It's quite a recent thing. Sometimes we have done something that we know he will like and because he's in this mode of moaning/crying/wailing we can't communicate to him at all and explain what's going on. We have tried, but because his focus is on making noise, he doesn't hear it. For example, the dialogue goes:
"It's time to get dressed for school now"
"We'll help you get dressed, but it is time or you'll be late"
"No. I don't want to get dressed!" at this point this is repeated for many minutes. Any further negotiations, incentives, consequences; communication of any type is totally blocked because he's just saying the same thing over and over. What should we do to resolve the situation?

  • The answers below talk about consequences - you may need to actually follow through on the consequence a couple of times before he becomes convinced that the consequence will definitely follow the bad behaviour and therefore he shouldn't do the bad behaviour.
    – A E
    Oct 29, 2014 at 11:15
  • It's more due to the fact that at that point we could set fire to all his toys in front of him (not that we would ever threaten that!) and it would make no difference to his behaviour. We do follow through with the consequences each time, but again, it makes no difference at the time, which is when things need to change. The communication blockage is the key issue here. Oct 29, 2014 at 12:04
  • Poor you (and poor him, if he's that angry). If you don't mind me asking: How long has this behaviour been going on for? What other situations does it occur in? What consequence are you using? How many times have you followed through with it vs how many times have you not (e.g. before it became apparent that this was a problem). Any major changes or events in his or your lives? (Eg new baby, death in the family, divorce, moving house, changing/starting school, serious illness of family member)? How much quality time do you spend with him and what kinds of things do you do?
    – A E
    Oct 29, 2014 at 18:36
  • 1
    It's a great question. Two larger that normal things have happened in the last few months -- he had an operation to remove his adenoids which has aided his speech and hearing hugely, and he's started school. Both events have gone very well, but yes, there may be some difficulty there in the amount that things have changed in his world. Nov 3, 2014 at 17:10
  • 1
    Yes. He's got a few friends and does seem happy there, but yes; it's a big change from 16 hours a day of cars, lego, parks, cuddles and dinner. Nov 3, 2014 at 17:13

5 Answers 5


My three year old does this sometimes, and it can be frustrating, especially when it's an issue of being late where you care and he doesn't (like going to preschool on time, say). Most of the issues can be traced to him wanting a sense of control, so our solutions focus around that when we can.

What we typically do:

  • Give meaningful choices. He may not like getting dressed because he doesn't have enough control over the situation. Let him pick his clothes out and put them on himself if he's not already - as long as he doesn't dawdle too much. Let him sometimes pick things that don't totally make sense - nobody cares if a 4 year old goes to preschool in PJs once in a while, or wears shirts inside out, or wears his older brother's shirt, or whatever. The choices give him a sense of control that he's lacking.
  • Set time limits. Rather than "Get dressed or you'll be late", set a timer for 5 minutes. Tell him he has 5 minutes to get dressed, or however long is a reasonable length of time, or you will pick his clothes and dress him. Do this from the beginning if you know it may be a problem. If you've given him choices, make it clear when those get taken away (after the timer goes off), and always follow through. This gives him a limit on his control, but do let him have full control within that time frame - maybe a reminder or two, but mostly leave him alone until the timer goes off. I usually give 2 minute warning and 1 minute warning but otherwise say nothing. As Ida points out in comments, go away during this time, don't hover.
  • Redirect. One thing we've noticed is that he has a harder time when he's tired in the morning. On those days, we suggest a few things that will 'reset' him. For example, we have a shower with a hose attachment. He likes showering with it, so we ask him if he wants to have a shower, which he often does. After that getting dressed is a natural thing - and something he wants to do since he's cold. Again, gives him some control but doesn't completely destroy your routine, and helps him regain control over his own emotions.
  • Plan. Plan for this to happen. If you need to be out the door at 8, don't start getting dressed at 7:45. Start getting dressed at 7. If that's not early enough, 6:30. Whatever works. This might be earlier than you want, but it won't be the first or the last time you lose a little sleep over your kids.
  • Be consistent. Whatever of the above you do, do it every day, and do it the same as your co-parent if applicable. Little differences are fine - and sometimes lead to useful redirection options, like "Mommy puts on my shirt this way", which might be annoying but does lead to shirts being on - but the big things, the time limits and consistent boundaries, matter a lot and should be as consistent as possible.

Some find it useful to also give the consequence of going to the car naked, if he/she refuses to get dressed; for some kids this might work, for some like mine it usually doesn't work as a consequence (though it does work as a last ditch way to get him dressed, as we can dress him in the car ourselves with less resistance).

