How Do You Tame a Difficult 4 Year Old?

young boy glaring at camera

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.

I 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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    • Joe November 17, 2007, 8:28 am

      These are some great ideas. The one about fighting two battles at once, especially, causes me to go Hmmmmm…He’s very good at throwing multiple battles at us. (Don’t get me wrong-he’s very often a sweet, normal, rambunctious 4 year old boy. But often, too, a little tyrant.) For instance, he might make random loud BA BA BA BA noises at the dinner table, disturbing the rest of us. So, immediate logical consequences, we tell him he can’t sit there with us if he’s going to do that, and we make him get down and leave the room. He goes straight to Lilly and starts to bother her, still making noise. Now we have two battles. He’s in control because all of us are miserable when he’s difficult, and all our actions revolve around him to try to achieve some peace.

      Now, for the specific application of what you’re saying. Believe me, we have told him he’s not welcome to play near the dog for x minutes. But enforcement is a problem. Unless one of us runs interference between him and the dog, he’s back at her as soon as our backs are turned. The only way to actually keep him away is to lock him in his room and brace ourselves. So OUR choices are all lousy: let him bother the dog, or listen to a tantrum from his room, or become full-time monitors of how he treats the dog.

      I have to run now, but am interested in hearing more about the specific application. My wife read Love and Logic years ago. Time to get it and read it again (first time for me). Thanks for the post.

      Reply
    • Amy November 17, 2007, 7:29 pm

      If you read one of the Love and Logic books, do read the one for young children. It’s by far and away the most concrete and my favorite. And yes, I’ve read several of them. Own ‘em, love ‘em. Need to read them again.

      In the example you gave, you haven’t committed to winning the battle. When you’re giving choices in the question/empowering situation, then yes you want the choices to be palatable for all.

      But. When you’re enforcing a rule, then it’s definitely less pleasant to be sure. If you commit to holding him to the rules, it’s hard at first but eventually he can decide it’s easier to just do things Mom and Dad’s way rather than go through all the hassle of consequences.

      Another thought: Why not bypass Lilly and just send him to his room to play if he’s unpleasant at the table? Cheerfully say “Uh oh, dinner’s over for you. Loud boys play in their rooms,” and send him off. Again, the enforcement of the consequence can turn ugly fast, but if you stick to your guns it won’t last forever.

      By not following through, you could be lengthening the battles.

      And of course he’s a great kid. :) So are mine, but they still drive me up the wall routinely. You mentioned Boy4 being kind to his little sister recently and then not being miffed when she rebuffed his efforts. Takes a pretty big heart to be kind when lil’ sis is having issues.

      Reply
    • Joe November 18, 2007, 4:41 pm

      Ok, I’ll look for the one about young children.

      Can you be more specific about “haven’t committed to winning the battle?”

      Reply
    • Amy November 19, 2007, 12:27 pm

      Yeah. :) There are 2 different situations that we’re discussing. First, there’s the offering choices one. Whenever you can, you invite the child to make decisions. This trains him (and sets you up) for the slightly more touchy situations where power struggles can develop. An example would be getting dressed in the morning. Rather than fight over whether or not the child is going to get dressed, you ask him which pair of pants he’s going to choose. Usually, children enjoy the decision-making so much that they abandon the battle for the joy of choice. Not always of course. Having them more accustomed to the question-choice pattern helps tremendously and if you do it all the time, you can just start popping questions at a grumpy child. Get him to answer just one and he’s all yours.

      This is different from the battle that I’m talking about between Boy4 and the family at dinnertime. Because his behavior at the table is unpleasant, you ask him to leave. He then continues the problem by being even more unpleasant and you concede rather than upping the ante. He wins, family loses.

      This is not a choice situation, where you ask him what he wants to do. You have expectations for mealtime behavior. The only choice for him is between behaving (and eating with the family), or not behaving (at which point the meal is over for him). Once you explain the rules, there should be no warnings and no negotiations. He breaks the rules, you say “Oh bummer, mealtime is over” and remove him from the table.

      Here’s where you have to commit to living out the tantrum until he submits. By submit, I mean that he is prepared to stop misbehaving and the tantrum is over. You say “Feel free to come out of your room when you’re sweet.” This could take a really long time the first time you do it. But it won’t take many times for him to decide that it’s not worth the battle.

      When he starts throwing things or making other crashing noises during a tantrum the point is to get you to interact with him. This directly contradicts the stand you’ve just taken: saying that he may not interact with the family at mealtime if he’s not going to be pleasant. So don’t react to the crashes if you can.

      You may want to prepare his room and remove anything you’re concerned about breaking. Then let him rip. Later after he’s calm you can hug him and offer to help him clean the mess. One of the keys is to not use too much lecturing, etc.

      Sigh. This is an area for me to work on as well.

      It’s still really worthwhile to ponder why he’s misbehaving in the first place. Is he saying Ba Ba Ba because he likes the noise? Captain Earthquake is big on that kind of thing. Is he just looking for attention? Is he purposely trying to leave the table, perhaps because he doesn’t like the food or has an agenda of his own? If there’s a root cause to address, that may help solve the problem.

      The book is Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood. I have my copy beside me, and plan to start reading it again tonight. It’s been too long, and I’ve been losing my temper lately.

      Let me know what you think of the book. The time-out stuff I described is on pp. 74-75, as part of the Uh-Oh Song.

      Reply
    • IT Certifications March 17, 2009, 5:48 am

      I think, when you’re enforcing a rule, then it’s definitely less pleasant to be sure. If you commit to holding him to the rules, it’s hard at first but eventually he can decide it’s easier to just do things Mom and Dad’s way rather than go through all the hassle of consequences.

      Reply
    • Amy March 27, 2009, 8:37 pm

      IT Certifications: Well said!

      Reply
    • Susan August 12, 2009, 7:33 am

      Hi Amy, I have a four year old son and he is being a typical boy and fighting everything that goes on. I started dating a guy last year and for the first few months things were great. After that, it all went down hill. I find myself butting heads with my partner and making excuses to protect my son. My partner struggles to deal with both of us at times as a result of that. What can I do to help better the situation between them, myself and my son and myself and partner. My sons father has no contact with him and that was his choice. I’m at my wits end. I have a 3mth old son and another one due in April. I would really love to have this situation under control and be a better mother to all of my 3 children and be stronger and help my partner and be better for him plus be a better and stronger person for my 4yr old son. Can you please help? If not, direct me to someone who can help? Would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time. Hope to hear from you soon. Susan
      .

      Reply
    • Susan August 12, 2009, 7:43 am

      He is a very loveable child, caring and will do anything for me and his brother. When he with my partner and I’m no where in site he is awesome and they don’t argue. But when I come back on the scene it starts all over again. I know i’m a good mum but I also know I could be a better mum. I want to help my 4yr old get through this and have a happier environment for all of us
      .

      Reply
    • Syble Loosier July 19, 2010, 2:23 am

      Greatful for this resource, I will add it to my early childhood education articles.

      Reply
    • Adam Clarke March 10, 2011, 1:19 pm

      This is really great advice. I hope to spend months and months reading stuff just like this for when my first one is in the oven.

      I am fascinated by the idea of raising children. :)
      Adam Clarke´s last blog post ..How to Flirt With a Girl

      Reply
    • Amanda 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

      Reply
      • Amy LeForge 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!

        Reply