I’m preparing to celebrate my son's 4th birthday this summer. And I often wonder, do all parents have such a hard time with their 4-year-olds?

If you're in the same boat, you might feel certain that the "terrible twos" or the "threenager" stages are overshadowed by the ferocious fours.

But the good news is, as your child makes the transition from toddler to preschooler to almost kindergarten student, you may be surprised by how grown-up your little one can be.

Here's what you can expect out of your 4-year-old's behavior.

What's considered normal behavior for a 4-year-old?

It may appear that your child is constantly challenging you. But they’re probably acting appropriately for the 4-year-old age range.

As your child approaches kindergarten, they may be more likely to be aware of and agree to rules.

According to American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), normal behavior in a 4-year-old might include:

  • wanting to please and be like friends
  • showing increased independence
  • being able to distinguish fantasy from reality
  • being demanding at times, cooperative at times

What's normal sexual behavior in a 4-year-old?

It might not be something you like to think about as a parent, but sexuality is a part of life, no matter how old you are.

The AAP has a helpful chart to break down exactly what's normal sexual behavior in children.

According to AAP, if your child is showing interest in their genitals, a sibling’s genitals, or even masturbating in private, you have nothing to worry about. But persistent sexual behavior with peers or different-aged children that’s resistant to parental distraction or causes distress in other children is not normal. This behavior may warrant a discussion with your child's doctor.

Should you get your pediatrician involved?

It’s best to speak to your pediatrician or specialist if your child is exhibiting consistent undesirable behavior that puts them or other children in danger or makes social situations impossible.

Your child may need a professional assessment or have special needs that need to be navigated. Many parents and children respond well to behavioral therapy, even without special needs, to help learn appropriate behavior and response in a tense situation.

How to discipline your 4-year-old

Dealing with a challenging 4-year-old can be frustrating. It can make you wonder if any of your actions are actually making a difference for your child. But it's important to be aware of how your disciplinary techniques can help or harm your child.

Timeouts

In preschool children, timeouts have been shown to change behavior up to 80 percent of the time. Timeouts are most effective for changing one specific behavior in the long term.

The key to timeouts is that they must involve making sure that as the parent, you are also removing yourself from your child. It's not so much the timeout that does the job, but the fact that your child is removed from your attention that makes timeouts so effective.

You also have to be sure to talk about the behavior after the timeout in a gentle and loving way. Understand that when you first try timeouts, your child's behavior might get worse initially as they test a new boundary.

Verbal reprimand

It’s necessary to use verbal reprimands when dealing with preschoolers who are constantly looking to get into trouble. But the key to using verbal reprimands is keeping them few and far between. This means not repeating yourself 1,000 times. When you do that, your child will not take you seriously.

You should also always be sure to frame the reprimand to the child's behavior, not the child. For example, you could say, "Johnny, I don't like that you ran away from me in the parking lot," instead of saying, "Johnny, you are bad for running away from me in the parking lot."

Tips for managing your 4-year-old’s behavior

As you learn to help effectively manage your 4-year-old's challenging behavior, try to keep these tips in mind:

  • keep a positive emotional tone
  • maintain a positive behavior cycle (praising behaviors that you want your child to display more of and not giving them negative attention for undesirable actions)
  • keep a regular schedule for waking up, activities, and bed time
  • establish consistent discipline strategies among caregivers
  • give your child choices whenever appropriate

Next steps

There's no doubt about it, 4-year-olds can be challenging at times. But like many parts of parenting, this too shall pass.

It may be helpful to think of your 4-year-old's behavior as normal development that will only help them grow into a healthy, functioning child. Talk to your pediatrician if you and your child are struggling with a specific behavior or are in need of guidance.

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