Age 4 Seems Like Another Planet

In this episode: Janet responds to an email from a parent who describes herself as exhausted by her formerly good-natured toddler who has suddenly become defiant, argumentative and combative since turning 4. She says, ”I feel like a switch has flipped… and am clueless for how to deal with this new person.”

Transcript of “Age 4 Seems Like Another Planet”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury, and welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be responding to a parent who’s noticing a drastic change in her daughter’s behavior since she turned four. She’s become very defiant, both physically and verbally, and she seems to argue about anything and everything, so this mom is feeling exhausted and wondering what’s up.

Here’s the email that I received:

“Dear Janet, we’ve been reading and listening to you since our daughter turned one, and we have found your gentle and intelligent guidance to be the best statement of our parenting philosophy and the most useful resource when we need to tune up our relationship with our now four-year-old daughter who’s a curious, funny, emotionally intelligent kid. Four has so far seemed like another planet, and to be honest, I’m not sure I have the right equipment to survive in its caustic atmosphere. I feel like a switch has been flipped, and I’m just not sure how to handle it. Instead of the generally good-natured toddler we had who experimented with and developed self-confidence and autonomy, we now seem to have a child who actually enjoys defying us about even the simplest things. We’re suddenly disagreeing about silly things like hand washing and getting in her car seat.

Now, instead of resisting when we set the limit and responding with a burst of emotions after we acknowledge them, she just coldly says, ‘I’m not going to do that,’ and all of my strategies for sitting with those feelings and still maintaining my limit come up short. She’s too big for me to stop physically. Mama bear, which has been my mantra, does nothing. She will try to hit and bite, and more bizarrely, she has started outright lying. ‘I already washed my hands, flushed the toilet, am in my car seat,’ etc. I feel like I am on my back foot. My spouse and I read several of the blog posts and podcasts on your site that seemed relevant, but a lot of those include clear triggers like a new baby or a divorce. Everything in our lives is the same.

I’m clueless for how to deal with this new person. I’m excited to see her brain grow and develop. These behaviors are, after all, signs of changes going on in her too, but I’m also feeling exhausted at the thought that this is four. She is making literally everything an argument, and she’s actually arguing. I have been trying to avoid standoffs and not repeat myself, but beyond that, I just don’t know what to do to adapt my own thinking. With thanks for any help you can offer and with solidarity with parents of all the other four-year-olds out there.”

Okay. It’s very interesting that this girl has changed so dramatically. That’s interesting to me. I would love to hear more about every detail that’s going on with this family so that I could maybe pinpoint other factors, but all that aside, yes, four is a classically difficult age, especially for children that tend to be more intense or have a stronger will. The testing and resistant behavior they have is a little different from a two-year-old, who is more dramatic, maybe more overtly emotional about things, and has tantrums. We ideally learn to take those things in stride and understand that they’re normal and respond to them that way. But then the four-year-old is a little more complex, though still pretty obvious in the things they’re doing. For example, in this case, “I’m just not going to get in my car seat.” It’s coming out verbally rather than the two-year-old that just stops in their tracks and we have to move them through. There’s more mature language, and children learn how to use it to test us, to test our authority, and to assert themselves.

As this mother is noticing, this is a wonderful stage for children to develop more autonomy and more sense of self as separate from their parents, but they’re doing it in a more advanced way. I would say that even if there aren’t any changes going on for this girl, feelings under the surface with the parents going on or within their extended family, things like that that children will internalize and will express through this kind of behavior, if there’s absolutely none of that going on, we just have to trust that a big blossom just opened up here, and this was the perfect time for this stage of development.

Trusting that it’s normal for this child at this moment is one of the first steps for us. So just as we approach the two-year-old’s tantrums as healthy and normal for them, I would approach all this resistance and back-talking and kind of bossy behavior, defiance, bordering on rudeness (I guess you would say). All this language is normal. The challenge for us is to perceive it that way and then be able to take it in stride, not get caught up in it.

This little girl has matured and advanced in her forms of resistance and testing. Therefore, she needs her parents to advance in their ability to see her and be her leader so that she can feel that she’s not putting one over on them, that she’s not more powerful than they are. When children feel more powerful or crafty than we are, they can’t completely relax and be the child in the relationship that they need to be.

Let’s go over some of the details that this parent offers so we can take a look at what I’m talking about. She said, “We now seem to have a child who actually enjoys defying us about even the simplest things.” I think the fact that this girl is not getting upset or seeming uncomfortable overtly in these situations, that doesn’t mean she’s enjoying them. This is the way even a one-year-old will try hitting their parent, and sometimes they’re smiling. It doesn’t mean they’re enjoying it. It actually means they’re a little uncomfortable expressing it as, “I’m doing this. What are you going to do about it?” It’s not a deep kind of satisfying enjoyment that they have. I don’t think she is enjoying this. I think she’s throwing out her best show and her best stuff, hoping that her parents will still be able to rise above and be her leader.

