Advanced search

What's for lunch today? Take inspiration from Mumsnetters' tried-and-tested recipes in our Top Bananas! cookbook - now under £10

Find out more

Managing a 'spirited' 4 year old?!

(34 Posts)
suddenlycupishalffull Wed 27-May-15 21:51:22

I'm sure this has been asked a million times before...she's always been spirited but a golden girl at pre-school. Last week, her teacher pulled me over & said a few times she refused to look at her when being spoken to or do as she's told, very very unusual for her in that setting but at home very normal if she's frustrated or angry. I'm not concerned, I think it's healthy & normal for kids to test boundaries...but I don't know how to handle her testing those boundaries without crushing her spirit. So today I asked her to clear up a mess she'd made blank refused...but she's smirking at me, and when I get down on her level to ask her again, she tries to run off, laughing, it's a game. I feel like I have no teeth in the situation because she's too young to really value anything (she doesnt care about screen time etc). I do say 'unless you do as you're told, we won't go to the park/bake etc' & I do follow through with that threat (though God knows a day in with a baby & not yet 4 year old is more a punishment for me than her!!). So my question is how do I handle those moments of defiance? The no, I'm not doing it, what you gonna do about it? I think this is what has happened at pre-school, the teacher has asked her to listen & she's just shut down & refused, it that's I want to handle well. I don't want to make her meek, I do not want a meek daughter, but I want her to respect my authority & do as I say (whilst acknowledging that the very nature of a 4 year old is to test boundaries!!)

LittleLionMansMummy Thu 28-May-15 08:18:35

Is she motivated by (chocolate) rewards rather than punishment? Could you say that if she tidies up she'll get a chocolate button? Ds is not remotely interested in stickers so a sticker chart does nothing, but he has a jelly bean machine that takes 10p. When he's in one of those moods, he gets a 10p for his machine. It also works turning to make chores into a game, so quite often we'll race each other to get dressed, clean teeth, walk from a to be, tidy a room etc. Or I'll say 'I bet you can't do it by the time i count to 20!' and so he goes out of his way to prove me wrong. Of course sometimes I have neither the time, inclination nor patience and so I get down to his level, make him look at me and use my sternest voice (which I don't use often so he knows I mean business!) and give him a final warning or he loses a privilege. There must be something you let your dd do as a treat that she enjoys? Anyway, I haven't broken his spirit yet but he does (mostly) do as i ask. His cm told me yesterday that there's no other child who gets as much out of life as ds and he's 'a delight to have around'.

LittleLionMansMummy Thu 28-May-15 08:24:07

Should have said that he's a very strong willed child with a huge character - you can certainly hear him coming! So i would say he's spirited and we've often had similar conversations about not wanting to crush his spirit. But they do need to learn to respect other people's wishes or will find going to school a big shock.

TisILeclerc Thu 28-May-15 08:28:23

Oh I'm watching this with huge interest. I have just such a 'unique' and 'spirited' child. Sometimes he threatens to break my spirit because his is so strong!

I wouldn't have him any other way and he's so loving but sometimes the ability to manage him would be useful grin

suddenlycupishalffull Thu 28-May-15 10:10:48

Racing is a good idea, when I've tried that before it's worked really well. This morning she's been horrible to her baby sister (I couldn't intervene initially as I was on the phone) & I'm starting to feel like getting her to say sorry means nothing if she continues to shout, snatch etc (she doesn't do this all the time, most of the time she plays nicely). So we are staying at home today & I'm refusing to play (doing housework), it's the only thing I can think to do as she love park, library etc & I'm trying to make it as boring as possible at home. But of course the baby & I get punished too cos we're having to stay in & she's cerebrally happily playing in her room!!

