Getting the Low Down on Your 4-Year-Old’s Behavior

4-year-olds: Bursting with fun, sass, and independence.

Children are full of developmental stages, and turning 4 is no exception. As a result of their independence and curious minds, 4-year-old’s behavior can be great one minute, and then frustrate you to no end the next.  Breezy Mama turns to Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, as well as Parenting Coach, Bette Levy Alkazian, for advice on how we deal with the 4-year-old milestones.

(For those of you who want some advice on three year old behavior, click here to see Breezy Mama‘s past coverage.)

They have such an independence, but yet don’t have the skills to know better (i.e. look both ways before crossing street). How do we teach this?

The key to teaching kids how to be safe and appropriate in this world is repetition and vigilance.  It sometimes feels like an uphill battle when these little, independent 4-year-olds want to run and go off on their own, but we must rein them in and stay on top of them to ensure their safety.  We must show them how to be safe in every situation and how to behave in the ones where safety is not an issue.  For example, when walking through a parking lot, parents must hold their little one’s hands EVERY TIME, even if there are no cars around.  The consistency and repetition in these situations teaches them and helps the lesson to stick. In other situations, the repetition of asking them to sit nicely or to wait their turn, etc… again depends upon consistency and repetition.  It may take many, many times for the kids to “get it” and it’s their job to test it again and again.  Be patient!!  It will pay off eventually, I promise!

Since 4 seems so much older than 3, I noticed that I would let my son play in the backyard by himself, trust him to play in the driveway, etc. Is this a mature enough age to let them do these sort of activities? 

Four-years-old is old enough to play independently in a secured area, such as a fenced-in backyard as long as the parent can see what he/she is up to from inside. (Supervision is a must!) The front yard or driveway, I believe, requires a little more maturity and understanding of safety issues.  Four is too young to be left unattended for any period of time without supervision.  Because of the developmental age, too, four-year-olds are likely to get into trouble and do things that parents never thought they would.  They’re still little, but more independent and curious, so keep an eye on them!

This is the age where children are making their own friends—they aren’t just friends with your friends’ children anymore. My son had made a couple that were a bit mean-spirited, acted rudely, and just all-around weren’t nice. When my son would ask if these boys could come over, I would just say, “not today.” Should I have explained why?

I often think that when parents express displeasure with their kids’ friends, it makes those kids more intriguing.  Rather than telling your child that’s why they’re not having a play date with that child, be honest when you hear those mean-spirited or rude words.  I might say to my child, “I heard Johnny use some words that weren’t so nice today.”  Then be quiet and just listen or let it sink in.  Comment when you see another child breaking your family’s rules or values.  It’s not your place to say it to the child, necessarily, unless they are in your home.  Then, you need to tell them that they broke a rule of your home.  Outside of your home, it’s simply a lesson for your child, so it can be discussed later in the day or even at bedtime when you’re having some quiet time.  Often, kids see behavior they know is wrong, but don’t know what to do with it and may even copy it in order to see what you will do with it.  You reflecting on it and discussing it with your child enables him/her to process it and even ask questions.  Try not to make judgments, just make observations and teach your values!

A Breezy Mama reader asked, “My 4 1/2 year old son  only has a handful of really good friends–is this normal for his age?” 

There are lots of different personalities and temperament styles in people.  Some are very social while others prefer to hang by themselves.  Of course, we worry about kids who don’t socialize with other kids, right?  “A handful of really good friends” sounds like a great situation.  You want your child to be discerning in who he chooses as his friends.  Too many friends can be overwhelming or prevent the creation of real relationships.  Having too few friends can be very limited and become a problem if the one friend is absent from school.  I believe that the 4-year-old you mention is perfectly normal in this respect for his age.  Parents have to watch their own agendas when it comes to their kids.  We have to let them have their own lives, be themselves and make their own choices, as long as they’re healthy ones.

A friend remembers when her daughter was four—she says, “My daughter transitioned out of her nap but was exhausted in the afternoon, especially after preschool–usually displayed in epic tantrums. For us sleep and early bed time were more important than ever. I guess I just never realized transitioning away from a nap could be so hard! Can you give some advice on how to make that transition more gracefully than we did?” 

That initial period after giving up a nap can be a bit bumpy.  We know that kids are ready to give up their naps when they are staying up too late after having a nap because they’re not yet tired.  That doesn’t mean that they’re not still tired in the afternoons, especially after a long day at preschool.  I remember singing in the car to my daughters so they wouldn’t fall asleep.  It was torture for all of us! Parents need to be as proactive as possible to get through this time.  The child still needs a lot of sleep, just not during the day anymore.  Dinner and the evening routine may need to be much earlier than before.  Rather than a 7:30 bedtime, kids may be ready for bed by 6 and sleep 12+ hours.  Have dinner ready early, get them bathed early and get them in bed.  If tantrums do occur, be patient as much as possible. Your anger will only fuel the fire!  Being tired makes it hard to function and especially to cope with frustration! Have extra patience during these times and give your child as much love as possible after the tantrum is over.  Hang in there and know that this period of time won’t last too long.  Also, be sure not to take away the nap too early! Some kids really need it well into 5-years-old.

