Challenging four-year-old behavior

How to handle meltdowns, erratic behavior, and other hallmarks of the "frustrating fours."

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As a PSP member writes:


"My partner and I are growing extremely concerned about our just-turned-four year old, and are hoping some of you might share your experiences with us.

Our son is a bright, happy, cheerful, and enthusiastic little boy who loves school, his friends and sisters. . . a lot of the time. But he has an incredibly low threshold/tolerance for disappointment, hurt feelings, embarassment and frustration and when he is confronted with any of those feelings, he is almost impossible to deal with. At best, he melts down, gets mad, and has a tantrum; at worst, he kicks and hits his incredibly tolerant older sister, us, and more recently, his friends. During these periods, it's almost impossible to talk to him. He knows that 'whiners don't get what they want.' He also knows that kicking and hitting are wholly unacceptable. (Incidentally, he has never, ever been hit-- we have always tried to show him that we talk when we're angry, and that hitting is not ever an answer. He doesn't seem to believe us.) But when he gets in these moods, there is no communicating with him. Once he 'snaps out of it,' and is back to his normal self, we talk about consequences, he gets time outs, he promises never to hit again and to say sorry . . . but none of our talks, our efforts to use positive reinforcement, our efforts to show him there are consequences seem to have any effect when he is one of his moods, and when he's 'out' of his mood, it is too late-- almost like dealing with a different kid. We are really worried. Obviously we are mortified that our kid is lashing out at his friends. We care about the other kids not getting hurt. We're also worried that his pals won't play with him any more, which will be devastating since he truly loves playing with his pre-k friends. And we are worried about him. We want him to grow up being able to handle his feelings, to feel good about himself, to let go of anger and grudges. He has always been intense in his feelings, and had a hard time letting things go. He's just wired that way. We don't want to turn him into a different person but we do want to make his life, and ours, better and easier.

Do you have a similar kid? A wonderful, loving kid with very strong emotions who doesn't always handle them well? Please let us know how you've directed him or her. We vacillate between thinking, 'he's only 4, he'll out grow this and we're overreacting,' to 'we need a therapist to help us teach him how to deal with his emotions, and to help us deal with them, too.' Sometimes I think he needs more activities because he seems to love structured activities and teachers. Sometimes I think he needs more down time to rest, and that preschool is a lot for a four year old.... Every kid is different but I'd be grateful to hear from other parents and families and hear your successes, suggestions, recommendations for books or even a child/family therapist.... Our 10 year old daughter is and always has been the most mellow, laid back girl in the world, so we are a little at a loss."




It's normal:

"Hang in there! I think this is more normal than you might think, although it doesn't make it any easier on all of you, and him."


It can happen when kids are overtired and/or hungry ("hangry"):

"Just wanted to let you know this sounds like my 4 year old daughter. We too worry a little about if this unusual or if this is just they way she is at this point and will at some point be able to handle her emotions in a better way. I most often find she reaches this point when overly tired or hungry so I try to monitor that as much as possible. I have been very concerned with some of the things she has been saying recently. For example, if I can't do something with her at that moment (play ball, etc) because I'm preparing dinner she will start saying "you hate me. I hate my self.". From what I read it is best not to make too much out of it. I'm trying not to take it personally and just reassure her that I love her very much and keep it moving. I would be most interested to hear what other say. Really I think some kids just feel things more intensely and can't deal with the emotions yet. It takes a lot of work to help them get there but we can do it!"


Talk to others who know and interact with your child:

"Have you spoken with his preschool teacher(s)? They should have a lot of perspective on the range of behavior for 4 year old boys. Every age is touch with so many things to process."


Try talking with a professional:

"I highly recommend meeting with a child therapist for a parent consult and evaluating if he should be seen. There is a real risk of this hurting his self esteem since he himself knows he has a very hard time handling situations/his emotions, and he will become more and more aware of this as he gets older. Most always this level of difficulty in a kid's coping does not get better on it's own with time and age; it is symptomatic of something either internal or external going on for him/with him. Short term treatment can be really useful for him to get better AND for you and your husband to understand him more/what us going on with him...and you can then have a therapist in the wings available when you need a "tune up". Meeting with someone good with actually help de-pathologize him and really help to shed light on how he "works" and what to do in the midst of one of his storms. Best of luck to you!"