  • 4
    Very nice answer. I would add: Go Away. When you set time limits and set a consequence (like I will pick your clothes and dress you), tell him and leave him alone. For our 3.5 year old, it helps him a lot to be alone - when we are around he talks with us, shows us things, and acts up. I tell him: You get dressed and come down and have breakfast, and walk away. If I stay, he never gets dressed! (I also ask him if he needs help before I go).
    – Ida
    Oct 23, 2014 at 20:54
  • 1
    another comment: another consequence that works really well for us is: If you don't get dressed, you will go to school with no pants/naked/in pajamas. You HAVE to be willing to follow through. So far the threat alone has gotten our son moving, though!
    – Ida
    Oct 23, 2014 at 20:56
  • Go Away is definitely a good suggestion - I meant to imply that but didn't clearly do so.
    – Joe
    Oct 23, 2014 at 20:58
  • 2
    The naked/pajamas unfortunately would be utterly ineffective for us as he'd happily say yes - although my wife has taken him to the carseat, strapped him in, and then changed his clothes (which is impressive when you see it!).
    – Joe
    Oct 23, 2014 at 21:06
  • 3
    Going to kindergarten in pajamas has happened more than once in my family, too. By the time the kid shows up in the group in pajamas he definitely wants to get dressed, and it's a perfectly safe and simple way of teaching him natural consequences of his decisions. Oct 24, 2014 at 9:53

I think the simple answer is that this is just the age at which children start to develop their own volition, but have yet to develop ways to deal with the frustration coming from things not going the way they wanted them to. With some children this is a very unfortunate time for parents to go through, but it is also a very important phase for all children.

By now your son has developed a pretty good model of the world, can reason about how things work, and can use this to speculate about different possibilities for situations to develop. The achieved ability to envision a possible outcome of certain situations naturally comes with the wish for it to be a desirable outcome as well. However, children of that age still mostly live in the moment and, compared to adults, their thinking ahead is rather limited. The ability to put frustration into perspective, to remember that tomorrow will be another day to experience wonderful things, and to realize that everyone's freedom to do as they please ends where it threatens the freedom of the others, is still severely lacking. He is only just developing it.

And he needs your help now in order to develop ways to deal with these frustrations that will later make him a valuable member of the society he lives in. That's why this is such an important phase of every child (although not each child shows the same discrepancy between these two abilities).

If you want your son to learn to not to react violently when things don't go as he wants, then he will have to find out that throwing a fit won't help him to get what he wants (or even attention!), while being sad without being violent might at least gain some comforting words and an understanding hug. He will have to learn that he cannot always get what he wants, that he must not bend his frustration upon other people or things, that it is not a problem if some of many potentially happy situations didn't turn out to be all that happy. Keep this in mind and hang in there, it does get better.

Until then: Consequently praise him when he deals with frustration in ways you want him to, and disregard him for ways you do not want. (Do not pay attention – e.g., by scolding – to bad behavior; instead, simply ignore him.)

Rewarding good behavior (note that praise is an important reward for a child) has been found to yield better results than punishing bad behavior (again note that scolding already is punishment).

In my experience natural consequences work way better than parent-induced penalty. (Compare: "I did warn you, when you didn't want to do X, that then Y might not be possible. I cannot change this, but I am sorry you are so disappointed about it. Shall I give you a hug?" to "You didn't do X, therefore I disallow you to do Y!" Which one is more likely to prevent a 4 year old from throwing a fit?)

And always remember the parental mantra: It's just a phase. It will pass. You are the parent. It's your task to guide you all through.


negotiations, incentives, consequences, communication

You can't always negotiate/communicate with a 4 year old. Especially when emotions are high.

You either need to increase the incentive or increase the consequence. I would increase the consequence--this means increasing the "dislike factor" of the consequence (whether you choose emotional, physical, social, etc...).

Doing this consistently would solidify in your 4-year-old's mind that you are the parent and you are the final authority. If he continues to disobey then the consequences must continue to be administered until you "win." It's important for children younger than 5 to learn that their parents are the oak tree and cannot be won over with tears and an obstinate attitude.

  • 3
    I think the problem here, though, is that some of this is not 'intentional misbehavior' but the child being out of control, both of his own emotions and of the situation in general. Young kids are often very frustrated at the lack of control they have over their environment and actions, and taking more of that control away is often the exact wrong thing to do. On the other side, they also may simply be out of control due to being tired or having too strong an emotional reaction - in that case "more consequence" is useless as they're not in control enough to stop.
    – Joe
    Oct 23, 2014 at 19:58
  • @Joe True that there are always exceptions, but the OP asked about a specific scenario: leaving to go somewhere. Not bedtime--that can be different. Sometimes, as you say, a child is tired that they can't obey if they wanted to. I was trying to keep my answer broad enough to apply to the OPs situation and most any situation.
    – LCIII
    Oct 24, 2014 at 0:38

David, thanks for all the additional info. It's really helpful.

Joe and sbi have already written really good answers on ways to cope with the behaviour itself, so I'll try not to duplicate too much of that.

