A 4-Year-Old's Drastic Change in Behavior

Perhaps you can recall a time when your child was well-behaved, listened to you and followed directions without talking back, and then, suddenly, it changed. Your sweet and charming young man has started acting like the troubled children that star in horror films. Several factors can contribute to drastic changes in your child's behavior, including traumatic events, significant family changes and abuse. Having an idea of what triggered behavioral changes in your child can help you use the appropriate interventions to redirect his behavior or get professional help.

Early Childhood Trauma

Many incidents can fall under the umbrella of early childhood trauma, including witnessed violence, loss of a family member and divorce. Some parents believe that younger children, such as kids from birth to 5 years old, are too young to understand or recall traumatic events, and are therefore surprised to learn that they can be affected by such events. The Erie County Department of Social Services suggests that you don't need to worry about a drastic behavior change that follows certain traumatic events, such as witnessing a car accident or experiencing the death of a family member, if the behavior persists for less than six months 2. Counseling and talking about a family member's loss or divorce can help your little one cope and learn to adapt to the changes.

Abuse and Neglect

Abuse and neglect are traumatic experiences that affect nearly 6 million children in the U.S. each year, according to ChildHelp.org. A drastic change in behavior is one of the signs of abuse and neglect, but changed behavior alone is not evidence that a child has been abused or neglected. Some changes include being overly compliant or withdrawn, not wanting to go home to parents after preschool or day care, being consistently unkempt, and unusually watchful and worried, according to ChildWelfare.gov. A child should repeatedly display signs of abuse and neglect before a call is made to child protective services. If you suspect that abuse is taking place, seek help immediately.


Bullying behavior, according to the University of Michigan, can peak around 2 years of age, which means even the most charming little tykes can act like bullies 4. Toddlers and preschoolers experience changes in behavior when they're bullied such as sadness and anger, withdrawal from family and friends, and not wanting to go to day care, preschool or other places where the bullying takes place. If you suspect your child is being bullied, teach him to be assertive without being aggressive, such as involving an authority figure whenever he is being harassed by a classmate or friend or telling his aggressor something along the lines of, "I don't like it when you hit me, so please, STOP IT!"

Mental Health and Behavioral Issues

Some children start showing signs of psychological distress as early as 4 and 5 years of age, and might need intensive interventions or counseling services to help with their drastic changes in behavior. Biological, familial and socioeconomic factors are some of the reasons why kids this young show signs of mental disturbance, according to the North Carolina Medical Journal. Kids in foster care with behavioral issues, those from abusive or neglectful homes, and those who have hyperactivity and defiance issues often fall into that category. If you suspect that your child might have mental health problems, contact a social worker or mental health agency to get her the help she needs.