39 answers

4 Year Old Is Really Rude and Sassy. Any Suggestions?

I have this wonderful 4 year old girl who has suddenly become very rude and sassy. It's like she is 16, but she's 4. I find that I am constantly correcting the tone of her voice or the words that she is choosing to use. Has anyone else dealt with this? Any suggestions on how to teach her the right tone of voice and what "rude" means.

So I was asked how we discipline and it is by using time outs. I have tried other things (spankings, taking away toys, making her go to bed early) and none of those things work. Time out seem to work b/c she is very social and it's really hard for her not to be in the middle of things. So time outs work, I just hate that she is in them all the time and I feel like I am nagging b/c I am constantly saying the same things over and over ("change your tone please." "can you use your nice voice?" "did you mean for that to sound so mean?" "honey that's very rude. you should say______.")

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What can I do next?

So What Happened?™

First I want to thank you all so much for your responses! Just knowing that what we are going through is normal was a HUGE help. I was so afraid we were doing something wrong! Since I posted the question, things have gotten much better. She's still sassy, but she is starting to understand when it's okay and when it's not. We are still doing time outs and I discovered that going to bed when it's not the normal time to go is a HUGE thing, so that's now what happens if she continues to act that way after being in time out. We are still working on it, I am still learning, but I feel much more confident. Thank you all so much.

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Try "Love and Logic" (Foster Cline), it has some very good "response" phrases, also ignoring her and not engaging with her may help, if she has no one to listened tp her, she will change. I also, had my son carry his own timer in a tiny back pack, anywhere we were we could have a time out, once he even sat against the wall at Chili's. Only once...
Good luck.

1 mom found this helpful

I am having the same exact problem with my little girl although she has started at 3 years old...nothing really seems to work either...no matter what i try to do it usually seems to make it worse and we do all the things you listed above...im starting to put her on her bed for a time out and I tell her to come and apologize when she is ready...that seems to help a little bit because she decides when she is over it rather than us just making it worse...hope that makes sense..have had a long day here.

I too have a 4 year old, (son), and we are going through something simular to what you are. My son has become very aggressive toward me, throwing fits, whining all the time, hitting at me when I get on to him or put him in time out. I am out of answers, so if you find a good solution please do share with me.

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Leman's book - "have a new child by Friday" might work real well for you.


3 moms found this helpful

You don't have to teach a child to misbehave. I highly suggest On Becoming Childwise (Ezzo). It's been great for us.

One thing we just did with our almost three year old son was put him in time out where he could see us. We (hubby and I) decided to play his favorite game. He got very excited and wanted to join but we told him that it was sad he made a bad choice (I think he told us "No" which is a rule in our house) and that he had to wait until his time out was done. We told him to think about what he'd done. He was very moved by this experience. He stopped crying, thought for a minute, and when the timer went off he told us what he'd done wrong. He even said he was sorry without us asking him to! We encouraged him and told him that we knew he'd make a better choice next time and proceeded to play the fun game with him!

You might try teaching her appropriate behavior before she has an attitude. Set up ground rules. Make her said "the rule is I don't talk back to mommy or daddy" and have her tell you "yes mommy" (in our house it's yes ma'am) when you tell her to do something. If she tells you what to do tell her she has not earned the right to do that. She will have to start using appropriate words like 'mommy, may I have ...." We aren't reminding our son to ask nicely as much anymore. All I have to say is "you don't have the right" or "do you think you have the right to have gun (or whatever it is)?" He immediately asks the correct way. We also have a no whining policy. Of course you can't teach them not to whine while they are whining. You have to teach in quiet moments so that when they do it you can remind them what you'd talked about. "No whining, I want to hear a yes mommy." (This is straight from the Childwise book, btw.)

It's frustrating but she's probably just testing her limits. Unfortunately you will remember this years from now but she will not remember the constant time outs. Stay consistent! (That's what I keep hearing anyway, but it's so hard!!)

