the only thing that would stop her from screaming would be to give in -but i didnt. I ended up getting very upset and screaming at her myself. I got so stressed out I completely lost my cool and had no energy left and no sense to be calm and try to problem solve. So I just tried to take some deep breaths. Finally after I had my peak of pissed offness she stopped crying and screaming at me. This has happened before. She comes down off her high horse and gets quiet after I flip my lid.

    So I came to work feeling beat up inside. I don’t want the same thing to happen tomorrow. I love my daughter so much but i swear I felt like I did not like her this morning.

    i am exhausted.

    • Oh HG – LOVE and HUGS to you! You are a good mother, you are doing this all alone, and you are doing the best you can. First of all, take a deep breath and then think about a plan for tomorrow morning. How do you wake her up? Can you get up before her so breakfast is all ready and she can just shuttle from a few minutes of snuggling in bed with her to the potty to the table? Sing a song, carry her, hop like bunnies to the table. Something creative and playful can often capture the attention of a reticent three year old. Have her clothes laid out so she can get dressed right after eating. Some mothers I know would lay the clothes out like a person was in them on the floor with the arms in various positions so their children could get up and see what wacky thing their clothes person did that morning! Can you make your lunch ahead of time tonight and put it on the high shelf so she can’t get to it? Is she still napping and if not, is she going to bed early enough? Many three year olds who don’t nap are in bed around 7, which I know is incredibly early when you work and have just gotten home, but it could make a huge difference to your work mornings being off to a good start. It can’t be fun to go to work feeling lousy about how getting out of the house went!
      As far as in the moment anger, there are many, many posts on this site about anger – look under the family life tab and there are lots. Count to 10. Sing to her, be an animal together and think creatively how to get done what needs to get done. I know that must be so hard in the moment, when you feel as if you will never get out the door and be late! Keep reminding yourself about three year olds – they have no sense of time. If you check under the Development tab, there are many posts about the three year old. Three and a half is an especially challenging age for many children.
      Would cards with pictures of the order of your morning activities help so you do the same activities to get ready every day, in the same order, and she can see the pictures? You will have to help her every step of the way, so I would think you being ready as much as possible in the morning just so you can focus on her will really help.

      Hugs, have a cup of tea and early bedtime. Tomorrow is a new day, and it will be better. Keep encouraging yourself and your daughter. You are a great team together!
      Blessings, I am so very glad you are here and reading. Feel free to email me off the “About” page – my email is there.

  15. I love this post Carrie – I come back every now and then to read this – when I’m on the edge with by little girl who hits 3-and-a-half next month.
    Thank you.

  16. Yes reading this again!! Reassuring myself that my hard-headed strong-willed and bossy daughter is “normal” 🙂 I guess it didn’t help that I only just understood boundaries a year or so ago. Thanks again for all your work Carrie – it is much appreciated.

    • hi Fran,
      Exactly! Remember why there is a reason I get the most mail about four and six year olds! 🙂
      Lots of love,

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