So I would re-frame this for yourself in the way that you’re perceiving it as actual enjoyment.

She says, “She’s defying us about even the simplest things. We’re suddenly disagreeing about silly things like hand washing and getting in her car seat.” Right. Well, it’s her job to disagree, but it’s our job not to get pulled into that, trying to argue our point of view or get her to agree. This is actually a similar dynamic to dealing with a younger child. Maybe this girl wasn’t displaying this level of testing behavior at that age. Now she is. Bring it on. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn how to be the leader for a strong child and to feel that confidence in ourselves that children need us to have.

When you say, “It’s time to wash your hands,” and she says, “No, I’m not going to wash my hands,” or, “I already did wash my hands,” or something that is push-back, I would just smile, or not smile if you don’t feel like smiling, and say, “Oh, that’s very interesting. You’re saying no, but this is what we’re doing.”

I would still be mama bear in terms of your confidence, putting your hand on her back or shoulder, escorting her. “Here we go. We’re going to go wash your hands.” Doing that right away, not allowing the power struggle to take hold by waiting for her or trying to argue why she should wash her hands. Using that confident momentum, which we’re only able to do if we see this behavior as normal and positive, and a sign that we have a healthy four-year-old. She’s right on track. With that perspective, we can be ready for this to happen and welcome it and override it with our confidence. We’re not getting caught up trying to defend ourselves or our point of view. We’re not repeating ourselves. We register that, “Aha. That’s very interesting. Thanks for your opinion. This is what we’re doing.” That attitude. It’s loving. It’s not mean. It’s not going to hurt her in any way. It’s not stern. It’s, “Very, very interesting. You’re disagreeing with me on this,” as you’re moving her forward.

Same with the car seat. I think you’ll notice that if you handle this with aplomb rather than getting thrown off-kilter, that you won’t see as much physical resistance. For children, once they start to go there, it’s almost like saving face means they have to stay there, and that’s what makes for the physical lashing out. It usually is minimal or doesn’t happen at all, if we’re coming into the situation with confidence and momentum and not getting stopped in our tracks. Practice this in your mind. Visualize yourself in these situations and how you’re going to expect her to say these interesting things and how you’re going to love that little strong girl and keep being the parent, keep being the leader, not getting pulled down to her level.

This mother says, “Now, instead of resisting when we set the limit and responding with the bursts of emotions after we acknowledge them, she just coldly says, ‘I’m not going to do that.'”

That could be very intimidating, right? We can’t let it. Don’t let her be the boss here. That’s the way she’s talking to you. She’s showing you her best “I’m the boss” skills, so don’t let it throw you. This mother says, “All my strategies for sitting with those feelings and still maintaining my limit come up short.” Right, so we’ve got to shift our expectations. As our children are shifting and maturing, we’ve got to shift with them to be able to give them that leadership they need. She may not be sitting with feelings, but she’s still got to maintain her limit. Maintaining her limit in the face of, “I’m coming at you,” behavior, rather than maybe something that seems more vulnerable and emotional. Maybe that’s easier for this parent. I think it probably is easier for all of us, but now she’s got to reach higher into herself.

She said, “She’s too big for me to stop physically.” Well, as I brought up before, she still must stop her physically, because that is what children need. They need us to still be able to hold the line on our limits in terms of if her daughter’s coming at her, or hitting her, or grabbing something she doesn’t want her to have. She’s got to be confident in intervening physically. At four years old, this should still be very possible, so if I were this parent, I would take a look at why I’m getting intimidated with my child at this age, and what I’m afraid of in terms of stopping her physically.

She says, “She will try to hit and bite.” Can’t let that happen. Got to stop that at the outset. There’s less need for us to use our own words at this stage, so I wouldn’t say much, just, “Whoa. Nope. Not letting you do that,” and then acknowledging maybe, “I know you wanted that,” if you can connect it to something that’s going on. “You want to go in my bag. I’m not going to let you. Nope.”

Comfortable being that leader. I know I’ve said that a lot of times. I really can’t say that enough, because it is the key to everything. It’s not about words or strategies. It’s about how comfortable I am holding my own as the leader to this child. That’s exactly what children are testing, unconsciously, a lot of the time, but they’re testing. They’re putting up all their best shows and all their best tricks, really. Not in a manipulative way, but out of a need for that protection and security of somebody a lot stronger than them so that they don’t have to worry about us, so that they don’t have to fear not having the structure that they need when they’re wobbling all over the place, when they’re taking leaps in development. They can’t do it without that sense of security.

