The Wonderfully Infuriating 4 Year Old Behavior
You made it to your child’s 4th birthday, just barely, but you did! Congratulations! You’re now entering the 4 year old territory. You may be so exhausted from the previous year, that you don’t know if you have any more strength to go on. The good news – you do! You’re tougher than you look. The bad news – while your 4 year old is much more reasonable than they were just a year ago, don’t expect your child to magically turn into an angel. The behaviors of your 4 year old will lead you down a crazy roller coaster journey. One minute you’re up and the next, you’re plummeting down. And that’s what makes are 4 year olds so wonderfully infuriating.
Prepare yourself for days filled with magical journeys, imaginary friends, tears over not shared toys, and hurt feelings over “mean”friends. Your 4 year old is growing. Their sense of self is growing. And their moral compass points only in the directions of right and wrong. It’s a crazy ride.
So, without further ado, let’s talk about what we can expect this year from our fierce 4 year olds and how we can handle some rough 4 year old behavior with empathy and understanding.
What 4 Year Old Behaviors Are the Most Common
Unfortunately, tantrums are here to stay. And will feel like they’re still coming out of nowhere. One minute your child is happy and playing, and the next they’re lunging at another child over a toy.
But the good news, as the year progresses, your 4 year old will be trying to resolve problems with less crying and hitting (provided that you’ve been working with them on their emotional regulation) and with more words instead. Their impulse control will be improving and thus will lead to less outbursts.
Keep using the strategies that worked from when they were 2 and 3 (If you need a refresher on either, you can find information in the following posts: Toddler Emotional Development – The Brain of a 2 Year Old, Positive Discipline for 2 Year Olds Based on Brain Science, How To Handle Your Emotional 3 Year Old with Empathy) and you will find that tantrums are occurring less frequently.
Your child may have started doing this last year, but expect that this year, lies will become bigger and more frequent. While you may feel like lying is a bad thing, it’s not. It actually shows that your child’s brain is growing and developing. And is a very common 4 year old behavior.
Your child is getting a better grasp on the idea of cause and effect. They know that if they do something that displeases the adults in their life, they get in trouble. And they don’t want to get in trouble. So, they start lying to cover up what they’ve done in hopes of avoiding adult disapproval.
So, be prepared for the lies. But try to differentiate between lies and fantasy. Because your child’s imagination is growing, they may come up with fantastical tales and try to weave them into reality. This is not the same as lying. So it should never earn your disapproval. Instead, encourage this. Let their imagination create a fantastical world with dragons, fairies, princesses, robots, dinosaurs, whatever they want. It’s an important part of childhood.
Becoming Choosier With Friends
If your child attends preschool or any other group setting, you may find that your teacher is working with kids on being more inclusive during play. A common 4 year old behavior is playing with 1 or 2 friends, and not allowing others to join.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, after all, no one wants to be friends with everyone. But is definitely not a desirable behavior in social settings. So, it’s important to teach your 4 year old that while it may be OK to have preferences for who they want to play with, it’s not ok to exclude people just because.
Lots of Imaginative Play
Your 4 year old’s imagination is going to reach new heights this year. Their more sophisticated understanding of the world will lead to creating many imaginative games. Dress-up will become a favorite, as 4 year olds love exploring new roles. They may wish to dress up in different professions, or superheroes, or cartoon characters and act out different scenes.
Encourage this as much as possible. Pull out hats and scarves, buy some inexpensive costumes and let them play. Listen to their grandiose stories and show genuine interest. It will not only build your 4 year old’s self-esteem, but will also create wonderful bonding moments. Who knows, you may be raising the next best selling fantasy author!
Curiosity about people and relationships
You may find that your 4 year old is starting to be more observant about people’s differing features like hair and skin color, height and weight, any visible abnormalities, and gender. They will likely ask you many questions about different people, sometimes not very appropriate ones.
4 year olds will also be very interested in placing people in gender buckets. There will be a lot of questions about whether someone is a boy or a girl. Your 4 year old may point out a woman’s short haircut and say that she has boy hair, or vice versa.
This is a good time to start exploring gender with children and explaining to them that the length of hair or type of clothes does not make someone a boy or a girl.
By 4 years old, your child has a solid concept of their own gender. So it’s definitely something to pay attention to. If your child seems to prefer clothing of the opposite gender, or chooses a name of the opposite gender, and, in general, seems to prefer play and activities typically associated with the opposite gender – explore this with them. You’d be surprised by the insight your child may provide on the subject.
I know this will go against some people’s religious beliefs, but as someone in the mental health field, I strongly believe that gender identity needs to be left up to the individual, no matter how young they are. Forcing anyone to suppress their true feelings about their gender will backfire in the long run.
So if your son wants to wear a dress and be called Jenny, instead of John – do it. If it’s just a phase, it’ll quickly pass. But if it’s not (which it most likely isn’t), then you have shown your child that your love is truly unconditional and you accept them as they are, no matter what! And that is priceless!
