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Aggression, Anger & Defiance in Preschoolers

Berkeley Parents Network > Advice > Preschool-aged Kids > Aggression, Anger & Defiance in Preschoolers


Aggressive 3-year-olds Aggressive 4-year-olds Related Pages

Violent but Loving 3 yr old

Nov 2010

My 3 yr. old son is the youngest of 3 boys 10 and 7 yrs. older than him. At the time of the birth of the youngest, I was a very busy single mother operating a business daily of my own. Much time and energy was displaced and I allowed my older children to take the brunt of entertaining the baby. It was not until a year and a half after that i found out there was cruel mistreatment from the middle child toward his younger brother. Started tharapy.

Soon after my youngest turned two i got married to an individual who has no children. The older boys went to live with their father and the disconnection i felt from my youngest was more apparent when my husband was showing ''No holds bar!'' Physical punishment was almost daily while my discipline was very minimal. Since then we have realized the imbalance and are working to correct it. And have not punished him physically since. As i started to research his behavior, Asbergers was a condition that fit some of his character traits. However more accurately a ''High Spectrum Crystal Child'' seems to be the more accurate label. This invited with my new indigo husband seems to be a challenge.

Academically, he is reading and doing simple math as well as solving complex puzzles. Meantime. our now 3 yr. old has just been kicked out of his 3rd pre-school! This time with his behavior being the worst. He has kicked, hit, even spat on and bit teachers. He does none of these things at home. We have tried play therapy unsuccessfully and we are at our wits end now. Please help us help our sweet loving child. Nicky


I am trying hard not to sound mean or judgemental here but I am sure I won't succeed. This child was born to a single mother who had a full time, busy career as well as two other children. This child was then treated badly by older brother while mother was off working. This child may or may not know his biological father. This child was then introduced to a new man when he was only two years old and this man started punishing him physically. THEN this child's two older brothers left to live with their father. And you wonder why this kid is angry and violent? Has anyone ever thought about the fact that he is reacting to all of the changes in his life? I find it absolutely unbelievable when parents wonder what could be making their child act out when the answer is as clear as day! I doubt he has anything like Asberger's. I think that he is responding normally for a kid who has been through so much crap. Your older two kids are already gone-I hope and pray that you get yourself some major parenting help-with your new husband who sounds like a real peach--otherwise this 3 year old will never have a fighting chance...... anon
This seems like a long ways off, but you might try this in addition to following other suggestions. It is a workshop at Banana's. http://www.bananasinc.org/

PRESCHOOL EXPULSIONS: A SUPPORT GROUP FOR PARENTS Monday, February 7, 5:30-7 pm Are you a parent of a child who was "kicked out" of a child care setting? If you want to talk about your experience, come to this group led by Madeline Riley, MFT, and BANANAS staff, Tasha Henneman. someone wishing you success.


I was so sad to read your post. Sad for you as you seem concerned for your son, but so so sad for your son. I can only imagine what you are implying when you say your husband applied ''no holds bar'' daily physical punishment...or what it was like for him being subjected to ''cruel treatment'' from a young, unsupervised sibling.

Well-intentioned individuals will probably respond to your post in an emotional way (as I am) because it sounds as if no one is truly protecting your son. You need some support and awareness of how harmful the neglect and apparent abuse has been for him. You can and should do something to change his life - right now. I hope others will respond with specific resources and referrals. My suggestion is general and that is to get family counseling immediately.

Your son's physical safety and emotional well-being is in your hands and what you do or don't do will have a lifetime impact. I urge you to rethink the importance of your needs vs. his needs for the time being. Please think about making immediate changes and the long-term benefits of getting counseling for you, your family, and your 3 year-old. YOUR SON IS ONLY THREE- HE NEEDS YOUR HELP!!!! Worried for your son


Hi Nicki, Sounds you know you and your little boy need help but you are not sure where to turn next. I highly recommend that you give Katrinca Ford a call. Katrinca is a therapist who specializes in work with pre-school age children and families. I know her because before she was a therapist she co-founded the preschool of which I am now the director. Katrinca continues to consult with the school on behavioral issues and early childhood mental health, and was very helpful in more than one challenging situation. I have seen Katrinca in action many times and know her to be both insightful and compassionate. She communicates well with both children and adults. Katrinca will work closely with parents and school to make sure your child's needs for love, understanding and limits are being met in both settings. Here phone # is (925) 831-1926. Good luck Sheri

Screaming three year old

March 2004

I am a mom of three children 9,5 and 3. My youngest presents me with the biggest challenge yet. He is a screamer. He can start to cry very easily ;if I say ''hang on a minute'', if I say''eat your lunch'', seemingly trivial things will bring on huge tantrums. My other two didn't have tantrums like this or if they did I have forgotten much like the pain of childbirth. the issue for me isn't so much the crying but the frequency, pitch and volume. He screams in restaurants, stores, airplanes and other places that I can only quietly and quickly stop him and not always deal with the underlying issue (because my nerves get jangled). At home he screams so much when he is upset that the entire household is disrupted often. I would like to ask for practical guidance in this matter from parents who have ''been there'' Thank you so much
AAAAAAAH!


We had the same problem. From our experience and advice, you're going to have to ignore the screaming. Don't react. The more you react, the more ''satisfying'' it is for the toddler. Your respond could be: ''screaming is not acceptable'' in a calm voice (if that's possible). This won't fix the problem immediately but helpful in the long run. Also, earplugs have been very helpful for us. This too will pass! The trick is not to let them get your goat.. anon

3-year-old slapping me in the face

April 2006

My sweet three year old has turned into a bit of a terror lately. Last week he started slapping me in the face. I've been giving him timeouts, but I'm not sure they're working. Any suggestions (aside from spanking)?


He's figured out a very exciting action-reaction ''experiment''! So, no, of course you don't want to punish hitting with spanking. Wrong message.

Right message - That behavior is absolutely unacceptable. We will be very firm yet very calm about this. You hit, you get removed from situation immediately with only a short, strong ''NO hitting'' NO discussion, explanation, threats of ''You do that again and blah blah blah''. It's simple - NO hitting. That's the rule. Three years old is plenty old enough for time outs and understanding of consequences.

I found the DVD ''1-2-3 Magic'' extremely helpful in providing really good rules on time outs - and how in some cases you don't count it out but wham - straight into a 5 min. time out, and how to make sure they work even with a crying, screaming, fighting child. And, how to keep the parent from talking/screaming too much too! Another Mom


3.5 yr. old's horribly defiant rages

Sept 2003

Our normally happy, bright, gregarious and polite 3.5 yr. old daughter has in the past few weeks developed a horribly defiant attitude, began having fits of sobbing, rage, screaming, or a combination of these. All through her ''twos'' we patted ourselves on the back because, unlike her peers, she never had a meltdown in public (or private) and was always so good. Now, suddenly, that has all changed and I am wondering if we spoiled her rotten, or if this is a normal stage of development.

When the tantrums started, me and my husband came up with a discpline and diet strategy and shared it with my mom, who also cares for her during the week. It includes things like ''when you say 'no' stick to it - no caving in to her'' and ''time outs if she disobeys after one warning''.

The problems began with eating. She is picky and many times refuses to eat at mealtimes. We decided that a more consistant schedule for snacks, cutting sugar, etc. would help, and it has a bit. But then came school. She suddenly refused to go and had to be forced, crying all the way and throughout the day sometimes. That has improved somewhat, but still surfaces now and then.

Now that the school thing is getting a bit better, she is waking up in the middle of the night screaming for mommy. Even after I go comfort her, she screams for me to stay with her. She is not sick, and is not having night terrors (been there, done that) so I am pretty sure its just another tantrum. Up to now, she has been happily sleeping in a big girl bed and never had a problem with it. When she explodes like this, after exhausting the ''are you sick, thirsty, etc'' we tell her to calm down and calmly close her door to let her scream or cry till she is done. We also have a 14-month old who is being woken up by all this. Do I let her cry and wake the baby? Or do I go in to calm her? If I go in to her, doesnt that just give her the message that she can get me if she has a tantrum?

My mom spent the night last night during two of my daughter's episodes. As I was waiting out the 5 a.m. crying my mom said to me ''what is wrong with you, can't you see there is something intrinsically wrong with her? You need to take her to a therapist!'' So now I am questioning whether or not me and my husband are doing the right thing. I realize this is all about her trying to control her world, but I am so tired and confused, I don't know what to do or think anymore. Any advice from someone who has been there would be so helpful. -Sleepless in Oakland


For us, 3.5 was the most challenging parenting time yet (she's now 8). A friend gave me the book: Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy? and it helped reassure me that is was really a developmental stage children go through and that the target is really the parent. That said, the recommendations in the book were mostly treating symptoms (get a babysitter, let them watch videos -- basically give yourself space and don't take it personally that they don't act out with others). I came to deal with it much better when I just accepted that it was the ''task at hand'' and set boundaries around no hitting me, consequences for out of bounds behaviors, etc. Good luck! JV
If there is anyone who can empathize with what you are going through with your 3.5 yo daughter it is me. You both will survive this! Your child is 'holding on for dear life emotionally' as Louise Bates Ames writes in her very helpful book 'Your Three-Year-Old, Friend or Enemy.'' This book is an absolute *must-have* for parents. I carried it with me whenever possible and when my 3.5 yo was freaking out I would read about what she was going through and suddenly would feel more compassionate rather than offended or angry. It totally took out the confusion.

My daugher and I both grew our first gray hair during this 6 month period (no kidding). She had the night crying fits too, and her pediatrician said that is was probably in part to her not getting enough attention (she has a younger brother) and her anxiety was coming out at night. I don't know how accurate this was, but nevertheless a LOT of anxiety was coming out in the middle of the night and it was quite draining for everyone. The best approach for us was to just hold her until she fell back to sleep so that she would feel as secure as possible. That usually took 20 min.

This emotionally precarious stage lasted about 6 mo. and then as swiftly as it came -- it left and we are all a bit wiser now. GOOD LUCK. Your daughter sounds very very normal! Angela


Pick up a book called ''Your Three Year Old,'' by Louise Bates Ames and Frances Ilg. It says that children very typically go through a period of ''disequilibrium'' at the age of three-and-a-half. What you are describing tracks very much to what they say. Perhaps you would be reassured by reading that book that what your daughter is going through is normal, if disorienting for you and her.

Add to that normal developmental stage the adjustment to preschool. My son is also having trouble with his adjustment to school. Even though he has been comfortable with a babysitter, school is a much harder separation. He may be fine, even joyful while at school, but at home his emotions come out in wild mood swings, from tearful and clinging to angry and kicking. He also has had tantrums in the middles of the night, and those seem to be a mix of fear and exhaustion. I have found ways to lovingly reassure him that I am here, love him, and will ALWAYS come back for him. When he is calm enough to listen, I also make clear that he needs to find calmer ways to talk about his fears and frustrations and that will listen. It's taking time, patience and respect on my part, but we seem to be turning a corner.

Besides the above mentioned book, it might be helpful for you to talk with a therapist to find some strategies that will work for you--also to discuss your own reactions to your daughter's feelings and actions. But it sounds like your daughter is behaving in a very normal 3-and-a-half-year-old manner. Good luck to you. I'm sure things will get better. Us Too


You sort of skimmed over the part about your daughter not wanting to go to preschool and being insistent about that. It sounds to me like that may be the root of the problem. Perhaps try asking her how things are going at school. She seems afraid of something - and she may have good reason to be. I would check it out before I had her checked out. It may be as simple of finding her a school where she feels more comfortable. Best of luck. It sounds to me like your daughter is going through a difficult developmental period--and that her bahavior, while it may be excruciating for mom and dad to deal with, is not terribly severe. My daughter, too, breezed through the twos and threes, only to make me wonder where my sweet little girl went once she was three and a half. She was defiant, loud, tearful, and impossible to console at times. Bedtimes were a nightmare. I don't at all mean to dismiss your concerns--I just want to reassure you that even a period where your child goes through really intense tantrums doesn't mean your child is disturbed, or that the problems are permanent. Lots and lots of kids go through stages where their tantrums seem unprompted, especially among the 3.5 to 4.5 year-old set. Severe problems might look more like unprompted aggression, antisocial behavior (avoiding contact with others; doing odd, off-putting things), or depression. It sounds more developmental to me, and your child will pull through.