2 moms found this helpful

"Love and Logic" is the best behavior modifier I have seen because it not only works on the children it also works on the parents. It helps you use consequences that feel good to you because they empower your children in the end. I actually get a lot of enjoyment out of it because I can empathize with my boys since I am not the "heavy" they are simply having consequences from their bad choices in a safe and respectful way. There are several titles of books in the series and there are seminars that you can attend and workshops in the area that schools and county organizations support.
I also know a counselor that uses it in her "bag of tricks" if you are interested, her name is Patti Villalobos and her number is ###-###-####

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I'm SHOCKED at what I'm reading here...
I'd SERIOUSLY NOT consider tobasco or soap in the mouth and Ezzo is a NUT.
I recommend reading How to talk so your kids will listen and listen so your kids will talk. It's the most amazing book and has dramatically changed my almost 4 yr old's behavior.
Good luck!
tobasco? seriously?!

2 moms found this helpful

I think a lot of it is the age...friends haven't seemed to help us much sometimes! I think that consistency is the key (use time outs every time) and perhaps you can put it back on her. Instead of telling her that her behavior is rude, ask her if she thinks that her behavior is appropriate and how could she have said that differently. Make her do the work! As far as the other poster who suggested soap in the mouth - please don't put chemicals into your child's body for punishment. That is not a good solution. Good luck!

1 mom found this helpful

I am sorry I haven't read all responses--but I just wanted to say that if she is in all the time (time out that is) maybe it isn't actually working. I have three and different things work for each one, but I know what does because they don't behave like that for a little while.

This could actually be very much of her personality as well. If so just show her how to channel the positive parts of it. I have a little sassy diva as well. I have read some manner books to her and we have the books by eric carl called the grouchy lady bug and greedy pyathon. We have also others and they seem to help.

(Sometimes it is just age --3 and 4 year olds have serges of emotions which they don't know how to deal with--It is our job to teach them how to do that--and I know that isn't always easy.)

good luck

1 mom found this helpful

Yes, I have had this problem. I believe in my case, my daughter started to speak to me the way she and her friends would speak at school. Kids experiment with new behaviors. It's part of growing. I explained to her that we don't speak to our parents and teachers etc... in the same way as we speak to our fiends. When she did use a rude tone with me, I had her do it over before I responded to what she was saying. Sometimes time out was necessary until she was ready to "do it over" (usually just a couple minutes). I have found it best to use what "works" and that's not always the same for every family or every child. Here are several other things you can try:
1. Read Books together that deal with manners, emotions and how to express feelings.
2. Role play (make it a game) how to let someone know something negative in a polite way. For example, pretend you are eating dinner at a special place and you both think it's gross. Play with how you can be polite about the grossness.
3. Remember, a little sass in a girl can be a good thing if she needs to stand up for herself; there is a time and place for it all -- but not with people who are kind to her.
Good luck,

1 mom found this helpful

My daughter did the same thing about the same time- at least with tone of voice. First thing, I made sure to keep my tone under control and avoid being sarcastic. She often sounded like me but with her own variation on the attitude. I found I had been on her case lately and stressed around her. I talked to her and explained that Mommy hadn't been choosing kind words to her and others. I apologized and explained that we would both be working on our kindness together.(My husband and I were separated at the time, and I was feeling stressed financially.)

So occasionally she busted me for not being kind or being cranky. I fessed up and corrected my behavior when she was right. (Ugh. Having kids sure makes you more aware of yourself... little mirrors and tape recorders...)

She was hugely into dress up back then. I warned her that princesses don't act ugly. If she did act ugly, then she would lose a princess dress forever. I only had to take one because it impacted her.

I occasionally sent her to time out or her room until she could choose kinder words and control her attitude.

Sometimes the situation made it clear that she didn't realize she said something rude. For instance if she commented on someone's appearance at a store, we would talk about why you shouldn't say something like that. The person could overhear and get their feelings hurt. They might not understand that you meant to ask a question... She is pretty empathetic so the idea of someone having hurt feelings made her want to be more careful.

Certain Barbie movies, Gigi, and kids films and stories allowed me to compliment and make a big fuss out of kids acting politely. This really helped her see examples of what is good behavior... plus my cleaned up example. Cartoon Network and several "kids" shows model terrible attitudes. Heck, even commercials can model some rude attitudes.

I remember practicing what is OK to say and how you can say it. This helped her learn more appropriate responses. It was more work than just correcting her, but I let her know I expected her to make kinder choices with her words and reactions.

