6 Preschool Behavior Problems You Shouldn't Ignore

All preschoolers act out. That's a fact. But here are six behavioral problems you shouldn't overlook in your 3- or 4-year-old—and how you can put an end to them pronto.

All preschoolers act out. That's a fact. From tantrums and meltdowns to asserting their independence by saying "no" or ignoring the rules, these 3- and 4-year-old behaviors are normal. In fact, they are a natural part of growing up. But sometimes, these behavior issues become problematic.

Common 3- and 4-Year-Old Behavior Problems

So how do you know if these common 3- and 4-year-old behavior problems are cause for concern? Here are six (seemingly insignificant) behavioral problems to be on the lookout for and how you can work with your child to nip them in the bud.

  • Interrupting
  • Playing too rough
  • Ignoring
  • Breaking rules
  • Having an attitude
  • Lying

Interrupting When You're Talking

Your child may be incredibly excited to tell you something or ask a question, but allowing them to butt in to your conversations doesn't teach them how to be considerate of others or occupy themselves when you're busy. "As a result, they'll think that they're entitled to other people's attention and won't be able to tolerate frustration," says psychologist Jerry Wyckoff, Ph.D., co-author of Getting Your Child From No to Yes.

The next time you're about to make a call or visit with a friend, tell your child what's about to happen and what you expect from them: "In a moment, I will be talking on the phone. I will not be available to talk or play with you until I'm done. Let's get out the crayons so you can color while you wait for me to be available again."

For young kids, try to settle them into an activity or invite them to play with a special toy you keep tucked away for special occasions. Keeping them occupied is your best bet at minimizing interruptions. If your child still regularly tugs your arm or calls out for your attention, try introducing a hand signal that allows your child to quietly express their desire for your attention while also practicing patience.

If your child needs your attention while you're busy, have them place their hand somewhere on your body like your arm or leg. Then, cover their hand with yours to acknowledge them—a silent "I hear you." Tell them that when they do this, you will give them your attention as soon as you are able. The physical touch offers a silent way to connect that can help your child feel seen and heard while they practice waiting.

Not stopping what you're doing to give them your attention right away lets them know they won't get what they want by interrupting. Once you're done with your conversation, make a point to give them your full attention and address whatever need they have. Additionally, praise them for being quiet and waiting for you to finish. Offering this appreciation helps to reinforce the behavior.

Playing Too Rough

You know that you have to step in when your child punches a playmate, but you shouldn't disregard more subtle acts of aggression, like shoving their brother or pinching a friend. It's important to have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to aggressive behaviors.

"If you don't intervene, rough behavior can become an entrenched habit by age 8. Plus, it sends a message that hurting people is acceptable," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Don't Give Me That Attitude!: 24 Rude, Selfish, Insensitive Things Kids Do and How to Stop Them.

Confront aggressive behavior on the spot and intervene, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Occasional outbursts are a normal part of toddlerhood, and toddlers lack the impulse control and often the vocabulary needed to fully express their feelings verbally instead of physically. They may need your help not to kick, hit, throw, or bite. Say, "we do not hit" to reiterate the rule and gently but firmly hold their hands to stop the hitting or remove them from the situation.

Pretending Not to Hear You

Telling your child two, three, or even four times to do something they don't want to do, such as get into the car or pick up their toys, sends the message that it's OK to disregard you and that they—not you—are running the show.

"Reminding your child again and again just trains them to wait for the next reminder rather than to pay attention to you the first time around," says psychologist Kevin Leman, Ph.D., author of First-Time Mom: Getting Off on the Right Foot—From Birth to First Grade. "If you allow the behavior to continue, your child is likely to become defiant and controlling."

Instead of talking to your child from across the room, walk over to them, get on their level, and tell them what they need to be doing. Use short, simple instructions. Make sure you make eye contact and that they respond by saying "OK" or, even better, repeating back your instructions to ensure they understood. If they continue to ignore you or don't follow through, impose a consequence.

Helping Themselves to a Treat

It's certainly convenient when your child can get their own snack or turn on the TV themselves, but letting them have control of activities that you should regulate doesn't teach them that they have to follow rules. "It may be cute when your 2-year-old walks along the counter to get the cookies out of the cabinet, but just wait until he's 8 and goes to visit a friend who lives three blocks away without asking," Dr. Wyckoff says.

Establish a small number of house rules and talk about them with your child often. If your child turns on the TV without permission, for instance, tell them to turn it off and say, "You need to ask me before you turn on the television." Stating the rule out loud will help them internalize it.

An image of an angry little girl sitting on a couch.
Getty Images.

Having a Little Attitude

You may not think your child is going to roll their eyes or use a snippy tone until they are a preteen, but sassy behavior often starts when preschoolers mimic older kids. This is done to test their parents' reaction. "Some parents ignore it because they think it's a passing phase, but if you don't confront it, you may find yourself with a disrespectful third grader who has a hard time making and keeping friends," Dr. Borba says.

Make your child aware of their behavior. Tell them, for example, "when you roll your eyes like that, it seems as if you don't like what I'm saying. It's OK not to like my decision, but it's not OK to roll your eyes." The idea isn't to make your child feel bad but to show them how they look or sound and give them a more appropriate way to express what they're feeling or thinking.

Exaggerating the Truth

While it may not seem like a big deal if your child says they made their bed when they barely pulled up the covers, it's important to confront any type of dishonesty. For toddlers, experimenting with lying is a developmentally appropriate behavior, and it's up to you to set expectations around honesty from the start.

"Lying can become automatic if your child learns that it's an easy way to make themselves look better, if they learn it's an easy way to avoid doing something, or if they realize that—in lying—they can avoid punishment," Dr. Wyckoff says.

When your child fibs, sit down with them and set the record straight: "I know that's not what happened. It's OK to tell me what happened." Treat this as an opportunity to teach skills rather than punish as children are more likely to continue to lie when they are afraid of getting into trouble or being punished.

Additionally, look at their motivation for lying to ensure they do not achieve their goals. For example, if your child said that they brushed their teeth when they didn't, have them go back and brush them before letting them do the next activity they want to do.

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