If you do indeed wish to take your child to a therapist, you might try UC Berkeley's psychology clinic. I, too, took my daughter to a therapist, only to be reassured that her behavior did not look too severe, and her treatment was short-lived. Good luck and be well, anonymous.


You sound worried. I hope that you will find a child and family therapist or social worker who knows something about child behavior and family dynamics and sort it out with them. If there is a problem they will, hopefully, be able to figure out what it is and help you develop a plan to improve the situation. Would you like a referral? Helen
Hi, I'm really sorry you are going through this at the same time as you are caring for a baby. That's not easy! My advice is hang in there -- it will get better. We have had a similar story with our daughter who will be 4 in November. We've had a lot of tantrums, and defiant and erratic behavior in the last three months. There are some particular circumstances at our house that may have exaccerbated this phase, but as far as I can tell, it's just that -- a pretty common phase for 4 year old girls. One of my parenting books quotes a survey that determined that 40 to 60% of behavior in this age group is ''non-compliant''.

One of the things we did, which has helped a lot, was to let go of every discipline issue except the really core stuff. We made a list of the things she absolutely has to do or not do. Things like ''wear clothes to school'' and ''take a bath at least twice a week''. There were no more than 10 things on this list. (Eating wasn't on it. Brushing her hair wasn't on it. Those things went on a list of behaviors we try to encourage.) Then we agreed on a consistent discipline strategy for the ten key things, which is 2-3 requests followed by a phrase like, ''I'd like you to do x by yourself, but if you can't do it (or stop yourself from doing it) then I'm going to have to do it for you. I don't like doing this. It would be more fun for all of us if you could do it yourself.'' Sometimes this had to be followed with gentle but firm physical redirecting.

After about a week, we saw a real improvement in compliance with these core things. And now slowly, we are seeing a better attitude towards behaviors we are encouraging but not requiring. Of course, this is not scientific. It may be that letting time pass would have brought these benefits anyway -- who knows. Also we try to compliment and appreciate her whenever she is helpful, self-restrained, etc. We haven't found that the punitive approach works very well, and we only use time- outs when she really needs to get a grip on herself during a tantrum. Good luck! Dana


Our kids have gone through many many different stages and at times their sleep is disturbed and bad behaviors will show up and I think it's completely normal. And reality check here.....your mom is WAY OUT OF LINE. In my opinion what she said to you is preposterous and incredibley unhelpful. There could be myriad of things going on. Your child could be reaching a new stage of develpment....be testing limits and be feeling scared about it. My kids have gone through this more than once. Their behavior gets abhorent and they have nightmares for a while, and we comfort them and then it changes. That seems to be the rule of parenting that I've noticed...whatever is going on, it will change. Sometimes these behavious show up when I get too busy with work and they are not getting enough time with me. Sometimes I think it's just them going through the hard process of growing up. There could be some underlying phisical reason....a tooth problem or anything...you might consider taking her for a check up. Good luck and hang in there. Irene
I realize it all seems severe and extreme to you, and I'm sorry. But I want to assure you that everything you say sounds very normal, even for a kid who has been angelic up until now. In my experience, 3.5 is one of the most difficult ages for children. It certainly does not sound to me like there is something ''intrinsically wrong'' with her that requires a therapist. That said, it sounds like your approach to her emotional upheaval isn't quite working. At 3.5, she is overflowing with emotional and cognitive disturbances that she can barely handle. (Again, this is normal.) Psychologically, she's hanging on by a thread. She probably NEEDS to throw some tantrums just to let off steam, and I think you should let her! You can't know exactly why she is so needy right now, but she clearly is, and that's okay. By comforting her and giving her permission to let it all out, I don't think you're ''giving her the message that it's okay to have a tantrum.'' Rather, I think you'd be acknowledging that she's going through something rough, even if she can't verbalize it, and creating a safe space where she can explore those emotions. My approach to tantrums (when my now 5yo was a tantrum-prone 3.5yo) was to take her to a quiet, safe place, and hold her, if she'd let me, saying something like t his: ''I can tell you're really upset. You must feel really bad. Go ahead and cry if you need to. Mommy's right here.'' etc. You may want to move her or move the baby so you don't have to worry about TWO restless kids in the middle of the night. (BTW, if you want to know more about this approach, look up Patty Wipfler and the Parents Information Network -- I think that's what it's called. She does workshops locally, and has some brochures available you can buy.) Good luck to you and your family. Judith
I did not see the original post, but if your fear is that your previously easy kid now is throwing fits, relax. Many kids this age just need to blow. My older one did, with a vengeance, at age 3+, completely out of control with rage about things that could not be changed. My personal favorite: ''I want our house to be on the OTHER side of the street.'' As my grandmother always said, just when you think you can't stand it another minute, it will change. It did. At 12 he is a responsible and reasonable kid, though I am beginning to see hints of another bout of this coming on.... Leslie

Once sweet 3-y-o is defiant and disobedient

June 2003

My once sweet-natured 3-year-old has now decided to push the limits of what he is and is not allowed to do to the point of my losing my mind!

He is told not to run away when we are out in public places and he will just bolt off ane when I call for him he will look at me and laugh and keep on running. When he throws rocks or I tell him to do something and he ignores me, I do the standard ''count to three and then remove him, move him or sit him down, etc.'', except that now he just yells ''stop'' at me, points his finger and goes back to doing what he was told not to do.

I have taken away priveleges, I have sent him to bed without dinner, I have talked and talked and TALKED to him, all without results. We do the time out chair, now he has to stand with his head facing the wall until we say time-out is over, because he would be put in his time out chair and if we turn out backs, he would get up, get a book and start reading.

I grew up with corporal punnishments and swore I would never spank, but I am losing my mind. What am I supposed to do? I know a lot of this is testing boundries, but with safety issues like running into the street, or in some cases, running into a store and hiding in clothing racks so I can't find him, I can't pick my battles. Ideas? Sandra


My 3 yr. old daughter is also an astute boundary tester. Around 2 1/2 she ran away from me after we exited a store and a guy loading his truck grabbed her before she ran into a busy four- lane street. After that, my husband bought a harnass and I keep it in the bottom of our diaper bag, so it's handy. I have a younger son, age 22 mo. now, so I have to be very consistent with rules. I make them hold my hands when crossing streets or walking to the park and tell them to stay where I can see them in stores, etc. I tell them the other choice they have is I strap them both in the stroller and, in some cases, we go home. If they're throwing rocks, I say ''no throwing rocks; rocks hurt people; you can throw balls.'' If they continue, I might give them one more chance to cooperate by saying, ''you can put the rocks on the ground or I can do it for you.'' (I use this type of line a lot to give my kids a choice and allow them to exercise their growing independence but also knowing full well they prefer not to choose my doing something for them.) I admit my daughter is a skillful negoitator at her tender age, so holding to what I had in mind exactly is sometimes challenging. Hope this helps. anon
I know it's not approved of - but where bad behavior becomes a serious safety issue (running into the street), I yell and whack butts. Better traumatized than flattened by an SUV. Fran
Your plea is the same as mine! My husband and I are struggling too - especially on the safety issues. But a few things are helping:
1) Tips and tricks from his pre-school teachers. They've seen it all and should be able to tell you more about your son's personality type - which helped us figure out a different approach to some problems.
2) From pre-school, we quote the maxim ''the rule is ... no running away, no screaming, no throwing, etc''. No long explanation, that's the way it is (and we sometimes get ''that's NOT the way it is!'', but there you go).
3) Promoting and explaining good behavior before the bad happens ''Last time you did x and it was not good. This time you will do y and we will all be happy.'' Reinterates to your child that you are on the same side, let's all be happy, let's work together on this. If it starts slipping, remind him what the good behaviour is rather than just saying ''stop it'' (not always possible when it's a matter of safety).
4) Take a class at Bananas - a friend of mine took the ''Raising a Spirited Child'' class when her 3-year old was doing the exact same stuff, and it gave her a lot of tools (in fact, I think we ought to do the same... see you there?!) Hang in there...
Another Tired Mom
It sounds like you know what to do. I just wanted to say that it takes a lot of patient consistency to provide the appropriate discipline/lessons when your child is testing so intently. Some children take more than others. Be sure you are both as rested, fed, etc. and just keep going - remove him every time he throws rocks, don't take him to the park when he wants to go - 'I can't take you because you might hurt someone throwing rocks'', hold his hand every time you go in the street. It won't change overnight - measure progress in small steps. It worked for my son who is now 7. While still persistent and testing he has self control and knows what is not negotiable. ellen

Behavior change in 3 year old, for the worse

July 2002

In the past month or so, our formerly sweet and easy 3 1/2-year- old daughter has become a different person. Where she used to be calm and reasonable, she now has frequent tantrums and meltdowns (but does still have calm, easy times as well). Where bedtime used to be a simple matter of routine, it has now become a nightmare that begins as soon as the lights are out -- she claims to be ''restless,'' yells and screams, pops out of bed endlessly, etc. And, the most disturbing of all, she has reverted to having problems at the beginning of the school day, being reluctant to join in at best, and horribly screamy and panicked at worst. We haven't seen this sort of thing since she first started school, at 2. She's also refusing to take her swim lessons even though she loves to swim with us in our pool at home.

Now the complications: 1) We recently returned from a trip to visit doting grandparents and family, and much of this behavior started when we got back. But that was in June and she's never taken this long to readjust before. 2) After some recent difficulties with her preschool director we find ourselves in the unhappy position of looking to change schools, but not being sure that we're doing the right thing. We talked with the director, and things seem to be okay for our daughter there, but we don't trust that similar issues will not come up again. So, despite our desire to keep her in for another year so she can preserve the attachments she's made to kids and teachers (and that took a long time to establish), we think we should probably go somewhere else where we feel welcomed as a family. (The problems centered around religious intolerance -- of us -- in a supposedly secular school.) We're obviously conflicted about this and it could be affecting our daughter, though we've done what we can to keep it away from her.

We are completely at our wits' end. We want nothing more than to figure out what is at the root of the sudden behavior changes so we can help our daughter deal with them AND so that we can figure out some effective strategies for dealing with them ourselves. As a bright, perceptive child, she's very good at pushing our buttons and we find ourselves reacting with anger and frustration more than we would like -- which then leads to guilt and sadness. We know that some of the changes are developmentally appropriate, but it also seems to us that much of the behavior we're seeing is related to separation issues. But do they really come up again at 3, after lying dormant since toddlerhood? If so, what can we do to help our daughter? And if not, what else could be going on?

Any insight or advice would be welcomed Frustrated and confused mom


I have 2 kids (age 7.5 and 4.5) and with both kids I found wacko behavior returning at EVERY half. So terrible twos were really terrible two and a halfs, and some version of uncontrolled impulses, frustration and sleep issues reared their ugly heads every year about the half birthdays. I have found that as my kids assert their independence and gain in emotional maturity, they also simultaneously regress and act out -- probably in reaction to how scary it is to grow up and have more expected of them. So, I'm sorry to report that they are not ''done'' with these behaviors after toddler-hood. Trying to keep school and home conditions consistent might be a good strategy to help get through this stage. Good luck. Anon
I don't know what to tell you about your preschool situation, but boy oh boy can I relate to your frustration about your daughter's new stage. Not fun, to say the least. Our trying times began when our son was four, but they sound nearly identical to yours. I can also tell you that he is now out of them and back to his former wonderful sweet self(as are his other pals who went through the same type of thing). Hang in there.

