How to Control a 4-Year-Old's Behavior

By Erica Loop

Gone are the days of the terrible twos. But, that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods just yet. Even though your 4-year-old is able to follow rules and is growing more cooperative, he’s still sometimes demanding and difficult. Building on his growing vocabulary and the ability to understand consequences, you can control your preschooler’s behavior with careful communication, a sense of structure and a few time-tested techniques.

Stay Positive

While it’s tempting to match your child’s bad behavior in an equally negative way, shouting at her won’t do the trick. Screaming, spanking and any other similar type of discipline only teaches your child a lesson in aggression, notes the American Academy of Pediatrics. Instead, start with a support environment that includes loving, open communication.

Use positive reinforcement to promote the behaviors that you want to see. For example, if your child uses her words – and not her fists – to tell you that she’s angry, let her know how proud you are of her for communicating in an acceptable way. This type of praise helps your child figure out the right way to act from the wrong, and increase the likelihood that she’ll continue expressing herself in appropriate ways.

Create a Structure

Providing a structured environment provides safety and limits for your child, according to registered clinical counselor and certified play therapist Kathy Eugster. Creating structure allows you to assert your authority as the parent while giving your child a sense of security. For example, setting a daily schedule for your 4-year-old to follow provides him with a predictable routine in which he knows what you expect of him and how to behave. He knows that he has to clean up his toys before eating lunch and that naptime is after you read his afternoon story.

This type of framework also lets your preschooler take control over his behavior. If he knows the limits and boundaries that you’ve set, he can work on staying within them.

One of the key features of providing a structured setting is to establish rules early on. Create family or house rules, make them simple and clear for your child and stick to them. If bedtime is at 8:00, that means bedtime is at 8:00. It isn’t at 8:30 because your child whines or at 7:30 because you want extra time at the end of the day to get some work done while your child sleeps.

Provide Consequences

With setting rules comes creating consequences. By the preschool years your child is developmentally ready to understand that actions have consequences. Give your child the consequence before the action happens. This is where rules come in to play. For example, tell your child that if she doesn’t share her dolls with her little sister, she won’t get to play with the dolls at all. If she doesn’t follow the rule, take the dolls away temporarily. If she does what she’s supposed to, praise her efforts. Provide positive reinforcement by saying something such as, “I really like how nicely you’re sharing with yours sister.”

Use the Timeout Technique

Sometimes taking a break gives your 4-year-old the time he needs to calm down and quiet his behavior. This is the goal behind the timeout technique. Timeouts aren’t meant to punish your child. This strategy removes your child from the situation and gives him time to turn his attitude around. Pick a quiet area that is free from distractions.

Make sure that you can see your child at all times during his timeout. This means that putting him in his room with the door closed is out. When you see him behaving in an unacceptable way, remove him from the situation. Use a matter-of-fact tone to tell him, “I don’t like how you’re acting. You are going on timeout now.”

The general guidelines for timeout time are one minute per year of the child’s age, according to the Ohio State University Extension’s family and consumer sciences department. For four minutes your 4-year-old will need to sit quietly and think about what he did that got him a timeout.

Avoid constantly using this technique as a discipline strategy. Overuse of timeouts may make them ineffective. Your child may decide that he’s willing to trade four minutes of play time to do whatever he wants whenever he wants. Instead, use them when his behavior gets out of control, aggressive or to the point where it’s clear he needs a break.

Talk to a Professional

If your preschooler doesn’t respond to positive reinforcement, consequence or a timeout, you may need to seek help. Once in a while outbursts or tantrums are normal for this age. Even though they aren’t pleasant, temper tantrums come from your child’s still immature ability to control and express her emotions. That said, if your 4-year-old has constant tantrums you should talk to the pediatrician.

When a young child has unexplained tantrums, persistent disobedience or aggression it’s time to talk to the doctor, noted the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The doctor may refer you to a child development specialist who can evaluate your child and offer professional-level strategies.

About the Author

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.