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Three year-old talk-back: Phase or Friends?

When our little ones pick up a new trait, sometimes it's hard to know whether it's a phase, his/her personality, or the influence of peers.  An urbanMama recently emailed:

I really need some advice.  My 3 1/2 year old daughter recently started a new preschool and she's suddenly exposed to a lot of new kids, many of them older.  Since she started, she has been incessantly talking back.  I don't know what else to call it.  If I ask her to put her shoes away, it's "No!  You put YOUR shoes away!", she screams, tries to order us around, and has even tried calling us names like "stupid".  I realize she is trying things on for size, and we've had many conversations with her about why this is not a respectful way to talk to us (we don't talk that way to her, it is rude, it hurts feelings, etc).  She seems to like her school, so I don't know if this is a normal 3 year old development or if we've got a real tyrant on our hands.  I'm embarrased to say I don't know how to deal with it and it is so frustrating to be bossed around by my child.  Does anyone have any advice on how to handle this kind of behavior?


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I'd start first by talking to her teacher. She/he might be able to identify other trends happening in the classroom, etc.

I always have to remind myself that my kid's preschool teacher has WAYYYY more knowledge about normal 3 yr old behavior than I do! So I use her as a resource.

When my children talk to me in a way that I don't like I tell them that. Sometimes I rephrase it the way they should have said it "May I have more milk, please, mom?" instead of "Mom! Milk!" My oldest tends to be bossy and even threatens her youngest sister with punishment. Usually just telling her why what she's saying is not OK is enough but there have been times that I have established that speaking in a mean way merits time out. I don't like time out as a behavioral tool but I'm willing to use it to establish a limit. Your child is 3 she's definitely in a stage of exploring and she's older enough to remember what a rule is and know when she's breaking it, it's just up to you to decide how you want to communicate that with her.

I agree with Capella and will add that if my 3 year old came home from school and started calling us stupid and other names and generally started acting aggressively then I would seriously look at the school and consider switching. There is a difference between bossy behavior (some of that is normal and they will "try it out for size") and aggressive behavior (name calling, hitting, etc). If my child wasn't aggressive before going to school and he was exposed to a lot of older kids who call each other names, then I would probably have a talk with the school and give it a week or two and be prepared to move on. I guess knowing that your 3-year old is playing with older kids who set bad examples (otherwise, how would she even know to call someone stupid?) raises a red flag with me about what is happening at school.

I agree with talking to the teacher. Ask questions about how she is in class and how others are. good luck.

I completely empathize! My daughter has been displaying some of the same behavior, and she is not in a new school, or any school. She is also three.
It started a couple months ago, right before her baby brother was born, and was only directed at her grandparents. Now that they are gone, she has turned on her dear old parents! She has called us stupid, and threatened to "eat us up" or "knock us down". She was pretty relentless. I have no idea where she picked up that language. (I have even locked myself in the bathroom a couple times, just to separate, and not do anything I would regret)
From what I've heard, three is often more of a challenge for parents than two.

I realize that she has been thrown into this new role --- and doesn't really know how to control her emotions. Even as she adores her baby brother.
So, I've been using all me resources. And what seems to work best for me is breastfeeding her. It is just a quick way for her to regroup and reconnect... back to the Source! It's only been a few days, but it seems to be working.
That might not be an option for you! But something along those lines maybe?

I agree with previous posts about looking at the school. I have a daughter who is almost three and a half. I find it effective to pick one phrase and use it each and every time...ie, "I don't like when you use a rude voice. Can you use a kind voice and kind words please?" I think it helps kids understand what they are doing when it is labeled the same way each time and when you then tell them what you want/expect.

Talk with the teacher, but also realize that it may be part of that age. Our daughter started in on the same tactics right around 3 1/2 - no new school to blame, kind a new sib in the house (her sister was born when she was 3), and this behavior ebs and flows to this day, despite our every effort to quell it (she is going to be 5 in Dec). As I said, it ebs and flows - she goes through weeks with no back-talk, and then we will have a really bad week. I think its the age, and that they are just trying out new roles, seeing how far they can push us, and perhaps trying to connect with us, albeit in a very negative way. Good luck, and if you reach a breakthrough please post!

Before I talked to the teacher I would go to the school and see for myself. Any school should be open to, and welcoming of, an observation by a parent. You should be suspicious if they aren't. I would just observe for about an hour and then talk with the teacher. Could be behavior they are not aware of on the playground or in small groups.

My daughter spend 10 long minutes tonight yelling "mommy, answer me!!!!" even though I had responded to her several times. At first I thought she was having hearing problems so I tested her with saying, "well maybe you need to go to bed" and then all the sudden she could hear me, but still kept yelling about answering her. I finally locked myself in my room when she smacked me on my leg, and she yelled outside the door, finally saying, "Mommy, you're stupid" which is her way of trying to get a rise out of me. It was insane. I know she is testing me, but sometimes I am not sure I have the answer key! I think we all sludge through this parenting thing with no instructions. We just have to be consistant, but also we have to remember that we are human and we have our limits. I can't give my kid a time out (worse than the actual behavior she displays) but I can give one to myself. So how many minutes? 41, for each year of my life? ;)

unsolicited advice:

Read "Taking Charge" by Joanne Nordling. Make sure the school doesnt tolerate that kind of behavior. Address the behavior head on or it will get worse.

We are having this same thing with our 3 year old. No new school, no sibling. It just flared up, and he is bossy, rude, insulting, insistent and loud. We have tried; ignoring, talking, taking a treat or privilege, and we have had him spend time alone in his room. I have had to separate myself, he has made me cry and I tell him why. We also process and talk it through and make up. But, it isn't working. He still screams and yells and talks to us like a teenager. My husband has asked permission to start spanking him, one, quick swat on his bum mind you. We are at our wit's end, and we do not want this to continue or get worse. We want our child to respect us, and to do as we ask. I want my somewhat peaceful life back! I don't know if it helps, but at least you are not alone. i agree with another comment, we just stumble through this. I would also like to add that I have my Masters in Education, and I have read every book, and every theory out there. They are wild beasts logic does not apply!

wow, here comes some more of the same. my three year old daughter has had some choice moments of bossiness, rudeness or tantrum behavior lately. she has started a new school recently and i do know for a fact that it is a school that will not tolerate hurtful or aggressive behavior and language. but i also do know that groups of little kids are going to try out different phrases and tactics to see what happens no matter how wonderful their school or playgroup is. i agree that it is very much part of the age and the testing that goes on. do i wish she hadn't heard some of these phrases from other kids? of course i do. but that is unrealistic. so, while i'm not totally up in arms about it, it does drive me nuts and i also have locked myself in the bathroom lately to get away from it. she has totally got me dialed and can push buttons just like that. it's not every day and there are definitely some patterns associated with exhaustion, illness, etc. but--i have not figured out how to curtail it. my husband has a totally different "ignore it" type of approach and i want to directly address it with her. i'm not sure which is best? he's a preschool teacher and i'm a middle school teacher. the young brains we deal with are quite different yet often quite similar.

is this a mother-daughter thing? i used to drive my mom crazy...

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