How Can I Get My Kid to Stop Being Defensive Whenever He's at Fault?

Strong emotions can be a lot for young brains to handle, so we need to help our kids by staying in control of ours. Here's how to keep our own emotions in check while helping our little ones correct their behavior.

Mom With Screaming Kid

My 4-year-old son cries and screams whenever we reprimand him about something. Most of the time, he knows he has done something wrong but continues to cry and scream. He always says he's sorry and he promises he won't do it again. But it's just an ongoing cycle and it's becoming a huge issue. What can we do?

—Mom With Screaming Kid

Dear Mom With Screaming Kid,

Some children are more sensitive to their behaviors being corrected, and the younger they are, the more this can look like defiance. It's actually their very sensitivity to feeling like the people they love most might see them as "bad" that sets off strong emotions. They don't have the tools yet to manage this intensity, so it comes out in unpleasant ways. Understanding how your son's brain and emotions are developing can help give you the tools to respond in a way that helps stop this painful cycle.

Impulse Control

Let's start with their young brains: It takes a lot of brain power to manage emotions and behaviors, all while impulse control barely exists. In your son's case, he needs to plan ahead, remember from last time to not make the same mistake, and then stop a behavior that feels good in the moment! That's a lot for his little brain. The part of the brain that controls impulses, the frontal lobe, is still in the early stages of developing, which explains why young children can't help themselves even when they "know better." I'm sure your son does feel sorry afterwards, but he doesn't have the brain power yet to follow through with these intentions when the next time rolls around.

An illustration of a boy crying.
Illustration: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

Emotional Development

Age 4 can be an especially confusing phase for parents because their child can suddenly do so much more than they could at 3, but they also still have their toddler meltdown moments. As a mother myself, I sometimes forget that the developmental line is quite curvy, and not the straight line of progress we might hope it is. Despite all that 4-year-olds have mastered, emotional development is especially bumpy and complex, and even bumpier with strong and unpleasant emotions.

Although your son does not yet have the capacity to fully understand his feelings, let alone express them to you calmly, I am guessing he feels embarrassed and/or ashamed when he is reprimanded. He communicates this through screaming and crying because he doesn't know what else to do with these big and hard feelings.

Experiencing these negative emotions can actually make it more difficult to change behavior, which may be why you are stuck in a cycle that feels like it's getting worse. Negative emotion can also interfere with learning because the emotional part of the brain becomes activated, taking over everything else. It's like when we feel really anxious about failing a test, it's even harder to focus on studying.

Break the Cycle

Here's the best part: You can make some changes to help stop the cycle, I promise! The change has to start with you since you have the most skills. You have a fully formed, sophisticated brain; he has a jumble of potential.

Since the crying and screaming starts with the reprimand, try these tips to correct behavior in a way that is less likely to set him off:

  • Get down to his level. Look him in the eye, so you have his attention. Holding his hands or putting an arm around him uses your touch to help his nervous system feel calmer (known as emotional regulation).
  • You set the emotional tone. Stay calm with an even voice as you react in two steps: empathize with his emotions, and then explain the problem. ("It looks like you felt very frustrated with your sister, and then you broke her toy. Now, the problem is she has a broken toy and this makes her really sad.") This approach sets him up to feel understood, making it easier for him to respond to the problem, instead of to your emotion.
  • Give him a chance to correct the behavior himself. For example, if he knocked down a chair or threw some toys, he can pick them up. After some practice, he may even be able to identify how to correct his own behavior: "What could you do now to help solve this problem?"
  • End the interaction with affection. Praise what he did well: "I really liked how you listened to the problem even though you felt upset. You did great at picking up those toys so we can do something fun now." This affection and praise are like natural rewards that will help him want to do these behaviors again, more and more often replacing the screaming and crying reactions over time.

The Child Is Not Their Behavior

It's important to be specific with your child that you feel frustrated or upset with his behavior, and you love him all the time, not just when he listens and does what you want. This may seem obvious to us, but children can interpret parents' upset reactions in all kinds of ways that aren't true. Especially children with sensitive temperaments. For example, "I love you even when I'm frustrated with what you do sometimes." I knew I had gotten somewhere when my own 4-year-old daughter told me, "I love you even when you yell at me!" Children are more likely to respond positively to changing behaviors when they are sure deep down how very loved they are.

The Bottom Line

Young children are people-pleasers at heart, especially when it comes to their parents. I have had my own Mom moments of feeling like my child revels in making my life difficult ... but I know it's not true. At the end of every exhausting day, our children want to know we still love them, even if they don't have the skills yet to tell us or show us. If we can remember they want to do well, but their brains aren't caught up to their intentions, it can help us stay calm to do our part to keep those little brains learning and growing.

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