My two boys are 4-years-old and 11 months; they will be 5 and 1 next month.

My oldest is exceedingly stubborn, and he's displaying strong leadership traits. When he has his mind set on something, his single focus is achieving it. He is determined to be accepted and treated as an adult, and he often lands in trouble for trying to be the parent in a given situation. He's also very smart and mischievously sneaky at times. He's a good kid, but I've struggled with bad behavior, repeatedly going against what he's told, and now mistreating his little brother by hitting and biting.

My first approach when he misbehaved was to consistently sit him in a time out. I devised a three step time out, where he had to "climb" the stairs to exit time out. First, he would explain why he was in time out. Second, he would brainstorm ways to avoid said behavior in the future. Third, he would sit quietly in time out for 10 minutes to think about our talk. This worked for a few months. Then, he started ignoring me and the time outs.

My next approach was to take something away when he ignored time out. This went on for three months, until I had effectively confiscated everything from favorite toys to his coveted game time on PBS. He still acted out and began melting down instead of communicating, to which I helped him learn how to breathe deeply, calm down, and then talk. He stopped doing this a month or so later.

My next, and most unpleasant, approach was to talk through his behavior, ensuring he understood why what he did was wrong and why be was being punished before being smacked on the butt twice. This seemed to work, and we had a few weeks of calm before it all began again.

I have a terrible time getting him to nap and eat well. Thinking this was a contributing factor, I began focusing on sleeping and eating habits, trying to improve them. He said he didn't want to sleep because of "ghosts in [his] room" before saying he was making it up so he could stay up. I was so proud of him for telling me this, especially since we've been talking about the importance of not lying or making things up. Then, he said there were monsters in his room. He seemed to firmly believe there was a monster that came out when he went to bed. So, he and I "chased" the monster out and set up a "protective barrier" to keep it and all others out. A week later, he was back to tantrum throwing at every nap and bed time because he didn't want to go to bed.

He's not a picky eater, but he refuses to eat a good meal. His reasoning ranges from not being hungry to wanting to do other things first. He's starting school in the fall, and I'm trying to help him understand he needs to eat and sleep when it's time to eat and sleep. I've tried everything from a reward system to taking things away for doing or not doing as instructed.

He's never had an issue with his little brother. And he's usually a phenomenal big brother. He was excited to have his little brother move into his room. He acts very good outside of the house, and he only acts out when he's comfortable in a place that isn't home (like Grandma's or a close friend's).

But he's constantly doing things he shouldn't and now hitting and biting his little brother. He's also suddenly having a lot of accidents in his clothes and bed, sometimes several times in one day. I'm trying so hard to stay consistent, but when it seems like nothing is working and he's constantly misbehaving, throwing tantrums, and melting down, I'm not sure what to keep doing and what to change.

His physical is in June and I intend to speak to his pediatrician about all of this. But in the meantime, is there anything I'm missing? Is there something else I can try?

I've tried digging deeper to see if there is a deeper problem or issue to address, but his answers and conversations are sporadic at best. It's very hard to tell if he's being truthful or spinning a story. And I'm worried he'll be behind in school because he doesn't apply himself. He can read, but he acts like he can't. He is super smart, but he continually downplays his abilities, and I don't know why when he's always been encouraged.

Any advice will be greatly appreciated. Thanks, from one burnt out, frazzled, and worried mum!

  • About when did this start? Did it coincide with his brother moving into the room with him?
    – Valkyrie
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 10:48
  • 5
    And a minor point: A nap at almost 5? That's one battlefield you can easily eiliminate IMHO.
    – Stephie
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 15:01
  • To go with what @Stephie said, maybe his nap makes him not tired at bedtime. Now you're (in his mind) cruelly and unjustly forcing him to do the most boring horrible thing ever (sleep) twice in one day AND hes not even tired. It could be creating tension that makes him act out in other ways.
    – user7678
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 22:29

4 Answers 4


Kids mess up. A lot. If it were possible to do something for a month that would make them stop messing up, they wouldn't need to live with you anymore. Kids messing up isn't a sign that you're doing something wrong. It's a sign that you're dealing with a normal human kid. Parenting is raising a successful 35 year-old. It's a job with a very long view.

The sign of successful discipline isn't whether the child stops a negative behavior right away. It's when after a month something he did every hour is now twice a day, then after two months it's down to once a day, then after six months it's down to once a week, then after two years it's down to once a month, then after 5 years it's down to once a year, and hopefully when he moves out he has stopped altogether and has the tools to discipline himself when new temptations arise.

Likewise, kids resisting a consequence isn't a sign that the consequence is failing. It's a sign that it's working. I think you mostly need to take the long view and keep trying consistently when it looks like things aren't going well.

The other thing I would say is don't only step in with a consequence every time he messes up. You need to give him the tools and the autonomy to solve the problem on his own. He needs to feel like his behavior is something he controls, not something you control. You're just the guardrail. He's driving the car.