And walk, don't run, to the library or bookstore to pick up a copy of ''Food Fights and Bedtime Battles, A Working Paren'ts Guide to Negotiating Daily Power Struggles'' by Tim Jordan, MD. It may save your sanity! In addition to providing good insight into developmental issues your child is experiencing, he gives some spot-on examples of exactly the incidents you are dealing with and provides solid, practical and meaningful tips and steps that address the needs of both you and your child. I have recommended the book to several friends, all of whom found it as valuable as I did. Best of luck to you. In spite of this storrmy stage, your little tornado will likely eventually evolve back into her former sunny self (and so will her parents ;-)) Lived Through It


One thing we learned from the director of our pre-school (AOCS) is this notion of a half yearly cycle of equilibrium/disequilibrium. One the whole year, the child is more at peace with themselves, on the half year, they are much less so. It's like they are in between stages and just don't know what to do with themselves. I recall 3 1/2 as being a pretty tough period. I know it sounds strange but I have seen it happen with my child and many of his friends. chris walcott
I highly recommend reading the book, ''Your 3-year-old,'' which I found at Cody's books. It's part of a series of books which describe typical behavior for a child of each age from 1 to at least 12. The books are based on research with thousands of children, so they are authoritative, and they are also very short and easy to read. One of the insights I've gained from reading these books about my children's ages (they are now 8 and 5) is that behavior problems tend to surface cyclically, usually at the half year. Apparently most children tend to be happy and balanced around their birthdays, but problem behavior crops up like clockwork around the half year. This certainly matches my personal experience. My children have both been through repeated cycles of difficult behavior which melts away when they reach new developmental milestones. It's a normal part of the process of growing up and not necessarily something to DO anything about. It sounds like your child is also under some stress because of your school situation, and this can also produce behavior problems which are a normal response to a stressful situation. My suggestion is to try to maintain a regular rhythm in your child's daily life (same wakeup and bedtimes, regular meal times, and regular cycle of activities), set reasonable boundaries, and don't sweat a certain number of trantrums or meltdowns. Of course, not all problem behavior is normal or tolerable. But what you described in your message didn't sound out of the ordinary to me. CDM
To Frustrated & Confused - You might want to find a book called ''Your 3 Year Old - Friend or Enemy'' ( or is it ''...Friend or Foe''?) I don't know the author. It talks about the sudden, negative behavior changes often seen between 3.5 & 4 years. Another 3.5 mom Andrea

3-year-old hitting parents

Boy, I don't know how to start. My son is two months shy of 3, and there are times I simply cannot get him to listen to or respect me. He goes through these bouts where he tries to hit me in the face, repeatedly throws things, both in jest and the heat of the moment, and simply won't "turn off." Trying to do a time out or getting him to play in his room simply don't do anything, as these days the only way I can get him to stay still is to sit on him, wrap him in a blanket like a strait jacket, or hold his hands down by his side. I'm not the mean mommy I sound like from this, just a frustrated one who can't seem to get "No" and "Stop" across. I would love to hear ideas and suggestions from people, and books to read. Also, I just learned about a home-based video educational program, "Parent Effectiveness Training." Does anyone have experience with this, and if so, would you endorse it for the parents of a child my son's age?

I've been trying very hard lately to be consistent in what I say, not giving mixed messages, implementing swift justice, and introducing consequences, but sometimes I feel it all falls on deaf ears. I've even resorted to picking up my son and putting him outside the house (in an enclosed backyard) to stop his behavior. Please, all advice welcome.


Re the three year old behavior. Wow, you could be me. Just a few months ago I posted a similarly desperate plea. My son has seemingly passed through the worst of that stage and is not hitting us any more or being so disrespectful. What has made the difference? Absolutely nothing I've done, as far as I can tell. I think he was going through a difficult stage, perhaps still adjusting to a new school, though it had been a few months, or just a period of learning about being a jerk! Anyway what helped me get through were some of the posts on the website about difficult behavior. I realized I wasn't alone. The one about playing games and making everything into a game is terrific. Sometimes distraction works or being silly will snap him out of it. Doing role playing or switching roles at a time when things are calm helped. Also I realized that I did not like how I felt when I gave him so many time-outs etc. I felt more and more distanced from him so I tried to give him as much love as I could and not to get angry myself as much as possible (very hard at times!). This will pass so just try to stay connected and take lots of deep breaths. Leah
I feel for you! I have a four year old son. I've raised him by myself since he was 2 years old, so we've gone through several developmental phases together. Your situation with your son sounds familiar!

I have heard a little bit about the PET ("Parent Effectiveness Training") from a mother who tried it on her 10-12 year old boy. It backfired on her and her problems with her son only got worse and she told me she was going to quit using the PET approach. Granted, I don't know much about the PET philosophy, but it just didn't ring true with me (at least not the way she described it to me). Maybe it works for some people.

I recommend The Discipline Book, by the husband-wife team by the name of Sears. It's yellow with a close-up picture of a child on it, holding the hands of two adults. These authors have 8 children (so they have much personal experience), and their philosophy for raising children seems to be much like mine. Basically, the whole idea (in my mind and theirs) is to respect the child as a person-- which means respecting where they are at in their developmental process. A parent must get into the mind of a child and understand where he/she is at. I'll give an example of this from my own experience. At about age 3 or 3-1/2, my son got very very frustrated; he was at a stage where he was capable of doing so much more than previously, but he felt like he was not *allowed* to do "anything". His frustration was leading to aggression. In a serious moment, he once opened a discussion with me: "I never get to do anything I want!". I seized the moment; I acknowledged how frustrating that must be; that he is so much bigger and capable of doing so many more things that it must be really frustrating to not be able to do whatever he wants. I continued: "But there are things I cannot allow you to do because you might get hurt. It's my job to take care of you. You know, there are lots of things Mommy can't do, either!" Then I asked him, "What would you like to do right now that you feel you cannot do?" He thought for a moment and then said, "Fly a plane." I said, "Do you think I can fly a plane?" (Of course he thought I could indeed.) I said, "Nope-- I can't fly a plane! (I used humor, because I saw he would respond favorably to it.) The police would arrest me! A person has to have a special liscence to fly a plane. I also cannot just get in a big truck and drive it. I can't just go and be a diver (something he wants to do)." He was very surprised-- and it really helped him-- to know that even *I* (a *grownup*!) couldn't do anything I wanted. I explained the reasons behind some of these things ("It is hard to fly a plane-- it's different than driving a car, with different controls and levers and buttons-- and so to make sure you won't crash and hurt yourself or others, you have to take a class to learn how to fly safely". To which he would respond "Oh." And it seemed to sink in.)

I explained that if I really wanted to fly, or be a truck driver, or be a diver, that I could decide to take a class that would teach me how to do it, and *THEN* I would get a special liscence that would allow me to fly or dive. So you can do anything you want, but sometimes you have to go to school to learn it first. If you really want to be a diver when you grow up, then you will choose to go to school to learn how to do it. It will be your choice."

When my son was at this stage, I knew I had to make a conscious effort to relax some of my previous restrictions and allow him the opportunity to test his own limits (on appropriate things, ones where no serious injury was possible), and that I had to look at ways and opportunities to give him CHOICE in matters and OPPORTUNITIES to do more things. This would alleviate (I hoped) his frustrations. As an example, this was when I started asking him what he wanted to wear that day (some days he didn't care and I selected his clothes; other days it did matter and he chose). I began reconstructing events in our lives to be ones in which there was a choice, and I let him make the choice. It gives him a sense of freedom and responsibility and control. Now in the morning, when it is hard for him to listen to what I say we need to do (bathroom, wash hands, dress, brush teeth), I say, "Ok. There are four things we need to do now: bathroom, wash hands, dress, brush teeth. Which do you want to do first?" It seems easy for him to decide and then to do it! It seems incredible to me, that while nothing has changed (in essence), he is so much more cooperative when I simply allow him to *feel* like he has some choice in the matter!

In my mind, at the stage it sounds like your son is at, he will only keep "acting out" in frustration until he feels like he has some control in his universe. I fully understand your own frustration. My son is getting so strong now (at four) that when he hits (usually just in playing), it really hurts! You cannot allow that, else it won't go away (and he doesn't learn how to respect others). To my son, I say in a stern voice, "Don't hit me! I *don't* like it. It is *not* O.K. to hit! If you do it again, you will go right in time-out." He is getting old enough that I am beginning to put him in time-out immediately if he hits me or anyone else (no "next time" warning).

Regarding time-outs, I dole out different length time-outs depending on how serious an offense it was. 2-minute, 5-minute, 10-minute, 15-minute time-outs are the ones I use. Recently (at four years old), I have once or twice "threatened" a 20-minute time-out if he did some serious thing. Hitting a person gets a 10- to 20-minute time-out, depending on how out-of-control he's been. How long a time-out is appropriate? I have heard of some people (including the daycare teachers who take care of my son during the day) who give children 1-minute of time-out per year of age. I have found that my son can handle longer time-outs and that he is learning the concept of seriousness of behavior by the consequences that result, as measured by length of time-out.

I feel strongly that a child deserves respect as all humans do, and that in order to respect a child, we must understand his stage of development (which changes regularly!). In respecting the child, we teach him or her to respect others. Please don't let your son hit you, but also teach him why-- he wouldn't like to be hit either, "it makes you feel sad and hurt and angry. It's ok to feel angry, but it's NOT ok to hit. If you are angry, tell me! Use your words! Say, 'Mommy, I don't like that I can't do that.' Then I know how you feel and we can find a way to make it better, we can find a solution, so that we are both happy." It has taken awhile for my son to learn appropriate alternative ways to show that he's angry, and I still sometimes have to remind him of the alternatives, but it has been well worth the effort. I find it helps him if I give him examples of how to express things he might be feeling. I believe children need to learn to express how they are feeling, and that it is important to let them know that it is *OK* to be angry-- just that it is NOT ok to hit or hurt or say mean things.

I apologize for the length of this. I hope it helps a little. Feel free to email me if you wish to vent or discuss more. Good luck and hang in there! Peggy


This could be our 3 year old -- he will vigorously start hitting and throwing things and, on some occasions, when informed that continued ill-behavior means a timeout announces he's going to keep doing it.

So far as we've been able to figure, the behavior comes from two distinct urges. The first, and most common, is he's upset about something and can't find the words to express it. Asking him, "are you upset about something?" (or better, if you can guess, "are you upset about X?") often helps -- it lets him talk a little bit -- and combined with a long hug after the talk, often sharply reduces the hitting and throwing.

The second is that, occasionally (though rarely) he's just confirming that the house rules are still in force and pushes until he has a timeout to confirm that the rules are still the rules. But this is much less common than misbehavior as a form of dealing with distress. Craig


It certainly sounds like you are having a tough time with your child. I think your instincts are giving you some good promptings. I encourage to develop your "holding" strategy. Little children cannot set their own boundaries, and some of them have a powerful need to know that those boundaries are being set by adults, and they are consistent. The challenge for you is to overcome the anger and frustration you probably feel at those times, and hold him in a strong, calm and loving way. He will probably struggle a while, and you may wonder if you are doing the right thing. If he calms in about 5 minutes and relaxes into your arms, then this is a good strategy for you to use with him.

You may find you have to do it often because he may have a great need for this kind of reassurance. However, this kind of direct physical intervention is more effective at his age than the positive discipline strategies you describe, which require language and thinking skills he has not yet developed.

The other thing that you need to do is be consistent with the daily schedule and, as you are already being behavior expectations. Of course there will be times you don't manage to be consistent. The point is to keep returning to how you intend to do things--that is your standard and the other stuff is exceptions. This is another way of communicating to him that you are in charge, you are taking care of him, and he is safe. This is what he is trying to find out from you with his challenging behavior.

I don't know why some children have such a need to test boundaries. I don't think anyone knows. Louise


I have two (mostly gentle and kind) boys, each of whom has had difficulty in controlling his anger and similar feelings. I also have found myself in the position of apologizing for the child's 'hurt feelings' and coming to believe that punishment, per se, isn't accomplishing much. For what it's worth, here are my thoughts.

First, it's important to separate the issue of the child's actions from the issue of his feelings, and how you may (or may not) have hurt them. Children are very adept at changing the subject. When responding to out of control actions such as you describe, your possibly having hurt the child's feelings in disciplining him can't be allowed to be made the issue. Keep the focus on his behavior until you're satisfied you've resolved it.

When this comes up for me, I say, "We can talk about how you feel I hurt your feelings afterwards. But no matter how you feel, hitting (etc.) is not acceptable behavior. You may not hit your brother/sister."

Usually, I then try to talk with my son about whatever happened to set off the incident and to get him to put himself in the shoes of the person being hit. I try to explain that to be angry about something (e.g., a brother's teasing) is good and that I want him to feel free to be angry, *but* that there is a big difference between "O.K." angry feelings and "not O.K." physical violence and similar actions.

Second, I have tried to become more aware of the things that lead to these explosions so that I can step in before the child has gone over the line and coach him to respond appropriately, rather than impulsively. As he has grown older, he seems to have internalized this somewhat and become more able to control his responses independently.

Third, sometimes you have to let the child cool off before any of this will be possible. That is the only real function for "timeouts" in kids older than toddlers (IMHO). I don't call them timeouts, I just say the kid needs to be by himself until he can be in control and have a talk with me.

