The Best Ways to Discipline a 4-Year-Old Child

Behavior Management Strategies for Preschoolers

Validate your 4-year-old's feelings.
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Disciplining a 4-year-old presents some unique challenges. No longer a toddler, but not old enough to be a 'big kid,' preschoolers want more freedom than they can handle.

Although 4-year-olds vary greatly in terms of their development, most of them show a remarkable ability to follow the rules—at least when they want to. Compared to their younger counterparts, most of them have a clearer understanding of negative consequences.

But that doesn't stop them from testing the limits and breaking the rules. Additionally, most 4-year-olds struggle to handle distressing feelings like anger, boredom, and disappointment. Their emotional turmoil often leads to misbehavior.

Prevent Behavior Problems Before They Start

When it comes to disciplining a 4-year-old, prevention can be the best strategy. Stay one step ahead by being mindful of situations that are likely to be difficult for your child. 

Most 4-year-olds struggle to manage their behavior when they're hungry, overtired, or overwhelmed. So pack snacks, allow for plenty of rest, and plan outings for when your child is likely to be at his best.

Establish a daily routine so your child knows what is expected of him throughout the day. Preschoolers do best when they have plenty of structure.

Create Clear Rules

Create house rules that address the most important issues you want to address.

Focus on safety issues, such as, “Hold an adult’s hand in a parking lot."

By age 4, most kids take pride in their ability to dress themselves and brush their teeth independently. But it's important to set limits about the types of things your child can reasonably do on his own. Provide reminders such as, “Ask for help if you want more milk.”

Talk about your expectations before you enter into new situations. A 4-year-old needs to learn what type of behavior is socially acceptable in each environment.  Explain that while it's important to speak in a whisper in the library, it's OK to yell at a baseball game.

Praise Good Behavior

Catch your child being good and point it out whenever you can. Offer praise by saying things like, "Great job waiting so patiently in line today," or "Thank you for playing quietly while I was on the phone. I appreciate that."

When your child knows you're looking for good deeds, he'll be less likely to act out as a way to get attention. And he'll be motivated to keep up the good work.

Ignore Mild Misbehavior

Ignoring mild misbehavior can be an effective way to reduce silly and annoying behaviors that tend to thrive on attention. Look the other way, pretend you don't hear anything, or walk out of the room.

Then, as soon as the behavior stops, provide immediate attention again. This will teach your child that whining, begging, and temper tantrums aren't effective ways to get your attention.

Create Reward Systems

While some 4-year-olds still respond well to sticker charts, others have graduated to more formal reward systems.

If your child isn't motivated by stickers alone, offer other free and low-cost rewards.

Identify specific behaviors you want to address, ranging from using gentle touches to getting dressed before the timer goes off. Then, if your child reaches his goal, give him a simple reward that will motivate him to keep up the good work.

Use Time-Out

When your child breaks a rule, use time-out. Remove your child from a situation and place her in a time-out area for four minutes.

It can be a great way to help your child calm her body and her brain. The ultimate goal should be to teach her to remove herself from a situation when she's frustrated or overly stimulated before she gets into trouble.

Remove Privileges

Taking away privileges can be an effective consequences if your child refuses to go to time-out or when you need a bigger consequence than a four-minute time-out.

Take away electronics or a special outing to the park. Sometimes, removing a privilege for 30 minutes is plenty of time, but other times you may need to remove something for the rest of the day. 

A Word From Verywell

Four-year-olds are learning valuable life lessons each and every day. And even though you may feel like you have to repeat the same lessons over and over, rest assured your child is learning new skills.

So look for teachable moments to show your child what to do instead. When he hits because he's angry, teach him how to manage his anger. And when he refuses to brush his teeth because he's sad that it's bedtime, talk about healthy ways to deal with uncomfortable emotions.

As your child continues to develop socially, cognitively, emotionally, and physically, he'll begin to master more skills. Until then, support his efforts in learning how to have better control over his behavior.

Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Important Milestones: Your Child by 4 Years.

Theunissen MH, Vogels AG, Reijneveld SA. Punishment and Reward in Parental Discipline for Children Aged 5 to 6 Years: Prevalence and Groups at RiskAcademic Pediatrics. 2015;15(1):96-102. doi:10.1016/j.acap.2014.06.024.

Webster-Stratton C. The incredible years: a trouble-Shooting guide for parents of children aged 2-8 years. Seattle, Wa.: Incredible Years; 2006.

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