Wondering how to discipline a 4 year old who hits, doesn’t listen, or is defiant? Get parenting tips to solve challenging behavior problems.
“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, 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 timeouts 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 a tantrum—is now having a meltdown 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.
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 better behavior 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:
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 moon 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. 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 he persists.
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2. Hold your child accountable for her choices
To a child’s point of view, every decision can feel like it comes from her parents. Leaving the park or not being able to watch a TV show seem 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’ll understand that the consequences happened because of 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.
3. Focus on calming your child down first
Have you ever tried disciplining your child when she was in the middle of a meltdown? I’m guessing that pretty much everything you said didn’t even register with her 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 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 her down. Yes, she just hit you in the face or pushed her brother, but now is not the time to talk about that.
Hold her if she lets you, let her cry in your arms, use simple body language and facial expression to show her that you love her, no matter what. Otherwise, she’ll continue to flail and freak out, which only scares her even more.
Once she’s finally calmed down and is receptive to what you have to say, then you can discuss her behavior. Acknowledge her motives, talk about why her behavior was wrong, and share alternatives she can try instead. But do that after she’s already calm—not while she’s still kicking and screaming.
4. Teach your child impulse control
Do you feel like you need to hover over your child, correcting her behavior? Perhaps you tell her “no” a million times, or remind her to keep her hands to herself.
It’s frustrating for both parent and child to have to monitor behavior, but it can also feel like there’s no other way. After all, there have been too many times when you didn’t, only for her to hurt someone or break something.
But rather than hovering, use these opportunities as a chance to teach impulse control. You might correct her behavior and have her do it again, or teach important social skills, like personal space and turn-taking.
Learning how to control her impulses will help her make better decisions and be more aware of the consequences of her actions.
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 timeouts 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. In fact, 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 he only does to get a reaction from you, choosing instead to praise positive behavior. Hold him accountable for the choices he makes so he doesn’t blame you for the consequences.
If he’s throwing a fit, focus on calming him down first, and save the teaching and talking for once he’s receptive. Teach him impulse control so that he can be more aware of the consequences of his 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.
p.s. Check out Little Dinos Don’t Push by Michael Dahl, a fantastic children’s book to help kids understand the importance of keeping your hands to yourself:
Get more tips:
- Are You Responding Correctly when Your Child Says a Bad Word?
- One Question You Should Always Ask before You Discipline Your Child
- Top Challenges (and Solutions!) for Sibling Rivalry
- Unique Ways to Meet the Emotional Needs of Your Child
- How to Stop Being the “Bad Guy” with Your Kids
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