She is 6 now and has been whining lately. We've gone back a bit, but she is still expected to choose good reactions. She knows a hissy fit or hitting someone is not acceptable. She knows she is allowed too feel angry if she doesn't get her way, but that doesn't give her permission to act badly. Haven't had to take anything away lately. I'm able to take her to work, but didn't take her that day... It's also been easier this time because she sees how Mommy talks to Daddy and how I react when I don't get my way. (I've learned over the years, too.)

Personally, I would save the Tobasco or soap for actual filth words. But make sure kid understands it's a bad word. I remember getting popped as a kid for repeating words that my Abuelita (Grandma) said because I didn't know those were bad Spanish words.

1 mom found this helpful

I haven't read through all your responses, but wanted to say that my young daughters often truly don't understand how they are coming across sometimes. So I will demonstrate acceptable and non-acceptable tones of voice and phrases, and we have a few rules about words that just cannot be used, because they sound so bad (stupid, hate, etc). Maybe she just needs a more concrete example of what she is doing "wrong" and what would be a better way to say/sound.

Also, I did notice a few mentions of cartoons, and that is worth considering. I've noticed a definite change in behavior after my children have watched TV for awhile.

I know this is extreme to some people, but a few well-placed and well-timed spankings gets rid of bad behavior quickly and effectively! It's not something to use all the time, but if you do it in a well-controlled, non-angry manner, it can have great results. Good luck!

1 mom found this helpful

Try "Love and Logic" (Foster Cline), it has some very good "response" phrases, also ignoring her and not engaging with her may help, if she has no one to listened tp her, she will change. I also, had my son carry his own timer in a tiny back pack, anywhere we were we could have a time out, once he even sat against the wall at Chili's. Only once...
Good luck.

1 mom found this helpful

Do you use time out? Does she have room time or some other type of discipline?

MOdeling is great, watch your voice and tone of voice and how you speak.

We use Love and Logic, check out the website www.loveandlogic.com

You might try a chart- behavior chart with each day on it and when she has a great day give her a check or a sticker. Each day reward her for good behavior. Maybe give her more TV time or extra time to stay up at night or special treat,etc... Praise her for the times she talks to you nice and in a respectful manner.

Where is she learning this? Does she go to daycare?

Hope this helps

1 mom found this helpful

My 4 yr old is going thru the same thing! All I can suggest is stick to your guns and it will work itself out eventualy.

I did notice a patern though. Our girl had been watching Toon Disney with her older brother: Zach and Cody and Hannah Montana when this all started. When I encounter her taking an unpleasing tone with me, I stop and tell her to "loos the tone young lady." "The kids on TV talk like that because it is a television show. In real life Momma does not like it when you talk like that because it makes you sound mean and not very nice." This usually works, she hugs me and says I am sorry Momma.

I just want to encourage you to keep up the hard consistant fight. I am a SAHM of 4 - 7,5,3,&2. We have gone through this with both our older kids. It takes constant reminding and not allowing them to think that's ok. We used alot of time-outs and also what we call "staking" - sitting next to us quietly until they think they can be kind. Also, just informing her that she's not allowed to talk to you that way. From my observation, this is very common at this age. Sometimes I give them examples of how to say what they're saying appropriately. Or sometimes I repeat what they sound like.

Sometimes there's something else going on if it's just directed at you. That's good to keep in mind.

Hang in there.

I am right there with you! My just turned 4 yo boy is the same way! His brother was so sweet and this has really thrown me for a loop "where did I go wrong?" goes through my head alot! I know though that it's not me, obviously because I raised his brother the same way and did not have this issue! TO's seem to be what works the best for him, spanking only encouraged him to hit me back! I tell myself "this to shall pass" and continue to love him and show him the correct way. My husband and I believe it is also for attention - so I tried giving him some one on one time.. that seemed to really help minimize the bad behavior! Like some others mentioned- I tell him "he's acting ugly". I have even considered taping him and playing it back for him to see for himself! Good luck and hang in there with the rest of us!

ha ha are you talking about your child or mine?

I had that problem with my grandson and like you time=out worked for a while be then i had to try something else so if you warn her one time and tell her the next time she will have soap on her mouth and carry though it will work she will probably cry or spit for a while until she gets to wash out her mouth but it will only take a few time till she get the idea it is not acceptable to be rude. You dont have to put but a dab of soap on her tougue
Good luck

Take a good look at the TV shows she's watching. Many of us thought that anything on Disney Channel should be benign, but it's not. A friend had the same problem with her little girl and realized it got worse every time she watched Raven. My friend stopped that show and the attitude eventually got better. It took some time and and some time-outs, but without the reinforcement from the TV show, the discipline had an effect.

