Help for aggressive 3.5 year old

Our son may fall in to the category of "spirited"--he's high energy, probably an extrovert, and can be intense. Lately, his tolerance for frustration has plummeted and when we say "no" to anything, he falls apart. Sometimes it only lasts for a minute. Sometimes longer. Sometimes it turns into hitting and spitting and throwing anything and everything he can get his hands on at us (including heavy things). He's still potty training and he's been teased at daycare for being a baby, which isn't helping, of course. He's bitten a friend at daycare twice, and I think he's having trouble "keeping" friends he makes, though he has no trouble making friends. The hitting, spitting, and throwing are pretty much a daily occurrence at home, at bedtime if no other time. (He hates going to bed, always insists he isn't tired, wants to keep playing, doesn't want to miss anything.) We went to soccer class for the first time yesterday, and it was great...until we got back to the car. Then he started crawling back and forth between the trunk and the backseat and laughing maniacally, and that escalated to hitting and throwing things. It took 35 minutes for him to decide to get in the carseat. Usually when he hits and throws things (and bites), he laughs--both when he does it at home and at daycare. It's hard to tell if he genuinely thinks it's funny or if it's a weird 3-year-old defense mechanism. He has said he thought it would be funny to bite/hit, but he often agrees with whatever I suggest might be going on. He's also said he's angry, and he's said it's an accident, so who knows. I'm reading "Raising Your Spirited Child" and have a copy of "The Explosive Child," but if there's a therapist that someone with similar experience recommends, we'd be very grateful. 

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 I'm sorry I don't have a therapist to recommend but I wanted to offer my support. It sounds like you're doing an amazing job demonstrating patience and understanding, I don't think I could have lasted 35 minutes waiting for my son to get in his car seat! I have raised a "spirited" ,high-energy, low frustration tolerance, sensitive child and I know how difficult it can be. Transition is especially difficult for these children (going to bed, leaving the house, getting in the car, etc) . The maniacal laughter is most likely a result of overstimulation and an inability to express the intense emotions he's experiencing. Maybe the structured soccer class is too much for him at this point. Following directions, cooperating with other children and meeting new people in a new environment can be overwhelming. It sounds like he held it all together until he was in the safety of the car and didn't know how to process or express his frustration. Since you say that many tantrums happen at bedtime I wonder if he's already overtired. Have you tried making bedtime a little earlier, especially now that it's dark by 7:00pm? Dim all the lights after dinner, allow plenty of time for him to decompress and relax before bed

Some things that worked for us at this age were:  1) offering simple choices whenever possible ("do you want one book before bed or two, you choose') 2) provide a consistent but flexible routine,3) frequent reminders of your behavior expectations and 4) warnings when a transition is coming so that he has time to adjust to the idea. Hitting, spitting and biting should have an immediate consequence. I had to carry my son out of the park kicking and screaming on several occasions, at age 3 he had a thing for intentionally pushing over random children from behind. Then he'd laugh about it. After a few times he learned that if he wanted to stay at the park he could not hurt people. 

As your son matures and  verbal skills improve many of the behaviors such as biting and spitting will likely improve on their own. I think the books you're reading will also have great advice on how to help your son through some of his intense emotions. Growing up is hard work.  Deep breaths mama (and large glasses of wine) 

BTW my out of control, spirited, oppositional, preschooler grew up to be a wonderful, happy and well rounded kid :)   

Hello Amy:  You are doing an amazing job with your son, just amazing!  As for locating a therapist--- this may be a far fetched suggestion since you don't speak of any developmental issue your son might have--but, I'm wondering if perhaps the Regional Center can recommend someone.  In helping my now-adult, disabled son, I learned to follow the faintest of possibilities --sometimes we ended up with rich resources of help this way.   Here's a contact for parents of children age 3 and above:    Intake Coordinator at (510) 618-6122 or intakeoverthree [at]

  All the best.


we recently started working with Dr Rebecca Soffer at and have had a great experience. She started out with a psycho-emotional assessment of our 4.5 year old, then presented us with the findings in order to target treatment. She was wonderful. We will begin parent training with her this week! 

Sounds like my son from about 2.75 to 3.5 years. He seems to just be coming out this very very hard phase. I think part of it is maturity but here are a few things we did/his preschool helped us with:

1) Reduce as much screen time as possible. He was barely getting any but we stopped it all and I swear it made a giant difference, especially with bedtime. If you need screens (which of course, no judgment, we all need a break!) pick really calm shows that don't have a lot of "adventures" or bright flashing colors, etc. Some options we liked were Bluey, If you Give a Mouse a Cookie, and Trash Truck.

