4-Year-Old Has Emotional, Aggressive Responses to Limits

In this episode: A mom describes her daughter as “super easy, independent and happy” at school but emotional and defiant at home. She suspects her child is going through a “development leap” that will pass (she hopes!) but wonders how to handle her behavior in the meantime.

Transcript of “4-Year-Old Has Emotional, Aggressive Responses to Limits”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury and welcome to Unruffled. This week, I’m going to be responding to a parent who’s concerned about her 4-year-old daughter and how she seems to have aggressive responses to the mother’s limits:

“Dear Janet – Like many parents, when I found your blog, I felt like I finally had the guidance to be the type of parent I want to be. I’ve read your posts about defiant and strong willed children. My daughter will be five in several months and she’s been far more emotional and easily upset than usual. I’m an only parent and my daughter and I are very close, but there’s been a pattern of behavior developing between us when she’s testing her boundaries. For example, she’ll climb on top of the kitchen counter. I’ll tell her to get down. She then typically makes it clear she knows she’s not supposed to be on the counter and is not willing to get down. Then I’ll gently remove her from the counter and she’ll either, one, tell me that I have somehow hurt her by removing her from the counter. Two, try to hurt me by hitting or pinching or trying to break something of mine, and/or, three, has a tantrum because ‘I’ve hurt her feelings.’

I calmly tell her that I can’t allow her to hurt me or break something and she escalates, getting even more upset. I also try to acknowledge the disappointment and that she’s feeling angry with me. I know that she’s feeling disconnected when she does this, but it’s really horrible for both of us to experience over and over. It’s equally frustrating because she’s a super easy, independent and happy child at her school and when she’s with me she becomes so aggressive at times. I’m really conscious of having consistent boundaries with her, but she reacts incredibly strongly lately when I do. As a result, I’ve tried to really focus on praising her positive behavior and ignoring small things when I can. I’ve had great success with it. Yet, when I need to provide any type of directive, we spiral down this same pattern.

I can’t think of anything in our world that has changed or is different. I almost think she’s going through a developmental leap because I can’t figure it out. Any thoughts or insights would be most appreciated.”

Okay. A couple things I’m thinking reading this note. First, yes, it’s interesting that the mother can’t think of anything in her world that has  changed or is different. Usually there’s some link when we see a change in behavior or more emotional behavior, more limit pushing type behavior and stronger reactions to things. Usually there’s some kind of stress going on, but it also could be that she is taking a developmental leap and between four and five can be a very intense time for children. I kind of think of it as a pushing out age where they’re really pushing for more of a sense of independence and there is more willful behavior at this time generally. But either way, there are some adjustments I would make to this parent’s approach.

First, the way that she addresses the behavior in the beginning. So, she uses the example of her daughter climbing on top of the kitchen counter and her mother tells her to get down. So, when my child is doing something that she obviously knows … Children know very early on what we want them to do and don’t want them to do, and I’m sure this girl knows that this isn’t welcome behavior.

So, when our child is doing something like that, when you ask her to get down, I would have it in the back of your mind (really in the front of your mind, to be honest) that you’re going to likely need to physically take her down, and not wait until you get upset because she’s not listening to your direction, when she actually started out this behavior as a kind of protest or attention-getting: I’m doing something you don’t want me to do. Chances are not good that just asking her to get down is going to help.

She’s making a statement here. She’s expressing something here and this is impulsive on her part. So it’s not like she’s deliberately being a brat. It’s still impulsive. I don’t know why I feel like doing this, but I feel like doing this. But she knows that she’s doing something that you don’t want.

So, when you see that, “Oh, interesting you’re on the counter… when you’re not supposed to be on the counter. Can you get down?” I would already be fully prepared that I’m going to be giving her a hand to get down. Very confidently, very comfortably, not waiting for her.

I get the feeling a little bit from this parent’s descriptions of things that she might be a little tentative around her daughter. Maybe she’s a little afraid of hearing those blasts of anger or aggression or whatever she’s getting back. It seems that she’s a little bit too tentative and not really confident handling this girl. Her daughter needs a confident leader, especially if she’s going through something like a developmental leap or feeling some kind of stress. She really needs you to rise tall and be bigger than that and to be able to give her that security that she needs.

