I have two children, a four year old and a two year old. Both my kids are sweet and kind hearted. However, the 4yo has suffered from separation anxiety in the past and has a very stubborn personality. These issues we had been working on since we noticed them, and were making progress until we had to self-isolate due to the Covid-19 situation in our region.

The issue I am having most struggle with is her not listening. I grew up in a very abusive home (emotional and physical). All I know is fear, intimidation, bullying and anger. I know this is not right! My wife on the other hand grew up with parents who truly loved her, and showed it through their actions. When my daughter doesn't listen (e.g. it's time to pick up our toys and get ready for bed.) and I have asked upwards of a dozen times, tried to make a game of it, all the things...that I can think of all I know (and what I revert to) is get loud. I want to break this habit of mine...it is not right. But, foremost how do I do both?

It is getting to the point where I am hesitant to take her anywhere, fishing, biking, etc. because of how poorly she listens, and sometimes people just need to listen for their own safety. I want to build good habits in her...but am at a loss. She is a lot like me so when I get loud, she gets loud...again, not good.

In short - how can I work on getting my 4yo to listen, while not reverting to the bad habits built by my past?


I want to give an update. I appreciate your responses and insights! I truly do. What I am going to do is take what you have said, and apply them before coming back and marking a response as "correct" I will also be adding what I saw in my child to the comment below that response, in an attempt to give clarity should someone else who is having this problem see this question.

  • Have you tried time outs before you get loud? Commented May 6, 2020 at 4:48
  • @anon: Do you consider solitary confinement to be any less severe a punishment than a harsh scolding? I get that as a parent, you may get the feeling that you've been better able to manage your anger this way, but I think therein is also the problem. Getting loud with your kid is at least an emotional exchange, albeit not a very constructive one, and one that stems from an inability to reach an agreement (and hence inherently signals that an agreement is even valuable).
    – user36162
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 6:12
  • Time outs, on the other hand, signal to me that you'll enforce your will regardles and that the child's will is not even a factor. That love and attention from family members and the ability to interact with your family is a privilege that has to be deserved, rather than an unconditional constant that the child should never have to doubt. That you will not even acknowledge their presence until they conform to the law that you've laid down. That, to me, is a rather bleak view of the parent-child relationship.
    – user36162
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 6:12
  • @dxh - That's an interesting perspective on time outs, one that I'll need to consider more. But yes, I think anger ("loud voices") is worse than giving the child a time out. My child's will and reasoning is always important to me. I would prefer to say yes to what I can, negotiate what I can't say yes to, and be able to say "no" without getting angry at a meltdown. Commented May 6, 2020 at 15:46
  • 2
    @dxh - We disagree. My father was volatile (and went further than yelling.) Time outs are predictable and non-violent; there's noting threatening about them except a few minutes' loss of freedom. They aren't a rejection of the child; they are a rejection of their behavior. Again, I remind you, my children's feelings mattered a great deal to me. Read any of my answers from the past. Commented May 7, 2020 at 6:17

4 Answers 4


First of all, hats off for recognising your part in this problem, and for looking for alternatives. I have seen many well meaning parents who fail in both respects. The former is imperative. As the adult, in an adult-child relationship, we are responsible for making sure that the relationship thrives and that interactions are fruitful. Failing to claim ownership of parenting challenges, if our view of problems is that the only possible solution is for the child to change their behaviour, then we are only rendering ourselves powerless in effecting change.

As parents, we often like to think that we are making few, simple and reasonable requests of our children, when in fact every request is often an entire battery of expectations, that not only the thing should be done, but immediately, and in the manner we would've done it, and perhaps also without having involved the child in the reasons why the thing must be done, or without taking the child's needs into consideration when deciding that it should be done at all. Children that age can often imagine a set of solutions to a situation where we are stuck with one. Ours might objectively be the best one, but our rigidity still means it's actually we who are stubborn.