2) Absolutely no yelling or intense reactions (this is so so hard). Come to everything with curiosity, for example "I see you like crawling around the car. Can you crawl and roar like a bear?" Turn it playful and give it a few minutes and then entice him into the car seat with ideas like "the bear needs to hibernate" (or something probably more creative than that). My son would also laugh after hitting, etc and say proudly "I'm a bad guy!". I hated it and was worried he was a psychopath but I had to just ignore it because he'd then want to fight back if I said he wasn't a bad guy. Also, no discussing about why he might be doing something. They aren't logical enough in those heated moments. Keep it light and don't worry that you are turning him into a monster if you don't punish or talk right vs wrong at this stage. 

3) Bedtime - oof this is hard. My son really needed to drop his nap but daycare couldn't help us with that, so we just accepted his natural bedtime was later. He was super active so we'd have him run around our garage, punch his dad's punching bag, play ball, wrestle, etc to get some energy out. It's ... sort of... better. 

Good luck! I think it will just pass on it's own but hope these suggestions help a bit. 

Do you already listen to the Janet Lansbury podcast? She is our go-to for any behavioral challenges with our son, also 3.5, very high energy, and likely extroverted.

She has an archive on aggression, and her work covers lots and lots of other helpful topics.
The times when you're describing challenging behavior sound like transitions, and these are really hard times for little ones.

Our son has had a harder time with transitions since starting preschool for the first time this fall, and we've needed to slow down a lot to help him move through or it just makes things so much worse. Also, any new activities are hard adjustments, even if they're loving it, like you describe with the new soccer class. I think Lansbury might say your son's behavior is impulsive, and he doesn't know why he's doing it, and the laughing is because he's uncomfortable, just based on listening to her before. They're not intentionally trying to be difficult or mean at this age. She definitely covers this kind of stuff in many of her podcasts, and I always find her soothing voice and wisdom so helpful when we fell stuck. 

A big hug to you Mama, we went through a very similar phase with our 3.5 yr old daughter and it was rough.I agree with what the previous poster posted and in addition here’s what helped us, we made sure she was well fed, well rested and not holding her pee or poop because any of those things made the meltdowns and aggression worse. The manic laughing or hyper excitability in her case meant she was either overtired or on a sugar high or overwhelmed . We avoided those triggers.Losing the afternoon nap ensured an early bedtime.

We worked with her regarding managing her aggression by talking a lot about naming feelings, and discussing other ways to cope with them and reading books about anger. Some of the ways would be, drawing and showing how mad she was, or hitting a pillow or a couch vs a person or jumping or running or deep breaths. Also it helped if we stayed calm through the process, which was very hard! some of the books that helped were “ Fergal and the bad temper” , “ Ahn’s anger”. Some of the behaviors were made worse because of the lockdown and pandemic and coping with a new sibling but some of the other kids in her class were also struggling with aggression which seemed to have started with the lockdowns.

Routine, daily outdoor time and focused one on one time with her also helped, and involving her in house hold chores like cleaning the table.

We also learned to be more consistent with boundaries and offering choices and keeping things playful. For example, do you want to walk to your carseat or fly to your carseat, sometimes she didn’t want any of our choices in that we would tell her we need to get into the car seat, do you have another idea for doing that? If not then we are going to help you get in because we need to keep you safe as we drive and then we would calmly follow through. Initially she would be upset and mad about it but we would take the time to acknowledge the feelings, “ you were not ready to get into the car seat and it made you mad that we helped you..” and with consistently following through these types of meltdowns subsided. 

We made it a point to praise even the smallest behavior which was in the right direction, eg. “ Thank you for using your words to tell me that you wanted to hit me instead of hitting me!” 

The book that really helped was “ How to talk so kids will listen..” by Adel Faber. Some parents in our preschool had a good experience for their spirited kids with this therapist who runs a workshop called “wits end parenting”

At 3-4 yrs their brain goes through major hormonal changes and it can be rough. My daughter is 5 now and is calmer and has lost the hitting and spitting behaviors and seem much more reasonable so hang in there.

You could consider talking to an occupational therapist (OT). The name doesn't seem like it would be a good fit, but based on what you've described, my understanding is that OT can be very helpful for situations like this. You could talk to your pediatrician first, and they should be able to put in a referral for OT if they think it's appropriate. 

Definitely check out Rebecah Freeling at Wit's End Parenting. She is a parenting coach who specializes in spirited kids. I took her spirited children class through Bananas for free. Highly recommend that and they do it on a fairly regular basis so there might be one coming up soon. I found it helpful for my oldest when he was 5 and was really struggling. My husband took it after me too. It really helped me realize that there are other people going through this, accept my kid as he is and also think about how to creatively parent him into his best self.

Rebecah also does one on one parenting coaching that you can pay for. I have not done that but have thought about it. She has a facebook group which can be helpful.  She will somewhat regularly do free one hour sessions on a particular topic too in which she does some teaching and then encourages you to sign up for her coaching.

My friend has a very “spirited” child. He actually has AD HD and she is against using meds. That being said she keeps him very very active. They run in the morning together and calms him down before show and keep him focused. Many  after school activities of also helped. Diet is also key…. But in the end I would recommend seeing a doctor for a diagnosis.