TelephoneIgnoringMachine Thu 28-May-15 10:32:35

My DD is like this. She's 3.1. I'm dreading & looking forward to school, equally. She doesn't respond well to bribes. Doesn't look at face when being told off or if we try to talk to her about why some things are not nice to do. Has massive tantrums sometimes if she doesn't get her own way. Plus she's big for her age so is difficult to handle (physically), she weighs about 1/3 what I do. It's getting really difficult & people judge because they assume she's older. Still refusing to engage with potty training as well - people who say she'll do it at her own pace clearly don't understand how much of a struggle it is to afford nappies that will fit a child her size. She plays really roughly sometimes, kicking or smacking, when DH & I tell her off she just looks away & tries to do something else, we have to physically force her to look at us. It's hard to refrain from smacking when nothing else works & she keeps hurting us - she's loosened one of my teeth before now, damaged my glasses, given me a (mild) black eye, other things. All in tantrums or rough play after we'd told her to stop, these weren't accidents. The naughty step has no impact, she is sorry each time but just does the same thing over again. So fed up with it all. Family are really judgemental over her behaviour as they just wallop their kids for naughty behaviour & get good results, I'm not prepared to do that.

WhetherOrNot Thu 28-May-15 12:31:35

When she refused to clear up the mess she'd made you should have got a bin bag and started filling it with the mess, then her toys. A quick lesson easily learned.

suddenlycupishalffull Thu 28-May-15 13:00:19

Telephone I'm sorry that sounds incredibly stressful, I wish I could offer some advice but I don't know what the answer is. The bin bag is a good idea, I've read about it with older kids & have thrown individual items in the bin if she's thrown them around in anger etc (trying to say, if you value this, than look after it). More pushing & pinching of her sister over lunch so we're in for the afternoon too (longest day ever!!)

Geneticsbunny Thu 28-May-15 13:08:23

Maybe we should start a club. My 4 yo DD is exactly the same. Lovely and spirited but very difficult to discipline. The tack which seems to work best for us is encouraging her to be helpful and 'grown up' and praising her lots When she is. I try to give her special jobs to do like helping me chop things for dinner or asking her to look after her little brother for a few minutes ( obviously supervised). Things which stretch her a bit but not too much and give her a bit more independence.

Taking things away or threats just result in a spiral of tantrums which gets worse and worse until she just burns herself out or ends up breaking something.

Geneticsbunny Thu 28-May-15 13:11:52

We tried the bin bag and my dd didn't care. To be fair although the being grown up method is working well now it was really hard when dd was 3. We spent a year having tantrums every other day with no real solution. I think her language was really good but she couldn't explain the emotion she was feeling and just exploded all the time. The extra years maturity has made a huge difference.

Eigg Thu 28-May-15 13:24:48

Choose whichever discipline system works for you but do choose one.

You aren't going to 'crush her spirit' by providing a normal level of parental discipline for goodness sake.

However, if you don't provide some structure, rule and consequences you may end up with a child who doesn't know how to behave who will mostly likely have a miserable time at school.

My own children are very strong personalities, if we hadn't been pretty strict with them all along I have no doubt they'd be a nightmare to deal with now.

Their spirits aren't 'crushed', they certainly aren't 'meek' but they are well behaved and welcomed everywhere they go.

They are continually frustrated that their classes are disrupted by children that don't behave.

Teaching your children how to behave is a critical part of your job as a parent.

suddenlycupishalffull Thu 28-May-15 13:49:32

Wow Eigg...I don't need a stranger telling me my responsibilities as a parent...You've also misread my post - at no point did I say I provided no structure or discipline. What I am looking for is specific advice on specific situations. I'd be really interested in what you say if you have anything constructive to add?

TelephoneIgnoringMachine Thu 28-May-15 13:59:14

Thanks, Suddenly. It is quite stressful. I've got a rare afternoon to myself as it's a non-work day today but PILs have taken her for the afternoon, even though she's not grasping potty training, bless them. They may have no idea of boundaries but they have usually been around when we need them for the odd afternoon of respite. My own family have never looked after my DD but have infinite time for my sister's kids. <bitter>

I need to cheer up. I've been stuck in all weekend & all week, except Wednesday, with DD, trying to potty train her, & not rising to the tantrums & refusal to co-operate. I'm going to take advantage of the chance & go shopping, have a work night out tonight. Going to enjoy it. (Sorry if that sounds gloating - it's not meant to, I have basically no social life so this is a rare treat indeed for me.)