This mother says, “She will try to hit and bite, and more bizarrely, she started outright lying. ‘I already washed my hands, flushed the toilet, am in my car seat,’ etc.” Well, that’s pretty blatant what are you going to do now? type behavior. Again, she’s doing her best act, but it’s still within the realm of very, very obvious stuff. She’s not in her car seat, and she’s saying, “I am in my car seat.” I mean, it’s kind of amusing, right, and kind of blatant. Come on. See what’s going on here. Don’t get thrown by it. I’m just being a goofball. I’m just trying really hard for you to be my unintimidated leader. I’m trying really hard to bring that out in you.

Again, when she says those kinds of things, I would respond, out of that confidence, it might sound like, “Boy, I could have sworn that car seat was empty! I must be imagining that you’re over here and the car seat’s there.” You could be saying that as you’re nudging her confidently into the car seat. Even just the fact that you’ve seen through her and have shown her that you’re unintimidated will help her to get in her car seat.

Another way that might look is, “Wow. I’ve got to get new glasses. Okay. I’m going to go get in the car, and I’m going to hope she’s in there.” As you’re confidently getting in the car, I would visualize her getting into her seat. That works for me a lot of the time, that I see it happening. I project that assurance.

But whatever you do, don’t let it rile you up. Don’t let it throw you. “She’s lying.” It’s all very innocent stuff. Nothing to worry about. Innocent, obvious, in-your-face, “help” behavior. Not help that she’s in terrible pain but, Help, guys! You’re not quite giving me what I need yet, so please make this look a little easier for you to handle me. I’m talented. I’m strong. You’ve got to be stronger. That’s what she’s saying through this. If it’s about, “I already flushed the toilet,” honestly, I would let a lot of that go in order to not give those words power, those lies power. I would say, “Well, could have fooled me!” and then maybe just leave it for a few minutes or just flush it, shrugging your shoulders. Who cares? This is for the bigger picture. This is to show her she’s not going to get to you. It’s an attitude, and it will feel good when you get in the groove of it, because you’ll see how capable you are. It’s almost like if we can handle clever children like this at this age, we can do anything. Real life is easy.

You can do this. We can all do this. It just requires finding that place in ourselves that loves our child so much that we’re going to give her what she needs, give her that unshakable mom or dad that sees the tiny four-year-old girl in all of this, that little sweet girl. You can still be the mama bear.

She says, “I’m feeling exhausted at the thought of all this.” Right, because it’s like this mother’s paddling, paddling to try to stay afloat rather than being captain of her ship. That’s an image that Susan Stiffelman, who’s, I’m a fan of her work, she uses that. Be the captain of the ship. You won’t be exhausted when you step into that role. Dog-paddling is exhausting.

I hope this helps.

And there’s a lot more help on the way! I’ve created the No Bad Kids Master Course to give you all the tools and perspective you need to not only understand  and respond effectively to your children’s behavior but also build positive, respectful, relationships with them for life! You can check out all the details at ♥

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. Can you point me in the direction for this kind of thing with a Kindergartner? My daughter is 6. She stated Kindergarten in the fall, and also goes to an after school program until her dad or I can pick her up, so some fairly recent changes (she had been in child care previously). She’s started back with the “sassy back talk” and often sounds very disrespectful and rude. I’ve been doing what I always do, similar to what you suggest above thinking it will run it’s course and decrease. It’s not…yet anyway. Do I stay the course? Have more specific conversations with her about what I expect? I thought it could be a normal reaction to the new things and people in her life but I’m starting to get weary of the attitude. I don’t know if that’s how the kids at school talk to each other, but it’s not how we talk with each other in our home. It’s a challenge to stay unruffled with such an articulate emotionally intelligent child- I feel like she “should know better” which I realize is not fair to her. My husband says it’s like living with a “teenager” already. Any tips?

    1. Just my 2 cents as a fellow mom of a 7 years old. How I see it for my own kid is that every September when new classes start, he is stressed, naturally. Its a transition for him as Janet would say.. and kids do process their day time experiences in a safe space at home. So keeping this in mind I try to do 2 things.
      1- I keep reminding myself that just like when I am stresses at work I need a safe and understanding place at home, so I try to provide same to him. Knowing this will allow him to vent at home instead of coming out as behaviour problems in school..
      2- I try to stay curious and ask him questions like what was a good part of your day, also what was not so good part of your day, and occasionally also ask him, I know my dear you don’t talk this way generally, did anyone talk to you like this at school? And many times it opens him up in sharing what was stressful at school and I can empathize with him. So in other words looking at behaviour as a tip of the iceberg and getting curious yet empathic has been helpful for me.. hope this helps..

