How to discipline a 3 year old who doesn’t care

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3-year-old kids can be challenging. And they can also drive you crazy. People talk about the terrible twos but I would argue that the terrible threes are just as bad if not worse.

These little angels just want to try your patience. One second they are your best friend and love you and the next second they are laying on the floor having the biggest tantrum in the world because you gave them the wrong banana.

For the tantrums, you can ignore them and move on with life. Typically they will forget why they were even crying. Or you can use some distraction to snap them out of it. I’ve seen my toddler go from full-on meltdown to laughing hysterically because of a distraction I used.

But there will be times they do something and discipline is called for. Maybe they hit someone at school or perhaps they purposely broke a toy. You can’t just ignore it or it will only get worse and keep going.

So what do you do with a 3-year-old who doesn’t care if they get disciplined?

Examine the punishment

When disciplining examine the punishment
When disciplining examine the punishment

The first thing to do is look at how you are punishing your child. The main reason your toddler might not care is the punishment is just not harsh enough or if you are taking something away maybe it wasn’t that important to them.

For example, let’s say your child broke a toy on purpose. If your punishment is to take their toys away from them they might not care at all. To most people, it would make sense to take away their toys because that is what they are doing. But the reason they may have broken the toy is they didn’t care about the toys at all.

You may also want to mix up your punishment. Perhaps standing in the corner for 3 minutes isn’t getting the desired results. I have had a toddler go put their nose on the wall and laugh and smile the whole time. It was obvious the punishment wasn’t working so we moved them to their bed and made them sit on their bed for 3 minutes. The attitude changed real quick and they were happy to join the rest of the family after this punishment.

Does the punishment fit?

Joker meme
Joker meme

Do you use the same punishment for every issue your toddler has? That may be why they don’t care. Try mixing things up and make sure the punishment fits what you are trying to correct. 

If every time they get in trouble they lose their tablet but can still play with toys maybe the next time you take away both their tablets and toys. Once again mix up the punishment because if they are ignoring the correction then they are not putting things together to understand that what they did was wrong. 

Sometimes it is just an act

Even though they may act like they don’t care they might actually care and are trying to be tough. Look closely at their behavior after the punishment. They may not care at all or even laugh about being in timeout, but when they get out does their behavior get better?

If the behavior gets better, keep going, and don’t let the fact that they laugh or smile the whole time they are in trouble bother you.

How often are they in trouble?

A huge mess
A huge mess

This might be a personal examination. Are you getting on to them about every little thing and maybe they feel they can’t do anything right? Back off a little and let some small things slide. 3-year-olds will make mistakes and their emotions will get the best of them so don’t hold them to high standards.

Let the little things slide and worry about the big issues. Then make sure you are setting expectations for their behavior. Some of the issues that get your kids in trouble are they don’t really understand what is expected of them, or they may have forgotten. Give them a little grace and let some of those things slide.

Also, don’t punish them if there was a natural consequence. Just the other day my little one wasn’t sitting on the floor like she was told to. She climbed around on her bed and bonked her head pretty hard and started crying. We simply reminded her that if she was sitting still like she had been told then that wouldn’t have happened. There was no need for further discipline.

Be mindful of your timing

Did your kid leave a mess and you found it 2 days later? I would fully recommend that you don’t punish them for it. Talk to them and explain what they did was wrong and perhaps get them to help clean it up but punishing a toddler for something they did days ago will not resonate well and make a meaningful difference.

If the problem becomes a persistent issue then punishment may be in order. But if it is a one-off occurrence then the best thing to do is communicate why what they did was wrong and reinforce what the expected outcome was in the situation.

Praise them when they do well

If the only time you notice them is when they are doing the wrong thing it could be the main reason why they don’t care about being punished. In their minds, they are getting noticed by you even if it is doing the wrong thing.

When they do something right let them know and reinforce that it was a great thing they just did. In fact, you should be saying something positive to your kids in an 8 to 1 ratio.

That means for every negative thing you say to your child you should be saying 8 positive things. This ratio is really high and normally only applies if you have a high rate of behavior issues with your toddler. A ratio of 5 to 1 is a little more rational method to deal with kids that are not having behavior issues.

Are you connecting with them?

When disciplining your child Are you connecting with them? Girl hiding face.
Are you connecting with them?

When you discipline your toddler do you just tell them to get in the corner? No connection, no correction, you might get off the couch, just “GET IN THE CORNER” or “GET IN TIMEOUT”. 

That needs to change. Connect with them and get down on their level. Explain to them why you are upset about their behavior. Explain to them why they should not have done what they just did.

To get the point across and make sure they understand the “WHY” they are being punished then it might stick a little better and you won’t have to correct that behavior again.

Are you staying calm?

When you discipline your 3-year-old are you staying calm? As above if you are showing your emotions and always raising your voice when putting them in timeout they may be shutting down and not listening to you.

Take a pause if you feel like what they did really upset you and examine what the discipline needs to be. Once you yourself are calm then get down and connect with them and explain the situation and maybe punishment is not needed at all.

Trying to understand a 3-year-old is almost impossible. But a lot of times we need to examine our own behavior and our own reactions to really understand why they act like they don’t care. 

We walk a fine line of discipline with our toddlers. You want them to understand what they did was wrong but you also have to show love in doing so. By connecting with them and staying calm you might eventually not have to discipline at all. Get them to truly understand why they need correction and it will make parenting so much easier.

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