As for punishment, follow Gilbert & Sullivan: "Let the punishment fit the crime, the punishment fit the crime." I've wasted a lot of energy on punishments unrelated to the conduct in question, like the all-purpose favorite, "No video games for a day/week." Now I try to keep it focussed on the behavior if I can. But beyond that, I've come to believe that punishment is often unimportant; what matters is the child's *understanding* of exactly what they did that was wrong, of why it was wrong, and of how it affected the other child and those around them. A child who understands this suffers appropriate remorse that is punishment enough.

Finally, this response wouldn't be complete without mentioning that uncontrolled and impulsive behavior is sometimes a symptom of entirely different problems that can't be addressed with a discipline model alone. In particular, children with learning disabilities often manifest behavioral problems as a result of the understandable (and all-too often unrecognized) frustration they are experiencing. Similarly, impulsiveness and lack of control can be a sign of attention deficit disorder, a real problem notwithstanding all the controversy about over-diagnosis and the like. Age 5 may be too young to make such diagnoses, except in severe cases, as a certain amount of such behavior goes with the territory of that age. If it persists at 7, or if you feel that the situation is unmanageable before that, I'd suggest talking to your pediatrician or (better yet) a psychologist or family therapist who is knowledgeable in such things (Sheri Glucoft Wong on Solano is excellent in spotting these problems). Good luck.

3.5-year-old hitting parents

Help. My delightful 3.5 y.o. son is a parent abuser! Here's the usual scenario-We've returned from a full day of childcare/work. We have some play time. I'm cooking dinner in between. We're playing, laughing etc. He starts doing something not ok (jumping on a book tonight). I try explaining why that isn't ok. He gets mad, starts calling me names, gets more books, I take them away. He starts hitting, calling more names. I tell him I don't like that. I try to redirect him into another activity. Eventually he gets into something else but then the cycle starts up again when he doesn't get his way- name calling and hitting. I find it infuriating to have my calling me "stupid" and hitting me. Yes it's mostly when he's tired and or hungry and had a long day. I've tried sending him to his room or leaving the room myself when I get too angry. He doesn't hit or name call school at apparently and plays really well with the other kids. He does the same negative beahvior with his dad though my husband doesn't get as upset with it as I do. Sometimes he's able to concoct silly responses that distract our son from whatever his objective is. Still at the end of a long day I often don't have wh\345t it takes to come up with witty, imaginative distractions. I just want him to listen and not\240be mean. Will he just outgrow this? Any strategies? (we dont' yell (much) at each other by the way and never spank or call names....)
It is very common for children to become verbally abusive at this age. They are just figuring out how their words can really hurt and cause strong reactions, and apparently your child has found that out! I have a strong willed and very persistent three and a half year old myself, and it is so hard to keep calm at times, but I find it more effective when I do keep calm and consistent. I strongly recommend not allowing any hitting, and continue to separate the child from you when this is happening. Just keep repeating to him "we do not hit in our family". Now, what is most important, after the crisis is over is to go back to the incident and talk it over with your child when he is calm and rational. Make lists of what might work when he gets angry or when there is something you need to tell him that he won't like. Then, when the next crisis happens, you can refer back to the conversion you had with him: "You are getting angry again... remember what you and I have decided? You said, and we wrote this down, that when you got angry you would... instead of hitting people (my child and I decided that she can hit pillows). As far as the strong words go, you might want to talk about strong words that are OK to say, like "I am really mad right now! Or (my daughter's favorite) I am fuming right now... Children's books that deal with anger are also a great way to open doors for conversations with children, during times when they can listen...

It seems like you already do that, but I will mention it anyway... I find it helpful to pay attention to my daughter's daily cycles... she tends to loose control right after school and then close to dinner times. I often have healthy snacks like nuts, vegetables and fruits that I offer her right as I notice her loosing steam. I also allow for quiet times during those times. Play dates are over, TV is off, puzzles and playdough or other quiet activities are available for her do do alone. I also find that she loves to listen to music during those times. She also can help cook by washing the lettuce or the vegetables (cool water is very soothing, by the way).

Parenting is so hard, be gentle to yourself! If you need breaks from your child tell him. I hope this helps!


Welcome to the world of the 3.5 to 4+ year old. The good news is that he surely *will* outgrow it. If he's nice all day at school, you can see how he's got to let it out sometime, and it's a healthy sign that he trusts you enough to let you see his bad side. Try to keep your patience and do give him as much time alone as he's willing to accept during that stressful time of the day. I'd give him something to do that will distract him (while you're busy preparing dinner) and that he can't fail at, e.g., favorite video or the mother-saving Dragon Tales/Zoboomafu combo [PBS, 5:30-6:30].

3.5 y.o. name-calling, hitting when he's mad

Dec 1999

Help. My delightful 3.5 y.o. son is a parent abuser! Here's the usual scenario-We've returned from a full day of childcare/work. We have some play time. I'm cooking dinner in between. We're playing, laughing etc. He starts doing something not ok (jumping on a book tonight). I try explaining why that isn't ok. He gets mad, starts calling me names, gets more books, I take them away. He starts hitting, calling more names. I tell him I don't like that. I try to redirect him into another activity. Eventually he gets into something else but then the cycle starts up again when he doesn't get his way- name calling and hitting. I find it infuriating to have my calling me "stupid" and hitting me. Yes it's mostly when he's tired and or hungry and had a long day. I've tried sending him to his room or leaving the room myself when I get too angry. He doesn't hit or name call school at apparently and plays really well with the other kids. He does the same negative beahvior with his dad though my husband doesn't get as upset with it as I do. Sometimes he's able to concoct silly responses that distract our son from whatever his objective is. Still at the end of a long day I often don't have what it takes to come up with witty, imaginative distractions. I just want him to listen and not be mean. Will he just outgrow this? Any strategies? (we dont' yell (much) at each other by the way and never spank or call names....)


It is very common for children to become verbally abusive at this age. They are just figuring out how their words can really hurt and cause strong reactions, and apparently your child has found that out!

I have a strong willed and very persistent three and a half year old myself, and it is so hard to keep calm at times, but I find it more effective when I do keep calm and consistent. I strongly recommend not allowing any hitting, and continue to separate the child from you when this is happening. Just keep repeating to him "we do not hit in our family". Now, what is most important, after the crisis is over is to go back to the incident and talk it over with your child when he is calm and rational. Make lists of what might work when he gets angry or when there is something you need to tell him that he won't like. Then, when the next crisis happens, you can refer back to the conversion you had with him: "You are getting angry again... remember what you and I have decided? You said, and we wrote this down, that when you got angry you would... instead of hitting people (my child and I decided that she can hit pillows). As far as the strong words go, you might want to talk about strong words that are OK to say, like "I am really mad right now! Or (my daughter's favorite) I am fuming right now... Children's books that deal with anger are also a great way to open doors for conversations with children, during times when they can listen...

It seems like you already do that, but I will mention it anyway... I find it helpful to pay attention to my daughter's daily cycles... she tends to loose control right after school and then close to dinner times. I often have healthy snacks like nuts, vegetables and fruits that I offer her right as I notice her loosing steam. I also allow for quiet times during those times. Play dates are over, TV is off, puzzles and playdough or other quiet activities are available for her to do alone. I also find that she loves to listen to music during those times. She also can help cook by washing the lettuce or the vegetables (cool water is very soothing, by the way).

Parenting is so hard, be gentle to yourself! If you need breaks from your child tell him. I hope this helps!


Welcome to the world of the 3.5 to 4+ year old. The good news is that he surely *will* outgrow it. If he's nice all day at school, you can see how he's got to let it out sometime, and it's a healthy sign that he trusts you enough to let you see his bad side. Try to keep your patience and do give him as much time alone as he's willing to accept during that stressful time of the day. I'd give him something to do that will distract him (while you're busy preparing dinner) and that he can't fail at, e.g., favorite video or the mother-saving Dragon Tales/Zoboomafu combo [PBS, 5:30-6:30].
This end-of-the-busy day negative neediness sounds very familiar to what my daughter went (and goes) through. She is great at daycare/school and a fiery, rude, demanding, provocative child when we get home. I decided that she probably needed to explode after trying to behave all day, so I decided to make an arena for her nasty explosion time. I followed the book called Holding Time, by Martha Welch. It means that I plan to spend the first 30+ minutes after we get home just holding her and letting her rant and rage in my arms. See the book for a better description of how to do it. I've had to re-arrange the evening meal prep alittle to accomodate this. I usually have a re-heatable meal ready for my daughter, so I can feed her after our Holding Time. Then I start the dinner for my husband and myself. My daughter usually eats a second dinner with us and the leftover become the re-heatable meal for my daughter the next day. (By the way, this phase doesn't go on forever!) The reason that I like Holding Time is because I feel like I am meeting a real need of hers, I get much less angry at her, and because the isolating techniques seemed counterproductive to restoring genuine family balance and enjoyment. Often, after Holding Time, my girl would be more balanced, more able to cope with family life, and fun to have around until bedtime. Now that she is alittle older (4 1/2) we rarely need to do Holding Time at the end of the busy day...more on an as needed basis.

4-year-old playing too rough at preschool

Oct 2006

My 4 year old son has started having problems at school - he's playing too rough with the other kids and now he's started hitting some of them. At home he tries to play rough with his 1 year old sister, but we are constantly around to remind him how to be gentle or put him in time out when he won't listen. At school, he's been put in time out and when he gets a bad report we don't give him a special sticker after school. In addition, he can't have a popsicle or a video if he's been bad at school. What else should we be doing to break him of this rough behavior? Jenny


I am wondering if there are certain ''rough play'' or violent role models in your child's life? Kids pick up everything they know, from the adults around them. Perhap it may be television shows or movies that your child watches? I would encourage you to make sure that your child does not watch any violent cartoons (there are so many out there, eg. Pokemon, X-men or other superheros etc) or other shows that you might be watching in the evenings. We only watch PBS Kids and are very happy with the type of subject matter in their shows for children PBS Mom
Rough actions is a problem that our family is working through ourselves. Just today I had to talk to the teacher because my four year old decided that he was too crowded in one of the play rooms and used a rug as a bat to clear out the area the day before. What we've been trying to do is work on his ability to decide his own actions. We go over the scenarios, discuss all options (including the bad ones) and discuss the consequence for each option. We are also asking him to goto the teacher to discuss his options when he is having a particular problem and to clear it with the teacher. And we are trying to also tell him that sometimes he doesn't have a choice but to accept certain things (eg crowded room) and that's a part of life. I'll be interested to see what others suggest. one day at a time

4-year-old suspended from preschool for hitting & throwing

Dec 2005

Our son has just been suspended from preschool due to frequent incidents of hitting/throwing things/scratching/etc. The teachers want us to send him to ''some kind of counseling.'' As someone who has always been very skeptical about psychological therapy of all kinds and who sees this kid's behavior as not out of the realm of normal, this is unhelpful. But they think he ''has a lot of anger'' and hey, some fresh approaches just might benefit all of us.

So, who treats young children, coaches parents, WILL VISIT THE PRESCHOOL and advise the teachers, and has a PRACTICAL, short- term and focussed approach that will work for a parent who's skeptical about and impatient with therapeutic navel-gazing, but has experience dealing with kids who don't respond well to behavior-management tools like sticker charts? Ideally, located in Albany, El Cerrito or North Berkeley, but we'll go farther if we have to. Someone who deals with other ''life transitions'' and does career/life coaching also might be helpful to my husband as well, which is sort of another subject (he is currently a full time at-home father not by choice), although of course it's probably related.

I've checked the website, but can't find quite what I'm looking for, and many recommendations seem to be outdated. anon


It's hard to know the best thing to do, isn't it?

I don't know of a therapist to recommend, but you made several comments that took me back to my own experience with counseling as an out of control teen.

My school also recommended that I go to counseling and my parents, especially my dad, were as skeptical as you seem to be.

I sensed my parents' disapproval when I began counseling. At the time, I also felt as if the counselor was the only person on my side. It lasted only a couple of sessions, as my parents were also impatient with navel-gazing. I spiraled even further into self-destructive behavior.

