Why four-year-olds behave the way they do

Raising a four-year-old child can be challenging because he has his own ideas and preferences and his immaturity prohibits him from understanding your perspective.
Raising a four-year-old child can be challenging because he has his own ideas and preferences and his immaturity prohibits him from understanding your perspective.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Why is a four-year-old defiant at every turn, exasperated parents bemoan.

Indeed, parenting a child of that age can be challenging because he is the epitome of wilfulness. He has his own ideas and preferences and his immaturity prohibits him from understanding your perspective.

His brain, which is growing and changing rapidly, is still mostly operating on a system of one viewpoint at a time - and that viewpoint tends to be his own.

There is nothing wrong with a four-year-old who wants only what he wants. This is normal development and it serves a vital purpose.

As he is defying you and doing the opposite of what he is told, he is focusing on his own desires, thoughts, impulses and feelings.

In development, experts call this "individuation". Essentially, he cannot grow into his own person if he takes commands only from you.

Yes, his behaviour is annoying, inconvenient and tiring, but it is necessary. When you understand that this is a normal stage, you can also see how you are handling it is making it a problem.

Your child is not consciously trying to defy you, but you plucked the counterwill string and he must respond by doing the opposite of what you requested.

Here are some simple solutions.

Stop asking him questions. When parents ask questions or use a tone of voice that implies a question, they are giving children an option. "Ready for the tub, buddy?"

No. Your child will never be ready to bathe. Assume that if you give him a choice, the answer will be no.

Stop telling him what you do not want him to do. Every time he hears "please don't touch the baby", he will do so.

Stop expecting the tantrums to stop. Because four-year-olds want what they want when they want it, you have to say no often. That will be met with resistance, anger and tears - all part of the growth process.

Just because your child has counterwill does not mean you should sit back and do nothing. True, you are going to stop inviting the problems, but you will still face his big feelings.

The only way to avoid tantrums is to give in to his every wish, then you will really have a problem. He is growing and maturing every day.

Just know there will be some days when he appears to have matured and will be more cooperative and other days when he acts like a two-year-old incapable of rational thought.

Start pointing out what he does well. This is not cheerleading or praise. This is "noticing" language. "Hey, Jake, I noticed you put your shoes away. Thank you."

If you make too big of a deal of what is going well, your child will swerve into counterwill and start doing the opposite. Keep your observations calm, sincere and varied.

Start creating moments of success. The cool thing about four-year-olds is that they are imaginative and hard-working. Find ways for your child to use his strengths.

Whether it is helping in the kitchen or the yard or problem-solving issues around the house, four-year-olds have creative ways to contribute to family life. Do not be afraid to ask for your child's input and let him get involved, even (and especially) when the results are imperfect and messy. The pride and resilience will make him feel needed and appreciated.

Start carving out one-on-one time. In Positive Parenting circles, this is called special time. For four-year-olds, that means a set amount of time on the floor or in the yard, playing with something that makes them happy.

Anything can be special time, but leave the tech and screens behind, especially yours. Because it is all about play, your child will see joy in your eyes and feel deeply connected with you. And when one person feels connected with another, counterwill diminishes.

Counterwill is normal, but it becomes a real problem when parents get stuck in the back and forth.

Special time breaks down the arguing and anger and re-establishes the relationship as the most important dynamic. It sounds simple and silly, but having fun with your child does more to improve cooperation than any discipline technique.

Take heart that he will grow and his defiant tendencies will ease. Meanwhile, find ways to positively connect with him without promoting what is not working.

And have a healthy sense of humour about all this - he is getting you ready for his teenage years.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 22, 2018, with the headline 'Why four-year-olds behave the way they do'. Print Edition | Subscribe