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Teaching a 4-Year-Old Self-Control


I am seeing destructive behavior in my 4-year-old, and I am having trouble understanding why this is. I have been unsuccessful at teaching him self-control.


Please know that all 4-year-old boys enjoy crashing their cars and stomping on sand castles. They turn sticks into swords and point them at undeserving objects. These behaviors do not necessarily result from exposure to violent acts. They are actually considered age-appropriate behaviors.

Because you don’t want them to continue or worsen, calmly stop the behavior and issue a consequence (perhaps taking the toy away or putting him in time-out). Teach a more appropriate way to play, and have him demonstrate or practice it by playing gently with a toy.

Teaching self-control to your son is a wonderful thing to be doing. Teach it at a neutral time when he is not upset. Validate that we all have strong emotions such as anger, but it is how we communicate these feelings that can be helpful or harmful. If we express ourselves in negative ways, we can get ourselves into trouble. 

Offer him some examples of negative behaviors to which he can relate. If we express our feelings in positive ways, it can be helpful to us. Again, offer concrete examples of this concept to your son.

Then talk to him about some calming techniques that he can use when he gets upset. You can try deep breathing by “blowing out his birthday candles”: Have him hold up four fingers since that is how old he is. After taking a deep breath, he should blow on one finger and fold it down. Then he should do the same with the next three fingers until all four of them are folded down. 

Another calming technique is to have him put himself in time-out by saying, “Mom, I am mad!” He then should close his eyes and count to 20 or 30. Teach him as many calming techniques that you can think of. Be patient and practice them daily. When you see him beginning to get upset, prompt or remind him to try one of these techniques. This will save him from getting into trouble in many situations because he can exhibit self-control.

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