Behavioral Issue on a 4 Year Old. When Is Time to Look for Help?

Updated on February 19, 2011
J.P. asks from Brooklyn, NY
17 answers

And by help i mean a professional, I feel like such a bad mom. I used to be one of those moms who saw other kids and thought mine would never be like that. Now i am eating my own words. My 4 year old used to be a nice kid, after she started headstart, she became more independent and now is terrible. She talks back to me, never listens, does whatever she wants. Stomps away when I tell her no, has this thing where she would stand with hands on her hips when she is mad. i tell her not to run in school, I grab her to come and sit next to me and she pulls away and keeps on running. In her class she behaves great,but at home is like another child. i have thought ADHD/ Autism every single thing out there and everyone tells me that she is ok. I am not sure what to do anymore, I have taken cartoons,toys away. I told her that she won't be getting a birthday party this weekend cause of her behavior but nothing works. Any book i can read, any advice please i am getting to the point of loosing my patience with her and I don't want to do that.

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answers from Tampa on

Sounds normal - but I agree it's not acceptable. My daughter did this too - she's calmed down a bit since she's halfway thru Kindergarten.

Whenever she talks back to me, I stare in her eyes and tell her she cannot talk to me that way and she should not talk to others that way too. I do not break eye contact when I speak to her.

As for not listening when I ask her to do or stop something... I count down from 5..4..3..2..1.. SPANKING. No excuses, no way of getting out of the spanking once I reach 1. I'm very consistent about it.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from New York on

Hi J.,

My daughter who will be 6 in June is the same way and has been for as long as I can remember. I found out through my own research that she is
"labeled" as a Defiant Child. This means that it's NOT a phase, that defiant kids think that they are on the same level as adults, and don't understand why they need to follow rules. I have been reading "10 Days to a less Defiant Child" by Dr. Jeffrey Rosenthal, and it has helpmed me really understand more. My daughter also sees a child therpaist who has helped, we are in the beginning of getting help so I really don't have any more help to offer.

Good Luck!!

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answers from Portland on

This is normal and will only continue to get worse if you just make threats. She is at an age where she should be allowed some independence in her decision making. Allow her to decide certain things rather than dictate to her what to do. When they start to feel a little freedom, they stop fighting you so much. Only make threats you are willing to follow through on, are you really willing to cancel her party or were you just making a threat? I highly recommend the book, "Parenting with Love and Logic", it helps you learn to remain calm, give your children choices, and allow them to suffer the consequences of their decisions, it is about teaching your children to make good choices while young so they won't make stupid choices later in life.

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answers from Columbus on

I am usually one to suggest an evaluation, but I think your clue is that she is fine at school, and she probably would not be if she were going to have a developmental, neurobiological or neurolgical behavioral issue. They can't turn it on and off. She sounds like a handful right now, but you want to have the behavioral issues at home, and not school, not the other way around-which can mean more serious issues for you later. Right now, I would try reading some books like How to talk so your children will listen, and just be firm with her.

On the other hand, if she is responding well to the structure of the classroom, you may want to take a look at why that enviorment is producing sucess for her. If they are using positive interventions (rewards for success that she can see) this may be more effective for you than punishment is. I would suggest firmness, but an adjustment in your approach. Every kid has a currency, and at somepoint, when they are not sucessful at all, they quit trying, this may be where she is with you. If you take all the fun things away, then give her small items back for the positive behavior, maybe she can do that. My point is, losing too much, too fast, as a punishment, may just seem hopeless if she is not having any sucess at all. Sucess breeds sucess, and she will want more of it. Something that may work for you too, is to tell her what you want her to do, in small chunks, instead of what you want her to stop doing. If she hears exactly what you want for the next five minutes, and she can comply, reward her.