So, at that point, I would help her down. And then the other part of this that would help is if this parent expected that she’s going to get blasted. She’s going to get strong disagreement. Even a child that isn’t strong willed is not going to just say, “Oh, okay. Fine. You wanted me to do this and I’ll do it and I don’t have any feelings about that.” Children do tend to have… and this is sort of the reason that her body told her she needed to push a limit here… is that she needs to release some feelings. She needs to express something. So, be fine with her expressing it. Don’t be taken aback when she’s angry about this or she screams or has some big overreaction. She is releasing her stress. She’s unloading something and that’s why she did the behavior.

So, again I wouldn’t expect that we’re going to give our child a limit and they’re going to say, “Okay, fine. You’re right. Actually, now that I think about it, you’re right, mom or dad.” That’s seldom going to happen. Especially in these intense times of life.

Then she says, “when she gently removes her… ”

Yeah, be gentle, but be ready to do it right away. Don’t wait until she says I’m not willing to get down. Expect that she won’t be willing to get down and take her down.

Then it says that she tells her that she’s somehow hurt her by removing her from the counter. That’s just part of her complaint, her response to the limit. It’s the way a younger child would just scream at you or have a tantrum to see if you can handle this blast and you are comfortable hearing that.

Now, you know that you didn’t hurt her and if you weren’t angry, I’m sure you didn’t hurt her. That’s why we don’t want to get to the point of being angry and then having to do something physical, because that’s when we can hurt a child. They feel, they sense our anger and then touching their bodies in that state is not comfortable for them at all.

But this, I believe, is just her saying I don’t like what you did and ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh… It’s complaining to you about other things in her life. It’s sharing that with you. So, it’s not about the counter. It’s about what she needs to share and why the behavior happened in the first place.  But she needs to be heard in her response. So, when she tells you that you have somehow hurt her, I wouldn’t disagree with that.

I would say, “Yeah, that hurt you when I did that. You didn’t like that.” That’s how we acknowledge the feelings. Our child doesn’t really need us to say at the end that she’s disappointed and she feels angry with you. Just catch it in the moment. “Yeah you’re saying that hurt. You didn’t like that I did that.” Catching those specifics. Acknowledging those. Not trying to put a label on the behavior. With a child this age, that can feel like putting a nice little bow around her feelings and it doesn’t feel like she’s really being heard. It feels like you’re kind of saying words to try to wrap it up for her. She really needs you to see her in these moments. “Wow, you’re saying that hurt. You didn’t like that.” Not questioning: Come on. I didn’t hurt you or those kind of reasonable things because, again, this isn’t reasonable. She had a complaint, she needed to share it and she needs you to hear it and let her know that you’re okay with hearing that, and that it doesn’t rock you.

So, then if she tries to hurt you, which she says, “She tries to hurt me by hitting or pinching,” or trying to break something of yours… so you’re going to be ready for that. You’re going to be ready for her to blast you in response to your limit. You’re not going to expect she’s going to accept limits easily, and you will be ready to easily block her, hold her wrists. If she gets a hit in or something, “oh you’re trying to hit me. You don’t like this. You don’t like what I said.” That’s all we have to do is acknowledge the facts — what we know for sure — and the specifics in the moment. It’s about really looking and seeing your child and being okay with this happening because it’s just a child needing to share with you. There’s nothing threatening going on here if we can perceive this as sharing, sharing negative feelings.

Then she says, “three, she has a tantrum because I’ve hurt her feelings.”

So, right there. Really, really healthy. She’s letting it go. She’s spilling it all. She’s letting it out, because you “hurt her feelings,” but ideally you won’t be worried at all that you actually hurt her feelings. I wouldn’t see that as true, just as I wouldn’t see that hurting her was true. It’s just part of the tantrum. It’s an older child’s response to a limit and releasing some of these feelings that she’s holding in that are creating these behaviors. So, it’s all to the good. Try to see it that way and it’ll be easier.