That means hitting his brother should not only result in a consequence and being told what not to do. You need to teach him what to do instead. In my experience, the number one reason kids feel out of control is when they're constantly told what not to do and they don't know what to do instead. It might be reciting a mantra like, "He's little. He doesn't know any better." It might be coming to ask you to intervene. It might be going somewhere he can be alone. Whatever it is, it has to be something positive and concrete that works for him.

Also, model for him the positive things you do when someone makes you angry. Kids learn from your actions way more than your words. If you yell and hit when you're angry with him, he will yell and hit when he's angry with his brother. If you need some alone time in order to calm down, don't just disappear. Make a point of telling him what you're doing and why. He will see time outs as much more valuable if he sees you imposing them on yourself.

  • I like this answer, especially giving positive options. Remember to praise when he does choose the positive option!
    – Ida
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 20:21

I think Karl Bielefeldt's answer is excellent, but I wanted to address you food/nap issues.

I would simply not make them issues. Address the other, more important issues first - don't make it seem like he has no control, and no say.

First off, I know very few 5 year olds who still needs naps. He will not be able to have one in school, will he? I would stop the naps, don't take that battle.

Secondly, I would not make the food an issue. Serve him food, expect him to eat, and let him decide if he wants to. What we do with our 4 year old is that there are a few rules for dinner and breakfast (rest of day snacking is OK for us).

  • You sit at the table, even if you are not hungry. Eating is up to you, but sitting down with the family is not. (This will usually prompt eating - but he doesn't have to stay for the whole meal. After a little while he can be excused).
  • You have to take one bite of everything on your plate, especially if you are asking for more of some of it.
  • You cannot ask for more food later (mostly relevant for dinner time), if you didn't eat.

This works really well for us, you can find the rules that fit your household. But we have removed the battle of how much he eats (except tasting everything), you can't win this, and I feel kids need to know if they are hungry or not. It is in the vein of 'you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink'.

I think removing some of these battles, and let him be independent might help you.

Good luck.

  • 1
    Great answer. Just an additional thought; it might also be good to let the child help make dinner decisions. Not necessarily the entire meal, but let them choose between a set of meals. Like "do you want lasagna and salad today, or should we have spaghetti and meat balls?". There is no wrong answer, but it gives them a sense of being heard and respected. It could also be something like letting them choose the side dish.
    – Alec
    Commented May 7, 2015 at 6:43

You really have two questions there... What is causing his behavior and how to deal with his behavior.

My daughter (who is the younger) is the willful one in my family. Some punishments are more effective than others but the key is to keep going until you find one that works, though what works may change over time. Here's an example from when my daughter was 4 and was refusing to do her chore of putting away the silverware from a clean dishwasher:

Me: (calmly)

Look... Here is what is going to happen because this is what happened last time. I'm going to count 1..2..3 and you'll still be refusing so I'll give you a time-out. You'll refuse to take it on your own so I'll count to 3 again and then give you a double time-out and forcibly move you to the chair. You'll get down. I'll put you back. You'll get down. I'll put you back. You'll get down a third time and I'll throw you over my shoulder, carry you upstairs, put you to bed, and leave the room. You'll come out. I'll put you back to bed. You'll come out. I'll put you back to bed a third time, close and lock the door at which point you will scream and cry and kick the door for 10 minutes before you finally calm down at which point I'll bring you downstairs, you'll serve your double time-out and then you will still put away the silverware. Got it?


Okay. (and did it)

It was so thrilled at this! Progress! Conversation! Reason! But oh it was so painful the first two times where I actually had to go through all those steps.

She's still a willful child and I think that's great! I don't want to break her will... just bend it a little. Sometimes it's difficult to not just let it pass but I firmly believe that it is my job to be more willful than her so I slog through it.

She only through a full-blown pound-on-the-floor tantrum with me once. I got my camera and took pictures of her. She didn't like that. She also never bothered trying another one.

  • 1
    +1(million) for the calm, reasoned discussion with a willful 4-yr-old (oh my do I know THAT pain). And the pictures of the tantrum? Genius. I WILL be stealing that one, although mine are both attention hogs and would probably want to send them to everyone they know.
    – Valkyrie
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 10:57

Sounds like you have a lot of things going on. Choose the most important and work on that first. I would say it is behavior specifically aggression.

Now step back the punishment a notch a 5yr old would normally be 5 minutes of calm for time out. The time starts over if he isn't calm (yelling, hitting things, crying is ok but whining is not, etc). Then start your stair steps once he's been calm for his 5 min. The point is to gain compliance and return him to the previous situation calmly.

Now what you are missing it seems is positive reinforcement. Set up a programs so he's always earning and never losing. When he is having inappropriate behavior he is no longer earning but once he goes back to compliant he starts earning again.

Reinforcement could be tv time, story time, one on one time w mom, but be consistent. If he earns it he gets it immediately, no putting it off till later.

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