  2. Grateful to the woman who wrote in, because it is another chance for you to come at how to be unruffled. I am getting in the groove, as you mentioned, more and more and my yoga nidra session today was Phenomenal because I was able to gently lead my daughter back downstairs with her dad, so I could have time alone. I learned that here.

    Anyway, I wondered if the four-year-old has started school, something new, or is comfortable with whomever it is she is spending her time with. When I don’t “recognize” my daughter, behavior described in your podcast, I know she is deeply uncomfortable somewhere and I have found it has usually been school.

    Now that she is home, we decided to stop attending that school, I am always watchful of how often I am sure to scaffold her autonomy. Am I bossy pants, and so she is resisting, or am I respectful, aware and deeply versed in the many posts here?

    My boundaries were weak and the more sure I have become the more delightful the days, and my daughter, have become.

    Years ago, when I realized my temper flared really fast if I was hungry, my husband and I both stopped paying attention to anything I was saying and led me to the fridge, instead. Every night, if my daughter is wild, I ask, once she is in bed and before books, very matter a fact, calmly, What’s going on? Are you nervous about something? Scared?

    I found out the teachers were yelling at school.

    I loved the advice to be funny about the lying. That was wonderful.

  3. Sarah Dittman says:

    Light bulb moment for this reader here. 😉 Dealing with the exact some stuff with my almost 4 year old. It really is simple: it’s not our children but us parents dealing with our own emotional junk/triggers. Not letting it overtake you in every moment it comes up while parenting (and in all life relationships for that matter). I get so triggered because of my own emotional baggage being brought forth. I, like most, didn’t have this type of parenting modeled to me, therefor I’m constantly (unconsciously most-ish of the time) being triggered over and over again and parenting from that place…no matter how many of your articles I read. I really GET all this in my head and say “Yes. Be a strong leader. Set boundaries. Be in charge. And laugh at it. This make so much sense. I get it” but then I find myself on autopilot “reacting…triggered…etc.”, and after the fact becoming more frustrated because I KNOW it but it’s not fully “there” yet.

    Forgiving myself & having compassion for my own learning is key too. So THAT is the hardest work out of all this I believe. We think it’s our kids but its our own beliefs, our perception, that is coming up from its wounded/painful/small place within ourselves. Our children trigger these things to be brought forth for us to learn about oursleves…so grow & heal. The same thing that triggers me might not trigger my other mom friend because she doesn’t have the same junk to learn. And Vice-versa. So, for me, it’s a lot more work than just “muster up the strength & throw my superhero cape on”. Even though that is a good example to hook me out of the trigger, I’ve got some deeper work to do. I’m so grateful for these posts to be one of the tools to guide me in that direction. Thank you Janet.

    1. Sarah, thank you for your beautiful, hopeful, spot on comment (also VERY insightful!) You’ve got this!

  4. I love all this and I’m in a very similar situation. My question is when she hits and kicks and you say I’m not going to let you do that, what comes next when she does it again despite what you’re saying and again and again? When I lead my daughter to get dressed in the way you described she gets more hitty. What then?

    1. I have the same issue and would love to know as well!

    2. I think playfulness and slowing WAY down can really help here. While you’re guiding them, it can’t feel like you’re forcing them against their will. I think that advice could have been flushed out a little more.
      There are other resources that go a bit deeper into what’s actually happening developmentally that I find very useful. I’m currently reading, “Your 4 Year Old” by Louise Bates-Aimes. In the book they talk about how 4 is seeking more autonomy, as we saw above, and also that RULES are a big thing for them, and can help us motivate them to do things we consider “non-negotiable”.
      So, my kiddo and I have made some “rules” together around things like our morning and evening routines. Instead of reminding him about what needs to happen next if we are leaving the house that day, I get ready and when I’m fully ready to head out the door I say something like, “I’m ready to go. What do you need to do to be ready to leave?” And, he knows, of course. And will often proceed without any more comments from me. If he does need a reminder I say something like, “Hey, remember the rule we made about tooth brushing?” And he’ll respond, “Oh, yeah!” And run and brush his teeth.

  5. Hi janet, do you have a blog post about how to deal with this kind of issue (at this age), when you suspect it *is* influenced by a change at home or school? We are moving apartment and have less time for unstructured play with our four year old; and suspect this shift may be behind his increased resistance to getting ready / helping tidy up / settling down to sleep.

    Thank you!

