Discipline for 4 Year Old Boy Who Is Defiant

Updated on July 29, 2009
A.J. asks from Alexandria, VA
7 answers

My son is your normal active 4 year old boy. We've been having a lot of trouble getting him to behave right and listen to us. I know lots of it is just kid craziness, but there are days where I feel like I just yell at him all day. Spankings don't work. He doesn't want them, but they don't seem to deter his future behavior. Rewarding him with 'good things' like going to the park, getting a cookie... dont' seem to be immediate enough to do the trick. I'm just so frustrated some days.

For example, yesterday he and I took the dogs to the park and walked around with them for an hour. Probably only covered a mile as we stopped to play at the river. So he had a little outing and a little fun. Later, my husband and I were installing a drop-down attic door/stair and had all three kids outside the closet were it was going it. It's a house under construction and no stair rails installed yet (high drop-offs), so the kids are not allowed to walk around without us - and they know that's the rule. He kept walking away even though we said to stay in the room. The walls were just painted and we told him not to push the stroller into them. He did. He took the wood glue and dumped it on the patio outside. The last straw was when he knocked over the stroller with his 5 month old brother in it after I'd told him over and over to leave him alone.

I know I should have been on top of him before the stroller incident, but my husband was up in the hot attic and I was on a ladder trying to support a heavy door assembly for him while he installed it - I couldn't easily jump away to discipline my son.

But it's his normal MO. He keeps messing with things over and over and over again and will not listen to what I tell him to do. Sometimes it's a defiant "No, I will not!", but most times it's just that he hears what I say and doesn't do it, or minutes later is doing the opposite. You'd almost think that he was a slow learner or mentally challenged, the way he just doesn't seem to hear/understand/do what I want him to do. He's not at all, a very bright kid with an amazing memory so I know he remembers that I've said "don't touch xyz..." a dozen times in the past week.

Agghh. hope today is better. Any suggestions would be a lifesaver. I think it's just normal boy stuff, but man, I can't do this until he's 18!

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So What Happened?

THANKS! I'm feeling so much more positive today as you've given me some great ideas to work on. I keep hearing about "Raising Your Spirited Child" so I think I will jump over to Amazon to buy it. My son also works well with sticker chart - he's been dealing with encopresis (stool withholding) for a long while and the past 4 months we've been able to get it under control with a program and a sticker chart. Will keep you all posted. Again, thanks!

More Answers



answers from Washington DC on

Please reread the posts from Karen and Kimberly--I totally agree with them both. He's normal and well aware he is competing for your attention not only with a cute baby and a demanding toddler (because all infants are cute and all toddlers active) but he also has to compete with all the attention you and your husband are giving your house right now too. Listen to those who suggest distracting him and then redirecting him into something positive -- and you'll have to think of these activities for him, not depend on him to come up with something to occupy himself while you do things around the house or tend the siblings. Ask yourself if you're expecting too much of him and expecting him to be still, to keep hands off, etc. when it's not really something he at four (barely out of toddlerhood, really) is able to do without at least some adult direction towards another activity. Kids this age have energy and must use it, but it's up to us to teach them, over time, to find outlets that are safe and appropriate, because they can't think of them for themselves yet. Find little responsibilities for him -- if he's holding the directions for you while you're installing something, or helping you paint something in the house that's appropriate for him to help with, then he can't be off ramming the wall with the stroller, etc. You and your husband might not love involving him in house chores right now becase things will take longer than if you just do them yourself, but he will feel involved, be distracted from "bad" behavior and learn to help too. Praise him a lot even for tiny things that seem to you "stuff he should be doing anyway" -- it's all a big deal to him, even if it's not to you. And unless you want to end up with his possibly hurting the baby or really damaging something, it might be time to reassess how much direction and attention he's getting amid the work on the house and the work with the younger kids. Finally -- would he benefit from going to preschool or some kind of outside activity, if he isn't already?



answers from Washington DC on


he's 4, he has two siblings, and he's figured out that the number one way (and, most likely, the only way) to get your undivided attention is to do something you've told him not to do. he's totally normal and pretty smart. :)

think about it. when's the last time you focused on him and only him with all of your attention just to say, "hey, I noticed that you're standing there doing nothing just like I asked! thanks! that's really great!"?!?! I know it seems silly, but you've taught him to do what he's doing by giving it all of your attention (and by, most likely, not giving the same amount of attention to his good behavior). of course you can't ignore the bad behavior, but now what you have to do to fix it is really focus on going in the opposite direction with your attention. when he misbehaves, re-direct him quietly, gently, without getting irritated or making a big deal out of it. again, just don't get mad. breathe. breathe, and then say calmly, even affectionately, "let's not bump the stroller into the wall right now. hey, could you grab Mommy that piece of paper, I really need it and it would be so helpful for what Mommy and Daddy are doing right now. Thanks!" or whatever. make up helpful things for him to do when you're trying to get stuff done at the house, tell him to bring you stuff, hold stuff, look at what you're doing, keep him involved. and when he's doing what you ask, notice it! tell him how great he's being. yes, it means that you don't get to benefit (as much) from his good behavior b/c you're busy noticing it, but that's the price if you want to change his behavior. it's hard. you have to be thinking all the time what he CAN be doing right this minute instead of what he SHOULDN'T be doing, but ultimately it's a lot easier than chasing around after every disaster. :)