Let the tantrum run it's course and remain calm, gentle, and loving:

"Sometimes it is hard to remember that our younger daughter who is now eight and delightful most of the time once was very much the way you are describing your son. As you said "once he snaps out of it" he is back to his normal self. One way to think about these tantrums is as an epileptic seizure -not that they are- but once they start they have to run their course. The best thing to do when they occur is to make sure that he and those around him are safe. If he is 'just' having a tantrum you can let him be but if he starts hitting or kicking the best thing to do is to hold him until the storm passes. While holding him you could acknowledge to him that he is angry or upset and that you understand that he feels this way. You can tell him that you want to make sure he is safe.

After the storm passes or when things are calm you could ask "What got you upset earlier today or yesterday?" Not that he'll be able to give you an answer necessarily but it gives him an opportunity to say something and most importantly to feel that you are willing to hear what he has to say without fearing punishment. Speaking of punishment, we never used time-outs and while talking is important it has limited effectiveness at this age. The part of their brain that can control this type of behavior doesn't really mature until the age 25 -and even then it's questionable! So to punish a behavior he cannot truly control can lead him to feel defective in some way when in fact there is nothing wrong with him. As you said he is hard-wired this way. Also developmentally children at this age are not equipped yet to comprehend others and themselves the way adults are able to. Often it is hard for them to know what it is that they are feeling and if they are tired, hungry etc. it makes it even harder. It helps if a parent can name their feelings so they too know what's going on. All of this takes time, patience, good humor, a night out without the kids and support from anyone who is willing to provide itˇ˝ In our case the tantrums continued until she was about six but even now -although rarely- under the right conditions can happen again. There is no way of telling how long they'll last.

To the best of my knowledge she did not lose any friends because of the tantrums. Kids can be very understanding about what goes on. Her friends, when they happened to be around, learned that she would come out of it and they would have their friend they knew and liked to play with again. All the best. I.
PS I am writing this as a parent who also happens to be a therapist and whose wife had to handle most of them."


Recommended reading: 


"My older son is nearly 3 and while bright and charming, he also struggles with emotion regulation and we worry about the effects this might have down the road. I recently read a book suggested by a woman who held a positive discipline seminar my husband attended. The book is called Connected Parenting. While, as with most such books, you need to distill the information and see what's relevant to your situation, I have found it to be somewhat helpful with my son."


"Hi... Welcome to 4 year old boys...or as a friend of mine said, the f*cking 4's. I have had a few incidents with my son where he was similar to what you are describing. I had asked my therapist about it and she recommended reading The Whole Brain Child. Admittedly, I am not done with it but so far have found it to be very helpful. Other than that, I don't have anything else to offer up."


I would suggest looking at the following book and site and also The Whole Brain Child. I was able to find a excerpt from Transforming the Difficult Child.  While I am a psychotherapist I don't work with children, but have recommended Transforming the Difficult Child to parents. Wishing you well.... The following is an excerpt from Transforming the Difficult Child, by Howard Glasser and Jennifer Easley; reprinted with permission.
I've posted this as a teaser, and because I really like the ideas in Chapter 2 (below) ... the actual techniques come later in the book.  As I've written elsewhere, this is my favorite book for parenting, and yes, transforming, children who are difficult to parent - intense, needy, having difficulty regulating their energy and behavior, "ADHD-ish", with negative self-image, acting out to get attention, and so on. Sound like any older adoptees you know and love? It's also a fabulous positive parenting approach for "easier" kids. Glasser's belief is that normal parenting and teaching methods are designed for the "average child", and that the harder normal methods are applied to difficult children, the worse the situation can get, despite the best of intentions. I really think this approach has arrived at a simple, but essential truth about parenting ANY child - we need to reverse our typical, inadvertent pattern of paying more attention to misbehavior than to good behavior. Instead of making a big deal over negativity ("why water the weeds?"), make a big fuss over the good stuff. Their Nurtured Heart approach has 3 basic aspects:
Super-energizing experiences of success ...
While refusing to energize or accidentally reward negativity ...
And still providing an ideal level of limit-setting and consequences
This approach helps therapeutically shift intense children to using their intensity in wonderful ways, and creates a world of first-hand experiences of prosocial behavior: "Here you are being successful ..." This is more than "catching kids being good", it's about having powerful ways to make any moment an opportunity to create success, by finding the good in what IS happening, but also in what ISN'T happening."