A token econemy works sometimes for kids this age. They get a poker chip every time you catch them doing the target behavior, then you give them a list of the behaviors you want, and for the most difficutlt things, like lasting all day without being nasty, she gets a handful, when she says please, self corrects her attitude, or complies when she would rather say no, she gets one chip. She can buy stuff with the chips, from the most basic TV time, to the toys you have put away, to going to the library, or renting a movie, or she can save them for something bigger, what ever fits your lifestyle and her likes/dislikes. The point is, you take it all away, she earns it all back, but it is kind of easy for her to be successful at the little things, harder for the medium things, but a bigger pay off, and really hard for the biggest things, but the pay off is really, really good, and she can feel and see how her success pays off. Sometimes this is much, much better for a kid this age than a sticker chart. But the most beneficial thing about it is that it is a positve renforcement system, she can see success instead of brooding about what she has already done wrong.

Last, if you see a vast difference between the enviornement at school, meaning that the structure is set up for her sucess, or she is having issues at school that have not been reported to you that are just not yet causing a concern (impulsivity, playing alone, social rejection, fine motor issues, frustration, etc) then add up what you have and seek out a Developmental Evaluation. What I tell people is, if the issue is gloabal, and if it interferes with her life, then it is time to seek help.

It would be best to see a Developmental Pediatrician. They do full evaluations that will tell you if you have a child with a developmental issue, or just one that is difficult.

Another option is play therapy or family therapy. Espeically if the issues are just between you and her at home, and it is not a global issue, and if revamping your dicipline plan does not help you, you might benefit from some outside help, someone who can tell you directly, based on observations, if you have more issues than just mother daughter friction. It can be very short term help. They will also be able to help you decide if you need to seek more help.

Good luck. 4 is difficult!


2 moms found this helpful


answers from Sacramento on

I can reassure you it's not ADHD if you're not seeing the same behavior both at home and at school.

I agree with the idea of positive reinforcement. Use a rewards chart or jar and give rewards for good behavior. Don't wait a long time, either. A little bit of movement on the chart or in the jar and she gets a reward, such as a trip to the park, watching a favorite DVD with you, etc. You don't have to spend money to make this work. Our son, who's a bit older, earns all of his video game time (which isn't a huge amt of time, but enough to motivate him) through good behavior. If he doesn't behave, no marbles in his rewards jar means no Nintendo DS time and he's crushed. It's worked out really well.

Also, immediate consequences for bad attitude. Talks back = immediate time out in her room and things removed from the rewards chart or jar. Zero tolerance and negotiating.

Good luck!

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answers from Charlotte on


1 mom found this helpful


answers from San Diego on

First of all you are not a bad mom, it's not ADHD or she would behave at school the same way she does at home. I see a lot of punishment ideas, but no discipline. Like you I always looked at other children and say my kids will never do that, but the difference my husband and I started discipline as soon as any sighs that bad behavior would occur, by 2 so many kids get set in their ways when there has been little to no discipline. She acts like that at home cause she can, at school she knows it's not tollerated. Threats do not work, you can give her choices, but they have to be what you want not her, so what ever choice she makes it's still waht you wanted her to do or not do. One mom said this is typical 4 year old behavior, it's not I raise 3 kids, and i have probably 100 4 years go through my daycare during the past 14 years, and I found in my experience that age four is great and a lot of fun I don't know where this moms experience has cam from. But be firm. loving and patient, be consistant will all 3 and she should do better, one thing i don't hear much about on mamasource his fathers getting in there and disciplining their children, children usually behave better with their fathers than their mothers. J.


answers from Philadelphia on

Since she behaves great at school, have a meeting with the teacher and ask what they are doing there. The consistency of words and discipline may help.
As for not listening, there are two ideas. One is to give choices. "Do you want to wear the blue or red shoes? " "Do you want to clean up now or in 5 minutes?" When kids do not listen there is often a reason. Is she busy? Tired? Hungry? If she does not listen and does not clean up then she cannot move on to another activity. If she does not brush her teeth she cannot go and play. There is no yelling or fighting. It is up to her when she wants to go play. She can play when she brushes her teeth.
Take note of how you speak to her or others. Parents yell at children and then wonder why children yell at them. Parents yell at each other and wonder why their kids yell. Parents need to model the behaviors that they want to see in their children.
Give her the words that you want her to say. "I here that you do not want cheese. Please say "No cheese please"."
Be careful about taking things like birthdays away. That is a very harsh punishment that quite frankly has little to do with the actual behavior. It may cause more anger and misbehavior.

