Mean, Disobedient Four-Year-Old

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My daughter is 4.5 and I'm at my wits end. She is such a beautiful child when she wants to be. I just don't know what to do anymore. She's mean to other children. She has no fear of any authority. She is very mouthy to other kids, her preschool teacher, and grandma. It just seems that it depends on what mood she is in for the day as to which child I'm going to get. I've been at the library were the lady there told her to stop doing something-she completely ignored her. She's told grandma she's going to kick her ***. Most of the time kids will listen to others better then their parents, but not her. She doesn't listen to anyone-if she doesn't feel like it at that moment. Please help. I've run out of ideas-timeout doesn't work and she really doesn't have a special something that if I took it away she'd care. I'm finding myself getting really angry at her and yelling. This is not what I want to do, plus I get so stressed from dealing with her that I give myself a headache. Thanks for any advice. Amy


Dear Amy,

I want you to know that you are not alone. It seems that I am getting more and more questions similar to yours. I have a hunch what is going on, and you can help me test my theory if you are willing.

My hunch is that your daughter is very intelligent and very strong-willed. I want you to know that I think a strong will is a positive thing. When parents and teachers complain about strong-willed children, I ask, "Would you like them to be weak-willed?" The key is for parents and teachers to learn how to guide children to use their intelligence and strong will in a useful, contributing direction.

As you are experiencing, punishment does not work with your daughter. This is good. I'm very much against punishment of any kind. The more parents and teachers learn that it doesn't work; the more interested they will be in finding respectful alternatives that are effective. Most people think that discipline and punishment are synonymous. They are not. Following are the four criteria for effective discipline:

Four Criteria for Effective Discipline

  1. Does it help children feel a sense of connection? (Belonging and Significance)
  2. Is it respectful and encouraging? (Kind and firm at the same time)
  3. Is it effective long-term? (Punishment works short term, but has negative long-term results.)
  4. Does it teach valuable social and life skills for good character? (Respect, concern for others, problem-solving, cooperation)
All of the Positive Discipline books give hundreds of ideas for how to use discipline that meets of these criteria I suggest you start with "Positive Discipline for Preschoolers" so I'll just be giving you a few in this answer.

At this point I don't want to go into why your daughter is "misbehaving". That would take a whole chapter, but it is obvious that she believes she belongs only if she is the boss  or doesn't let anyone boss her. And, when she is hurtful, she is seeking revenge for some perceived hurt feelings on her part. Punishment of any kind will only escalate the power struggles and the revenge cycles.

So let's get right to how you can use a few methods that meet all the criteria.

1) Help her feel belonging and significance by including her in solutions. Start having regular family meetings where you all learn to give each other compliments to set the tone. (We also have chapters on family meetings in all of the Positive Discipline books, so I can just give you a sense of them here.) When there is a problem, ask your daughter if she would be willing to put it on the family meeting agenda (maybe a piece of paper on the refrigerator, or you can add it to the agenda). This allows for a bit of a cooling off period before focusing on solutions. During the family meeting you can all brainstorm for solutions choose one that works for everyone. Can you see how this would teach her to use her intelligence and strong will in a productive manner?

2) This one may seem very bizarre to you. When she is misbehaving, give her a hug. No, this isn't rewarding the misbehavior. It is helping her feel belonging and significance, and it disrupts the misbehavior  and it will surprise the heck out of her. It is also modeling gentle ways to interact with others. It may also put her in a state of mind where she is now willing to work on a respectful solution to the problem. If she is not receptive to a hug at the moment, you (and whomever else is involved in the conflict) could leave the scene saying, "Please come find us when you are ready for a hug or to work on a respectful solution." 

3) Decide what you will do. This is an excellent parenting tool that is related to the above suggestion. We can't make a child do something, but we can decide what we will do  and it is very helpful and respectful to inform the child in advance about what you intend to do. The informing part should take place during a calm time, not during the time of conflict. It might sound something like this: "Honey, when you talk disrespectfully to me (and Grandma), we will leave the room. We want to be with you, so we hope you will come find us as soon as you are ready to speak lovingly."

4) Be sure to model what you want from her by talking respectfully, lovingly, and focusing on solutions to problems.

5. Another way to help her use her power in useful ways is to avoid engaging in the power struggle or revenge cycle, waiting for a calm time, and the follow up with "Curiosity Questions."

"Honey, when you ignored the lady at the library (or wanted to kick Grandma, etc), what was going on for you?" Give her time to answer. If she doesn't have an answer, it is okay to make some guesses. "Were you feeling frustrated for being interrupted?" "What happens when you ignore someone? How does it make you feel? How does it make others feel?" Wait for answers. "Honey, I've seen you be so considerate of others. What do you think you could do next time this happens that would take care of your needs and the needs of others?" Give her time to answer. If she doesn't have an answer, say, "Honey, I know how smart you are, and I know you can figure this out. Why don't you think about it, and we'll talk about it again in an hour and you can share what you have come up with."

6. Sit down with your daughter and plan some special times together for at least 15 minutes a day. It might be every day at 6:30 every day where you play a game together or whatever you like to do. During the day, let her know as often as possible that you are looking forward to your special time together.

I hope you are hearing the principles behind these suggestions, rather than seeing them as techniques. If you feel the principles, you will know how to use them creatively, from your heart, in different situations. Let me know how it goes.

Jane Nelsen, Ed.D




Hi Jane! I have a question that need addressing regarding my daughter who is 7-years old. My daughter has a good friend at school who's also a neighbour and they hang out in the neighbourhood and did a few sleepovers and play dates. But recently, this girl has been saying some rude words (including swear words), making inappropriate finger gestures. Basically, I felt that some stuff she did were not appropriate for a 7-year old. My daughter has learnt these inappropriate words and gestures from her, and I have been talking to her about it and the effect these have on her and other people. The problem is they have established a good friendship and I felt that I couldn't make my daughter not seeing this girl when they have been friends for a good 2.5 years! But now knowing what happened, I said no to my daughter. I'm not sure what's best to do, should I tell her parents (the parents are not sociable in the neighbourhood). Or talk to the child? Would be grateful of your input. Many thanks! Looking forward to your reply! Shirley

Search "Choosing Friends" on our blog and you will find an excellent excerpt from our Positive Discipline A-Z book.

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