You know, your child's experience and needs are definitely different from my own as a teen, but I can tell you that 30 years later I did take the time to talk to a therapist and she has helped me to be at peace with myself and my past. I am sorry that you are going through this but even more sorry for the child who is desperate to express something and has no one to interpret for him. I think it's a wonderful sign that you are open-minded and willing to suspend your disbelief. I wish you and your child well. navel-gazer


I'd recommend a good neurological workup, particularly if there is any mental illness in your family on either side. You may be seeing the beginnings of pediatric bipolar disorder, or some other neurochemical imbalance that therapy can't touch, and that would benefit from early intervention. (Does he have sleep problems and/or is he unusually grandiose for a four year old, trying to teach the teachers, convinced he can fly--that kind of thing?) Stanford has an excellent pediatric bipolar clinic. Mary Ann
You will, hopefully, get many good suggestions for therapists to help with your son's issues. I just had to reply to say how disappointed I was that your daycare provider left you out in the cold. A great provider would partner with you and your child to help develop strategies for behavior modification. They wouldn't make this entirely your fault and suggest you ''get some kind of counseling''. I feel for you, I've been there, and I sincerely hope you find a better place for you and your son. anon
Hi You may be opposed to psychological counseling, but if a preschool, which typically has dealt with hundreds of kids, thinks your kid is aggressive, you should pay attention! This is not ''normal'' behavior for a 4 year old. concerned you are in denial
I didn't read the orignal post so this may be way out of line. I think it is completely inappropriate for a preschool/day care provider to recommend you get counseling. They are not trained in this field. What they are trained to do is help you come up with stradegies to help improve your child's behavior. (For us, more quality time with mom immediately improved our daughter's display of anger.) My two cents
Your son sounds like a handful! But it's possible that the preschool he is currently attending may have somewhat narrow views of acceptable 4 year old behavior, and there may be a negative dynamic there -- which is why it would be very helpful to observe him at school. Clearwater Counseling and Assessment services isn't yet in the archives, because it is a relatively new organization, but the therapists there are willing to visit schools, and are experienced in assessing and treating problematic behaviors in children. Clearwater is in north Oakland, near Kaiser. Check out the website at www.clearwaterclinic.com. Call 596-8137 for an intake appointment. Sally

4 year old very difficult at home, not at school

Nov 2005

Our four year old son is extremely challenging with my husband and me (as well as others he is close to). He almost never does anything without being asked/cajoled/ordered multiple times, is often verbally unkind to us and both verbally and physically aggressive with his brother. More often than not he is cranky and negative, even when we are doing something/offering to do something fun. He is often very defiant towards us and has absolutely no respect for our authority or interest in pleasing us. We have been to a therapist, which has helped my husband and I come to a unified approach on dealing with his behavior (pretty firm, sort of the 1,2, 3 method then time out or toy removal). The therapist's conclusion at this point is that we have a temperment challenge rather than an organic problem (like bi-polar disorder)--he does very well at preschool, they are somewhat amazed when I tell them how difficult he is at home, and while very difficult to deal with he seems very much in control of his faculties/behaviors most of the time. His language skills are very strong and we are often told by others-- teachers, therapists, etc. that he is very bright. I don't know if this is part of the problem/challenge...

My husband and I feel so frustrated, angry and sad at what a difficult time we are having with our son. A large percentage f the time I would say we are not enjoying parenting him at all. My questions are: How have other people dealt with very challenging children? How do you deal with feeling like though you love your kid, you really don't like him that much? Is there hope that he will become easier to manage, or are we in for 15 more years of this? I have heard of something called Oppositional Personality Disorder and wonder what it is/if he might have this. Thanks. frustrated mom


i don't have professional advice, but i just wanted to let you know that i, too, have a four year old and your situation is almost identical to ours. mostly i just want to let you know that i can empathize, that you're not alone, and that i've heard from my child's pre-school teacher that much of this is developmental. in fact, when we raised the possibility of a bi-polar child or that maybe we needed family therapy, she assured me neither of those was the situation for us. instead, she reassured me that for some reason, people don't talk about children entering this difficult time in their lives when they turn four. she explained that our child is simply feeling more capable than what she's allowed and is very frustrated by either what she isn't allowed to do on her own or is incapable of successfully doing independently. she says it's a challenging time, but that when they turn five they often settle into new little beings that are more content with themselves and their world. she also suggested reading up on this stage at the local library on parenting books that deal exclusively with this age group. ultimately, we are hopeful that this, too, will pass . . . hopefully soon! can't wait for next year!
This may be TOTALLY off the wall, BUT.... Certain food allergies (especially WHEAT) can cause personality changes, mood swings, irritability etc. I've read amazing reports about behavior differences with kids/adults with wheat sensitivites or allergies. It may be worth a try to take your son off of wheat for a few weeks (wheat is in EVERYTHING...you have to read EVERY label) and see if there is any change. This could be the simple solution. Good luck. anon
I suggest you try cranial-sacral work done by an osteopath. It has made a world of difference for our two boys. It gets to the physical basis for ''behavioral'' issues. The work is non-invasive, gentle, and I found it encouraging that you see quite quickly (in a few days) if it's effective. I've used Edwin Scheuerlein D.O., Nancy Burke, and Catherine Henderson D.O. All are good. Good Luck, Carrie. writeck
I recommend ''How to Raise Your Spirited Child'' and the corresponding workbook from May Sheedy Kurcinka. It helps to see your children in a more positive way. Often spirited children need to be ''worked around'' a lot. Hang in there! Mom of spirited 3 year old
My daughter - now 12 years old - has been difficult in many of the ways you described since she was about 5 (and her baby brother came along). We have tried therapy at various times and have had various theories about the genesis of the problem. Like your son, she is well behaved at school and with other families. But when she's with us, she is mostly angry.

I don't know if we'll ever have a clear ''diagnosis''. And parenting her is rarely joyful. However I have learned alot in the process - being loving but firm and not taking in her anger for example. There are some good and easy times and I suppose I have lowered my expectations. I know she won't tell me she loves me and hug me and happily do what is asked of her (as my younger child often does). But I have learned to recognize the ways she shows affection and appreciate those. I ignore a lot of her negativity and just don't take it in. I notice that while she may argue about what she's told to do, she ultimately will do it if I hold firm. I try to enjoy the good days - and there are some. And I hold out hope that things will shift. I hope this is helpful and look forward to reading the other response. Anon


My son was a difficult child from 2 on, and the age of 4 was miserable.

After much networking, reading and talking to therapists, I'm pretty convinced he's what's called a Sensitive Child. He's overly sensitive and was very tempermental. He could become violently angry. Time Out was a joke. Holding him (at age 4) he'd use his head as a weapon, hitting me with it. Or kick my shins with his feet. I'd carry him kicking and thrashing up to his room and have to use all my strength to push him into his room and hold/pull the door shut with all my might. He would pull it from the other side, climbing up on the doorknob to leverage his body weight against the door frame. He'd kick the door, throw things at it, etc. When he'd get angry, I'd hold him away from me, to stop him from kicking me, he'd bite into my hands and wrists. I say all this to underscore how intense he was. Another aspect of his temperment was that he was always one step behind. In the morning, I'd wake up the kids, then get their breakfast ready. At breakfast time, he still hadn't woken up. At the time to leave for school, he was just ready to eat breakfast. He was very slow to adapt to changes in environment, etc. I learned to always give him time warnings: 15 mins until X; 10 mins until X; 5 min until X; 3 min until X, 1 min until X, time for X. That seemed to help. That went on for several years. He's a very, very smart kid (some have said brilliant) so maybe that's part of it, too. Who knows? There's a good book by Elaine Aron, who wrote a book called The Highly Sensitive Child. She also wrote one that's a workbook for dealing with these people. Good luck. Age 4 just is generally a very difficult age anyway. We had the same thing happen with us with his teachers experiencing a different child than the difficult one we saw at home. He held it together really well at school, then let go at home. One thing that everyone told us----teachers, therapists, parents: It's a GOOD thing if he acts outs at home. It means he knows he's loved and feels secure acting out like that at home. They said it was the kids who act out at school that have real problems. Marie


I would not accept one therapist's diagnosis and assume it's not a more serious medical problem such as child onset bipolar. Your description reminds me of my sister at that age who was ultimately diagnosed with child onset bipolar (a therapist also told my parents at one point she had oppositional personality disorder). Like your son, she was also able to control her behavior at school and her teachers had no idea how difficult she was at home. I would recommend a book by Demitri Papalos called The Bipolar Child. There's also an affiliated website: http:// www.bipolarchild.com/. I have no idea if your son actually has child onset bipolar, but if he is as difficult as you describe I would suggest you get recommendations of good child psychiatrists and explore the possibility of using medications. While the decision to medicate a young child shouldn't be taken lightly, consider too the possible damage of years of untreated mental illness as well as the psychological damage done to your son by your and your husband's anger towards him. (My mother feels that my sister's low self esteem as an adult is probably related to the 3 against 1 dynamic in our family due to her tantrums.) anon
Is the defiant behavior a new thing, or has your child always been (more or less) like this? Our son, who is normally a pretty easy-going, well-behaved child, has quite suddenly, at 4 and a half, developed the ability to be a complete monster. Yesterday, I had to march him out of church 3 times in one service, for doing things like hitting Mommy (up till now, he's been fine for the whole hour) -- it then took me over 20 minutes just to get him to sit in his carseat so we could go home. I think that at least some of this is just the nature of four-and-a-half, and that they do grow out of it (with a bunch of help from us).

The one thing I have decided is the absolute key to any disciplinary technique is to make sure he gets the least amount of attention possible for any sort of defiant behavior. Standing there having a discussion, or even an argument, with him is giving him attention, and this kid would trade a year's supply of ice cream for attention. I got him to sit in his carseat by telling him, once, ''I will talk to you when you are in your carseat,'' and then standing outside the car, looking off at the distant hills, and faking complete, detached boredom with the whole procedure, while he screamed, yelled, and raged. When his bottom finally made it to the carseat, I talked to him. I tell you, though, I didn't like him much when we got home. That part isn't fun. The thing that helps most with that is to focus, both for his sake and for mine, on any little positive thing he does. He gets lots of attention for volunteering to help me, for saying please, for putting a toy away... any little thing. I'm also teaching him about Mommy needing a time-out (we set a timer for a short period of time, say 15 minutes, and he has to leave me alone; I go in another room and do something to calm down), I suppose this is much harder when the child has always been more difficult, or has much more severe behavior (my son spends about half his time being a total angel with me; the flip side is he's starting to behave badly at preschool). Just some thoughts... Karen


Some people think my toddler is challenging (as do I sometimes). I'm finding that the more firm I am with her, and the clearer I am on what she's doing and what the consequences are, the better. I make everything black & white, and to the extent that I follow through dispassionately, then talk to her afterward and beforehand, the more she learns. Also, I praise her when she really learns something, then try to introduce the next concept. (e.g., ''mommy, I didn't even hit daddy this time! I only hit the air!'' ''That's really great- now what you need to practice is that you can't even hit the air if you're next to daddy. If you really have to hit the air, you need to turn around...'' or ''Mom, I brushed my teeth and I did it the EASY way! I didn't even complain!'' ''wow! give me five!'') I also find that if she is difficult, she either needs sleep or attention or both. I don't know if this will help you--I have no idea if my kid is genuinely challenging or not--but I think much of this is a learning process for them, and extremely difficult but not impossible. I'd also guess that your son may want more attention than he's getting. Also, you may feel less strained if you can spend some time with other parents of challenging kids. I hope you can rekindle the joy, both for your sake and for his.
Please read Raising Your Spirited Child. I think it will go a long way to helping you understand your child's temperament and your temperament and the skills you need to bring about compliance and change. If your child is doing well in other domains, that suggests that this is really an ''in-house'' issue. Part of that is normal- kids should test the limits with parents- that's their job! But, you may well need more shoring up in terms of consistency, responsibility, expectations, rewards, consequences, etc. Even if your child is ODD, which I doubt based on your comment that he does well in other places, what good is a diagnosis without intervention? Read the book. Take Kaiser's free to everyone series on parental education- formerly run by Rona Renner- it's 8 weeks, in the evenings, open to the public, used to be free (I would assume it still is), and absolutely worth it! Good luck! Diane

4-year-old acting out and getting into trouble

February 2007

Arghhh!!!I need some help with my 4 yr old. Usually an easy going, fun loving, friendly little guy, he has been acting out at school and been a little turkey at home lately (ie: smirking when being talked to about his 'crimes'.) When the teachers and I ask him what's going on, he either denies it or says I don't know. I started a responsibility/behavior chart over a month ago as an incentive to improve his behavior and that seemed to help quite a bit. But now, he is getting in trouble again and this time, for hitting-in almost a playful way-which is still not okay. He seems to be trying to get his friends' attention during work time (Montessori school thing) but ends up hurting someone. No black eyes or anything too serious, but this upsets me-his teacher mom! Granted, he has had A LOT to adjust to in the past two years -divorce, his dad was in rehab and is currently sober but still not around, his mom's in new relationship with fiance, the arrival of a baby sister 6 mos ago and a new school to boot. I know it's most likely a culmination of ALL these things-poor guy, but I am at a loss for how to discipline him appropriately and effectively. And I am a firm, but loving mom. In the past, ages 1-3, he was very responsive to my discipline and seemed to want to please me. Now, he almost doesn't seem to care. I am not one to spank, but have even found myself go down that route more times than I care to mention. A couple of times he even said 'that didn't hurt'!! The nerve! We've taken toys & priveleges away and it doesn't seem to phase him. On the flip side, I have tried to make solid deposits into his emotional security bank by spending more one on one time with him, but still, he misbehaves! Today, after a particularly bad day at school, a spanking and talking to, he told me to go away. Frankly, I wish I could. Calgon, take me away!! What more can I do? Somebody out there has got to have some words of wisdom for this once single mom, now blending a family with a wonderful man who loves my son, but doesn't feel it's his role to participate in the disciplining of my child. The few times he has went poorly, causing tension in our relationship! I'll take all the advice I can get! Honesty appreciated~ anon


I think you need to work on the positive reinforcement. He may need a very frequent schedule -- i.e. morning circle, playtime, lunch, afternoon activity, rest time, snack, etc. Come up with lots of small rewards. He's telling you that negative reinforcement isn't working when he says the spanking doesn't hurt. Most of the research suggests that spanking, particularly if it is more than once a week, has a negative effect on behavior.

