How to Discipline a 4 Year Old When Nothing Seems to Work

Wondering how to discipline a 4 year old who hits, doesn’t listen, or is defiant? Get parenting tips to solve challenging behavior problems.

How to Discipline a 4 Year Old“Please tell me this all goes away when kids turn four,” I had told a few friends. When we’re in the middle of the Terrible Twos or the “Threenager” stage, we assume that defiant behavior disappears once those stages are done.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly work that way.

Sure, bad behavior takes a huge upswing as kids get older, especially as they learn to communicate and function more independently. But they learn how to behave throughout all of childhood—not just within the first three years.

So, if you find yourself wondering how to discipline a 4 year old, you’re not alone.

Perhaps your child doesn’t respond to time outs like he used to—in fact, he doesn’t seem to care about being punished. Taking away a favorite item isn’t working any longer, either. Instead, he takes his siblings’ toys, pushes other kids, and has been increasingly aggressive.

Or maybe your child—the one you swore hardly threw temper tantrums—is now having outbursts every day. Everything has to go his way—otherwise, he collapses on the floor in a fit or talks back. He’s even taken to throwing things and doesn’t listen after you ask him to do something. His behavior is getting worse.

Alternative to Time Out

How to discipline a 4 year old

By four years old, kids can communicate and understand much better than just a year or two ago. Still, what do you do when even talking about his behavior riles him up? How can you teach and enforce good behaviors to nip this in the bud once and for all?

Rest assured, you don’t have to feel like you need to discipline your child every five minutes. And you won’t always feel at a loss on how to handle these changes, much less have these challenges cause behavior problems at home.

Yes, even when everything else you’ve tried doesn’t seem to work any longer. And it all starts by applying these out-of-the-box parenting tips:

One Question to Ask Yourself Before Disciplining Your Child

1. Ignore your child’s behavior

Does your child continue to whine, even after you’ve made it clear that that’s not how you talk? It may be time to take a different approach: ignoring the behavior completely.

You see, sometimes we’re so triggered by our kids’ behavior that we overreact, dwell on, or otherwise drag out an issue longer than it needs to. The result? They get attention—even if it’s negative.

If your 4-year-old misbehaves only to get a reaction from you—and especially if the behavior is pretty minor—see what happens if you ignore it.

For instance, my son was whining about not being able to find his ball. Despite explaining that we don’t whine (and also knowing he was doing this to get a reaction), I said, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

Finally—and here’s the important part—praise your child when he finally stops and shows appropriate behavior. I acknowledged and even thanked my son when he stopped whining and spoke in a better way. And that was also the only time I agreed to help him find his toy.

This way, your child knows that certain behavior isn’t going to always get attention, no matter how much frustration he causes.

How to Stop Your Child from Whining

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2. Hold your child accountable for her choices

From a child’s point of view, every decision can feel like it comes from her parents. Leaving the park or losing TV privileges seems unfair because mom or dad said so. It’s easy for her to blame the consequences and target her anger elsewhere—likely toward you.

But what if you held her accountable for her choices? She can understand that these natural consequences happened because of the choices she made.

Let’s say you were planning on going to the park, but she was taking forever to put her shoes on. Rather than engage in yet another argument, you might say, “The longer you take to put your shoes on, the less time we have to play at the park.”

Now she understands that her behavior affects the outcome. The longer she drags her feet, the less time she has to play.

What happens if she continues to whine and postpone heading outdoors? When it’s time to leave the park, remind her that her choice to take extra time putting on her shoes is the reason her play time at the park is cut short.

Instead of feeling angry or blaming others for what seems unfair, she can begin to hold herself accountable for the decisions she makes.

Discover consequences for kids that can work.

Consequences for Kids

3. Focus on calming your child down first

Have you ever tried disciplining your child when he was in the middle of a meltdown? I’m guessing that pretty much everything you said didn’t even register at all.

And for good reason: when we’re extremely emotional, we can’t process anything logical, including words.

Yet so many of us make this mistake when our kids throw a tantrum. We try to explain why their behavior was wrong, why they can’t hit, or how they should say that in a better way. All while they’re having a fit and barely even listening to us.

This of course only makes us more upset, which rubs off on them, and the cycle continues.

Instead of using this as a teachable moment, skip the words for now and focus instead on calming him down. Yes, he just hit you in the face or pushed his brother, but now is not the time to talk about that.

