Out of Control 4-Year-Old

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

My son will be 4 in 2 days. He can be a very sweet and loving little boy, but he can also be very violent and aggressive. He does not seem to have any middle ground, it is either one extreme or the other. Lately the violence has been getting worse. His sister, who is 7 and has ADHD, reminded him that he is not supposed to touch the computer when she is using it to practice her spelling words and he tried to punch her in the face. If she hadn’t moved she would have a black eye with the amount of anger that was behind that punch.

He takes out his aggression on his sister, his father, and me and also gets aggressive with our cats and dog on occasion. I spoke to his pediatrician about some of his behavior about a year ago (before the violence got this bad) and he thinks he has mild hyperactivity. While my son does take spurts of an hour at most once or twice a day where he is go go go, most times he is very calm and can sit and play quietly and focus better than I can.

When something doesn’t go his way, instead of a normal tantrum or even what I would expect from my daughter, he completely loses control. These meltdowns happen several times a day and it takes anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour for him to calm down and half an hour after that where we are walking on eggshells trying not to set him off again. He will punch, smack, kick, pinch, bang on the door and walls, throw large toys, scream as loud and long as he can, and call me stupid. He is also very stubborn about some of his rituals to the point that if I don’t answer exactly how I am supposed to, he has a meltdown. We went through a few months of head banging when he was about 2, followed by a few months of pinching or smacking himself whenever he was upset. He still pinches himself on occasion if he is really angry.

He had a slight speech delay that was resolved by the time he was around 2 1/2. He does not like to make eye contact with me, he will usually face his head to the side and look at me out of the corner of his eye if at all. He does love to be held and snuggled. He also loves to line his toys up then put them in a container one at a time then take them back out and start over. With the aggression and everything else that has been going on since he was around 1, I’m concerned that there is something more going on than just mild hyperactivity but I am having a hard time expressing what I am seeing to his father and his pediatrician and nobody else seems to notice anything too strange going on. He is not in preschool as we can’t afford a private school but do not qualify for the free preschool here. I am desperate for answers and suggestions on how to handle his behavior before somebody gets seriously hurt. Thank You.

A. It’s important that your son receives an evaluation by a mental health professional. It’s unusual for a child to be as aggressive as you have described. His violence might be stemming from issues of which you are currently unaware. An evaluation might uncover the root of the problem.

The evaluating mental health professional may suggest family therapy. Family therapy might be the most appropriate treatment for this problem. A family therapist can interview family members, assess the family dynamic and provide you with parenting advice regarding the discipline of your children.

It’s important to seek professional help as soon as possible. You stated that you need suggestions about how to handle his behavior “before someone gets hurt” but your daughter and your family pets have already been hurt by your son. At this point, his behavior is too much for you to handle without professional help.

Ask your pediatrician for a referral to a mental health professional for an evaluation. You may also want to consider reading parenting books that focus on behavior modification. Behavior modification is characterized by an authoritative parenting style and providing the appropriate reinforcement or punishment of behavior. Education coupled with professional intervention should assist you in gaining control over your son’s behavior. Please take care.

Dr. Kristina Randle
Mental Health & Criminal Justice Blog

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 Oct 2013

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2013). Out of Control 4-Year-Old. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 19, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2013/10/12/out-of-control-4-year-old/