TelephoneIgnoringMachine Thu 28-May-15 14:01:00

Suddenly, I thought that too. But you've phrased your response much better than I could have.

TisILeclerc Thu 28-May-15 16:36:45

My ds is 4 in July and starts school in sept. I'm really hoping things improve at home as at school he's ok.

The binbag thing wouldn't work at all with him and I'd end up cross later as he'd have lost things which actually keep him occupied for a while! One trick which works with him some of the time is to say 'I bet you can't do xxx! You're such a little boy that you can't do that!' And then he does it to prove he can. Followed up with lots of wow you're such a big boy, obviously.

It is exhausting. He's with his dad at the moment and I am really enjoying a week without him. I'm also slightly at a loss for things to keep ME occupied as I'm so used to him being around!

I don't want to break his spirit - far from it. He's such a little snuggly boy to go along with it. He comes into my bed most nights and I often wake with his feet tucked down the inside of my pj bottoms or his hands tangled in my hair. When we have a cuddle on the sofa he'll tuck his hand down inside my bra and use the other one to twirl my hair. In many ways he's still such a baby. I just need to be able to direct his spirit a bit before he breaks mine!

Eigg Thu 28-May-15 22:39:36

suddenly we are all just strangers on the internet however my response was rather blunt and rushed and for that I do apologise.

You used a few words in your OP which I'm afraid have the effect of making me see red. My fault not yours.

In my personal experience parents who describe their children as spirited and worry about 'crushing their spirit' are often a bit lax in the area of discipline and we've had some horrible experiences as a result.

Of course this doesn't apply everyone, and the fact that you are seeking solutions speaks well of you. I should have been more patient.

Speaking constructively wink here are some thoughts:

In my experience there are two things which are critical to managing behaviour: tone of voice and consistency.

Tone of voice - you have to sound like you really mean it. That doesn't mean shouting or even raising your voice. A very firm, low tone. The kind of tone a really good teacher uses. I get so irritated by parents who say all the 'right' things but say them in a 'nicey' sing songy voice which is completely lost on the child.

You also need to clearly distinguish between times when you are prepared to negotiate and times you are not. So sometimes 5 more minutes TV is ok and sometimes you need to leave for school or an appointment and it's not. We have a stock phrase 'I've said no please don't ask again' which lets them know the difference.


It doesn't matter what your boundaries (everyone has their own) are just that you stick to them. You and your DP/DH need to agree on them together. Children feel more secure with rules and boundaries.

They also need to know who is in charge. Of course families discuss things and children should input to many decisions/give their opinions but in the end Mummy and Daddy make the decision and it won't always be what the child wants.

Other things we've found useful:

If the children misbehaved in public/in front of other people I always found it useful to remove them front the room briefly to speak to them. It gives you both some space. I find the 'this is not acceptable behaviour (followed by an explanation of why not) and I'm very disappointed in your behaviour today. I then remind them of what I would expect to see instead, get an apology and a hug and then go quietly back into the room.

I usually take five minutes in the car before going into a party or play date to remind them about sharing/saying please and thank you or whatever is relevant.

Lots of praise for good behaviour and occasional treats for extremely good behaviour (not in a bribery way but as a surprise).

Different children respond to different types if consequences there's no easy fix to that I'm afraid but if she's 4 there must be things she enjoys doing that could work (swimming in a Saturday if you are good/losing TV privileges/ losing a specific toy or opportunity. Or possibly a chore round the house. Often you being clearly angry/disappointed in them is enough to get the message across (and I don't mean shouting)

To go back to what I said in my earlier email, you won't crush her spirit or make her meek. You'd have to be actually abusive to do that and there is a massive difference between being firm or even strict and anything that would harm your child. However I firmly believe that a well behaved child is a happy child.