B. Davis
Because nothing is more important than family



answers from Gainesville on

Oh honey, this is every 4 year old at least some of the time. If she is behaving well in class she does not have a behavioral problem. She is being a typical 4 year old.
Really, I think you're fine and she's normal. I would not take away her birthday party; I think that's too harsh for a 4-year-old. If you need to save face about it, let her earn it back through good behavior.
Look; it's hard navigating the world of discipline. Your child sounds like she escalates the situation right along with you. Mine does the same thing, and although I'm not always successful, it's best when you can stop escalating with her. Just give her the time-out already at some point and let her wail for 20 minutes if that's what it takes. If she runs from you then you grab her again.
Mostly if I've had a good night's sleep and can react calmly I can redirect the tantrum. Linnaea, if you do this you will lose Dinosaur Train. She starts again. Since I know she doesn't want to lose it, I'll ask, don't you want to watch Dinosaur Train? Then all you have to do is get dressed, isn't that worth it? If you can get dressed you can watch Dinosaur Train, and yes I'll help you, you only have to bring your clothes to me first. She still loses computer games often; she gets time-outs sometimes, but that's just being 4. She screams and wails and shrieks and spent 40 minutes in time-out earlier this week, but then yesterday was delightful.
Find ways for her to be successful and earn extra privileges. That helps her feel better about herself. She'll always test boundaries and you will always have to reinforce them; it's just parenting. And I tell myself this: sometimes I'm not good enough. Most of the time I'm a good mom, but sometimes I fail, and sometimes I'm awesome. That's life, and it's ok that my kids see me fail. They have to learn to deal with failure themselves; hearing me apologize for over-reacting is a good example for them.



answers from Boston on

People swear by 1,2, 3 Magic.

You need to remember too that your daughter needs you to have boundaries for her as much as you need to have boundaries for her. She probably feels as out of control as you do. I'm not saying that to make you feel bad, just to remind you that sometimes doing the really hard "follow-throughs" are best for everyone. Are you really prepared to cancel that birthday party?

Good luck.



answers from Pittsburgh on

She sounds normal. DS just turned 5 and we do not do punishment or 'consequences'. These are things that seem to work for us.

1. Stop saying no. Say yes. Say - yes I see you want to play longer, we can do that after we brush your teeth and get dressed.

2. I like stomping. It beats hitting any day and DS's daycare taught them that when they are mad they can stomp and count to 5. I think it is great. When the stomping gets excessive, I join in and make it a game - 'oh, you are really mad, can I help you stomp? I bet I can stomp the loudest - almost always ends in laughter.

3. Independent is good. I try to remind myself that I am not raising an obedient child, I am raising an independent, thinking, questioning, empathetic adult. These are skills that no one starts with - they are learned. Give her choices (2 positive choices are best) so she has some control and learns decision making.

4. Tell her what she can do, not what she can't do. That is 'DS, walking in school' not 'DS, no running'.

5. Talking back. I try to separate the message from how it is stated. If DS wants something that I would agree to, then I just rephrase for him - he says - Mommy, I want milk now, get it. I say, Oh, you mean to say 'Mommy, may I please have some milk now, I am thirsty' for good measure I throw in the 'thanks so much mommy for getting me my milk' if that does not immediately pop out of his mouth. We also do the do-over on this. That is - he says I want, blah, blah, blah. I say - please try saying that again so mommy will want to do it.

6. I try to speak respectfully to DS. I am modelling how I want him to speak to me and other people. If I would not want my boss to speak to me the way I am speaking to him, I rephrase it. (yes everyone yells occasionally but luckily we get approximately 1 million chances to repeat everything to a 4 year old).

7. Do it together and make it a game. We clean up his room together - instead of a confrontation it is actual time together. We race to brush teeth and get dressed - it is fun instead of a fight.