Hold him if he lets you, let him cry in your arms, and use simple body language and facial expressions to show him that you love her, no matter what. Otherwise, he might continue to flail and freak out, which only scares him even more.

Once he’s finally calm and receptive to what you have to say, then you can discuss his behavior. Acknowledge his motives, talk about why his behavior was wrong, and share alternatives he can try instead. But do that after he’s already calm—not while he’s still kicking and screaming.

Learn 7 effective techniques to discipline children.

Discipline Children

4. Teach your child impulse control

Do you feel like you need to hover over your child, correcting his behavior? Perhaps you tell him “no” a million times, or remind him to keep his hands to himself.

It’s frustrating for both parent and child to have to monitor behavior, but it can also feel like there’s no other effective way. After all, there have been too many times when you didn’t, only for him to hurt someone or break something.

But rather than hovering, use these opportunities as a chance to teach impulse control. Correct his behavior and have him do it again, or teach important social skills, like personal space and turn-taking. Learning how to control impulses can help him make better decisions and be more aware of the consequences of his actions.

Get more tips on teaching impulse control for kids.

5. Be consistent with other adults

You can only imagine how confusing it can be for kids when the adults in their lives don’t agree on discipline.

One parent says it’s fine to kick a ball in the house while the other tells him not to. One uses timeout to discipline while the other would rather talk about the behavior. It’s hard for them to know exactly how to behave when their parents and other caregivers don’t agree with one another.

If you find too much discrepancy between you and your partner or you and your childcare provider, get on the same page before you need to discipline. That way, he knows exactly what to expect and what’s expected of him, regardless of the adult currently present.


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While your child may be past the Terrible Twos and Threenager years, that doesn’t mean discipline isn’t necessary. Many of the tactics that may have worked in the past are no longer effective.

Thankfully, that doesn’t mean you’re out of choices. By applying these parenting tips, you can still discipline your 4 year old, all without damaging your relationship.

Start by ignoring minor offenses she only does to get a reaction from you, choosing instead to praise positive behavior. Hold her accountable for the choices she makes so she doesn’t blame you for the consequences.

If she’s throwing a fit, focus on calming her down first, and save the teaching and talking for once she’s receptive. Teach impulse control so that she can be more aware of the consequences of her behavior.

And finally, be consistent with other adults and caregivers so that you’re all on the same page when it comes to discipline.

Discipline isn’t something we only do up to a certain stage, as much as I had hoped it would during those toddler years. But now we can see discipline for what it truly is—teaching kids how to behave, from four years old and onward.

Children's Books about Positive Behavior

p.s. Check out Little Dinos Don’t Push by Michael Dahl to help your child understand the importance of keeping your hands to yourself:

Little Dinos Don't Push by Michael Dahl

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  1. Pls help bedtime is a nightmare, my daughter has screaming crying tantrums and does not seem to care if l take away privileges and actually says l don’t care . Gets out of bed a dozen times will scream and cry for hors her younger brother is starting to copy her . My beautiful girl will not stay seated while eating is displaying the same behaviour at nursery and the teachers are concerned .she won’t let me read to her she wants to read won’t do a puzzle ends throwing card games around and now l am worfor her safety as l have her brother to watch too and she won’t stay close or do anything asked of her l praise good behaviour but nothing seems to work for no reason at all wants me to do everything and refuses to let her dad help. It’s so stressful l don’t know what to do please help me

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Leslee, big hugs, mama <3 I know it's so hard when kids put up a fight with everything, and I mean everything. Especially when you do all the right things and follow all the advice.

      One thing I would encourage you to do is to take a step back and ask yourself if you're having power struggles with her, meaning you're on opposite sides and someone has to "win." If you find that that's the case, see what happens if you start to align yourself with her and put yourselves on the same side. Think about what that means in your case, whether it's showing empathy for what she's frustrated about, sharing how you would feel the same way if you were in her shoes, or labeling the emotions she must be feeling.

      Maybe there's also a sense of putting your foot down but not in a "I've had it!" type of way, but more like, "I know you need boundaries, and I love you so much that I will set these limits even when it's easier to give in."

      Sometimes we get in our own way when we engage with our kids as if we're gearing up for a fight or just trying to avoid one. But if we truly understand what we have to do and where they're coming from, it's a bit clearer to relate to them.

      And the best part? They sense that we're on their side and soften their own defenses. They don't fight everything and instead know that we have their best interest in mind.

      Hang in there, mama <3

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