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Disrespectful Four Year Old

by Lissa
(Early, Iowa, USA)

How do I get my four year old to listen and respect me?

I can ask my son in the nicest way to do something as simple as getting dressed, go potty, brush his teeth, eat his supper, etc, and he will get verbally and physically angry and will refuse to do whatever it is I ask him to do.

He hits me and screams me, throws things and hits other things when he's angry. I just don't know where I went wrong in raising him to be a good little guy. I know he is only four and I know attitude comes with his age, but he is out of control and I just want to cry.

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Helping A Four Year Old Cooperate - Part One
by: Annie Desantis

Dear Lissa,
You have not done anything wrong - parenting is a learning process and there is not set formula that works for all kids!

First of all, your four year old is behaving fairly normally to some extent - yes the tantrums and rude behavior are pretty common at this age. Of course we also want to help them to get control of their feelings and it is not acceptable for him to hit or throw things.

A four year old can be a pretty stroppy time - they are pretty independent in being able to do things themselves, and are trying to assert their power.

Children don't have much power in many ways, their life is ruled by our timetables, and that often comes into conflict with what they want to be doing. And lets face it, playing is much more fun than brushing teeth or going to bed!

My son used to have huge meltdowns as a four year old, and most of it was when I tried to rush him. I learned he needed about 15 minutes transition time to be able to cope and be ready for the next activity. So it may be that your son is similar.

Learning To Control Strong Feelings


Kids are not born being able to control their emotions, the neural pathways actually have to grow in the brain. So a four year old is old enough to know his own mind, but does not have the maturity to be able to handle overwhelming emotion, and will react at the drop of a hat when things are not going their way.

Our job as parents is to help them gain control - yet many parents are actually showing their kids out of control behavior. When we loose our temper with our children, we are modelling that our reactions and feelings rule our behavior. It is much better to demonstrate to a child how you get control of strong feelings and make better choices than throwing something or yelling - or even smacking or threatening. Many adults don't have these neural pathways very well developed either, and we often struggle with anger and frustration and do not always behave very well! So no wonder our kids find it difficult.

Part Two Follows . . . .

Helping A Four Year Old Cooperate - Part Two
by: Annie Desantis

Kids don't see our inner process - we get mad or upset and then maybe take a breath or stop for a moment and then draw on our patience or our compassion and we then discuss, negotiate, or make a choice to withdraw when a situation is difficult. If we can make that whole process more obvious to our kids, then we help them to learn to take a moment to cool down, or to take some time out when they are frustrated or upset.

I don't recommend time out for punishment so much as using time out as a reflection time. Most parents tend to use time out in anger and forcing a child to stay there for a punishment. But it is much better to have a thinking chair or stair, or a pillow they can go to to calm down.

Your aim is firstly to help your son to learn control - not to MAKE him comply. I know it is incredibly frustrating when he won't just do what he is told, but you will get much more co-operation if you help him to deal with his feelings, and if you also minimize some of the things that contribute to his anger and rage.

You need to allow him time to vent his feelings. When a child is angry and frustrated if they can put words to it, then it starts to help the shift from reaction to the thinking part of the brain. Being able to say "I'm mad at you because you interrupted my game" is much better than throwing his toys across the room. So when you notice him starting to get cross, then say so, and ask him what makes him so mad. The more you can help him to talk about how he feels and work out solutions together, then the more he is learning control, and is empowered to make better decisions about how he behaves.

Parenting Tool


My son needed plenty of time to prepare himself - not as a warning, but as a gentle reminder. Using a timer can be a useful tool - and he can be in control of that. About 15 minutes before supper time, you can let him know supper will be ready soon, and ask him how long he needs to finish his game and be washed and ready for supper. Show him how to set the timer. You are negotiating with him, so that teaches him to work things out, gives him some power, and helps him to be reasonable and learn to manage his time. Some children like to have a two minute warning buzz when time is nearly up. But build that in from the beginning, not that he can keep extending 2 minutes.

Part Three Follows . . .

Helping A Four Year Old Cooperate - Part Three
by: Annie Desantis

If he hits or throws or hurts you, then try to stay calm (and I know that is really hard!!) If you can stay reasonably calm, then suggest you both sit on the sofa for some time out as you are unhappy with his behavior and it is not OK to hurt anyone. Say you will both stay there until you are both feeling calm.

If you are upset and angry, and don't feel calm enough to sit with him, then say so, and say you are going to go outside, or in the bathroom because you are angry and upset and you want to take some breaths and think it before talking to him. That way you are demonstrating to him that YOU can take some moments to breathe and get control and you don't just react back.

Then, when you are calm go back to him and take him gently but firmly and sit down with him and tell him firmly it is not OK to hit or hurt people or things, and that you will sit there together until he is calm and finds a way to fix up what he did. Try to help him to come up with something he can do - like saying sorry and giving you a hug, or cleaning up a mess if he has broken something. Rather than being angry and saying, "you have to stay here until you have said sorry", which means you are simply trying to force him to comply. It is better if you can say how you felt, that he hurt you, that it is not OK and that you know he can find a way to help make your home happy a happy place to be.

Reinforce Good Behavior


The other thing is work at rewarding his good behavior, so it reinforces it. You can make up a chart and have some daily activities on it that when he does them he gets a star or a sticker - and let him put them on. Don't have too many things on the chart, you can add more tasks later as he builds success. The aim is not to show him all the things he does badly, but to build success with things he can master and take responsibility for.

You may even just want to start with a couple of things such as brushing his teeth before bed without arguing and tidying up his toys before dinner. You can build in a bigger reward at the end of a week of stars - if he can go seven days in a row without a drama, then he gets an extra reward - doesn't have to be anything major, but something he feels he wants to work towards.

Part Four Follows . . .

Helping A Four Year Old Cooperate - Part Four
by: Annie Desantis

Your job is to actively look for things he does well. The times he does cooperate, make a big deal of it, give him a hug and tell him you love it when he helps out, or he gets himself dressed all by himself. The more he starts to realize he gets good attention from being cooperative then the more he is likely to do it. We tend to take for granted all the times kids do things under their own steam, but then get mad with them when they won't cooperate with our timetable.

Kids Need Heaps Of Positive Attention


Kids need heaps of interaction and our attention, and the more you interact with him and have fun with him, the more he will learn to get control of his strong feelings. Kids tend to act up much more when they are not getting enough positive input, and getting lots of negative attention is better than none. So make sure you maximize the fun positive times with him and it will help him to be more cooperative and to have better skills at working out problems.

Our kids grow up all too quickly, so find ways to enjoy being with him, and minimize the struggles. Make things a game rather than a confrontation, have races with him, tickling games, chase him to the bathroom rather than force him. Boys in particular love physical romping, so turn tasks into fun physical games when you can.

Taking Care of YOU


Now, the other thing I will mention, is it sounds like you are running on empty. You are wanting to cry, feeling like you have not done a good job with him, and feeling overwhelmed. Parenting is not always an easy job, and most of the time we don't get any feedback to say we are doing a good job. Instead we beat ourselves up when things are not going perfectly!

There are huge demands on your time and energy, and if Mom is running on empty, then it is very hard to be patient and constructive. You need to find ways to take care of you, and get some time out and do things that help you to feel good. The more you feel good about you, the better parent you can be. Your son is pretty full on at present and you really need to be topped up to be able to cope with him. So make sure you take care of you and get support, and time away from being a Mom.

And most of all, don't forget to pat yourself on the back for doing a great job, you are doing the best you can, and the most important of all is to just come back to loving that little scamp of yours!

Feel free to comment back if you wish,

Annie D:

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