8. I don't think threats work. If someone threatened to take my car away if I didn't keep it clean, I am pretty sure it would a) not make me want to keep it clean and b) make me resent them. Neither is a good outcome so for us - no threats.


answers from Daytona Beach on

Follow through on your threats, my husband wondered how our kids were listening to me and him and one day he followed through with his threat and it worked, and on the flip side you have to follow through with the good too. Also look at her diet, my oldest had ADHD symptoms and I took out all the red and yellow dye and BAM! She was my fun loving little girl she is 4 too!



answers from Chicago on

Check out the book Smart Discipline by Larry Koenig.


answers from Spokane on

One, it could be her head start environment. My oldest son was in that program for 3 months and it was horrible. There weren't enough teachers/aides for the a mount of children let alone a special needs child. He stopped listening to me, start talking back, withdrew, etc. (This was the beginning; head start didn't cause but it did exacerbate the issue.) He has since been diagnosed with ODD (oppositional defiance disorder). (My daughter also acts exactly like your daughter but it's temperament exacerbated somewhat by environment.)

Some books that really helped me are The Explosive Child by Ross Greene (LOVE this one), What Your Explosive Child is Trying to Tell You by Douglas Riley, The Defiant Child by Douglas Riley, and there is one more that I really liked but for the life of me I can't recall the title although I can picture the darn cover in my mind. Grrr....

Big hugs, and good luck!


answers from Houston on

It sounds like she is learning behavioral problems from other kids and such at headstart. It doesn't sound like autism at all, sounds like a normal thing, although frustrating.

I wouldn't cancel her party, she needs direct and immediate discipline, but also plenty of positive reinforcement.

Dr. Sears has wonderful discipline and behavior advice here, scroll down to the 'bothersome behavior' section for more:

or you can order his book there too.



answers from Pittsburgh on

What about NOT giving her a birthday party this weekend? She probably knows that you don't follow through on your threats. No offense, but you should stop looking at a 'disorder' to blame it on. She is obviously fine if she is ok at school. It sounds like she may be looking for boundaries that she is not getting. Set firm rules and firm punishments. Send her to her room for a whole day. That is going to be more painful than taking away toys. And whatever you do-do NOT cave in.



answers from Atlanta on

I've had/have a VERY difficult 4 year old as well! We've done a lot -including seeing a child psychologist last year, but we had tried a number of approaches and nothing worked very well (even using them consistently, etc.). I also felt that at the time, because my mother had just passed away, that a lot of issues could be stemming from that -both because they were very close and because I know I was acting differently or giving off a different "vibe." At any rate, it was helpful, and I urge you to see someone if you really think things are beyond your control at this point. I do have to say from what you've described, they may not be.

This is what has been the "magic charm" in our relationship and management of our 4 (5 next month) year old -and it's also yielding great results with his 2 year old brother, even though they're completely different personalities. We read and started using, "Parenting With Love and Logic" and we've also been taking a class, P.E.T (parent effectiveness training) at our church. You can order that P.E.T book from Amazon and it utilizes and fits in very well with "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk". The P.E.T book is more a philosophy and foundation behind a certain type of parenting style. What we have loved so much about these methods is that they foster actual communication (that's not screaming or fighting) between you and your children, and they put much of the problem solving back on the kid. The methods really help your child learn how to weigh options, make choices while considering the consequences and rewards, have a sense of empathy AND a sense of personal responsibility. Isn't that what we all want our kids to grow up with? Some of the methods and ideas will require that you train YOURSELF as well and give a good bit of thought to what you're saying and doing. A lot of what they say (especially P.E.T.) will fly in the face of almost every parenting manual you'll read (parents have feelings that should be considered; it isn't ALL about the kids; you and hubby don't necessarily always have to be united and on the same page; you don't have to be consistent about everything -for example, you may be fine with running and screaming in the house on Saturday afternoons, but after work on Wednesday night isn't okay) -but all of this goes toward creating a flexible, THINKING child! It doesn't happen overnight (although you'll see surprising changes pretty quickly), but you may want to look into these books and ideas and give it a try. The communication tips and points made are actually great and effective for everyone!

And just my two cents -but don't take away her birthday party. Birthdays come once a year for us all, and childhood birthday parties are the things of great memories. I don't believe in using a child's birthdays and holiday celebrations -or the birthdays of others you've already RSVP'd to as "yes" as a discipline tool or punishment. Often it winds up punishing you as well.

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