An example: this winter, I was skiing with my three year old. At one point, we were dropping off some gear at a lodge, which involved us walking past the place where she had parked her skis, before we'd go to the slopes. Upon seeing her skis, she wanted to pick them up immediately. I, on the other hand, was already carrying as much as I was keen to, and there was absolutely no point in picking them up as we'd be walking back the same way before we'd need them. So I tried to explain that we'd pick them up as soon as we had dropped this other stuff off, which wasn't acceptable at all to her, and that had us in a real power struggle for a while. It wasn't until it was clear that she wasn't budging that I realised that I was expecting my three year old to be the adult in our interaction and take responsibility for solving the situation. At which point I said "ok, we'll carry them, but we're not bringing them into the lodge", and this deal she accepted without hesitation.

In practice, all that happened was that we carried her skis some fifty meters, put them down in front of the entrance, and then carried them back on our way out. If you ask me, a completely futile exercise. I still think my suggestion made more logistic sense. But if you take her point of view, who knows, perhaps she empathised with the skis being left alone. Perhaps having a say in our planning was an end in itself. And without knowing exactly what she was getting out of it, I am not in a position to say whether my plan was even superior, all things considered. All I know is that however meaningless the action seemed to me, it also wasn't that hard for me to comply, and a little flexibility on my end ended an entirely avoidable conflict.

It's also worth remembering that we are almost always the agenda setters. The kid may get to choose what to play, but in the time frame we dictate between when we decide is a good time for dinner and when we decide they need to go to bed, for instance. And don't get me wrong, both of those are decisions that we are better equipped to make. But the value of going to bed in time is so obvious to us that we may mistake it for a rule handed down from above, when it's just yet another case of us enforcing our will. It's yet another request. In this scenario, another tip is to lean in to the play. Get involved and gently steer the play towards a timely end, rather than abruptly demanding an end. If you're not involved in my play, I rightly cannot know that you have factored in the negative experience of finishing it when arriving at the conclusion that is should be finished. Also, and perhaps obviously, look for natural exits, rather than abruptly terminating play. If it was a game of cards, and you were involved in it, you wouldn't walk out in the middle of a hand because it was time to go to bed, you'd find a good place to pause. That's difficult to do when you're not part of the play, but you can prepare the child by making sure they know that bedtime is coming, and ask that they look for a good place to end the play, so that you don't have to end it in a bad place. At the moment, that particular tip is not working for us; if I say we have to leave in a bit and that our preschooler should find a good place to pause the game, she'll say "no, I need a timer" (because we tried that once). So I set an arbitrary short amount of time on a timer and she'll know when the timer goes off she know she has to leave. I think it's mostly the novelty of the timer that's appealing, but the choice to have an abrupt ending is within her own control, and this still meets the end of giving her a heads up that play will end soon, and some time to prepare for that. While not working for us at the moment, I still think the use of natural places to end is sound. I'll throw in that and what we're doing as an example of being flexible and doing what turns out to work in your family.

In short:

  • Take ownership of the conflicts, so that you have the agency to resolve them.
  • Be flexible when you can. We're often told that children need boundaries for the sake of boundaries, but I find that children who can only have a say in decisions regarding them by putting up a fight will be more prone to put up a fight.
  • Try to scrutinise your own rigid preconceptions of how and when things need to be done. Try going a whole day where you actively, whenever a conflict arises, really consider if the child's request is at all feasible. What you were trying to decide may still seem better, but ask yourself is the child's alternative is so untenable that you really must have it your own way again.
  • Explain why you make the decisions you do. Sometimes reasons obvious to us are simply not apparent to the child and they resist because they don't have your insight. Often, once they know why you need to have it your way, they'll be surprisingly creative in adapting their own idea to accommodate that fact. Then explain why that new idea doesn't work. Reiterate until they've adapted their will into a workable compromise, but don't overdo it, see the previous point and accept the compromise when it's at all feasible.
  • Involve the child in planning the day, and give notices well in advance when they need to transition to a new activity. Invite them to stop what they're doing in a manner that makes sense to them.