Chapter 1

How quickly things can change

Matthew, age 7, pushed his sister to the ground after she told him to leave her alone. He had been taunting her. His mother, angry and frustrated, lectured him on right and wrong, sent him to his room and promised that if he did it again he would have no TV for the next two days. Did it work? It would have worked on an average child. It didn't work on Matthew. He was back at it at the first opportunity. His mother feels betrayed and exhausted. She'd run out of tricks. She'd tried everything she had read in books and magazines. She worried about what her son would be like in six months and in six years if his seeming addiction to pushing the limits didn't stop. Mother and child both deeply feel the pain of what had been happening at home and at school. She was a very well-intentioned mom with a bright and well-intentioned child who just couldn't seem to control himself.

Brandon, age 4, will not take "no" for an answer. He tantrums at the least bit of disappointment, whether in the form of a "no" to his demand for more sweets, or a "stop that, please!" to his efforts to explore the family stereo system. Everyone had been saying that he'd outgrow it, but the tantrums were getting worse...and everyone didn't have to live with him! The tantrums were embarrassing in public and scary at home because he had started to break things and to be mean to pets. Nothing his parents tried or read about seemed to work for more than a short while. His parents had even had a few consultations with a psychologist a year earlier. They were beginning to feel as if people are staring at them... as if they were parents from hell. They were terrified of how Brandon would fit in at school. As things were going, the situation appeared destined for disaster.

Monique, age 13, has habitually under-functioned for as long as her parents remember. She was a smart child who was failing most of her classes and who would rather argue about homework or chores than ever just do them, no matter how simple they were. Her parents had divorced two years previously. They were tense all the time, largely over their distinctly differing opinions on how to deal with Monique. Her dad felt that she got away with murder with her mom, and her mom felt that Monique's father was much too strict. Besides, neither style seemed to work. Monique's defiance had brought her to the edge of growing up too fast. She wanted to pile on the make-up and hang out with older kids with questionable lifestyles. Her mom was positive Monique would find a way to get pregnant before too long. Monique knew exactly how to push her mom's buttons. The arguments, warnings and lectures that followed her defiance had become a way of life.

All three children had several things in common. They had become stuck in patterns of negativity from which they could not extricate themselves, no matter how much individual advice they received. All three children had the impression that they got more interesting reactions and larger responses from the adults in their lives as a result of their negativity than for positive behaviors. And, all three children were very smart young people who were seriously under-functioning, primarily because they expended the greater part of their wits and intelligence in the unproductive endeavor of trying to get strong reactions to their problem behaviors.

All the parents of these children also had several things in common. They were trying extremely hard to be good parents. In fact, they were trying every trick that they could mobilize. They had sought advice, read books and magazines, watched videos and observed the world around them for solutions. They basically had tried every reasonable traditional parenting possibility they could get their hands on. Not only that, but they tried things over and over, with as much conviction as they could muster. Despite their excellent intentions, nothing was working.

They might eventually have become looked upon as bad parents, but in actuality, just about everything they tried would have worked just fine with easier children. They had already reached their own conclusions that normal methods did not work with their child. They were also beginning to suspect that something was dreadfully wrong with their child. To say the least, they were not enjoying parenting and they were half-crazed with the thoughts of where this all was leading.

What these parents wound up doing, in each case, turned things completely around in only a month. They applied a wonderful combination of techniques designed specifically for the intense and challenging child. These simple but unusual methods created the changes that quickly and surely drew the child into a completely new focus on being successful.

Here's a glimpse of what these families wound up doing:

In all three families, the parents took a four-part class that explained how intense and difficult children really operate. Each class gave them theories and techniques to carry them along the way toward reversing the pattern of problems and toward shifting the child to a new pattern of successes.

After the first class, the parents were clear that they no longer wanted to accidentally fall into the trap of feeding a pattern of negativity by having a response that was not a true consequence. They were beginning to realize that some of the conventional tactics for parenting a child with problem behaviors--tactics such as reprimands, words of concern, lectures, redirections, threats, discussions, yelling and other ways of making a big deal about negativity-- were actually rewards rather than consequences, however unintended that result. They also left the class conscious of different ways they could make a big deal over several different kinds of successes that had been going unnoticed. They were ready to apply some magic and "trick" their child into a world of successes.

