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Q&A: Disciplining a Challenging Preschool Child

Q&A: Disciplining a Challenging Preschool Child

Q: My son is four years old and he rules the house. His first response to everything is “No!” Getting him dressed, getting him to eat breakfast, getting him off to nursery school or day care is a daily struggle. He throws tantrums whenever he isn’t getting what he wants – and sometimes even when he does. He’s very jealous of his 2-year-old sister and constantly goes after her. He wears me down. I know I’m losing it too much and screaming at him, of course, to no avail.

My husband and I try to discipline him but he won’t stay in time out – he keeps walking out of his room. And trying to get him to stay in his bed at night is another constant challenge along with attempting to have a peaceful dinner. Yet he can be a warm, affectionate child and, at times, is a delight to play with or read to. At school, they tell me he’s terrific! That makes me feel that I’m doing something wrong. I know we’re not being very consistent with our discipline. My husband and I often end up yelling at each other for not following through. Any suggestions?

A: Whenever parents are struggling with a very difficult-to-manage child, the first step is to consult with your physician, including an allergist, to make sure there is nothing medical affecting your child’s behavior. As a mental health professional, I take a careful early history to ascertain if this is primarily an issue of temperament, i.e., is there clear evidence of challenges right from the beginning? Another related avenue to explore is the more recently identified concept of sensory integration problems, often suggested by a history of not being calmed by touch, fear reactions to loud noises or frequently pulling off clothing (possibly caused by certain materials being irritating).

Whatever the cause, it is important to begin by recognizing that you cannot control your child’s behavior. It is a false expectation that contributes to a parent’s notion of being a failure or results in sometimes very harmful efforts to become even more authoritarian and angry. The only things you can control are your behavior and the consequences of your child’s behavior, which you must learn to actively and consistently manage so that your child learns to make improved choices. For many children this is an easy process because they are naturally eager to please or are very even-tempered. But some children are impulsive, moody, deficient in the ability to calm themselves and very needy of attention. These children with difficult temperaments may always struggle in that they tend to persist in a higher rate of making unacceptable choices. They present special challenges to all parents.

It’s important to realize that parenting is not a one-way process. Children influence parents as least as much as the reverse. So when you have a child who is difficult from an early age, you begin to have doubts about yourself as a parent and begin to have feelings of resentment toward this child. The latter is typically admitted with significant feelings of guilt. These doubts and negative emotions make it even more difficult to parent effectively.

It is very common for the parents of a challenging child to think of themselves as being bad parents, especially mothers, whom our society burdens with a sense of responsibility for the behavior of their children. Yet these same parents typically have one or more additional children who are doing very well but the parents don’t take any credit for that!

It is typically a relief just to help parents understand that they are not the cause of this child’s difficulties and that they cannot do anything to change the child’s core makeup. What is most likely happening by the time they reach my office is that they have been worn out by the process and are now doing things that are probably increasing the challenging behaviors.

Let’s get to some guidelines about what to do. Mornings are a challenge. It helps to remember that a central issue for this child is probably an exaggerated need for attention, a combination of problems with soothing himself and being able to stay focused on activities when alone. These children often do better in a school setting because it is typically highly structured and they are influenced to follow the rules by the rest of the children. When they do have a problem in preschool, it is usually when the program is less structured, the environment is too noisy, or their need for attention results in conflict with other children.

The extra need for structure is very important to these children. They are less able to create their own. So borrow from your preschool, which usually has the daily schedule on a big poster with pictures, and the children review it routinely. Thus, parents should create, with the child’s assistance, a large poster that outlines the morning routine. Include times, a brief statement of the task to be completed, and a picture or drawing of the task. Place a large, analog clock next to the poster. Then, throughout the morning, keep referring to the poster: “It’s 7:20 and the poster says you are supposed to have brushed your teeth already. Oh-oh, you better hurry up or you won’t be done getting dressed by 7:35.” It’s as if the poster is in charge, not the parent — you can’t argue with a poster!

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If possible, build into the end of the schedule a brief playtime which, of course, can only happen if he’s done on time. That way you are getting the child to work for the very thing he wants the most — your attention.

The same process can be used at night, with the same one-on-one attention at the end if the child is ready on time.

Now, what should you do when the child throws a tantrum? Walk away, even if the child responds by intensifying the tantrum or keeping at it for a longer period of time. Wait until it run its course before attempting any discipline. If the child has really lost it, keep in mind that it is a scary experience for him and you should verbalize that probable feeling when the tantrum is over. You may also decide in those instances to offer some soothing comments in addition to a possible negative consequence.

Remember that one of the most effective discipline techniques you have as a parent is the attention you give to your children. The challenging child has learned to get most of his attention by negative behaviors. You must reverse that by withdrawing your attention at those times, with less concern about useless lectures and admonitions, and making a point of reinforcing positive behavior by giving more of your attention at those moments. It can often help to use structure here as well by listing some key positive behaviors on a chart that earn extra playtime with a parent.

Time out is still one of the most effective discipline techniques but a key to making it work, once again, is recognizing that you cannot control your child’s behavior, only the consequences. If a child refuses to go to his room or stay in there for the required amount of time (just a few minutes for preschoolers), you kneel down and look him right in the eye and say, “You’re right. I can’t make you stay in your room. But if you don’t then the next time you ask me to do something with or for you, I will just say no and remind you that you owe me a timeout.” Then walk away. Your child will soon need something from you and you remind him not until he completes his time out. You will get tested on this a few times and once the child realizes you are like an elephant that never forgets (having an elephant mask or picture handy adds some levity to this process), he will become much more compliant in accepting his punishment.

The key issues in parenting a challenging child are not to lose confidence in yourself as a parent, be persistent in creating structure and managing your attention, and finding the positive aspects of your child and focusing as much attention on that as possible.

Q&A: Disciplining a Challenging Preschool Child

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). Q&A: Disciplining a Challenging Preschool Child. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 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.