One reader says that with her 4 year old, “. . . we have a real tough time with bedtime. She doesn’t nap and doesn’t seem tired at all, and will try and stay up until ten. We try to close the door to her room, and she just runs into the hallway. How can we stop this behavior?”

There could be one of many things going on here.  She may be overtired all the time and completely out-of-touch with what being tired physically feels like. She may also just need less sleep than other kids her age.  However, I’m most concerned about the statement, “We try to close the door to her room, and she just runs into the hallway.”  I’m concerned about who’s calling the shots here.  Four-year-olds need to know that their parents are making and enforcing the rules.  This creates a feeling of safety and security that then enables them to grow and explore normally.  Having too much power causes small children to feel anxious, which is another thing that might be contributing to this little girl’s high energy level. Bedtime is actually the first opportunity that parents have to teach their children that they know better for them than they know for themselves.  Kids need parents and parents need to lead the way.  A regular bedtime routine, ending at a reasonable time (usually by 7:30 P.M. for 4 year olds) and consistent limits are the keys to a peaceful and pleasant bedtime!  Then, the parents have the whole evening to be together!

A mom wrote in describing her four year old as very sensitive. The parent writes, “We can barely scold her because she’ll stop us and cry “You’re hurting my feelings!” How do we deal with this? 

Parenting sensitive children is a different type of parenting, in many respects. However, I’m not convinced that this little one is sensitive just because she says those words.  She has learned that stopping the action with tears and saying “you’re hurting my feelings” works to stop them from scolding her.  Overall, parents should listen more to their kids’ behavior than to their words.  Actions truly do speak louder than words.  Let’s assume she is sensitive, for a minute.  Highly sensitive kids do feel things more deeply than other children.  It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t need discipline; it just means that yelling at her or “scolding” her too harshly isn’t the best way of reaching her.  She’s more likely to shut down than to respond with better behavior.  Highly sensitive kids need more gentle disciplinary techniques such as compassion, gentle reminders, removal from the situation (if they are not behaving appropriately) until they are ready to have nicer behavior, etc…  It is important to know that you don’t have to raise your voice for a sensitive child to get it.  Educate them about their feelings and help them through it.  Tell them what their feelings are called and how to express them appropriately.  Such as, “I can see that you’re angry. I don’t blame you, but we don’t hit! Use your words to tell me” Or “I’m sorry if I’m hurting your feelings, but it’s not ok to…” Be sure not to over-coddle the sensitive child.  She needs limits just like any child and lots of love!  It’s also very helpful to read books and articles about highly sensitive children to keep your expectations appropriate for that temperament style.

It seems to me that four is when my son’s “back talk” started. He seemed to think that he could do what he wanted, when he wanted, which would make me so angry. What words could I have said to him to explain that this isn’t a respectful way to act? 

Four is the age when kids are testing the limits BIG TIME.  It’s likely that your angry reactions actually caused the behavior to increase, because he got a strong reaction out of you. Kids love that!  Not that we should ignore every bad behavior, we do have to teach them.  However, how we talk about it makes a big difference.  Here’s something to try in the future:  “Wow, those don’t sound like very nice words.  Let’s try that again.”  (Said with very little emotion)  “I’ll be ready to talk to you when you can speak to me with respectful words.”  Then, “respectfully ignore” any words that are not spoken with kindness.  “Respectful ignoring” is a very powerful tool to use with any behavior you want to stop.  It’s respectful because the child is being told in advance that you won’t be acknowledging that behavior.  Then, you only give the child your attention (positive attention) when he’s doing the RIGHT thing.

With those turning four in the winter and spring months, they’ll be needing to get ready for Kindergarten. What social skills do parents need to watch out for to make sure they’re ready for this change? 

The social keys to kindergarten readiness include the ability to sit still, follow directions, take turns (that includes waiting patiently), share, separate from his/her parents, show curiosity for learning new things, and work cooperatively with others. Don’t expect your child to do all of these things too far in advance of kindergarten.  The behaviors come as the child grows and develops.   Academically, your child will be expected to: recognize at least some letters and numbers, cut with scissors, hold a pencil to write and other abilities that they will need to have the first day of kindergarten.  If you aren’t sure if your child is ready, your child’s school most likely does an assessment of readiness in the spring prior to starting kindergarten.

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About Bette Levy Alkazian: Bette Levy Alkazian, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Parenting Coach and nationally recognized parenting expert works with families to ease the challenges and increase the joys of raising children.  Bette has also worked for many years as a parent educator, speaker, and writer.  She is the author of Parenting Backwards and Potty Learning: The Do’s, Don’ts and the Oops of Poops (both available for purchase on her site, click here).

Bette was a top 7 finalist (out of 15,000 applicants) in the Good Morning America Advice Guru search and has vast experience helping people with a broad range of issues.

Bette has been married to her husband, Jeff, for 26 years, and they are the parents of three amazing daughters.

To learn more about Bette, please take a look at her website, If you’d like to contact Bette directly, please email her at:

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  1. Great article! We have a son who is approaching 4 and these ideas are so helpful for me to keep in mind. Super cute pic, btw…

  2. This one hit home. Thanks for the advice!

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