  6. Thank you so much for this! I can’t wait to try your advice with my nearly 4 year old, who has also recently started to behave this way. In our case, I think it’s the upcoming transition to preschool that has her feeling insecure.

  7. Katie Norsworthy says:

    This was wonderful and just what I needed to hear! Solidarity mama bear! My 4 year is displaying the same behaviors. I’ve been so afraid of having a spoiled/bratty bad citizen I did not think of these deeper why questions.

  8. Jill Vallery says:

    Thank You So Much for this post Janet!!! The insight you shared has helped me tremendously understand that “my work” is in not taking this behavior “personally” and showing up with confidence so that I can’t create a secure environment for my “oh so clever 4 yr old”.;-)

    1. Jill Vallery says:

      Pardon Typo: So that I CAN create a secure environment for my 4 yr old!! 🙂

  9. Alice Destandau says:

    My daughter just turned 5 and is showing exactly the same behaviour. In addition to that she is also answering questions “intentionally” with the wrong answer. For example when we engage in playing numbers, she says 5 instead of 4 although she knows perfectly that the expected answer is 4. How should I react to this? Shall I just correct her and pretend to believe her “lie”? Or not correct her? And what to tell her instead? This is driving me crazy (she also does it during the virtual school sessions) and I often end up just stop playing with her because she is not following the rules….

  10. Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Thank you. This exact thing has been going on with my sweet-sensitive-almost 4 year old – with an obvious trigger: a new baby (actually, the 2nd new baby in 19 months). He did seem to flip a switch, and I reacted very strongly, out of my own anxiety, fear, desire to control. It didn’t work. We’re back on trying to be in control. The hard part is figuring out how to be firm about this behavior when I have my hands full!

    Janet, if you see this, here’s the trouble. He’s taken to hitting, saying unkind words to his siblings & friends – (because he KNOWS they’re the worst things he can do/say, at least according to our past reactions). I’ve worked on giving it the least amount of attention possible, not punishing etc., but the problem is, with a 19 month old AND a 6 week old, I cannot physically follow him around and “stop” him from hitting all, or most, of the time. (We also have a 5 year old). So when I see him hit his brother or sister, what can I do that doesn’t give that action more attention that it warrants? Should I just be comforting the person who got hurt? What if he does this with a friend or playmate? I know you say removing him from the play situation should be the last resort, but when he keeps hitting I’m not sure if I should just not react after the fact (again, I can’t really be there to stop him the vast majority of the time) and hope he stops after a while or do something, and the only idea I have for doing something is removing him, especially in play groups with friends. Thoughts?

  11. My 4yo is much the same way. Except that he is huge, physically. He’s the size of a 7year old (he’s 63lbs and 43″–I’m only 63″, he gets his size from his dad). I can’t physically move him far and we have a lot of defiance around “I won’t go home from the playground/I won’t brush my teeth/wash my hands/go down the stairs/get dressed/literally do anything you ask me to ever.” It is unsafe for me to physically move him in some of these cases and he will soon be too big for me to move at all. Connecting with him doesn’t work. All the “I know you are having fun and don’t want to leave your friends, but it is time to go home now” just doesn’t work. There is no “gently guiding” 63lbs of angry 4yo. Luckily, he’s generally not a striker so he just becomes dead weight and lays down on the ground. He is a highly sensitive kid–very empathetic (he cries if another kid gets hurt-my gentle giant) and sensitive to any correction. I just…am at a loss.

  12. This is exactly the resource I was looking for. Thank you to the mother who wrote in and for your logical responses. It’s given me a great starting point to reframe how I’m reacting to my 4 year old daughter. She’s driving me insane. She’s always been strong willed but never rude like she has become. Rude and aggressive and being my first child I’ve been at a loss of how to react effectively. So from the bottom of my heart thank you for your advice.

    1. I’m sorry you have these challenges and I hope this helps. It’s my pleasure to try to help!

  13. Thanks for another insightful post, Janet. We’re having some push back and lying from our nearly 4 year old, but I have to say the lying I find quite funny. He’ll similarly say “yes” to “have you washed your hands” or something similar, even when he quite clearly hasn’t. The first time this happened, I said “oh, great, so your hands will smell of soap then?” He held them out, grinning, and I took a deep inhale of his hands and said, “Huh, doesn’t smell like soap. Why don’t you try again and I’ll guess which soap you used?”
    This then turned into a great game where he’d frequently wash his hands even when I didn’t ask him too, and get me to guess which soap he used (adult soap or child soap).

    I guess why I’m writing this is because, as with all these interactions, how the story plays out depends almost entirely on our perspective, rather than anything objective. We choose how to respond to these communications, and in doing so shape the entire response.

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