Disney Channel shows and Nick in the afternoon both have shows with lots of attitude towards parents and other people.

In my experience, this behavior is pretty typical. I would suggest focusing on recognizing her good behavior. You can make a chart and everytime she uses good tone or says something nice, she gets a sticker and for X amount of stickers she gets something. You will be amazed that you are constantly praising her instead of nagging.

Often times the recognized behavior (good or bad) is the one that is repeated.

I hope this is helpful! Best wishes.

We have a 5 year old son who does the same thing. He started it about 6 months ago. One thing I found that worked one day that he was being particularly bossy, was I stopped talking to him. He was safe and taken care of, but I just did my own thing and left him to his resources. When he came in and demanded a sandwich at lunch, I ignored him and continued eating my own lunch. He then changed his tone and asked politely. I then fixed his lunch and explained that since he had asked politely I was happy to fix it for him. I didn't have ugly attitude for quite a while!

We also continue to ask him questions until he answers correctly and with good attitude.

Another suggestion I've gotten is to make "sassy juice" to spray in his mouth when he's rude or smart-mouthed. This consists of Apple Cider vinegar in a spray bottle. Everyone I've heard this from says it works like a charm!

Good Morning A.. We had similiar situations with both of our girls and found that our son was much easier with the tones. Maybe because he saw how it worked with his older sisters. The time outs worked very good, as both of our girls were also very social. However, we also implemented that when we were in a conversation and one of the girls took a rude tone, we would simply not allow her/them in the conversation. We would state, "this is a conversation for nice voices and when we hear it from our beautiful girl we will allow you in." This seemed to work well after about the 4th-5th time. We would then implement the time out if a tantrom was given. By doing both, it seemed to pass fairly quickly.
Good luck and hopefully these suggestions might help.
B. P.

I've used "sassy sauce" with great results. It might sound mean, but when all else failed and it was really bad, their mouth got them into trouble, so their mouth was punished. I'd take a drop of tobassco on my finger and make them stick out their tongue so I could dab it on their tongue. They were given a warning that I was going to get sassy sauce if they didn't change their tone, and then if it was bad, I got it out. I didn't forbid them from getting something to drink afterwards, but my daughter kind of was sassy one time and said "well, I got water, so it didn't hurt anyway" and she got more sassy sauce and the water was taken away. When I say I didnt' forbid water, I also didn't tell them they could have it, I let them figure it out on their own.

I've also been known to say "I can only talk to you if you use a calm voice and aren't sassy" so that I don't respond to requests that are made with a sassy tone. Another trick would be to automatically give the answer they don't want it it's a sassy question. Like "I want you to take me to the pool, NOW" the answer would just be a flat "no, I don't take children to the pool that are sassy, maybe tomorrow." If she wants to watch a movie, whatever, the answer is just not the one she wants b/c she's been sassy.

The last thing is to make sure that you aren't being sassy with her. I really think this is a phase girls go though, but just be consious of your tone of voice as well to make sure she's not picking it up from you. Again, I'm not saying you are, but it's just something to watch. More than likely, it's coming from someone she hangs out with, or even the shows she watches on TV. LOTS of TV shows have sassy kids that make their parents look like idiots.

Good luck!

I sympathize with you - my little boy has just turned 3 - and this is a problem (and has been for a few months). We've done it all - time out, the dreaded wooden spoon, cool down chair, being sad - etc - the only thing that will snap the sass out of his mouth is the threat of the vinegar rag. After a particularly embarrasing shopping trip when a lady at the neiman's perfume counter told him how handsome he was and he replied 'NO - I NOT! AND U ARE OLD! AND U ARE NOT THE BEST, YOU GET AWAY FROM ME MEAN OLD DOG"...(i could've just died - this woman was indeed old...but what motivated him to say so with the added 'not the best' & 'mean old dog' i'll never know..). I had told my older sister what happened and she told me it's time for vinegar.

