How Do You Discipline a 4-Year-Old Who Doesn't Listen?

Parenting tips for dealing with 4-year-olds require a lot of patience and effective communication. These ideas include making eye contact, giving immediate consequences, being consistent, keeping it simple, staying calm, and others.
Parenting tips for dealing with 4-year-olds require a lot of patience and effective communication. These ideas include making eye contact, giving immediate consequences, being consistent, keeping it simple, staying calm, and others.

It’s a common refrain from parents, “My preschooler just doesn’t listen.” Four-year-olds are active and interested in the world around them. They need to explore and try new things, so it’s common for children this age to test limits and it can seem as if they are not listening to mom and dad. 

Before determining that a child truly isn’t listening, it’s important to ensure that medical conditions that could affect a child’s hearing or comprehension have been ruled out. As long as a doctor says nothing is going on that could affect a child’s ability to listen, pay attention, or comprehend, consider what “not listening” means. 

Sometimes, “not listening” does mean the child is ignoring you, but other times the child may simply be tired, hungry, or not feeling well and they do not yet have the language skills to effectively communicate their feelings and needs. Children may appear to be ignoring parents when they are actually frustrated, perhaps with their siblings, bedtime, or chores. Children this age don’t always know how to handle everything they are experiencing. 

Children may also choose not to listen as a way to assert power and express a need for more control and decision-making abilities in their lives. Of course, a 4-year-old can’t always make decisions for themselves, but sometimes parents can allow the child choices to help them learn to think critically and feel they have more control. 

Discipline is not the same as punishment or spanking. It’s about setting rules and boundaries to keep children safe or to learn appropriate behaviors. It involves following through on consequences when the child breaks the rules. 

Here are some tips to discipline preschoolers who don’t listen:

  • Make eye contact
    • Get on their level and look them in the eye
    • This helps strengthen communication 
  • Never ask something more than twice
    • Ask once nicely: “Please put your toys away.”
    • Ask a second time, and warn of a negative consequence if your child doesn’t listen: “I asked you to please put your toys away. If you haven’t done it by the time I count to five, you will not be able to play with them again until tomorrow.”
    • Apply the negative consequence, if necessary
  • Pick your battles 
    • If you say, “no” all the time, the child will tune you out
    • Determine what is important to you, set realistic limits, and follow through with appropriate consequences
  • Know your child's triggers 
    • Sometimes you know what will trigger unwanted behaviors and if you can anticipate it, you can often prevent it
    • For example, if your 4-year-old grabs cereal boxes off the store shelves, bring a toy to keep her occupied
  • Practice prevention 
    • When children are hungry, frustrated, or overtired, they may act out
    • If you know they are happy in the morning but cranky in the afternoon, schedule trips to the store or doctor appointments for times the child is in a better frame of mind
    • Also, explain what will be happening so the child feels prepared
  • Be consistent 
    • Don’t send mixed signals
    • Keep rules the same and respond the same way when they misbehave
    • It may take several tries over time (there is no set number of times a child will need to experience a consequence before changing behaviors -- every child is different)
    • Don’t lose your resolve just because your child acts cute or clever  
  • Don't get emotional 
    • They will only sense your mood and won’t listen to what you say
    • If you scream in anger, you show children how to react with anger
    • Count to three, calm yourself, and be serious, quick, and firm when you deliver the reprimand
  • Listen and repeat 
    • Repeat your child’s concerns when possible so your child feels heard
    • This can reduce anger
  • Keep it brief and simple 
    • Be concise and don’t turn a five-second answer into a five-minute lecture
    • Preschoolers don’t have the attention span 
    • Simply state what needs to be done and consequences if it is not
  • Make sure they understand what you said
    • Ask your child to repeat back what you said
    • Often, children simply misunderstand or forget what is asked of them
    • Repeating what you say can help improve communication 
  • Offer choices 
    • Often a child will refuse to do something because it’s a control issue
    • Offer a limited set of choices so the child feels some control
    • Choices should be specific and acceptable to you
      • For example, instead of telling the child to clean her room, offer her the choice, “Would you like to pick up your toys or your clothes first?”
  • Make an observation
    • When the child does something they should not, such as leaving their toys on the floor, instead of reprimanding them, simply observe, “I notice your toys are on the floor.” 
    • This gives the child the opportunity to let you know they will pick them up and then you can thank them for their good behavior
  • Watch your words
    • Turn “you” messages into “I” messages
    • Instead of, “You’re acting selfishly,” try, “I like it when I see you share your toys with your friends.”
  • Tell your child what to DO instead of “don’t”
    • Children constantly hear “don’t do this or that,” which is a negative command
    • It makes the child wonder what they should NOT do, as well as what they should do instead
    • For example, instead of, “Don’t leave your toys on the floor,” try, “Please put your toys in the toy box.”
  • Teach empathy
    • Preschoolers don’t always understand why they shouldn’t do something they think is fun, such as hitting, biting, or taking toys from others
    • Explain, “When you take your friend’s toy, they feel sad,” to help the child understand how their behaviors affect others and train them to think about consequences
  • Use a time-out 
    • If reprimands, redirection, and loss of privileges do not stop your child from repeating the unwanted behavior, try a time-out
    • First give a stern warning that a time-out is the consequence if they do not change the behavior
    • If they still do not listen, explain to the child why this behavior is unacceptable, and then put them in a time-out
    • A general rule of thumb is time-outs should be about 1 minute per year of age
    • Time-outs should be in a distraction-free area (no TV or toys) and parents should not give the child any attention, such as talking or even eye contact
    • When the time-out is over, ask the child to apologize and give a hug to show you are not angry
    • Most preschoolers don’t like being separated from their parents and toys and eventually the threat of a time-out is enough to stop the unwanted behavior
  • Offer options to express emotions
    • If a child is frustrated, offer for them to hit a pillow
    • This can help children learn that his emotions are ok, but there are appropriate ways of expressing them
  • Reward good behavior 
    • Notice when they are being good
    • Encourage your child when they exhibit the behaviors you want to see more of
    • Using special rewards can incentivize good behavior
    • For example, a child can get a star when they behave, and a certain number of stars will get them a small reward such as a book or toy
  • Look for reasons to say, “Yes”
    • Children hear, “No,” all the time and it may cause them to stop listening to your requests, since theirs are dismissed
    • Of course, it is necessary to say no sometimes, but try to say yes when it’s reasonable, for example, instead of saying, “No, we can’t go to the playground today,” try, “The playground sounds fun. Would you like to go after school tomorrow or on Saturday?”
  • Say “thank you” in advance
    • Encourage good behavior by acting as if you expect it, for example, “Thank you for putting your toys away,” rather than, “You’d better not leave your toys on the floor!” 
    • Children often rise to meet expectations when they are reasonable and framed positively
  • Stay positive 
    • You will inevitably be frustrated from time to time
    • If children hear this frustration, they may not have a positive image of you and will repeat the unwanted behavior
    • If you need to talk, turn to another adult such as your partner, your child’s pediatrician, a trusted friend, or a therapist