' Why is a 4-year-old defiant at every turn? - Meghan Leahy


August 10th, 2020

Passionate Parenting

Why is a 4-year-old defiant at every turn?

Meghan Leahy

By Meghan Leahy The Washington Post

Published Dec. 12,2018

Why is a 4-year-old defiant at every turn?

Q: My almost-4-year-old is incredibly willful and whines all the time. He does exactly what we ask him not to do, and it's gotten to the point that I don't want to ask him not to do anything because I know he will do it on purpose. Everything results in a temper tantrum. He managed to hurt himself this weekend when a baby chair hit his face, causing him to bite his tongue (lots of awful crying -- not from me, though I wanted to cry for me and for him). I was in the midst of saying, "Please don't push this chair down. It could hurt you," so of course he pushed it down as far as it would go, all while saying, "No, Mama, I'm going to do it because I want to." My only alternative was to pull him away from the chair, but that tends to backfire because he responds physically. Is this a phase? My husband and I are at a loss.

A: On a good day, with every star aligned, parenting a 4-year-old can be challenging because a 4-year-old is the epitome of willfulness. Your son has his own ideas, tastes and preferences, and his immaturity prohibits him from understanding your perspective. His brain, which is growing and changing rapidly, is still mostly operating on a system of one viewpoint at a time, and that viewpoint tends to be his own. There is nothing wrong with a 4-year-old who wants only what he wants. This is normal development, and it serves an important purpose.

In studying child development with Gordon Neufeld, I learned about "counterwill," the deep impulse to resist being bossed around and told what to do and how to think. It is rampant from ages 2 to 5 (and again in adolescence), and, as I mentioned, it is valuable in terms of development. As your son is defying you and doing the opposite of what he is told, he is focusing on his own desires, thoughts, impulses and feelings. In development, we call this "individuation." Essentially, your son cannot grow into his own person if he only takes commands from you. So yes, counterwill is annoying, inconvenient and tiring, but it is necessary.

When you understand that this is a normal stage, you can also see that how you are handling it is making it a problem. Part of being 4 (and counterwill) is that when children hear, "Don't push the baby chair down," they feel compelled to take on the challenge. Their counterwill impulse springs into action, and they push the chair down. Your son is not consciously trying to defy you (I know this is hard to believe), but you plucked the counterwill string and your son must respond by doing the opposite of what you requested. It probably never would have occurred to him to push the chair down if you had not said anything. I know this is maddening, but now that you know how it works, here are some simple solutions.


• Asking him questions. When parents ask questions or use a tone of voice that implies a question, they are giving children an option. "Ready for the tub, buddy?" No. Your son will never be ready for the tub. Assume that if you give him a choice, the answer will be no.

• Telling him what you don't want him to do. Every time he hears "Please don't touch the baby," he will touch the baby. It didn't occur to him to touch the baby, but as soon as you tell him what he cannot do, he must disobey you.

• Expecting the tantrums to stop. Because 4-year-olds want what they want when they want it, you have to say no often. That will be met with resistance, anger and tears -- all part of the growth process. Just because your son has counterwill doesn't mean you should sit back and do nothing. True, you are going to stop inviting the problems, but you will still face his big feelings. The only way to avoid tantrums is to give into his every wish, and then you will really have a problem. Your son is growing and maturing every day; just know there will be some days when he appears to have matured and will be more cooperative and others when he acts like a 2-year-old incapable of rational thought.


• Pointing out what he does well. This is not cheerleading or praise; this is "noticing" language. "Hey, Jake, I noticed you put your shoes away. Thank you." If you make too big of a deal of what is going well, your son will swerve into counterwill and start doing the opposite. Keep your observations calm, sincere and varied.

• Creating moments of success. The cool thing about 4-year-olds is that they are imaginative and hard-working. Find ways for your son to use his strengths. Whether it's helping in the kitchen or the yard or problem-solving issues around the house, 4-year-olds have creative ways to contribute to family life. Don't be afraid to ask for your son's input and let him get involved, even (and especially) when the results are imperfect and messy. The pride and resilience will make him feel needed and appreciated.

• Carving out one-on-one time. In Positive Parenting circles, this is called special time. For 4-year-olds, that means a set amount of time on the floor or in the yard, playing with something that makes them happy.

Anything can be special time, but leave the tech and screens behind (especially yours). Because it is all about play, your child will see joy in your eyes and feel deeply connected with you. And when one person feels connected with another, counterwill diminishes. Counterwill is normal, but it becomes a real problem when parents get stuck in the back and forth. Special time breaks down the arguing and anger and reestablishes the relationship as the most important dynamic. It sounds simple and silly, but having fun with your child does more to improve cooperation than any discipline technique.

Take heart that your son will grow and his defiant tendencies will ease. Meanwhile, find ways to positively connect with him without promoting what isn't working. And have a healthy sense of humor about all this "You are not the boss of me." Don't laugh in his face, but he is getting you ready for his teen years. You will need to take many deep breaths and laugh then, so start practicing.



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Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.