I feel for you as parents - tantrums are horrible - and even more I feel for your son, who is obviously having a hard time.

Be reassured that although tantrums are something you'd mostly expect from toddlers, you do get them with 4-year-olds sometimes, particularly if they're tired or stressed. So nothing you're describing is outside the range of 'normal'.

The thing to remember is that, when he's having a tantrum, he's trying to communicate with you. It's just that he's too young and emotionally unsophisticated to verbalise the way he's feeling, so he's acting it out instead.

So it's up to you to work out what he's trying to say - i.e. what all this is about.

You've got some help in this - talk to the other people who are involved in his life - e.g. your partner, his grandparents, his teacher.

What's he trying to say? Could be one of the following:

  • "I want to try getting my own way. I am testing the boundaries of what I'm permitted to do. I want to do things my way." In your situation I'd be quite hesitant to assume that this is nothing more than a power struggle - but it might be. Boundary-pushing is normal and expected.

  • "I'm finding school difficult". Given he's just started at school, this seems like the most likely explanation. Next step is to narrow down what it is about school that's causing him stress/unhappiness.

  • "I'm dog-tired". Half-way through the first term at school, this is also pretty likely. There's a lot of novelty, the days are probably longer than he's used to, he's probably not really relaxed into it yet. The 'honeymoon period' is over, but it's not Christmas yet.

  • Something else entirely. Don't rule it out.

Next steps that I'd suggest:

  • Talk to your partner / anyone else involved in his upbringing. Just talk it over and see what they think lies behind this. The two of you might have noticed different things.

  • Talk to his teacher. Ask for a 10-minute chat in private, don't just have a single-sentence exchange at dropoff/pickup time. Explain that he's consistently having tantrums while getting ready for school, ask if she/he has noticed anything that he seems to be having trouble with or feeling unhappy about.

  • Talk to him. Find out what the best things are about school. It's likely that he enjoys some things and not others. The book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk is a useful resource. If you find out what he likes about school then that has a few benefits: 1) You know those things he likes probably aren't the problem, 2) Positive talk with you about school will make him remember that he does have positive feelings about some aspects of school, 3) He'll be more likely to spontaneously open up to you about whatever he's having trouble with. Don't assume that the problem is the school-work itself (although it might be) - the whole social environment of school can be tricky and hard to get used to (e.g. sitting in one place and concentrating for a longish period of time can be tricky for a lot of 4-year-old boys). He may be getting in trouble for behaviour that was acceptable at nursery - this change will be confusing and will make him feel angry because his expectations have been confounded.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't take steps to deal with the behaviour itself - you should. But thinking about what's prompting it is likely to be quite productive in the long run (as well as, of course, you want to help him with whatever-the-problem-is, which you can't do if you focus solely on the behaviour itself).

So here's what I'd do about the behaviour (although you should of course adapt this to whatever fits your style as a parent and whatever suits your child the best - see the other answers for more options):

  • At a time when he's calm and the environment is low-stress, talk to him about the tantrums (he may be able to tell you what they're all about, which would be handy). Explain that you understand he's not feeling happy but you do have to make sure he gets to school each day. Explain the consequence that'll follow each time there's a tantrum (something not too major, I'd suggest, such as no TV that day).

  • When the tantrum occurs, calmly go into the next room, thereby depriving him of an audience. Leave the door open - you're not shutting him away by himself, you're just taking away his audience. Going to the kitchen and making yourself a cup of tea is not out of the question at this point. Be open to the idea that he may come to you and need a hug to help himself to calm down. If things go quiet but he doesn't come to you then you go to him. Be calm, gentle and strong (think 'oak tree').

  • Follow through with the consequence (e.g. no TV later that day at TV time) but reassure him that you're confident tomorrow he'll be just fine getting ready for school, and you can watch TV together then (or whatever). You could plan with him what programme you might watch, so he knows there's a reward ready. If you don't have a consequence that works that way (as a potential reward) then think about giving an extra reward for each day he gets ready for school without a tantrum. It can be something pretty small - just a 'thank you for making my life easier' present from you to him.

  • Don't worry about being late for school. By this time you'll have already spoken to his teacher, and the school will understand. It's his first term, after all.

I hope that's helpful - I'll come back and add more things if/when I think of them, as well as some more references if I can find good ones. Let us know how it goes!

Watch for red flags. If your previously sweet child turns sour after starting school, that's a sign of an adjustment problem. It might be a mismatch with the other students, the teacher, or the curriculum. It's important that the child's first year of full-day school be a positive one, because the main goal of education in the first couple years is to instill into the child a love of learning. Some other warning signs: vague pains (such as tummy aches and headaches) that only occur on school days, change of emotions from happy to sad, and overall less energy.