We started with warnings - told him what vinegar is, how nasty it tastes and that if something ugly comes out of his mouth, something ugly is going in it. (we chose the vinegar as opposed to soap because of the suprising toxicity in most soaps.) So the next time he went on a verbal tirade, i gave him a warning - it escalted, so i dipped the corner of a washrag in vinegar and touched his lip with it. God's teeth - you'd have thought I dipped that baby in acid - but, i can say he sweetened it up dramatically after that - and all i (or his teachers too) have to say when he looks like he's winding up for some real sass is 'do i need to get the vinegar rag?". Works like a champ - even though he's only had it once and that was more than two months ago.

Continue the time outs. If that's working...continue. Do not feel bad. She is causing her own behavior, not you. At this point, going to bed early probably does not faze her. Spankings I would think that might have a bit of an influence. Taking away toys... all toys or one particular item? take all of her toys. Hang in there. And remember she is developing her own chaos not you; therefore, she will have to face the consequences. Stay structured/disciplined and do not give into her wails.

I haven't gotten to this stage yet, but with students in the past I played lots of games like "how many ways can you say " and we'd pick a phrase that had no meaning. One person would say the phrase in whatever tone they chose and we had to guess what that person was feeling. This taught the children (all of whom had disabilities) to listen not only to words but other cues. We'd talk about how "Jack"'s eyes looked while he spoke, or where he held his hands, or how loud he was....

Keep up the consequences, even if they don't seem to be working right away. If time out is the consequence, then keep doing it. My rule of thumb is that they stay out in time out for as long as they are old...if 4 1/2 yrs. then stay in time out for 4 1/2 minutes. Be consistant.

I have a 5 yr old son. And we too have been experiencing this in our home. I am glad that you have put this questions up here so that I can learn something to from other veteran moms.
Good luck. I have to constantly remind myself that I rather be the one to discipline now than someone else that doesn't love my children.

I too have a 4 year old, (son), and we are going through something simular to what you are. My son has become very aggressive toward me, throwing fits, whining all the time, hitting at me when I get on to him or put him in time out. I am out of answers, so if you find a good solution please do share with me.

Could she be reacting to the adoption of the other daughter? At four, maybe she doesn't have the words to explain what she is feeling and is using words she has heard to come close to her feelings. Try talking to her about the adoption and see if she might have some aprehension about being replaced by the new child. We have four adopted children. Sometimes the excitement generated by a new child joining the family can be misinterpreted, especially by a young child.

Maybe you could just "notice" that she is not the sweet little girl you know she is, and you were wondering if something is bothering her.

Dear A.:

Instead of telling her what to do or asking her about her nice voice, etc., you could ask her what else she could have said and how she could have said it while she is in time out. This would move her thinking "one rung higher up the ladder" of higher order thinking. She can rejoin the group when she has thought of a better way to express herself. Hopefully, this way, she can begin to think of what to do instead of being rude on her own. After a while, my son was able to catch himself and say, "what I mean is...". Finally the behavior stopped - at least until he reached 16!.


The only thing I would suggest is to make sure she understands why she is in time-out. My son just turned 5 and we went through this stage, and still go through it some days.

He would get sent to TO and then when he got out I told him that we do not talk to people like that. I always tell him that it is ugly and it makes Mom/Dad/friend (who ever he talked to) sad and God sad.

Another way to talk to them about it is to ask how they would feel if you talked to them that way. I found that my son realized that his tone/words were ugly and that he knew he didn't want to be talked to that way.

I wish you lots of patience! This too shall pass -- only to happen again later, but it will pass! lol

Been there! Mine is 5. It sounds like you are doing a good job, just stay consistent. One thing that has worked for us - at this age I don't give a specific length for the time out. I put it on her - "when you're ready to act better" or "when you can talk to me in a better tone", etc and it really seems to work. If she really does have an attitude she may be in time out for a while, if she just needs to adjust her tone, many times it will be a very short time out, but either way the responsibility is now on her to correct her behavior. Good luck regardless of what you decide to do!

Reward the positives. When you notice someone else responding nicely, praise them--be it your husband or others who interact with her but especially your 4 year old. You still need to let her know being rude is unacceptable behavior but at the same time verbally or affectionately rewarding her for good responses. If she is asking for something in a rude way, do not oblige until she can do so respectfully. You may need to show her how to do it nicely and then ask if she would like to try. Reward if she is successful.

