Home » Library » Parenting » More on Disciplining a Challenging Preschooler

More on Disciplining a Challenging Preschooler

In a prior column I wrote about how to teach self-control to a 4-year-old boy who constantly challenged his parents and gradually broke down their effectiveness. The key issue is how often parents feel defeated by very young, very challenging children. In that state of experiencing a loss of control and the resulting frustration, parents often resort to being increasingly punitive and do a lot of screaming as well as often resorting to spanking. There’s a better way.

This second article on the topic is in response to questions sent in by parents. Please note that this article does not focus on children with special emotional or neurological problems which would likely require additional strategies.

A key to a successful outcome to discipline is to recognize that there are viable options that will work if parents are persistent in applying consequences. Another key is that consequences need to be brief and repeated often rather than the one big punishment that is supposed to fix everything, for example, taking away something one night/day as opposed to several days. Frustrated parents being overly punitive typically results in a lack of follow-through as well as the child losing any connection to the original unacceptable behavior. By the time parents seek professional assistance, they nearly always are describing themselves as inconsistent, which ensures that the child’s behavior will not improve. It is amazing how quickly very young children learn that they can wear their parents down and get their way. Once that lesson is learned, it is very hard to teach them to change and actually respect the parents’ rules.

Time out is one of the most common strategies used with preschoolers. Many readers posed questions about using time out in certain situations where it is difficult to apply or the child is defiant. For example, one parent asked, “What do you do when a child is acting up in the car?”

First, do not try to discipline children while driving. It’s dangerous. You also need to examine the problem and decide what is really needed here. For example, if you are trying to talk on the phone, something strongly advised against in general, but especially when you have children in the car, the screaming child or fighting children in the back may really be seeking attention. Or, the noise is actually not that bad if you’re not trying to talk on the phone. So sometimes it’s best to realize this is not a good time to talk and refocus on driving and interacting with your child.

But if the child is really creating a problem, such as climbing out of the car seat (amazing how quickly some children learn to do this), the best thing to do is to pull over and stop the car. Children are usually surprised when you do this. If you were headed somewhere that the child was looking forward to going, give one warning that the next time you have to stop, you are heading back home. Too often parents feel obliged to carry out a commitment to the child regardless of his behavior. This conveys the wrong message. So even if it means missing a birthday party, a soccer practice, or a play date, go back home if the child is acting inappropriately. Unless you place a higher value on reasonable behavior, why should the child do so?

It is more of a challenge if it’s an errand that you must complete, e.g., picking up another child or getting something for dinner. In this case you explain that the child is going to be punished when you get home. Often it will be a loss of a privilege, such as watching a video or TV show that is a pre-dinner favorite or it may be loss of the parent reading a bedtime story that evening. It may not make the rest of that trip any more pleasant, or even the next several trips, but if you consistently remember to follow through when you get home, the child will begin to take you seriously and the behavior will improve with your warning.

Another parent raised the problem of a 4-year-old brother constantly being mean or overly aggressive with his 2-year-old sister. She stated that she has tried sending him to his room and other consequences but nothing is working. Of course, you are always faced with the challenge of sorting out who is really the culprit here. Often the younger sibling has quickly learned that to annoy the older sibling to the point of being mean will get the older sib punished. So unless you have seen that this is really the older sibling acting inappropriately, it is best to send both children to their rooms and not listen to stories about who did what to whom.

Article continues below...
Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

More on Disciplining a Challenging Preschooler

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). More on Disciplining a Challenging Preschooler. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.