Dr Sears: The Full School Day - Parenting magazine

Reception class children are too young to put much of their experience into words. They learn to manage situations and master their anxieties through play. Playing games [about] school with strict, stroppy or kind teachers provide children with ways of thinking about their new experiences with unknown adults and unfamiliar tasks. It is normal for children’s behaviour to regress at this time. While they’re struggling to manage at the new school, children may become more babyish or demanding at home.

Understanding Childhood: The Child's Experience of Primary School ← it's worth reading all of this leaflet

Worrying or difficult behaviour might be short-lived, so give it some time. All children go through stages of feeling anxious or angry and they can show this in lots of ways, for example, tantrums, crying, sleeping problems or fighting with friends or siblings. They might be adapting to a change in the family or in their school life, or just trying out new emotions, and will generally grow out of worrying behaviour on their own or with family support

Parents' Survival Guide - Young Minds

The first weeks of school

School isn't easy for everyone. During the first few weeks of school it's essential to keep communicating with your child and take care to notice signs that things aren't going well.

"It's not uncommon for a child in their second week not to want to go to school. They'll say, 'I've been to school now and I don't need to go back'," says Dr Spungin. "The excitement of the first week has worn off, but they still feel nervous."

Dr Spungin says you can watch your child's behaviour as well as listen to what they say. "Look at your child's behaviour in the morning when you get ready for school. Are they bright and lively, or dawdling? How do they react when you ask them how their day was?"

Keep your questions simple. "It's difficult for a five-year-old to answer a question about whether they're happy at school. You'll get more information if you ask specific questions, such as who did you play with? Who did you eat lunch with? Are there any naughty boys or girls in your class? Your child might not even know what the word 'bully' means."

The first day at school (NHS Choices)

Based on the sound recordings of kids’ breakdowns, the researchers found that sadness happens throughout a tantrum, and is punctuated by intense bouts of anger — i.e., yelling and screaming. ...

Potegal advises moms and dads to ignore their freaking-out kiddo, and soon enough, the fury will subside, leaving a whole bunch of sadness. That’s when parents can swoop in. Sad children seek comfort, and sure enough, that’s just what mine did.

The New Science Behind Children’s Temper Tantrums, TIME Magazine

Have a talk when it's time. When your child is no longer having a fit, have a conversation about what happened. Without berating your child or taking an accusatory tone, ask why he or she was upset. Provide a clear explanation of your side of the story.

It’s important not to treat your child as the enemy, even if you’re upset with him or her. Hug your child and speak lovingly even as you’re explaining that we can’t always get our way.

How to Handle Your Child's Temper Tantrum, WikiHow

Four-year-olds. Most children have the necessary motor and physical skills to meet many of their own needs without relying so much on an adult. At this age, children also have better language that allows them to express their anger and to problem-solve and compromise. Despite these improved skills, even kindergarten-age and school-age children can still have temper tantrums when they are faced with demanding academic tasks and new interpersonal situations in school.

Temper Tantrums: Guidelines for Parents, National Association of School Psychologists


When he whines respond 'I will talk to you when you can talk nicely and not whine'. When he cries let him know he is too old to cry because he doesn't want to do something. You do not care to listen to it so he needs to go to his room until he is finished and ready to talk like the big boy he is. then follow through!

Most importantly is to stop letting him control the situation and conversation. For the first example you gave there are several options. The one that worked for me was 'I am not asking you I am telling you.' (as in you don't get to say no because it is not optional). If that is not enough I moved on to "I said it is time to get dressed. You can do this the easy way or the hard way but you are going to do it.' The first time they will say no again. Without a word just begin to change their cloths for them. They will fight and struggle and complain. One time and one time only let them know this is the hard way, if they don't like it they are welcome to do it themselves, which is the easy way. He is trying to exert his independence and you dressing him takes that independence away. The only way for him to get it back is to get dressed himself. I used this tactic with my son when he was two and wouldn't pick up his toys. We ended up walking around the room picking them up one at a time with me walking behind him holding his hands and leading him to each toy, helping him pick it up, then walking it to the toy box. After three toys he finished on his own. It only took that one time for him to get the point, and that was at age two. After that I just had to say 'do you want to do it the easy way or the hard way'. And not just picking up toys. Another option, in my opinion this is a bit harsher but I have heard from several parents that it works very well, is to tell him you are not going to argue. Its time for school and he needs to get dressed. Then walk away and do not discuss it any more. If he tries to engage you in conversation let him know you will talk to him when he is dressed for school. If he doesn't change he can go in his pajamas. One time of showing up in class in his pj is, from what I am told, enough to nip the problem. Basically, just do not let him engage you in arguing and ignore any whining/crying or tantrums. And please, do not get into a lengthy discussion, explanation, bribery, or deal making. You will only be setting yourself up for decades of the same.

  • What if the behaviour reflects an underlying problem, rather than being pure and simple disobedience?
    – A E
    Nov 4, 2014 at 17:10

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