As difficult as it can be, it is developmentally normal for three year-olds to be less compliant than younger toddlers, to lack emotional control, etc. It is a challenging age for them to be. Some of my favorite strategies for helping toddlers and preschoolers along can be found at ahaparenting.com. I also have appreciated many of the ideas in the book Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen.
My son did something similar from his 3rd birthday to 4th birthday, and it was horrible. He was totally sassy, defiant, contradictory, mouthy, argumentative, and so on:
Me: Put on your underwear
Me: 5 minutes until dinner (5 minutes later) Dinner!
Son: (Glares at me and walks away to his room)
Me: Be gentle with the pets.
Son: (Kicks at the cat)
And so on..
Life was miserable. Only my bellowing, gut-pushing, holler forced the issue; I yelled loudly enough to make the metal sink fixtures "ping" in resonance. Think of the "Jerry Springer" show. That was our home several times a day. All day. For a year. But Jerry Springer has weekends off.
Did I mention that I am normally a quiet, contemplative bookworm? I hated the yelling as much as everyone else.
If you are wondering: We offered him choices in the matters: Spiderman underwear or Buzz Lightyear underwear, but he argued; we provided 5 minute warnings for everything, but he ignored us; I always made a point to treat animals gently; he disobeyed.
I think this was his version of the terrible twos, but 1 year late. Other kids vary, I imagine. People may say he wanted to test his limits, find himself. Whatever. That's another conversation.
Then one day - shortly after his 4th birthday - I realized that I had not yelled at him in a week. Wait a second, what happened? He no longer picked fights, the 10 minutes-5minutes notices for dinner worked smoothly, and the cat started sleeping on his bed at night. I wondered if I got a new son. Jerry Springer was gone.
I heard that kids learn to understand reasonable conversations at this age, and we have a much happier home. This difficulty at least is done.
My kids are older now but I remember those days being so trying! Playful Parenting was a great book. I did try to make things a bit more playful. For instance, when my daughter refused to get in her carseat, I would make the carseat talk about how lonely it was with no one sitting in it. I used this dorky voice and my daughter LOVED it. I had to use it like every time she needed to get in the car seat. When she wouldn't hold my hand I would look crestfallen and say I really needed someone to hold my hand to cross the street and I would joke that I wasn't old enough to cross by myself. When she would grab my hand I would get all elated and we'd skip across the street. Now, I can be dry and sarcastic sometimes so my kids understood my weird sense of humor. We'd also have fake temper tantrums together or imagine dad having a temper tantrum and that stopped some angry temper tantrums in the moment.
Other things I would just ignore. I never had kids not come to dinner because it was just routine. But I think if they wouldn't or refused, well, it's their dinner. I'd serve it and sit and probably proclaim loudly how much I missed having her at the table with me and I sure wish I had someone to eat with. Then I would say no more and eat. Then I'd clear the table. If they were hungry later they would get something super boring (if my kids didn't eat much dinner and were hungry before bed they got a couple saltines or graham crackers to hold them over until the morning). For kicking at the cat... I'd remove the cat. I would say "Ouch! Poor kitty doesn't like to be kicked. Kitty, let's move you somewhere where you won't be hurt." and I would model gentle behavior and pick up the cat, petting him and gently find somewhere safe for him. I have three cats and had to do that quite a few times! When the kids had sibling rivalry, I'd usually pay more attention to the victim rather than punish the perpetrator. Sometimes I would involve the perpetrator in comforting the child who was hurt. It would really sink in that the push that skinned someone's knee HURT when they saw that person crying and helped clean and get a bandaid for the wound.
So really, I modeled a lot of expected behavior and had a sense of humor about some things and let other things go. It was a frustrating time! I have a 12 year old boy now (as well as 10 yr old and 8 yr old daughters), and wow, I do kind of miss those "easier" toddler times, though. He seems so angsty now that I find myself thinking back fondly to the toddler days. lol.
take care of yourself. do what it takes to take the stress out of your life. it is very VERY VERY important.
when you are calm and peaceful - you will find your kid does not frustrate you so much and you will be able to find what works immediately. plus it has a calming effect on them.
3 and 4 can be horrible ages. really hard on the parents. if at this time we can figure out our own coping skills, it will better prepare us for the teenage years.
i have an almost teen who is showing all sorts of teen behaviour. but she is not as 'mean' as she was at 3 and 4. i dont mind protest and stretching boundary behaviour - just not mean hurtful behaviour.