You should probably also work on having a very reliable schedule for your son -- he's asking for more boundaries, and it cuts down on the power struggles when he has more. I also wonder about what is going on at the preschool -- are the teachers setting limits effectively; how can they help you work with your high need child so he has the boundaries he needs, while not getting stuck in a negative struggle.

I think the other side of this is to have as much positive one-on-one time with him as you can, and for his stepfather to have fun with him as well. Give your son and yourself time to work through all the changes. anon


My goodness - if you hit me I'd tell you to go away too! STOP THE SPANKING. You've said yourself that it doesn't work and it can only escalate. My child is similar to yours and Patty Wipfler's parenting by connection skills saved us. Check out http://www.handinhandparenting.org/ -- good luck. anon
Four can be very difficult, and your son is dealing with more stress than most his age. Also, it is very difficult for a parent to discipline a child for something that happened at school. By the time you hear about it, it already happened hours ago and there is not much you can do about it. I would talk to the teachers to strategize, but I don't think they should expect you to punish your child for things that happened on their watch. (My daughter went through a similar phase and it seemed to be almost entirely out of boredom. When they gave her more interesting activities she stopped picking fights.) I have also found that when I get into the ''discipline & punish'' mode with my kids it almost always spirals down into a battle of wills with an unsatisfactory conclusion. I really try to avoid threats and arguing. Try to state the ''consequence'' of bad behavior in a calm, non-negotiable way. Also try to focus much more on the positive behavior you want than the negative behavior you don't.

Easier said than done, I know. But as much as possible try to avoid yelling, arguing, and lecturing and try to give him opportunities to please you or be helpful. --mom of 2 strong-willed kids


PLEASE stop spanking your child. He is a tiny little child who has been through an enormous amount recently. He is also being put under unnatural expectations in a school environment. Of course he wants to play and socialize; he's a 4 yr old boy. Sounds like he needs something he is not getting, most likely in his home environment, right now. Labelling this as ''misbehaving'' and responding with spanking is going to jeopardise your relationship with him even more, and I can guarantee things will get worse. Focus on building your connection with him in a playful, loving way, rather than through rewards and punishments. I highly recommend a book by Dr Joseph Cohen called Playful Parenting. child therapist
Wow. It all sounded so extreme until I read the part about the unbelievable upheaval your son has been through. Not only divorce, not only drug recovery, not only absent dad, not only mommy with another guy, but also a new BABY?!!!! Whoa! I think ANY kid would be going through a REALLY hard time, particularly given the lack of pacing. It may be crucial to do some child therapy, and the therapist can help you, as a new family, come up with strategies to help. It's almost like he's going through post-traumatic stress. I mean, that amount of difficult change in a concentrated time is hard even for adults to handle. I wish him and you all the best. Concerned for your son
Your son is acting out because all the changes in his life are causing him stress. He is only four and can't verbalize his feelings, so he is takign it out in actions.

I am also having issues w/ my 4 year old. We have 4 month old twins and he has become so difficult. On the advice of other twin parents I got the book ''Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles'' by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. I'm not that far into it, but so far it is really addressing the issues my son is having.

The book is about coping w/ the everyday challenges of disciplining your child, while understanding the issues behind his or her behaviour and helping them learn to cope with their emotions. Your son must be feeling very, very strong emotions about the changes in his life, and they are manifesting themselves in negative behaviour. Punishing him/spanking will only make the matter worse and give him yet more to be angry about. anon


My son exhibited much of the same behavior your describe at your son's age -- even worse, frankly -- and his father did too, according to my mother-in-law. Neither kid had the same "stuff" going on in his life; we are talking your standard issue Leave it to Beaver situation. Don't blame yourself, or the "stuff." Read "Your 4 Year Old" (I'd junk the charts - too complex for four year old boys) and yes, spend as much one on one time with him as you can, but again, don't blame yourself or your life. It's well within the spectrum of normal for this age.
From what I've read and what I got out of a ''Spirited Child Temperment'' class, 4 1/2 is a notoriously difficult time for children...all children, not just spirited ones. So, chances are, your child is going through some difficult developmental phase. Sounds like you've had it easy thus far. Hope this passes soon. anon
I was in a similar situation about a year ago with my 4 1/2 year old son. He had never been a ''hitter'' and still to this day has never hit another child, but more than that, he was extremely sweet natured, giving, and kind. Well, the terrible 4's came along and my son got very defiant, aggressive, and rude. I tried time outs, taking things away, restrictions (from cartoons), etc. Nothing worked. He had the same attitude your son does - he didn't care. Everyone gave me advice but interestingly enough, the best advice came from a childless friend (although with a psych background) and it was advice I'd probably heard a million times before but never implemented.

Her advice was to completely ignore it. That whatever it was that I was doing was giving him something he was looking for, otherwise he wouldn't be doing it. So, what I did (very skeptically and thinking- yeah right) was let him know that whenever he threw a tantrum, I was not going to give that tantrum any attention (this is when things were fine- just to let him know what was up). Then, at the first sign of a tantrum, I'd calm myself down, let him know that I was not going to give him any attention until he was finished, and then I'd ignore him. I'd talk to him calmly if I needed to (like- ''can you put this in the trash for me''), but not about ANYTHING related to what he was upset about, to how he was acting, etc.

If the tantrum got more out of hand I would say ''I'm sorry- but I can't give this tantrum any attention right now and you're going to have to finish it up in your room. go ahead and come back down when you're finished.'' The usually I'd have to carry him upstairs and deposit him in his room. If he came down, I'd just do it again. I NEVER gave the tantrum any attention- not even to say ''stop acting like that'' or ''don't hit'' or anything.

Amazingly enough, it worked wonders within a week or so. honestly! I think after a while he realized that nothing was going to come of his fits or hitting so why do it? Seems simple, but it took me a while to figure it out. That's my advice. Good luck. karen


Wow, that's a lot on his plate and on yours! You have my sympathies. We went through some similar stuff with our son and I think it's very, very normal at age 4-5. With the additional complications of divorce and a new sibling and all of that, it's no wonder your kid is struggling. To some extent, this will pass naturally as he grows and matures, and reaches whatever internal accommodation he can with all the recent upsets in his life.

Meanwhile, I suggest that you find him a psychological counselor. I am not really a big fan of that kind of therapy -- not my style -- but it had some benefits for our son, and I know other moms who say having a neutral party to talk to really helped their children at about that age, and it was helpful for the parents too to have someone to give them a 'read' on their child and ideas about how to approach specific issues.

I also suggest that you do some reading and reflecting on discipline techniques and philosophies. Or, if reading isn't your best learning style, take a parenting class or two. I am not a total convert to ''unconditional parenting'' but I also think that sticker charts, removal of privileges and of course spanking are not teaching your kid anything you really want him to learn. Work on natural and logical consequences instead and I suspect you'll get a better response -- that's what works with my son. Best of luck! Mom of a now-not-quite-so-awful six-year-old


I find that talking with my son about my feelings and expressing interest in his in sincere and real way helps him deal better and his negative stuff doesn't come out in other ways as much. After all your son has been through, he may need a safe place (away from you and your husband) to express and deal with his feelings - child therapist might be able to provide that. When my parents got divorced and my dad remarried I was old enough that I remember blaming him for a lot more than was his fault and I hated him for years. Noone attempted to help me work through stuff and you just can't tell what kids are thinking or doing on the inside with all the stuff they have to deal with. Kids are not logical beings but thier emotions are as strong as adult emotions - they have fewer coping tools. This is another thing a therapist might be able to work on with your son. It might be beneficial for you to go together sometimes too. anon
Wow, it sounds to me that not only does your son have a lot on his plate, but so do you! His behavior makes sense considering all the foundational upset he's experiencing. He doesn't know how else to process all that's in his life - it's a lot of burden for 4! Also, he doesn't have enough communication skills yet. Typically, young kids tell you something's wrong through acting out or soiling their pants when their lives are chaotic.

I think you're doing a great job as it is, with a naughty 4yo, new baby and fiance. I'm certain your sweet child remains under the haze of this rough phase. Allow time and perseverance to get him through this; build his self-esteem, and hang in there while he messes up without letting on about your frustration. Things will turn around, because you will set him up to succeed.

Punishments solidify how ''bad'' he is, and he feels like crap, snowballing into more probs. You must show him and continually help him remember how terrific he is (and this is going to be some work for you, since right now he believes you don't like him), and that you love him no matter what he does. When spanked, he is penalized for being angry or scared. If you got smacked everytime you got mad or felt fear, you'd unravel too.

You must alter your reactions when he triggers you. Change your perception of his outbursts (remind yourself always: it's his overwhelm, and I must help him get through it). Allow him to express his feelings while preventing physical harm. Gently and lovingly remind him what he is supposed to do, using roleplay. Don't focus on screw ups, and steer clear of shame. After each report of his ''crimes'', show how to touch harmlessly, not by spanking, but gently stroking his arm. Bonus: you express your love while modeling appropriate touch. Ask how it went with the teacher/kids today, and be validating, regardless his response. He may still act out, but he'll recover quickly when he trusts you're his ally. Say ''We're going to work together to help you be happier. We're a team and I'm on your side.'' Tell him by working on being happy, he will feel like behaving more often. Keep focusing on the good stuff, filling the emotional bank AND the self-esteem bank; then be patient and positive. This is hard when you're pissed off, but I'm confident you'll pull it off. Ali


Almost-4-year-old's behavior is out of control

October 2006

Help! My son will be 4 at the end of the month, and his behavior is out of control. Sometimes he is wonderful, other times he is completely off the charts, hitting, screaming, shouting ''No!'' running away from me, etc. Time outs don't seem to be working anymore, (he laughs, which pushes my EVERY button.) I hate yelling at him, but find myself doing it out of frustration. I realize this may be his motivation, but I still go there more often than I'd like to. Does anybody out there have any experience with effective discipline?? I do give him positive rewards when he's good. Any suggestions for what to do when his behavior is bad? Thanks
desperate mom


This seems to be the classic problematic behavior one experiences in a 4-year-old. I don't know that I can tell you the ''perfect'' discipline to make it go away, so much as to say, just keep using whatever discipline you choose (in other words, be consistent), and hang in there -- he'll outgrow it.

With my son, the thing that worked best was for me to remain completely emotionless, put him on the couch (his timeout spot), and put him back, and put him back, and keep this up until he stayed there, and then make him stay -- alone -- for four minutes. If we were not near the couch, and it was at all possible to leave him alone I did that (My son is extremely social and hates being alone). If all else failed, we sat somewhere (in the car, or wherever) until he calmed down and sat calmly for four minutes. No matter what he did, I remained unengaged. I remember once, in a church parking lot, getting out of the car, locking him in, and standing there, looking off at the distant hills, while he yelled and screamed for almost 20 minutes.

