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How To Discipline A 4 Year Old Who Is Defiant

If your child is consistently acting defiant and refusing to do what you ask, you need to discipline them and help them correct their behavior.

But what’s the right way of doing this? And for that matter, why might your child be acting so defiant in the first place?

Today, we’ll be discussing the answers to all of these questions and more. If you’re a parent seeking the answers to these questions, then keep on reading.

Why Your Child Is Acting Defiant

There are a few possible reasons why your 4-year-old is acting defiant, but have no fear; none of them are very serious.

If your 4-year-old is talking back to you more than they used to, it’s not any cause for alarm. Children around that age are starting to grasp the concept of independence, and they realize that they can make decisions on their own regardless of what others might ask of them.

Children, even preschoolers, aren’t blank slates that you can impose your values and personality on. Children have their own thoughts and ideas, and their own preferences about certain things, even from a very young age.

In fact, if your child doesn’t start acting defiant and asserting themselves more aggressively around this time, you should be slightly concerned.

The downside of your young child asserting his or her independence is that their immaturity prevents them from having any perspective on the matter. Young children aren’t particularly capable of seeing things from a perspective other than their own, and because of this, they can sometimes display defiant behavior.

Again, though, this is entirely normal. Defiant behavior is just a byproduct of a normal stage of childhood development, where your child is in a stage of self-discovery and is learning more about what their own desires and impulses are.

Your child needs this period of development to discover their own individuality, and if they’re being forced to do every single thing you say, then they won’t be able to develop this sense of self.

How to Discipline a Defiant 4-Year-Old

Counter will

You may have heard of the term “counterwill” before. This is a psychological term that refers to an instinctive, automatic resistance to anything that might be considered coercion. Children from the ages of 2 to 5 frequently demonstrate counterwill, as do many teenagers.

This resistance to coercion is what prompts preschoolers to act out. If you give a preschooler a demand like “don’t throw food at your brother” or “don’t push your sister’s snowman over,” that preschooler sees your demand as a challenge and feels compelled to do the opposite of whatever you just said.

Oftentimes, your child wouldn’t have even thought of doing whatever negative thing they did if you hadn’t mentioned it, but for a 4-year-old who likes to think of him/herself as being somewhat independent, the idea of being told what to do can be particularly frustrating.

Young Children Don’t Know How to Express Their Feelings

A lot of the time, being defiant is simply your child’s way of saying, “I don’t like what’s going on here.” Young children don’t really have the language skills to express how they’re feeling verbally, and they also don’t have the self-control to express feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration in constructive ways.

So if your child is saying things like “I don’t like you,” “you can’t make me,” or if they’re just screaming “no!” over and over, they may just be trying to make you feel bad because you’ve made them feel bad in some way.

Young children might also express feelings of frustration in non-verbal ways. Perhaps your child is refusing to get ready for an outing or is refusing to eat a meal you’ve prepared.

In any case, whether it’s verbal or non-verbal, defiance is a clear indicator that your child is unhappy in some way with what you’re demanding of him or her.

Your Children Have Different Priorities Than You

Young children don’t have the same values and priorities that you and I do as adults, and that’s okay.

We learn how to prioritize things as we grow up and gain more perspective on life, and you can’t blame a child for not having that same perspective; people only gain that perspective through their personal experiences, and for a child who hasn’t gotten to that point yet, it’s just not possible for them to see things from an objective point of view.

It’s unfair to expect children to value the same things as you.

For example, if your child is having fun playing outside with his or her toys and you call them inside for dinner, they may be defiant towards you because they don’t see being on time for dinner as being more important than having fun outside.

Ultimately, children are able to recognize when you have some degree of control over them, and this can make them frustrated because no one wants to be controlled, not even preschoolers.

They may feel as though their own priorities and desires don’t matter in your eyes, and if they start feeling like this, then they may feel as though they have no other option but to resist you at every turn.

So How Do I Discipline My Child?

Here’s the thing; as we’ve said, children can be defiant for legitimate reasons. Being defiant at age 4 is a natural behavior for children as they learn more about themselves, but young children are also defiant as a means of expressing negative emotions and because they want to maintain some semblance of control and power in their lives.

So when your child gets upset at you and refuses to do what you ask, you can’t respond with punishment. Your child is rejecting you because they feel some kind of disconnection between them and you, and punishing your child for not doing what you ask will only deepen this disconnect between the two of you.

That’s not to say you should just ignore your child when they begin defying you; quite the opposite. You absolutely need to address the issue, but you need to do it in a way that focuses on cooperation between you and your child, not on punishment.

There are several dos and don’ts you should try and follow when dealing with a defiant 4-year-old. For now, let’s start off with the don’ts.

How to Discipline a Defiant 4-Year-Old

The Don’ts

When it comes time for you to get your child to do something, it’s not a good idea for you to pose this demand as a question. If you’re presenting your request in the form of a question, you’re giving your child the option to refuse, and in their mind, they may have no reason to accept your request at all.

So if you ask your child something like “are you ready to get into bed?” then for them, the obvious answer is going to be no. Why should they do what you want when you’ve clearly just given them a choice in the matter?

This isn’t to say that you should never give your child the option of choice, but when it comes to things like getting your child to go to bed on time or having them get ready for school, you can’t really afford to give them too much leeway.

As we’ve already mentioned, it’s also not a good idea to tell your child what you don’t want them to do. A defiant child sees restrictions as challenges, so if you tell your child not to do something, there’s a pretty good chance that they’re going to immediately do it.

You also can’t let yourself become disheartened if you’re doing everything right, and your child is still acting defiant. Emotional growth is not linear, and your child will have some days where they behave in a very mature manner and some days where they’re an incorrigible terror.

The only surefire way to avoid any defiance from your child is to give them exactly what they want, and as a parent, you can’t do that because it’s your job to teach your child about boundaries and limits.

The Dos

When telling your child what you want of them, tell them in a simple and straightforward manner. Don’t threaten a child or say anything vague like “you’d better be good or else.”

For one, you’re assuming your child knows what your definition of “good” is, even though you’re demanding things out of them without any context. Not being clear about what you expect from your child will inevitably result in confusion and frustration.

So when asking your child to do something, ask them in a way that isn’t open to interpretation. Be clear about what you want, not what you don’t want.

When your child does something well, be sure to acknowledge it and offer them praise, but don’t draw too much attention to it. Making too big of a deal about it can potentially put your child into counterwill mode and cause them to start doing the opposite next time.

If you want your child to act less defiant in general, it’s important that you make time for them to do things that they want to do. Set aside at least an hour each day for one-on-one time with your child, and just get out there and have fun with them.

If your child can see that you’re enjoying your time together, that can help to establish a strong connection between the two of you.

How to Discipline a Defiant 4-Year-Old

Bonus Resource: Reading Head Start

As a little thank-you for listening to our suggestions on this topic, we’d like to provide you with a resource that can be potentially helpful to your child.

Reading Head Start is a program intended for children ages 1-9 that is designed to help teach them the basics of English and give them a head-start on developing their reading skills. The program contains a total of 200 lesson plans and other resources.

Your child will learn how to read through completing worksheets and other activities, playing games, and watching videos that they can read along with. Everything is designed to be fun and engaging so that your child has a desire to actually commit to completing the program.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the Reading Head Start program, you can find all the information you’ll need here:


There are many reasons why your child might be acting defiant towards you, but don’t worry. Being defiant at a young age is a natural part of emotional development, and it’s how you deal with that defiance that really makes a difference.

Now that you’ve read what we have to share, you should have the means to help your child grow emotionally and connect with them in a healthy way.

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