Did you adopt this girl, too, maybe as an older child?
I have seven biologicals, two baby adoptions, and one older child adoption (she's four now), and I've had a little more trouble with her being sassy than the other ones. Partly, I think it's trauma, and she misses her 'first mommy' so much.

But if you have tried spanking, time outs, etc, then I would suggest the silent treatment. Don't 'hear' her when she talks in that voice. Warn her, "Sorry, I don't listen to ugly voices, only nice ones" the first couple of times, then after that, totally ignore her unless she speaks to you in a respectful tone.
Never, never, never let her win. If you think it's bad now, just think how bad and dangerous it's going to be when she's 15 and doesn't respect you. Because respect is what it boils down too, and she must respect her parents if she is going to grow up with any kind of good results.

This is happening with my daughter now too and she's only 3 1/2. When she gives us this attitude, we ask her to go sit in her room until she is ready to speak in a nice tone. We don't go in there to check on her, but we wait until she comes out on her own and declares she is ready to speak in a nice tone. She knows exactly what the difference and knows how to immediately correct it (when she chooses to). I send her there even if we're in the middle of dinner, doesn't matter what is going on we try to address it immediately. The other tactic that works which I've seen others recommend here is to ignore her completely until she changes her tone. Good luck!

Look at the cartoons she is watching. The modeling is coming from their content. People tend to think that cartoons are harmless because, after all they're not real...but they are real voices saying real things that lead children to mimick them. The cartoons today let kids know that parents aren't very smart and that it is up to them to know how to handle the problems of life.
Once you've changed the tone of what they watch then showing them respect through the way you speak to them and continuing to remind them of the correct way to say things and respond to things and teaching them common manners should help.
Then there is the old stand by...soap! Never failed to get my attention. I'm not saying that she should suck on a bar but sometimes just a small taste is enough.
Raising children is often like re-runs, you may find many repeats but at the end there is always a happy ending. May God Bless and good luck. Mine are grown and quite wonderful and I'm so thankful that they are responsible for their own now. :)

Hi A.,

I had a similar situation with two of my kids. My daughter was 4 and started being rude all of a sudden. First I thought maybe it was age and stage, until she told her Daddy he looked fat in his shirt. She loves her Daddy and he is not fat. I talked to her Preschool teacher to see if she had noticed the change too. The teacher told me they had a new student that was a disciplinary problem. My daughter was reacting to the stress from the class and imitating some of the behavior. We talked to her and the behavior stopped.

As for my son, he too started being ugly around 4 years old. Again I spoke to the Preschool teacher. This time it was not a class problem. One day I was in his room watching his favorite video with him. He liked Thomas the Train then. I found the source of his rude behavior. We told our son he could not watch Thomas videos anymore because we did not like the way people talked to each other and he was starting to talk that way too. Our son was not happy but we explained that is not how we talk to people. He could still play with the trains just not watch the videos. That fixed his behavior problem.

Could your daughter be reacting to another sister coming?

I hope you find the answer you are looking for.

Hey -
My son just turned 5 and we have also gone through this stage where his tone is horrible. I just say to him now, "Is that how you talk to mommy?" and he immediately changes his tone. One time, he kept asking for something with a "give me" attitude and I kept saying, "What?" like I couldn't hear him. He finally said, "Why can't you hear me?" I said, "I can't hear people who talk that way. You know how to talk better than that." and he is getting much better at using an appropriate tone of voice.

He also gets a TON of timeouts when he is not behaving well. Like your daughter, my son is very social and timeouts seem to be the most effective. Also, sending him straight to bed after school, if he has been seriously offensive works super well (he gets a sandwich in his room at dinner time - he can't come out). This is only for very serious offenses though.


Is there some influence in her life who is also rude, maybe a favorite friend or tv character? Kids love to imitate what they see as "big" behavior. If you can find the bad influence you can limit it.
And don't give up the struggle. It takes FOREVER for what you say to sink in. Maybe a book or video can reinforce what you are talking about, or point out when others are rude to her and that it doesn't feel good.
Hang in there! You are doing the right thing!

I am having the same exact problem with my little girl although she has started at 3 years old...nothing really seems to work either...no matter what i try to do it usually seems to make it worse and we do all the things you listed above...im starting to put her on her bed for a time out and I tell her to come and apologize when she is ready...that seems to help a little bit because she decides when she is over it rather than us just making it worse...hope that makes sense..have had a long day here.

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