The key was the emtionlessness. The more I reacted emotionally, the worse it got. He's rejoicing in his newfound ability to influence you. Another thing that helped was to provide him with a lot more attention whenever I could -- and attention at a time when he could be the one to decide what we did. For my son, that was usually playing games of his choice, in his bedroom (his favorite place to be). The more I was able to do this for him -- and allow him to influence me in this way -- the fewer problems we had Karen


Ah, postings like this convince me more and more that punishment/reward systems of discipline don't really work in the long run. My understanding is that 3 is a difficult age, too. I remember being a big tantrum-thrower myself at this age.

I would recommend trying a different approach, one that works on addressing *feelings* rather than *behavior.* Some childhood experts I've read and spoken with feel that behavior takes care of itself when we address what kids are feeling and help them learn how to articulate what they are feeling.

Aletha Solter (a child-development psychologist) has written some things about this kind of approach, and NVC (Non-Violent Communication, or ''Compassionate Communication'') also stresses this approach in it's workshops for parents. People I've ment swear that it's extremely effective. My daughter is too young, so I can't speak from personal experience in that area but It has certainly been a big help in my relationship with my husband (we go to an NVC practice group here in Oakland). Seems to me it's at least worth looking into. You can check out the web site at http://www.baynvc.org.

Best of luck to you, it sounds very difficult and frustrating! Alesia


We just have been having the same type of problem. What has helped is

1. The book ''How to talk so that your kids will listen and listen so that your kids will talk'' has been extremely helpful. The emphasis is on the parents treating the kids with respect, and it's truly miraculous how acknowledging the child's problem will often dissipate the whole situation. It isn't a magic bullet, but it certainly has decreased the number of fights. Also, the sibling rivalry book by the same authors has done wonders for teaching us how to teach our two and four year olds to resolve their conflicts.

Amazon gives a description of the book here: http://www.amazon.com/How-Talk- Kids-Will-Listen/dp/0380811960/sr=1-3/qid=1160505752/ ref=sr_1_3/002-5727956-4721603?ie=UTF8&s=books

2. Timely snacks that are fairly substantial (eg yogurt, cereal with milk) has helped us. Our kids are so much more difficult when they're hungry.

3. The series ''Your Three Year Old..'' by Louise-Bates-Ames is a wonderful series that helps our sanity when we understand that these periods are a natural part of growing up.

4. The acknowledgement that sometimes the parents need to give themselves time-outs to restore their sanity.

Looking forward to hearing what others write in as well. Susan


You will probably get lots of replies here, but I thought I would share a little recent success I have had with my 4 1/2 year old son. I too was at my witts end with him...he would do whatever he wanted, wasn't listening, was LAUGHING at me when I scolded him for doing something wrong etc. etc. I was becoming a monster, yelling my way through the day. My neighbor let me borrow a book called ''Love and Logic Magic''. I found sound tips and advice that have made a difference. The authors' approach is one of letting your child make as many choices throughout the day as you can...choices that don't ''effect anyone else on the planet''. (i.e. do you want oatmeal or cereal for breakfast? Would you like to wear your sweatshirt or see how far you can get just holding it? Would you like to leave the park now or in two minutes?) You'd be surprised how easy it is to come up w/ these and you probably already do it without even realizing. The theory is, the more choices and control you are willing to give (or give up) the more cooperative your child will be when he/she needs to be. One of my favorites that always reels my son in is, ''Do you want one book or two books at bedtime tonight?'' The end result of the Love and Logic approach is not only cooperation, it also teaches your child to begin thinking for themselves and problem solve. They do go over ''time outs'' and their approach has been more effective than the way I was using them. I found that some of their suggestions weren't quite appropriate or maybe a bit harsh for a 4 year old (how are you going to pay me for breaking X, for example), but all in all, it has been a good tool and things have been much smoother for us. It is a bit of work, but you will see results immediately. Oh, and other parents have recommended the book on BPN if you want other opinions. Good Luck. anon
Try reading The Difficult Child by Dr. Stanley Tureki it really helped us with our very difficult now 4 YO. Good luck Momma to a Difficult Child

New huge tantrums in 4 1/2 year old

Oct 2003

My 4 1/2 year old daughter has always been easygoing, responsible and mature. She has never before had tantrums or any behavior problems. In the last 3 weeks she has changed into a Jekyll-Hyde creature, throwing extreme tantrums that last up to an hour (her personal record) up to 3 times a day. These involve screaming and crying, kicking and hitting (although always gently, not trying to hurt), and being completely uncooperative and uncommunicative. It's usually a tiny, insignificant thing that triggers it, sometimes almost seeming like she's setting it up, insisting on something she knows she can't have or something that would be unfair to someone else. There have been no changes in our lives, other than her little brother starting at her pre- school, which does coincide almost perfectly with the tantrums. She doesn't seem to resent him being there and is very helpful and motherly to him at school, and she has nad no significant behavior problems at school. Has anyone else experienced such a radical change in a child of this age? It seems something must be really bothering her and somehow we have to address it, but we have so far been unable to ascertain what the issue might be. Would love to hear of others experiences and how to deal effectively with both the tantrums and their source. Frustrated and bewildered


My second daughter just went through her 4 1/2 year old stage. I call it the ''angry age''. It really does happen. My first daughter and her same age friends went through this 4 1/2 year phase and it brought each of their mothers to tears wondering what went wrong (they are 7 now). So, I did two things the second time around: 1) embrace it for what it is and remember it will pass and 2) I held my daughter more and cuddled more with her during this time. She was amenable to being held after or during a tantrum and that is what I did. There aren't a lot of words that need to be said in it except things like ''You are really mad, sad, angry, etc.'' and ''I love you, I care about you, etc.'' She will be 5 in January and the tantrums have decreased already. Hang in there and breathe. This is really common! mary
Read the book ''Siblings without Rivalry.'' It's an eye opener. I think you are on the right track about the younger brother. This book will help you understand what your daughter is feeling as well as how to talk to her about it. My older daughter literally burst into tears when I said, ''I know it's hard having a younger brother.'' She proceeded to cry and tell me how she didn't want him around, etc. I pretty much just listened and hugged her and said, ''I know it's hard sometimes.'' I wanted her to get her feelings out and feel it was okay to have those feelings. (As the book points out, there's a difference between having feelings and acting on them.) My daughter seemed fine once she let it all out. Although she may have mixed feelings about him from time to time, I think that that is normal. I just try to be her sounding board. anon

Son's aggressive 4-year-old friend

Sept 2003

My 3-y-o son has spent one day a week for the last year with a boy who is one year older. My son thinks the world of this boy, and while he keeps up with the older boy, will also mimic his behavior. I'm not always happy with the things I see, but have tried to keep cool (I've been reading a lot of the 3-y-o aggression posts, and boys with guns posts, and learning a lot). But lately, I've been growing more and more concerned over the increasingly aggressive behavior my son comes home with from these weekly visits.

The other boy is the youngest child in a family of boys, and at times it seems really crazy there. Today I just about lost my cool. When I picked my son up I learned that the other boy laughed at my son when he fell, cut his head and cried, and then I saw him use a stick like a sword in the chest of another friend and throw things at that friend's face. Tonight, my son used the f-word and said his friend taught it to him. I really need some perspective here--is this just normal 4-y-o boy behavior? Or is this really over the line? Should I be expecting this kind of thing from other boys--including my son--in a few years? Should I be talking to the boy's mom about what I see as a real problem?

My son will start preschool this fall (a different one than the other boy). Right now, we are planning to continue this once-a-week visit into the fall, so as to maintain a friendship. So far, I've tried to put the affection my son feels for this boy ahead of the concerns I have for the naughty behavior that comes home. But after today, I am wondering if that's wise. The two things that concern me most are that the other boy's behavior seems to be getting more violent and frantic, and that for a day or two after seeing him my son's behavior is more aggressive too, and that he thinks his own naughty behavior is funny. Any advice from parents with older boys? worried mom


I have a six-year old boy, and I've got to tell you, I don't think the behavior you described is particularly run of the mill. I wouldn't call it abnormal, I just think that younger kids in large families tend to get old, fast. None of my son's friends would consider using ''the F-word'' and when I slip up in my son's presence, the kid nearly has a stroke. The laughing at boo boos sounds pretty mean, too. Alas, I don't think there's much you can do to change this other boy's behavior. He's influenced (surely for good as well as for ill) by his older siblings. It may be time to find some other friends. Ayelet
It seems to me that the question is not so much ''is this just normal,'' but whether you want it to be YOUR SON'S normal behavior. He will learn from what is modeled for him, whether that behavior is modeled by you, his teachers or his playmates. If you are not happy with what he is learning from this friend, then by all means you should stop the get-togethers, or (at the very least) change them so that they are supervised more closely and that the situations you describe are dealt with immediately so that both children receive the same message: this type of behavior is unacceptable. (And yes, I do think that throwing things at a friend's face and swearing are unacceptable, for a person of any age). Sarah
I have a 4 1/2 y.o. and he and all his friend's behavior does not match the behavior of your son's friend. If you are friends with the mom, definitely talk to her about it. When you do, be sure not to say that you think her son is the problem because she might think differently of the situation. If you are not friends with her, maybe take advantage of the fact that they are not in the same preschool to space your visits and start meeting new people from the new preschool. anon
I think the most important question you can ask yourself is whether you feel comfortable, regardless of whether it's ''normal.'' I wouldn't feel comfortable if my kid came back from playdates with increasingly violent behavior and more nasty language. I don't think you should feel badly about taking a break from it. Maybe you can explain this in terms your son can understand, and make it a positive message, like, I think we need to see if there are new friends at your new school that you'd also like to spend time with. Janet
I can't give you any direct advice because my son is only 2.5 years old, however, I am reading a book that you might find helpful: The Wonder of Boys. This book has helped me to understand male biology, the male brain, aggression and many other topics previously foreign to me. mom of a boy
When I had 2 toddler boys I felt that many of their playmates were far too focused on agressive and violent play. I reasoned that if I treated my boys with no gender stereotyping they would never ''need'' that type of play. My boys are now 7 and 9 and I have a 4yo and 1yo girl to add to the mix. There is a HUGE difference in the type of play that the kids engage in - even though the boys will play ''baby dinner'' and dress up with the girls, they have ENORMOUS energy expenditures to exhaust and we plan our days around 2-3 hours at the park for that reason. They reenact scenes from Harry Potter and Star Wars books and have fashioned ''guns'' from many items. They enact sword fights and have a fascination of trapping and observing dragonflies and water skippers (and just about any other insect they can trap). I personally have a problem with insect trapping and I try to impart upon them the idea of treating all living things with respect, but boys have a drive that I simply don't understand. That said, I don't believe you can simply sit back and accept the ''boys will be boys'' mantra provided by mainstream society. I encourage my boys to name their feelings when in conflict (we're trying to convert our conflict resolution into NVC) and ask for their motivations when I sense pain or hurt in a playmate (I have found that has never been malicious). I would use this opportunity (playmate with very different methods of communication) to talk to your son about the way that boys are generally encouraged to shut down their feelings and provide the ''macho'' fascade (sp?). I would suggest that you investigate Kidpower, Positive Parenting and NVC (not assuming that you haven't) to give him the tools to respond to his playmate (with you coaching from time to time). Good luck! Kathy
My oldest son had difficulty controlling his aggression, and there were some friends who seemed to encourage poor behavior. In one case, where I felt comfortable with the mother, we discussed how to set limits on both boys, but when it didn't work, I simply told her I thought they needed to be apart. (This was during grade school, and after several troubling incidents at school). In another case, I just began to reduce the number of play dates, and when the boys changed schools, the play dates stopped. In both cases, my son DID NOT ask to spend more time with these friends (at least not more than once or twice), and generally seemed relieved to be out of a situation that he enjoyed but couldn't control. Sometimes it makes sense to reduce time spent with a playment whose behavior brings out troubling behavior in your child. Starting preschool could be a good time to make this transition. One way would be to reduce the frequency of the visits. Also, when they do play together, you could perhaps warn the mom before hand that your son may need more limits than she usually sets, as he is used to a different set of rules and then is very challenging when he comes home. Maybe their play dates could be at times when you or the other mom could offer a more structured, less chaotic setting for their time together. A Mom Who's Learned to Say NO
We just ended a nanny share with a family who had a somewhat aggressive son, but not for that reason solely. After another baby arrived, he turned into a not very nice brother (head butting, hitting, pushing his brother) and this was also visited on my daughter to a minor extent. Mostly, she wasn't very happy sharing with him for the last 6 months or so, and I didn't like the potential for modeling from this experience. I was unsure what to do about this, as we had been sharing peaceably for some time, but I think I would have terminated the day with them and sought something else because of his behavior. Anon

4.5 year old hitting & biting & kicking parents -- please help!