All three parents began by briefly visiting their child several times a day "before" the predictable behavior glitches occurred and applying three techniques. They did a form of recognition in which they verbally described what they saw the child doing. They also gave their child increased acknowledgement for skills, values and attributes that they wanted to see more often, and they consciously gave recognition for qualities like showing a good attitude, using self-control, being respectful, getting along with others, being cooperative and so forth. The parents needed to be very diligent and creative to ensure that this appreciation occurred whenever possible, at the slightest glimpse of the desired trait.

They also left the class ready and willing to give their child compliments throughout the day for instances when rules were not being broken. In this way they were teaching the rules by actually creating positive experiences through pointing out when their child was not fighting, not whining, not arguing or not being disrespectful. They were realizing that, inadvertently, they had always made it more interesting for their child to break rules by reacting more strongly when the rules were broken and, in effect, rewarding disrespect and bad attitude by giving more energy to the problem than the solution.

Now they were having more animated responses when things were going right, and they were using new techniques and creativity to make it happen. All this added up to five minutes of intervention a day. A far cry from the hours it typically took to discuss and solve problems.

By the end of the second week, these parents had devised and implemented a way to give their children credit when rules were not being broken, credit for performing chores and responsibilities, as well as credit and recognition for a host of other desirable behaviors. They had linked this with a clever way to exchange these credits for privileges, and they were quickly seeing how the children were buying in, despite their initial reluctance.

Each child was making considerably more effort to follow the rules, to be cooperative and helpful, and to meet his or her responsibilities. Each child seemed pleased to have acquired a newfound ability to get back old privileges and some new ones in a predictable and straightforward way.

By the third week, the stage was set to have consequences really work. The children now really knew what the rules were and really knew what happened when the rules weren't broken. They were beginning to trust that they would be noticed for not breaking rules, and this both felt good and benefited their new economy of credits.

Since the parent was no longer inadvertently feeding the negative behavior."


~ ~ ~


Another question on challenging four-year-old behavior from a 2021 thread:

"Our son has mostly been pretty well-behaved, but he's definitely starting to do many things he knows he's not allowed to, and we struggle with how to correct this. We talk to him and he says okay, but we don't have a lot of consequences because I can't really think of privileges he has. He doesn't have any set screen time, we occasionally take a way a treat we make. During his 'nap/quiet time' this has become a problem, with him making messes in his bed (making soup), going into my office desk and taking things like post-its, staples, staple removers, and most recently digging out two holes in our plaster walls!!!!! HELP.

I feel like at this point we have to stop trying with quiet time? We talk to him and he says 'okay,' but it continues. Do we just need to prevent it by not leaving him alone? But this feels like we can't trust him, which is a bummer.

We have taken away tools/toys when he has damaged the home with them, but when it's after the fact I'm not sure. A chart for good choices?"


Members recommend making sure your child is set up with activities to avoid them getting bored and restless:

"I have to admit that we have struggled with some of these kinds of things as well. Our daughter is also 4 and is very busy and has big ideas that often create big messes and are at times unsafe, even if we do our best to make our home safe. It does feel a bit late and in the game to be giving so many reminders for the same things that we feel should be understood and that we feel it has been expressed adequately that are not allowed. Unraveling toilet paper and paper towel rolls went on far too long I thought. Then there was the incident of squirting all of the not inexpensive child hair conditioner into the toilet. I find all of the instances are just unique enough that they aren’t generalizable so there is just frequent reminders and admittedly frustration on our part at times when explaining why we can’t do whatever it was.

One thing that seems to help a lot is that our child is kept busy with functional activities that are interesting and challenging. She has been in a Montessori school this past year which ran 4.5 full days without interruptions, and that really saved us. We were seeing a lot more of your mentioned behaviors when school stopped last Spring, but this particular program has been very regulating.

With that Montessori model, because everything even at this age is so focused on choice or projects and work, she is an angel there by being challenged and kept busy. We have found that having a lot of art and fine motor work options at home has helped, especially during the pandemic. If she is busy with her hands doing something functional these behaviors come up much less often. We just have to remember to set her up with an activity in sight, and she will stick with it for a long time and be great. It’s when we start doing laundry for instance and forget to set up an activity first that the messes come up and the best choices aren’t made for what to do without close supervision.

Some recent very helpful activities are the below:

Young + Wild & Friedman

Egyptian Mummy Dig Kit

Kinetic Sand Kit

Scissor Skills Activity Kit

Hope these help! Good luck!!"