She is a lot like me so when I get loud, she gets loud...again, not good.

This came up in a comment, but I recommend timeouts when this happens.

The best way to think of timeouts is as an emotional rest break, as much for you as for them. You don't get loud, you don't lose your temper because you activate the timeout before that happens. Simply firmly go "to your room", point to it, and begin a countdown. If the countdown ends, calmly (note: she will not be calm) pick her up and carry her to the room, put her down and stand at the door. If she tries to escape, just repeat the process till she gets frustrated. Then close the door, scream into a pillow, make a cup of tea, and when you feel emotionally ready, do everything in this excellent answer. Occasionally you'll realise you were being unreasonable. It's okay to admit that to them, they need to know it's okay to push back.

I grew up in a loving stable family, and I still occasionally go into Full Metal Jacket when it gets too much. If you're struggling with your own upbringing, being afraid to go "we need to get some space before the shouting starts, go to your room" sounds crippling.

Remember and make it clear to them, timeouts are not strictly a punishment. Her room should be a nice place to be! Half the time I've sent my daughter (4) to her room, with her marching up the stairs wailing "nobody likes me", I come up to find her cheerfully playing 10 minutes later. Sometimes we all just need space, even more so at the moment.

  • "when I get loud she gets loud": OP is escalating the situation, not the child. I find it rather hypocritical to send someone off to their room in that scenario. Yes, they both need an emotional rest break but from this description, it's the parent who should be confined to their room.
    – user36162
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 21:45
  • I can see the argument, but be wary of reading too much into that statement. It could as easily be "when she gets loud, I get loud"
    – deworde
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 22:10
  • perhaps it could but from reading the entire question, it seems pretty clear (and op also seems to have realized) that it is the parent who is having a temperament issue. And instead of trying to address that, is asking how to alter his child's behaviour in order to mitigate the consequences of that issue, which is pretty backwards if you ask me.
    – user36162
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 23:11

This will be only a partial answer, because it does not work for not picking up toys in the evening, when you are pressed for time and you need your child to stay calm so she can sleep.

But for situations where you have a little time for conflict and it's resolution, remember that a 4-year-old is still conveniently small. You can pick her up and put her on the stairs for a time-out, or back in the car if she really misbehaves during a day out.

Also you can talk with her about her behaviour at some other time, when she is relaxed. Our son (now 6) had a very hard time with this, he finds it very hard to admit that he did something wrong. But he would learn from such talks.

In my experience as a toddler grows into a pre-schooler, there are new parenting duties involving guidance and correction which are a lot less fun.

  • Like I said, the picking up toys was an example. Her attitude and behavior basically is consistent if she doesn't get her way...she doesn't listen, takes off, or just sits still and say, "no"... And I have no problem being "less fun" as you put it, I want to do so without the anger that boils. Commented May 5, 2020 at 17:44

"Getting loud" is not necessarily a bad thing as long as you stay under control. Part of what you need to do is to convey your emotional state to your child, and a raised voice can be a good way to do this. Saying "I am getting angry because you are not doing as you are told." can also help.

What is harmful is unpredictability. A parent who is sweet reason one moment and in a shouty rant the next is frightening, but a steady increase in firmness and volume lets the child know that they are pushing the boundary and had better comply.

So in addition to the good advice in other answers I would suggest you practice a slow, deliberate increase in firmness and volume. You can also underline your words by getting down to the child's level, getting them to make eye contact, and asking questions like "Do you understand?" and "So what are you going to do now?".

  • 2
    Sharing your emotions - and letting your child know you have a wide range of them - is not only good, it's great! But frightening a child is never ok, even though it happens often, like when people yell at their children. Yelling is anger, and anger is loss of self control. That loss of self control is threatening to a dependent child. A "steady increase in firmness and volume" does not make it less of a loss of control, it just scares the child earlier. The whole point of yelling is to intimidate. Not a good parenting skill. Commented May 6, 2020 at 15:42

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