April 2006

We have a v. difficult situation with our 4.5 y.o. only daughter, and I am in dire need of feedback and advice.

Someone called this age the ''angry age'' on this site, and that seems v. appropriate for us. Our daughter is GENERALLY speaking, a lot of fun to be around -- funny, bright, imaginative. But when she does not get her way about something, she can devolve into a vicious being. She slaps, bites hard enough to leave bruises, kicks, and just this afternoon, grabbed my breasts and twisted the nipples as hard as she could. (I was lying on the sofa.) Reason: I wouldn't let her eat more than one piece of Easter candy. She also tears down curtains, throws toys, etc. It is as if she is in some kind of violent fugue state, and I hold down her arms so she can't hurt me and rock her and tell her I love her and it always ends after a few minutes with tears and apologies, but I just cannot stand this any more.

She gets glowing reports at school, other parents and teachers adore her, and _I_ adore her, but what is this freaky, painful violence about? A 2 y.o. I can see, but a 4.5 y.o.? Is this normal?

This year has been a dreadful one for us, an upcoming move to a new city, the impending death of a beloved grandparent, and an impending adoption. But . . . what can we do right now? Thanks in advance for your responses. Jenny


She's four and a half and you're allowing this to go on? What about boundaries? If someone was attacking me I wouldn't want to be around them.

The next time she bites you or kicks you or whatever, you tell her that if she continues that behavior something she loves will go away. If she continues, make that item go away. Period. No waffling.

Institute a time-out chair in her room and TELL her to sit there until she can behave herself, or she'll be on time out for the rest of his life. If she doesn't sit down, you put her back. Be more persistent than she is, you're the adult. How do YOU want her to behave? Tell her exactly what you expect in no uncertain terms and remind her until she understands that she is no longer in charge, you are. Don't cave in. Caving in is lack of boundary setting on your part. Children need boundaries. You can do this with love and respect. Caving in to her anger and manipulation is not respecting that YOU are the adult and you set the tone for now and the rest of your relationship with her for the rest of your life.

If you let her injure you and others, what's it going to be when she's fifteen? There's a book called DISCIPLINE. Discipline is not about violence, it's about boundaries and expectations. There is a child at my youngest child's school who bit until the 2nd grade. Now in fifth grade, everybody still remembers and resents her. Biters Anonymous


My 3.5 yr old also directs her violence at me & is an angel at school. I realized I need to protect my own boundaries, which means zero tolerance for violence. I physically remove her & have invented various ''time outs.'' Counting to 10 can take 5 min because she's indignant, and her behavior gets worse before it gets better. I have more success when I have no emotional reaction (shock, anger, screaming), just be clear, firm and consistent: You need a time out, because itUs not ok to hit. You need a longer time out because... I remind her that punishment will be quick if she doesnUt fight, but it doesnUt sink in until after she realizes that IUm serious-no wavering. When she settles down, she needs a hug& will apologize. I'll remind her of what happened and the consequences (she has no memory of her behavior), then suggest ways to avoid it in the future, e.g., if you're frustrated, you need to stop before you hit/spit, and find your words to say ''I'm frustrated!'' I try to notice & praise her for managing frustration: That was good! You DIDNST hit me! I also try to help her prevent unacceptable behavior, like when sheUs ready to swing at me: Don't hit, or you'll have a longer time out. SheUs said that she can't hear me when she's angry. Sometimes she points out how she didn't stick out her tongue or hit me! (Progress!) Most preschoolers have variations of this behavior and have learned other forms of protest (mine learned spitting at preschool), and they understand enough of the world to be frustrated. Your issue also may be related to family stress. You can help her talk about these frustrations/fears proactively & productively. Don't feel bad about laying down/enforcing the law & boundariesYou shouldn't tolerate it, and you need to teach her that it IS necessary to manage her behavior. YouUll also demonstrate by example that itUs unacceptable to tolerate abusive behavior-good for you and good for her!!
Oh boy, you could be writing about my child. He was an angel at 2. And most of the time, he's an angel now. But when he isn't... Just yesterday I got hit and kicked all the way home from the local schoolyard where we'd been playing, because he wouldn't obey me and stop messing up the flower beds. Some things I'm learning:

1) Watch carefully for when it happens. My child's behavior is most likely to deteriorate to this when he is hungry or tired. The combination of both is lethal. I do my best to treat him very carefully when he's tired (I just feed him a snack when he seems hungry, and I NEVER serve dinner late!!!). For example, on an evening when I know he's extra tired, I first move his bedtime up a bit, and then I try to do something in the meantime that I know he will really enjoy, but that won't involve a lot of effort. For him, that means I play with him in his bedroom, with his beloved dinosaurs and firetrucks.

2) Try to identify triggers. For my son (and I would be willing to guess for your daughter, since she sounds rather like my son in many ways), it has to do with my exerting authority over him in an obvious, absolute way. Last night, I was about 20 yards away from him when he started in on the flower bed, and I yelled ''Stop!'' at the top of my lungs. Then, when he laughed and ran away, toward the driveway, I yelled again. When I caught him and told him, without any discussion, to get in the car, that put him over the top. In retrospect, if I had said ''Look out for the flowers!' instead of ''stop'' in the first place, that would have helped. And if I had asked him to ''Please get in the car, so we can get home quick and make that delicious chicken,'' even when I was already annoyed, that would have helped some more. Explanations, reasoning, requests, dealing with him as I would a peer (insofar as possible) -- all of that works much much better than simply exerting authority. I think, by the way, that you are handling the meltdowns in absolutely the right way once they start. Doesn't matter what anyone tells you about discipline, once they have lost it, discipline is useless. What they need is a huge dose of love, not some kind of ''consequence.'' Karen


I have had this problem off and on since my daughter was a toddler. She is now 13 and occasionally will still hit us. Therapy really helped all of us when she was about 5. We were advised to use the holding strategy you use, time outs, and more importantly to NEVER use any kind of violence toward her. Physical punishment is very destructive of a child+s self-esteem and it actually reinforces the violent behavior, teaching the child it is OK. We were also advised to invest in creating a peaceful, loving environment in our home with the children+s active participation in it. We would prepare a lovely table for family meals, place soft music in the background, light candles and ritualize certain moments of the day (bedtime also) as a way to induce serenity and love and diminish any hostility and impatience. We noticed our daughter is violent when she is frustrated or tired and sleepy, so we have tried to teach her how to deal with frustration in non-violent ways. To this day, I make her repeat nasty and aggressive remarks until she says the same thing in a polite and respectful way. And I make a special effort to get her to bed early and make sure she has enough sleep every night. We still struggle and I look forward to other comments you get on this, but I hope it helps.

4.5-year-old hitting and punching us when she's mad

January 2003

I'm afraid I'm at my wit's end. Our 4.5-year-old daughter has been in this terrible hitting (mostly) and name-calling (sometimes) stage for the last several weeks and I'm not sure what to do about it. She is totally well- behaved at school. At home, when she's mad at one of us, she gets this really angry look on her face and either hits, punches or scratches us. In fact, she punched me right in the nose the other night - it hurt so much that I shrieked, which made her apologize instantly (unprecedented) as she got it that she really hurt me. She occasionally adds, ''Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!'' After reminding her that hitting is not OK, I extract myself from the situation (go into my bedroom and close the door). Depending on the situation, I sometimes first take her to her room and close her door (by the way, none of our doors have locks on them). She has gotten better about apologizing eventually (better meaning she will apologize in the same evening rather than the next day), so that's good. I have talked to her in quiet moments as well to talk about how it's OK to be mad, but it's not OK to hit. I've tried the ''it's OK to hit a pillow'', but that doesn't work. So I'm looking for further advice. Any good children's books out there? She loves books and pays very close attention to them. We're open to anything at this point. And as a point of information, it does appear that this happens mostly when she is tired. A friend suggested some sort of reward system, such as after getting 5 stars/ stickers, she can have a special outing with us or something. She's big into stickers even at her age, but who knows. Thanks for your advice.
Really Tired of Being Hit


We've had similar episodes, and found the best solution was to advise, at the time of hit (or spit, which we actually had more incidences of) that if she continued to hit or spit, a privilege would be taken away (e.g. if you hit, you will lose dessert/a video/etc.). This has worked extremely well for all of us. She understands that she is in charge, through her behaviour, of certain outcomes, and we feel association of privileges with behaviour is more realistic than ''carrot on the stick'' approaches, such as the earning of stickers toward a ''payday'' of sorts. I know of many families who beleive in the sticker accumulation method, and seem to have good results. I suppose it is highly dependant on the particular personality of the child (ren) involved, and yet, I much prefer privilege removal/retention to sticker earning/witholding. Anon
Dear Really Tired of Being Hit,

The good news is that this is typical 4.5-year-old behavior. Some people say the 2's are terrible, but I think the 4's are Something Else! Of course you have to figure out how to deal with this, but don't worry that she'll grow up to be an awful person. She will mature out of this.

For starters, I really think it's pointless to demand an apology. Your daughter already knows about apologies and uses them appropriately when she is so moved. A spontaneous apology is worth an infinite number of glib, ''I'm sorry'''s. She also needs to know that words alone do not erase the hurt.

She is not too young to be isolated when she hurts someone. You can say, ''If you hurt people, you can't stay'', and put her in her room or other isolation place. Don't get a lock or even use a timer. Tell her she can come out when she feels like she is ready to be safe around other people. This puts the onus on her to notice how she is feeling and when she is ready to emerge. If she comes out cranky, repeat the procedure, ''I can see you came out too soon. Wait until you're calm''.

When she is calm, you can try to talk to her about why she was so angry. She may have had a reasonable cause for her outburst, but you have to impress on her that hitting and name calling are unacceptable. Talk about how she could have handled the situation better, and ask her what she will do the next time she feels really angry.

I think you are wise to notice that the does this when she's tired. Being tired, hungry, sick or anxious are the usual reasons a child loses self-control. If you learn to watch for signs of stress, you can help her with her underlying problem before she lashes out. Louise


I couldn't help but respond regarding the 4.5 year old who hits and calls names. It could have been my daughter about two months ago (same age too). The hitting and name calling culminated many months of rather disrespectful behavior that I hadn't really been paying attention to (e.g., demanding I jump to her every need, yelling from the other room, and annoying attention-getting behavior when I was engaged in conversation or on the phone). I attribute her behavior mainly to my permissive parenting style. My husband and I decided we needed to turn things around quickly. I don't know if this will work for you, but this is what we did: We discussed beforehand what we would and would not accept and what responses we would give under a variety of circumstances and then sat our daughter down and told her the rules. In our case, we said that the house rules were that there was absolutely no hitting, kicking or spitting at other people under any circumstances. These three behaviors would result in a toy of our chosing being put on a shelf for a week. There would be no warnings. At the end of the week, the toy would be put back into circulation. Repeated behaviors would result in a new toy being removed for a week. (We didn't want to remove the toy permanently, either by giving it away or by back to back removals for repeated behavior because we felt it was important to allow her the opportunity for redemption. Good behavior does not allow a toy to be returned before the end of the week, but it means it is not necessary to remove additional toys). Other unsavory behaviors (excessive snottiness, name calling or other disrespectful speech) would come with one warning that it was unacceptable. Failure to stop the behavior would result in a toy being removed. Complete loss of self control (repeated hitting, screaming tantrum, etc.) would result in a timeout in her bed until she could calm down. Sometimes this meant that she had to go to bed immediately after we got home from daycare. Often she would simply fall asleep. Other times she pulled it together enough to come out for dinner and a pleasant evening together as a family.

The first two months of instigating these new rules were very difficult as she tested and then adjusted to the rules. We made sure to emphasize that these were the house rules, not punishment. It helped me to have the rules so that I didn't get caught up in an angry response of my own. She understood the rules immediately when we explained them to her (quickly and to the point) and even though she was often unable to control her passion, it was clear that she knew, in the moment, that she had broken the rules and that there would be consequences. I am happy to say that she is learning how to control her passion, the nasty behavior has declined dramatically, and very few toys are removed these days. We are all much happier. For us, it came down to identifying our limits to ourselves, informing her of the rules, and then sticking with them. Best of luck to you. Rachel


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