Parenting Q & A

Ellen Barrett, a parent educator at Heights Parent Center for the last 12 years, fields questions from parents about the daily ups and downs of parenting. If you have questions for Ellen, e-mail her at

Q.  I am at my wit’s end with my 4-year-old daughter. For every wonderful delightful behavior she exhibits there is an equally defiant and contrary behavior. Loving and imaginative one minute, stingy and stubborn the next. What should I do to help her to regulate her emotions and not lose my cool, too?

A.  Ahh-a day in the life of a four year old. What fun and interesting creatures they are. Your child is growing and maturing rapidly. You probably notice that she seems more and more like a school-age kid and less and less like a toddler. She can probably hold detailed conversations about a wide range of topics, has mastered many new physical skills, like skipping and jumping, and is cultivating friendships and relationships with people other than you. Believe it or not her stubborn behavior is a good thing too. It means her confidence is growing and she is learning to test the limits of independence. The job you have now is to foster that independence and help her learn to respect others at the same time. There are several strategies might help you to do this:

Be clear about your expectations. Give her specific examples of acceptable behavior ahead of time, but allow for limited choices: “You need to change out of your bathing suit when we get home from the pool. Would you like to put on your clothes back on, or put on your pajamas?” 

Be consistent. If you use time-out as a way to help her to re-group, be sure to give warning and set a reasonable time limit. Common guide is one minute for each year of age. Taking a break is typically used by adults as a way to diffuse situations, and many children need that strategy, too. Just be sure you are fair and consistent as you impose this on her.

Keep the message simple - “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” For example, let her know specifically that if she won’t help pick up the toys she can’t go to the park.

Follow through! When you give an ultimatum you have to stick to it. Remember to make sure you are willing to live with your decision. If you really want to go to the park yourself, and think you will go anyway, don’t threaten her not going.

Be loving, but firm. You will be most effective if you stay calm and avoid a debate. Your job as the parent is to make her world a place where she can learn to become a kind, responsible person. Model that behavior even when you are dealing with an irrational, stubborn child.

Make her feel useful. Four-year-olds have a lot to offer and are capable of contributing much to the family. Have her help set the table for dinner. Simple tasks like this will build self-esteem, foster independence, give her some control and help her to learn to manage her emotions. 

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Volume 3, Issue 7, Posted 11:10 AM, 06.25.2010