More Frequent Displays of Empathy
Your 4 year old may surprise you with their empathy. Since they are better at controlling themselves and their emotions, you may find that your child is showing more empathy towards others than before. They may come and comfort you when you’re not feeling well. They may even surrender a toy to a friend or a sibling, if they know that will make the other child happy.
Help encourage these displays of empathy. The more you acknowledge how wonderfully empathetic they are, the more they will show empathy. At the end of the day, our kids really do want to please us. So we should absolutely use that to our advantage, in a benevolent way, to encourage positive behavior.
What Behavior Strategies to Use with 4 Year Olds
Now that you are more aware about what to expect from your 4 year old, let’s discuss parenting strategies that work.
First and foremost, if there are things that worked from the previous year and still do, continue to do them.
How To Handle Tantrums
For tantrums, continue to implement time-outs or time-ins (learn how to Successfully Manage Behavior with Time Outs) depending on what your child needs. If they need to cool off, just let them sit by themselves in a time-out and blow off some steam. If they are inconsolable and need a hug to calm down, then a time-in may be a better option.
But remember to not scold them for having a tantrum! They are allowed to have strong feelings and to express them. What they’re not allowed to do is hurt someone or destroy something as a way to express their feelings.
And that’s where a time-out or time-in works. You remove the child from the situation where they hurt someone and give them a clean break. You discuss what happened ONLY after they calmed down. And make sure you’re not being accusatory while trying to find out what happened. If you are accusatory or shaming, it’s very likely that your child will not share with you. And that’s not what you want.
What to do about Lying
When it comes to lying, don’t punish. Yes, it may be upsetting to you that your child lied, and it feels like if it goes unpunished it’ll continue. Let me tell you something – lying will continue no matter what you do. It’s human nature. We all lie!
And also remember, that lying is a very important developmental milestone. So be joyful that your child reached it, instead of being upset about it.
A better way to handle lying is to have a conversation about it. Explain why lying is not desirable and why lying makes things worse. You want to encourage your child to be truthful to you. So that may mean that if they do something bad (like break a vase) and come and tell you about it, your immediate reaction is not to yell at them, but instead to praise them for being truthful. You can address the vase breaking separately. But make sure you let your child know how much you appreciate their honesty. The more you do this, the more likely it is that your child will tell you the truth.
And don’t confront your child on lying and expect that they’ll tell you the truth. This type of a situation looks like this: you know your child did something wrong, and so you confront them about it. They lie. You give them a few more chances, and they continue to lie. You get upset and punish. Does that sound familiar? If it does, just understand that your response is conditioned by what you’ve seen many others do. Very few adults know how to handle children’s lying in a productive way. But you can learn a better way.
First, never trap your child like that. Not only are you giving them chances to lie more in this situation, you are also not setting up your connection in a way that would make them want to tell you the truth.
Remember that children mainly lie because they don’t want to get into trouble. And they feel like they are skilled liars (even though they’re absolutely not), so they feel like they can pull one over on you. It’s not coming from a malicious place, but is just a stage in their development.
The best way to approach this situation would be with empathy. You can say that you noticed or heard that something happened. And you would like to hear from their side what the problem was. When you approach the situation with empathy and connection, you’re more likely to have your child open up and be truthful. But if you confront them with anger, they’ll just shut down and continue to either lie or not tell you anything.
And if this is the first time you’re using this technique, don’t expect it to work. If you’ve been punitive in the past, expect that it will take at least a few times before your child will start feeling connected and more open to you. But with consistent work, you will build this connection, and your child will become less inclined to lie to you.
How to Continue to Help with Emotional Regulation
In order to help your child to continue decreasing their tantrum frequency, continue with emotion coaching. Continue to name feelings for them. Start exploring more nuanced feelings like enraged vs. mad, frustrated vs. angy, silly vs. happy.
One feeling that may emerge even more at this age is jealousy. Your child may be jealous of the relationship between you and your partner, or be jealous of their sibling. So it’s a very good time to explore what jealousy is and how to cope with this feeling. There are some great books on the subject.
Also, start bringing in mindfulness activities to help regulate emotions. Practice identifying how different feelings feel in the body. Whether it’s bubbles or butterflies when your child is anxious or excited, or a burning in the stomach when they’re feeling mad. Tapping into physical sensations helps children get better control of their feelings.
If you’d like to learn more about helping your 4 year old with their emotional regulation, read Teach Emotional Intelligence to Children Through Play.
And don’t forget that one of the best parenting strategies to employ is modeling empathy for our children. (You can learn about Empathetic Parenting in A Road Map to Empathetic Parenting – A Better Way to Parent).
When we show empathy towards them, they feel heard, accepted, and loved. When they feel this way, they are more likely to want to behave in a way that pleases us, rather than in a way that angers us. It also allows for us to continue to strengthen our bond with our children and keeps communication channels open.
I hope that by now, you’re feeling more confident in your parenting skills. Yes, every year throws new curve balls at you but you persevere. Remember, that your 4 year old is still very little, and needs you for love and support just as much as they did when they were a baby. So, while there are plenty of 4 year old behavior we may not like, there is also a lot of wonderful behaviors emerging every day.
And also remember, if there are ever any concerns about your child’s development, ask your pediatrician for advice.