How Do You Tame a Difficult 4 Year Old?

A dad I know wrote on his blog last week about the difficulties he’s having with his 4 year old son. One example given is treating the family dog Lilly too roughly, and then throwing huge tantrums when put in time out. So, being the Nosy Nellie that only I can be, I’ve written up a post on the topic.

Pick your Battles – When you put him in time out for mistreating the dog, you’re taking on two battles at once and he knows it. Personally, I’d lay down the law about the dog in advance: hurting an animal is wrong and won’t be tolerated. If he chooses to pick on Lilly, then you know he’s choosing to play somewhere else.

young boy glaring at cameraI would try really hard not to fight the timeout battle just yet. Rather, I’d just tell him he’s not welcome to play near the dog for a certain length of time, say ten minutes. You want to send a message about treating the dog properly and set a limit for Boy4 at the same time.

When he’s too rough on Lilly, remove him instantly. Giving him warnings or choices in this case is only communicating that you don’t really mean it when you tell him to stop. It’ll probably take a while, and most likely an increase in the separation time will be necessary as he tests the limits. Consistency will win the day.

It’s also worth considering why he’s bugging the dog. Is it just normal rough boy on dog? Is he in some way envious of Boy12 being the dog’s main owner? Is he taking out some frustration on the dog? Knowing the reason behind the behavior might help solve the problem.

Be Deliberate and Commit – to any battles you get into. If you decide the time has come to teach Boy4 to submit to a time out, do it on your terms. Set your location of choice up, and be ready to see the conflict through until he’s met requirements that you set in advance. Mine would be “stop crying and screaming, and calm down enough to talk nicely with me”.

I know that some readers are disagreeing with me at the tops of their lungs right now. The fact is, there are times in life when as a parent you have to win the power struggle. This is for the good of the child who relies on adults to set limits and keep him safe.

It IS possible to do this in a firm, calm, and loving way. The technique is described pretty well in the Love and Logic book, so I won’t go through it all here. If you’re putting him in his room and then letting him out on his terms instead of yours, he’s getting the idea that he’s in control.

Make Deposits – We call it the Love Bucket here at Earnest Parenting, mainly because I think it’s kind of a hokey phrase (I think the very excellent concept came from the Love Languages series). Anyhow, it makes me smile to say it, and the boys have gotten fond of it, so hey, hokey works. Basically we try to be very free with the hugs and kisses and telling them we love them. If a boy is getting ornery I often ask if his loooooove bucket is empty, then grab him and invest a few moments in hugs and kisses; or if he’s really ornery, a tickle fight. Hubby is pretty good at wrestling with them too. Not much an ornery boy likes better than a good wrestling match.

Give Him Control – Do give him a choice as often as you can. Even something as mundane as “Do you want a hug or no hug?” at bedtime followed up with respect for his wishes can go a long way. You already know that two choices works well. Those choices don’t have to be two separate things. They can be a yes or no to something. You don’t even have to use the word ‘choice’ in the question. In fact, I recommend you don’t.

If I’m saying “Your choices are A or B” then I’m still dominating the situation, and not really asking him what he wants. But if I say “So, are you going to do A or B?” then I’m boosting him up and giving him a clear message of respect and love.

It’s going to take time, but if you get him comfortable with making choices you’re going to reap some benefits. First, you’re giving him the tools to think for himself and make solid decisions as an adult. Second, you’re building up his confidence and self-assurance. And finally (this one’s my favorite) you’re arming yourself with a tool that can really be great when you need to disarm a situation.

The offering of choices needs to be an all-the-time thing, not just a trick you use to deal with misbehavior.

Often, instead of having a power struggle with the boys I can question my way out of it, structuring the choices in such a way that I avoid the power struggle and they get treated like the big boys that we all want them to be. I think it might have something to do with getting the child to think that the things you want him to do are his idea.

It took a lot of energy, learning to ask questions and use this technique. I’m getting better at it over time. When I’m in the zone, things go pretty well. Then there are the days they don’t. Parenting: the ultimate live and learn situation.

Earnest Parenting: tips to help children behave.

Photo courtesy of lime_anneberit via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.

The editor-in-chief of Earnest Parenting, Amy is the mother of two sets of twin boys. Yes, they drive her crazy, but they also make her laugh occasionally. Amy enjoys writing, quilting, reading, and working on her burgeoning cyber empire.

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    • November 4, 2012, 1:13 pm

      Here is my issue. I have a 4 yr old daughter. Shes a pretty good kid most of the time. BUT……when we go out to the store she turns into this wild child. She runs around up and down the isles, take things and put in the cart when shes asked not to. She has melt downs in the the store when she cant get what she wants. Or when she is asked to get into the chart when she wont stay with me. It is almost impossible to get my shopping done during all these tantrums. I try to give her warnings that if she chooses not to listen to mommy she will be sitting in the cart. She will defy my and end up in the cart. But then there is a battle there too. Once shes in the cart she choose to stand up.I will ask her multiple times to sit down. Until we are to the point where we are both upset. I have tried to take her toys away when we get home. Or time out. and it seems like it just a joke to her. I try and try to give her come control by letting her choose between things but yet it only seems to work some of the time. When we are at home. We have a 8 mo old baby and my 4 yr old is so rough with her. and no matter what I say or do to make her understand that the baby is a baby she continues to do what she pleases. She picks her up walks around with her like a doll, we try and try to explain to her that she could hurt her but she still chooses to do what she wants when she wants. I need some suggestions to help get threw this child that she needs to listen. what do you suggest. thank you

      • November 4, 2012, 7:31 pm

        Amanda. Take her to the store when you have a lot of time. Walk in the door. Tell her that you’re not leaving to go home until she has behaved properly for 5 minutes. It’ll take time, but trust me. You’ll only need to do this a time or two. I had to do it with my boys. I simply stayed and walked around with the cart until they did what I wanted. From there, it was simply a matter of reminding them that I was expecting that behavior.

        She’s acting up to shorten the trip, and is winning that battle. By forcing her to behave to get what she wants, you both win.

        As for handling the baby. Hm. Without knowing more about what she likes to do, it’s harder to suggest. Is she handling the baby to get attention? Likely. Who reacts most to this? You or her dad? Whoever reacts the most is probably who she’s trying to get to. Try spending 15 minutes with her, completely focused on her and what she is doing. Let her lead the play, you just follow. No corrections, just time enjoying each other. You may be surprised at the result. I just reviewed a book called Pills are Not for Preschoolers. In there, the author gives some really solid suggestions for ways to connect with kids that may be helpful to you as well.

        Let me know how it works out!