Then this parent says,”I calmly tell her that I can’t allow her to hurt me or break something.” I wouldn’t tell her that. I would just stop her, because she knows that you don’t want her to be doing those things. I would just stop her and say, “You really want to do this. You want to hurt me right now. That’s how mad you are.”

Then she says she escalates, gets even more upset. So let her get upset. It’s good for her. It’s going to be fine. Especially if you can be comfortable with that in those exchanges or as comfortable as possible, or just a little more comfortable than we naturally feel. Just knowing that it’s positive. Reminding yourself that it’s good.

Then she says I know she’s feeling disconnected when she does this. Maybe she is the way that you’re handling it, but you can handle in a way that she’ll feel like you are really connecting with her, doing some of the things that I mentioned where you’re looking at her, you’re not phased by her, you’re okay with her going to these places in her psyche and sharing this stuff with you and you’re still her leader and you’re unshakable or at least not shakable most of the time.

Sometimes it’s going to take us by surprise and we’re not going to handle things that well. We’re human of course and that’s okay. If that can be the exception and mostly you do understand that she’s got feelings she needs to share, and then later on try to figure out what they were what’s going on with her, what stress she might be sharing, then that will be so helpful to her.

This is the model that we want. This is the healthy model that she’s super easy, independent, and happy child at her school. So she’s taking her best behavior out into school, to these challenging environments, and she’s rising to those occasions and then she comes home and she shares with the person closest to her that will always love her. She shares her dark side or her difficult side, however you want to look at it. She’s sharing with you.

This is wonderful. This is the way it should be and what we want as parents because this means that you’re going to get to be the one that she says the hard things to and that’s a gift.

So, this can be a very connected interaction depending on the way that you handle it.

This mother says that she’s conscious of having consistent boundaries. That’s good, but I think preparing yourself to follow through a little bit earlier if you need to do something physical with her, stop her from doing something or help her down from something, being totally ready to do that. Don’t be surprised by the defiance. It’s normal and healthy.

This mother says that she reacts incredibly strongly lately so, as a result, the mother has tried to really focus on praising her positive behavior and ignoring small things when she can.

That I think is making this more difficult. The key here is really to allow the negative behavior. Not to try to just focus on the positive or even ignore the small things. I would be on her and see the little things. I think if you are able to see the little things like, “Oh, you’re doing this thing that you know I don’t want you to do. I’m going to stop you.” Yeah you can scream at me about that. That’s fine. I’m really okay with that. Not saying those words, but really showing her. And then you won’t have such big explosions if you can allow all the small little grrs during your time together. If you can hear all those, then you’ll have less chance that she’s going to do something, have a big response to something. So, you can change this pattern.

Then this parent says when she provides any type of directive, she spirals down this same pattern. This is getting perpetuated by the mother trying to avoid the directives, avoid facing the music, facing the blast. That makes it harder for our child to share those feelings she needs to share that come out of these interactions of setting limits, and then hearing the response.

So, yeah, we can get stuck in a pattern that way, instead of knowing these are healthy interactions, these are very connected interactions. It’s not connection that’s all nice and warm and we’re laughing together. That’s a different kind. But this can actually be more connected if you can perceive it in a way that’s healthy. If you can perceive it as healthy and that you can totally do this. You can totally handle this.

So, I hope that helps. Please check out some of my other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com, they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. Also, both of my books are available on audio at Audible. No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. Just follow the link in the liner notes of this podcast or go to the book section of my website. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are six individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Shannon Burns says:

    I’m not an expert but this type of aggression sounds like it should be evaluated by a professional to determine if there are underlying issues.

  2. Thank you for sharing this.
    My 4-year-old son is going through something and I just haven’t been able to control myself and avoid reactions I regret later when he pushes boundaries. It breaks the connection we have and I just needed help. Again thanks.

  3. Aubrie Day says:

    My 4 year old son is doing the same thing. The thing is, he’s too strong and I’m not able to hold his hands or pin him down without him then trying to bite me and continuing this for long periods of time. I’m seeking professional help. Perhaps this mom should too if this advice doesn’t work. Doing all of this consistently and still experiencing this behavior for hour + stretches of time.

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