if you think about it, as hard as it might be for you to do, it's exactly what you're asking him to do -- and he's only 4 years old. so if you expect him to be thinking of things for him to do all day long (instead of thinking of and doing that obvious thing that you just told him not to do, which is now in his head, and much more accessible than all those things he could be doing but hasn't thought of yet.... do you see how the psychology works here?), then it shouldn't be too hard for you to do it, too, right? after all, you're the grownup and he's only 4, so between the two of you, you can come up with positive ways to fill his time. right?

you know what also really makes a difference? randomly telling him that he's great and you love him, for no reason. some time when there's nothing going on, just tell him he's great and you love him, out of the blue, and then watch him puff up. for the next hour, he'll do whatever you say. if you can make it a habit, your relationship will change for the better, and you may find that it affects how you feel about him. it may seem manipulative, but really, it's just a reminder to both of you that the most important thing is your relationship. :)

good luck! boys are hard, I know, I have 3...



answers from Washington DC on

Your son sounds like a lot of fun and a bundle of energy. I work with a lot of kids that fit your son's description. Sounds like he can hear you give requests, but he just can't keep his hands/body to himself. The first person to write brought up some interesting thoughts. It might just be he is a busy 4. If so try to get him a lot of positive things to do to contain the energy. But you might want to check out the "Out of Sync Child" or "Raising Your Spirited Child" and this might give you insight about why your son does some of the things he does. It is possible that he just physically can't control his body because he needs to do things to calm his sensory system. Again I work with many kids like this, so if you have any other questions feel free to ask.



answers from Washington DC on

And you think it’s going to end when he’s 18? I raised four children with four different personalities and you are describing son #2 to a tee. The walls of our home still echo with my voice yelling “Danny”. If someone was crying from being tortured, I just knew he was behind it. He’s 29 now and the love of my life. He turned into a wonderful adult with a great personality. He has left us with so many funny happy memories. No, it’s not easy at the time you are going through them, but you will definitely look back and chuckle. It makes our Thanksgiving table discussions each year something that our entire family looks forward to, reminiscing. Just to let you know though, I always got down on me knees and thanked the Lord when each child turned five. A four-year old is such a hand-full. They are coming into their own and I guess it’s just the start of their growing from a baby to being a independent person. So hang in there, keep up the firm discipline and love him to death. They grow up so fast, but all these days you’re struggling through, though they seem long now, will be gone in a heartbeat.



answers from Washington DC on


A few of the things you said , like he has an amazing memory and even though your speaking and asking/telling him to stop walking and not do something but he keeps on walking anyway seems a like my son. My son can hear what I am saying and knows if something he is doing/does it wrong but does it anyway almost seems as though something is telling them to do it as they have to know what will happen if they do.

My son was diagnosed with mild autism , this may not be the case for your son but it is worth looking into , there is a book called 'The out of sync child' , reading that confirmed some concerns I had anyway and then I went to a professional and got an actual diagnosis , there is also another book by the same author of the out of sync child that I think is called something like how to entertain the out of sync , may be helpful to you in ways to discipline and stop behaviours that you don't want.

Good luck




answers from Washington DC on

A., it sounds like you need to dig deeper to see what's going on with your son. Your first stop should be the Pediatricians to find what works best for your Son. There are so many factors out there, that could be troubling him.
He may have ADHD, he may having hearing difficulties, OR he may just be having a hard time at this age having a new baby in the house.

Try not to yell. Instead, make a chart, using pictures of daily chores, like cleaning up toys, getting dressed, using the toilet, Listening, etc. .
Put stickers for rewards on good days. Add them up and make a reward, wrap up individual mach box cars, figurines, yo-yo etc. . . or give him some one on one time.

Good luck, hang in there.



answers from Washington DC on

You said it in your very first sentence - your son is a normal, active 4-year-old boy. You can't expect him to stand still and not touch the walls while you and your husband are installing things in the home. I hope that the home under construction is not where you are living now! I think that is just putting him in an impossible situation.

That said, he knows exactly what he is doing. He hears every word you say and he is defying you to see what he can get away with. My son is almost 4 and he does the exact same thing. That's what they do at that age - they are asserting their new-found independence. To some extent you have to try not to let it get to you - that gives him satisfaction that he was able to get Mommy all riled up. If it is serious, I have found that the 1-2-3 Magic method works pretty well. I encourage you to stop spanking him - it doesn't work, it only makes it worse, and teaches him harmful lessons about how to treat others.

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