What do I do with an out-of-control preschooler?

Q: My 4-year-old daughter does not listen. Period. She's combative and aggressive (I've been bitten 4 times this week alone); she lies and screams instead of speaking in a normal tone. Timeouts have failed. Taking items (toys, upcoming vacations, etc.) away failed. Yelling back failed. I'm at my wit's end. I always stay in control and don't lose my cool. I don't spank. And I do not know what to do to remedy this situation. Help, please!

A: One of the best ways to decrease undesired behaviors is to increase the opposite, positive ones, because a child can’t be acting good and bad at the same time.  And keep in mind that kids generally do want to do well, but the world is a complicated and frustrating place for them, so they don’t always know the best way to handle situations, and it is probably just as frustrating to them as it is to us.

As behaviors that are rewarded or praised tend to increase, parents should “catch” a child being good and really praise it, and use a sticker chart where each time she engages in a specific “good” behavior a sticker is placed on the chart, and after a certain number of stickers she gets a reward, such as getting to play with a special toy. Also, teach, praise and practice positive, alternate skills.  For example, parents can practice with a child on learning how to ask nicely for something; what to tell herself if they can’t get what they want (e.g., “That’s okay; maybe next time”); and how to wait on things (e.g., finding something else to do to occupy your time). Then, right before a situation is about to arise, the parent should remind the child of the skills to use and practice them. Learning to do this is a skill like anything else: The more she practices, the better she should get at it. But again, keep in mind a child’s age, and remember that skills like this will likely be learned over time. 

There are also ways of saying “no” that will possibly lead to less conflict, such as by adding in a choice (“Well, those pants don’t match this shirt, but you can choose one of these three shirts?”) or by telling a child when she can do something (“First we have to clean the room and then you can watch television.”).  Additionally, avoid situations, when possible, that lead to bad behavior. If, for example, tantrums arise because she doesn’t want to stop playing a game to take a bath, set a rule that bath always is taken before playing any games; if every time you go to the store she gets upset if you don’t buy her something, consider going to the store when she is at school; if it is when she is tired or hungry, try asking her to clean up, for example, after her nap and her snack.  Finally, make sure that bad behavior doesn’t “work."  If, for example, tantrums get her out of doing something that she doesn’t want to do, or get her something that she wants, she is more likely to continue to do them.


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