Threats and bribery are tempting, but not necessarily the way to go:

"My husband and I were just discussing that we need some new discipline techniques with our newly four year old. While our son is a really good kid, he is certainly flexing his increasing independence and ability to say 'No!' I have found that bribery or threatening to take a favorite toy away is effective in the moment to get him to listen, however, I do not love this strategy. ... I also think a lot of the behaviors that can be maddening right now (not listening, screaming No's, remarkable energy that usually ends in tears) are very age appropriate and us parents are somehow going to have tap into our increasingly limited reserves of patience."

"Another mom friend also suggested a rewards if he has a successful nap time (non destructive, following clear rules) this many days in a row he earns screen time. He is now in school full time (THANK GOD) which is great, but yes sometimes we threaten to take away bedtime stories and that feels AWFUL. But it seems to be one of the only clear consequences he understands. I like the rewards idea better - maybe I can do it with activities rather than screen or toys since they're not my favorite. But, in a way that feels like bribing too (if you follow the rules at naptime, we get to make ice cream together)! Not ideal..."


Especially when emotions are running high:

"We've found that consequences don't work when there's a tantrum happening, because they've lost control and aren't thinking rationally. Help the kid manage the emotional side first, then talk about their actions and issue any consequences.

Consequences are also less effective when the parent is flustered or angry too. Regain control of yourself (or have a co-parent tap in, if possible), express that you're frustrated by the behavior, but issue the consequences dispassionately.

And lastly, make sure that over the course of the day you're also doing positive reinforcement and positive consequences.

None of that solves the problem, but it's helped us."


Clearly defined consequences do the trick for some:

"Same difficulties here! We sometimes find success in:

—withdrawing access to a screen (she only gets it once a day around 6pm, so this is a big loss)
—no yoghurt pouch (a comfort food)
—no play date (very effective)
—no toy (if she had seen something she wanted, she doesn’t get the sticker to earn towards it)

It goes in one ear and out the other but is half of the time successful. In solidarity!"


And consequences can be more effective when directly tied to actions:

"I'm not that great at this yet but I'm trying to make the consequence more tied to the action. So if H made a mess, the consequence is that we have to clean it up, usually together. That one is easy. Sometimes it's not so easy though to figure out what the natural consequence is.

I read Janet Lansbury a lot and I'm not as gentle as she is but I find this helpful: No Bad Kids – Toddler Discipline Without Shame (9 Guidelines) and Truths About Consequences.

This seems a little harder with quiet time though. Do you make sure the toys are taken away (but do you just get more holes in your wall then?!)? Is the quiet time too long for what he is ready for right now/at this moment?"

"We're in the same boat. Thought I'd share a few principles we've learned from our daughter's montessori daycare and read in books. First, we make sure consequences are as relevant to the action as possible (eg make a mess with the playdoh and refuse to clean it up = playdoh goes away for a week or more. NOT loss of screen time, because that's irrelevant to the action)."


Try setting a timer:

"DITTO!! Dying w the toddler ‘tude lately. No to everything! Even when he means yes.

My tactics thus far - taking things away, like no treats after dinner or no ipad or taking away the toy of the moment. But it only works some of the time. And I wonder if I am just reinforcing the “no’s” by saying no myself? Oy.

One other thing that worked a couple of times was “I’m going to tell your teacher you won’t brush your teeth.“ He got upset about that and shaped up. But lately he’s been giving the attitude to his teachers, saying “no” to everything which is new and scary because now I can’t use that technique!

If he’s not listening at all I say ‘OK let me know when you’re ready to do XYZ or let me know when you’re done crying or let me know when you’re ready to put your shoes on or brush your teeth.’ And we set a timer which is pretty successful. He chooses how many minutes (luckily he often says 1 minute ha). Not ideal if running late."


More recommended reading:

"This is such a helpful thread. I wanted to add that we've gotten a lot of great ideas from How to Talk So Little Kids will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King. I also love Kristin Mariella, who goes by Respectful Mom. Her advice echos Dr. Siggie Cohen and Janet Landsbury, with maybe a slightly more hippie vibe.

All this stuff really reinforces the idea that we are working/talking with our kids, not at or down to them. Keeping that orientation whenever possible (even after they've used all the salt to make it 'snow' in the kitchen--just a random example that comes to mind) really helps."