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Discipline Issue with an Extremely Defiant 4-Year-Old

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Hello. My girlfriend has 2 boys ages 5 and 4. The 4-year-old is in a very big power struggle with her. He is urinating all over the house, shouts at her, and routinely disobeys. He can be physical at times with his brother and mother and me. She has tried spanking, praise, and rewards. But nothing seems to do the complete trick and he falls back into these cycles where he is super bad.

The boy does very well at school and for baby sitters, but is an absolute animal for her most of the time. His father agrees that there are issues with the boy, but I’m not sure the discipline is consistent between the two. I fear if this isn’t corrected soon that my girlfriend will have a breakdown, and the young boy will begin to have issues at school.

We’re starting to get very upset that the boy is in more control of the situation than we are. Where do we go from here??? Any tips on things we can try before actually looking into therapy for us???

The boy seems to enjoy being bad. In play he always chooses to be the bad guy. He does suffer celiac’s disease. We control his diet closely as is misbehavior gets worse if he eats any gluten.

Discipline Issue with an Extremely Defiant 4-Year-Old

Answered by on -


I’m very glad you took the time to write. This little boy is highly distressed. The fact that he does well at school and with sitters suggests that the problem is with his relationships with his family members, not a mental illness.

Although you’ve tried many types of discipline, I’m afraid that may be part of the problem. Inconsistent methods of discipline confuse kids. They don’t know what the rules really are. Often they then push the limits until the adults have finally had it. By then, the child has gone way too far and the adults end up doing and saying things they regret. Then things tend to simmer down for awhile — until the next blow up.

There is more going on here than I can address in a letter. Ideally, you and both of the boys’ parents should go together to a family therapist/parent educator. Yes, together. I hope the three of you can put the child’s needs ahead of whatever tensions may exist among you. Someone needs to take a look at the whole picture to see what is driving this kid to such extremes when he is at home. Often things the adults in a child’s life think are not all that important loom large for a child. By talking to all three parental figures, a family therapist may be able to tease out the dynamics that are reinforcing the bad behavior.

The fact that this little boy does well in other situations is a very, very hopeful sign but it won’t last forever. Please don’t wait another week or month to get the help you need to address his problem — both for his sake and for everyone else’s.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

Discipline Issue with an Extremely Defiant 4-Year-Old

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Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Dr. Marie is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2018). Discipline Issue with an Extremely Defiant 4-Year-Old. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 7, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 May 2018 (Originally: 28 Jan 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 May 2018
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