My toddler has such a snappy attitude. Help!

The toddler years can really give parents a run for their money. One parent shares how she deals with her 3-year-old's attitude.

Dear Is This Normal,

My 3 year old kid has a super snappy attitude, very aggressive and wants what he wants when he wants. He complies most often when rewarded not just out of natural instinct. How do I handle my snappy toddler?


Tiny Tyrant

Dear Tyrant,

Ah, yes, The 3s! Not for nothing, but I think parents and parenting “experts” really miss the mark when they warn us about the Terrible Twos. Because in my experience, the twos were actually pretty ok. It’s the threes where ish really hit the fan. Let me tell you, there’s nothing more humiliating or humbling than being brought to your knees by the 3-year-old attitude. And they have it in spades! I know it’s frustrating; believe me when I say that you are definitely not alone, and your tot is not the only tiny tyrant ruling the roost. No need to start researching military schools just yet, you’ve just got to arm yourself with some tools to weather this 3-year-old storm.

The first thing to keep in mind is that your little guy is going through some pretty substantial developmental changes right now; he’s developing a sense of self and becoming more of an individual who is separate from you and his other caregivers. He’s able to communicate more effectively now, and like an adult, he’s using those new communication skills to tell you what he likes and doesn’t like and assert his independence! This little 3-year-old attitude is all par for the toddler course. What makes it a sticky sitch is that while all this really cool growing and developing is going on, some areas are still playing catch-up. Logic and self-control are two areas that your toddler isn’t super sharp in at the moment. And that’s not because of anything you are or are not doing as a parent! That’s just because logic, self-control, self-regulation, and emotional regulation are skills that develop over time, throughout early childhood.

You mentioned that your kiddo responds well to reward but doesn’t do things instinctually—that’s because his instinct is literally to do the stuff that is causing friction at the moment. Kids are not born with the ability or inclination to share, or have appropriate emotional responses, or dissect situations logically and respond accordingly. These are all things they learn to do, with guidance and encouragement from their caregivers. If you’ve ever witnessed a toddler lose their absolute effing MIND because their socks were the wrong color or you put their Goldfish in the wrong bowl, then you know this to be true! It is simultaneously frightening and awe-inspiring to watch. I wouldn’t worry too much about him not having the “natural instincts” to respond appropriately or control his emotions or adapt and compromise—with time, and consistent and positive encouragement and correction from his caregivers, those instincts will develop.

But in the meantime, that doesn’t mean you should just resign yourself to living under their thumb. You can, and SHOULD, set boundaries, rules, and expectations for your toddler, and use positive reinforcement and consequences to help them understand when their behavior isn’t appropriate. It’s all about giving him some of the control he is seeking, but within YOUR boundaries as the parent. 

Don’t be afraid to use age-appropriate discipline, particularly if he’s exhibiting potentially harmful behavior (yelling, throwing things, hitting, etc.). When he’s wilding out, give him a warning that lets him know he can either change his behavior or have a time-out. If he doesn’t heed that warning, into time-out he goes! Don’t try to reason with him—he lacks reasoning skills…remember, he’s three! Calmly explain why he is in time-out, how long it will last, and how he can get out of it (pick up his toys, apologize, etc.). At the end of the time-out, he gets to come out, and the slate is wiped clean; in other words, the next infraction gets the same treatment, and should not be treated as an extension of any earlier issues. 

I know it’s tough, toddlers are seriously no joke. But you guys WILL get through this 3-year-old attitude stage! For now, just stay consistent, use lots of positive reinforcement when you see him doing something good (don’t just call out the bad!), and enforce your rules and boundaries equally and constantly. He’ll catch on…eventually. 

Two-Time Toddler Survivor,

Is This Normal


Want to know if whatever you’re going through is "normal"?

Ask us anything

Want to know if whatever you’re going through is “normal”?

Go ahead and ask us anything, staying anonymous is fine 😉
If you’d like to ask a question to a specific expert on our Expert Panel or to one of our contributors, head to our Advice Column and select an advisor.


    Looking for more tips on parenting, nutrition & all the WTF moments of this life stage? Sign up for our weekly Is This Normal by Little Spoon newsletter.