Good luck with your DD, 4 is often a difficult age.

suddenlycupishalffull Thu 28-May-15 23:35:46

Thank you Eigg, that was really clear & helpful. I'm thinking through scenarios now where I can try to put in place the tactics you suggest. Tone of voice I think I do struggle with, I think I go too hard straight away when my patience is thin (I know today my voice was basically like 'just do it!!!' because I'm so sick of it) I am consistent in that today, for example, I said if you continue to do a b c, we will stay in & not enjoy park etc., and that's what we did but my god did I suffer (!!!!) All day in with 2 under 4 was pretty awful & I realised afterwards actually unfair on my 18 month old who needs together get out & stretch her legs, preferably twice a day. I don't know, at this age it feels like you are pouring all your love & energy in, but that it's not having any effect!

Eigg Thu 28-May-15 23:57:22

I'm glad you found it useful suddenly. I think tone of voice can be really hard, especially if you are by nature gently spoken. Like most things it's practise.

I have a dear friend whose dd is wonderful but her parents often find her 'testing'. I have noticed that as you say they often move straight to shouting, which can be counterproductive as it escalates the situation and removes any element of 'choice' from the child.

Count to ten, put a smile in your face (hard to shout while smiling), you mostly don't need to sound 'mean' just implacable.

It is very hard but you really do just need to grit your teeth for a bit to get through it. I have twins so know how hard it is to balance their needs.

I will say that we found we only really needed to be very strict about behaviour between 2 and 4.5 years old. Once they understood that a) tantrums never, never work, b) Mummy and Daddy always always carry out their threats and c) it's nicer for everyone when everyone is happy, friendly and well behaved we found that it got much, much easier.

Putting in good boundaries will have an effect but it's not quick. You have to do it every day. Worth it in the end though.

MiaowTheCat Fri 29-May-15 09:41:45

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

CamelHump Fri 29-May-15 09:58:11

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

AliceAnneB Fri 29-May-15 12:13:22

We do what his Montessori nursery does: if they won't tidy up the last thing don't let them move on to the next. If she won't tidy then just comment on how sad it is that she will have to sit until she is ready to tidy it. Nothing else happens until she does it. Be prepared for a huge battle the first few times but it really does work.

MiaowTheCat Fri 29-May-15 20:49:51

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

suddenlycupishalffull Sat 30-May-15 16:09:34

*Furiously scribbling notes* - these are all brilliant tips, thank you, I esp like the 'fuck off letch' tone! This is the balance I'm trying to get right, I need to ensure compliance, following the rules, respect for adults and I want an assertive child who has a backbone, you know? I struggle to be assertive myself after a bullying DM, so I'm agonising over this a bit, I so want to get it right as I know what it feels like to be an adult trying to re-learn assertiveness, but I don't really know how to guide DC towards good behaviour as I was shamed or humiliated into behaving, I feel like I'm learning this from scratch. I tried a few things differently today...when snatching between them decended into screaming, I said to eldest: Let's share, playing's more fun when we share because we can play together' and amazingly it worked, calmed the situation down right away �� Before if I was pushed to my limit and knackered I would have just yelled 'SHARE!!' �� Bit of an eye-opener.

CamelHump Sat 30-May-15 16:48:12

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

FamilyAngel Mon 01-Jun-15 16:54:21

Suddenly I would like to add another perspective here as it relates to your struggle to be assertive. Understanding a little about energy, not a physics lesson!!, can make a big difference. We all have energetic links between us and the strongest of those links is between a parent and a child. Often your DC will react to your energy more so than the words that you speak and spirited children by their very nature are tuned into this energy. The calmer you remain the easier it will be. Shouting just adds more energy to an already difficult situation as you have found out. I know it is easier said than done but the more you work on remaining calm the easier it gets. Also spirited children usually have lots of energy themselves so thinking about how you can focus that doing something physical preferably outside will also help the situation. Finally thinking that you are struggling to be assertive actually weakens your energy. You would help yourself and your DD if you could change your mindset on this, may be you could start thinking 'I am now learning how to be assertive' I hope this helps.

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, watch threads, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now »

Already registered? Log in with: