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4 year-old is a bully! Help!

Hello Dr. Laura,

My four year old bullies all the kids in his preschool. The teachers do a great job of redirecting his behavior but he continually hits the other children and gets up in their faces.

We give him time outs for bad behavior out the house, and we don't allow him to watch too much t.v. in effort to quell the aggression.

What else can we do to get him to stop hitting other children in his preschool? He also exhibits the same kind of aggression when he comes in contact with children at the house or at church. We are desperate.
--Kristin

Kristin,
I'm so glad you wrote. This is may well be on the normal continuum of aggressive four year old behavior, but it is also possible that your son needs professional help. I can't tell that from your letter. So I am going to advise you assuming that you can manage this, and I will warn you up front that it will take some real effort on your part. Most likely, you can turn the situation around if you commit yourself to it. But you don't have a lot of time. If you don't see results within a few months, you should consider taking your son for an evaluation.

Ok, so let's assume we have a normal four year old who has begun to intimidate and hit other children. I hear often from moms with four year olds who start hitting, and some experts even call it “the angry stage.” Four year olds often hit a difficult stretch where they want more control and get angry when they are treated in what they feel is a less than respectful manner. They also test the limits, so that if they are allowed to treat others disrespectfully, they do. That doesn’t mean they’ll grow up to be axe-murderers, it means they’re four, and trying to learn how to use power responsibly. Four year olds need us to model and teach them how to manage their feelings, and actions. The key with kids this age is teaching them that feeling mad is just part of being human, and that there is a respectful, caring way to work out conflicts.

In my experience, hitting usually comes from bottled up fear that overrides the child's natural empathy.  Most kids who hit have intense feelings, and they are often extremely sensitive.

So how can you and his dad intervene?

The first thing you should know is that every time you use power over your boy you are teaching him the exact behavior you're trying to eliminate. That doesn't mean you don't set limits. Of course you must. But you set those limits with empathy. If possible, you prevent bad behavior to minimize his feeling bad about himself. Any punishment will backfire, including timeouts, by increasing his anger level and teaching him that more powerful people can push smaller people around. What he needs is a ton of love, limits set with empathy, and lots of physical play that gets him laughing, so he can work through any fear that is causing him to lash out.  Here's what I recommend:

1. Discuss the situation with the teachers in your son's school. It sounds like they are indeed doing a great job if they are redirecting him instead of punishing him. They have seen a wide range of kids and will be able to evaluate how severe the situation is. They will also know under what circumstances your son gets triggered. Does the hitting happen when he is hungry before lunch? Tired? Feeling crowded by the other kids? Feeling sad after you have just dropped him off in the morning? If possible, agree on the language you will use about his behavior. In other words, you want to say "He is learning to control his temper" rather than "He is a bully." These are self-fulfilling prophecies.

2. Take some time by yourselves to list all the wonderful things about your son. Usually our weaknesses are just the flip side of our strengths. I'm betting your son is a spirited, take-charge, passionate kind of guy. You will need to be in touch with all those good things about him to hold a positive image of him in your mind. Remember that when a plant is struggling it usually needs different conditions. Criticizing kids or yelling at them to "Straighten up and grow right!" doesn't work any better than it does with plants. Every day, remind yourself and your son how much you love him. It is your job as the parent to hold the image in your mind of your child flourishing. I highly recommend that you pick up Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child to help you reframe your attitude toward your son. They may well have it at your library.

3. The only reason your son will stop hitting other kids is if he feels good about himself and his relationships with you and his dad.  If he feel like he's being unfairly bossed around at home, then he will unfairly boss around the kids at school.  On the other hand, if he feels like he is treated with loving compassion, he will be MUCH more likely to treat others with loving compassion.  If he wants to please you -- and ALL kids want to please their parents, even if they don't show it because they've become convinced it's impossible -- and you make it clear that learning to control his temper will please you, he will learn to control his temper.  So the most important thing you can do is to connect with him and affirm him. Make sure that each of you has positive time with your son every single day, one on one, in which you "hang out" with him, letting him take the lead. It could be playing with trains or reading a story.  Let him be in charge. You are there to enjoy being with him and fill his “love bank account.” Focus on building your connection with him in a playful, loving way. If you can sense that your relationship with him needs some repair work, make that your top priority.

4. Make sure that every day he gets a lot of giggling in.  Why? Because giggling releases anxiety, otherwise known as fear.  Kids who are aggressive generally have a lot of fear locked up inside.  So wrestle with him, have pillow fights, pretend you're a scary monster  and chase him, but then stumble -- any physical play that gets him giggling, except for tickling (which does not provide the same release.)  You'll know you're on the right track if he's giggling - do more of whatever makes him laugh.  You're helping him release the feelings that are causing the aggression, and you're bonding with him at the same time.

5. Stop punishing and using timeouts. When we punish, kids feel bad about themselves and misbehave more. The worse they behave, the more they need our love and compassion. Eliminate any power struggles with your son. Give him choices about as many things in his life as possible so that he doesn't feel pushed around.

Please read my articles on Positive Discipline for more on discipline that works.

Tell him: ''We're going to work as a team to help you learn to manage your feelings. It’s hard when you’re four. The more you practice, the easier it gets. Soon you will be able to control yourself. I am so impressed with the way you are trying.''

6. Instead of timeouts, set limits as necessary, offering empathy when he doesn't like them. "We have to leave church now because you hit the other boy. I'm sorry you're mad and sad, but we can't stay when you hit."

Does he get a timeout when he gets home? No. Leaving was not a punishment for hitting. It was a limit -- we can't play when there is hitting.  Instead you give him words for his feelings and teach him how he might handle them next time. You ask him what happened. As he describes it, you give him words for the feelings involved: "You were mad because the other kids didn't want to play the game your way. That was pretty frustrating. It's ok to get mad, all people get mad sometimes. But we NEVER hit. What else can you do when you get really mad?" Go through all the options. Let him suggest the "bad choices" like hitting other kids, and ask him "Would that be a good choice? Nah." (Smiling is allowed.) Make it clear that while any feeling he has is ok, he chooses his own response to those feelings and he is responsible for his choices. Explain that he needs to acknowledge his angry feelings and choose to do something constructive with them.

If during this discussion your son begins to cry, that's terrific. He's showing you the feelings that pushed him to lash out. Once he feels those emotions, they evaporate, and he doesn't need to hit. So your goal is to provide enough safety for him to cry if he wants to. 

7. Help him brainstorm safe ways to express his frustration. Maybe he can carry a squeezy ball in his pocket to fill up with his mad feelings. Maybe he can go off by himself and take ten deep “calming” breaths when he’s frustrated (breathe in deeply through the nose, hold it a moment, and let it out very slowly through a small hole in your lips). Maybe he can turn around away from other people and hit the empty air. Maybe he can do push-ups. The trick with all of these things is to teach him while he’s feeling good, then remind him when he's upset, so be sure to share them with his teachers. You’ll be amazed when you see him try one of these techniques when he’s under stress.

8. It will increase the chances of things going smoothly, if before he will be playing with other kids, you remind him of the rules: “When we get to church, you and the other kids will all need to share the toys. If you get mad, you can ask the teacher for help, or come find me, and I will help you, ok? If you forget and hit, we will need to stop having fun and leave right away. So let’s remember to keep our hands on our own bodies and have fun with the other kids, ok? Do you have your squeeze ball? I can't wait to hear when I pick you up how you’ve managed your feelings. I am so proud of you for working hard to manage your feelings."

9. Since your son has developed some bad habits, set up some one-on-one play dates to "re-educate" him. Your goal is to supervise him, prevent any violence, teach him alternative behavior. That means you don't really want another mom there to distract you with chatting, and you can't leave them to play while you catch up on work. Your job is to simply sit with the kids while they play. You’ll see when he’s about to clobber someone, and you can intervene to prevent it. “You really want the dump truck. Devon has it right now. We don’t hit, we use our words and keep our hands on our own body.”

Help him learn to negotiate with other kids by offering solutions. “You both want the dump truck. Devon has it right now and it will be your turn soon. Do you think we could trade Devon for the snow plow?” Then model how to offer the trade to Devon. If Devon doesn’t take the deal, empathize with your son's disappointment, positively affirm that he isn’t hitting, then reassure him that waiting is worth it and that you’re there to help: “You love that truck. It’s hard to see someone else playing with it.  I will make sure you get a turn with the truck. I know how much you want it. I will help you wait.”  If he cries, comfort him and keep empathizing until it's his turn.

10. Worried that you’re indulging your kid by comforting him in his disappointment? You’re not. Clearly, ignoring his deep desire for the dump truck won’t make his feelings go away, it will just make it more likely that he’ll use the nuclear option and clobber the other kid for the truck. If you acknowledge his big feelings, he doesn’t have to act them out as much. You’re helping him develop empathy by offering him empathy. You will probably find that after he cries and you comfort him, he is much more relaxed and less aggressive with the other child. He may not even be so fixated on the dump truck. Sometimes, what they needed all along was to reconnect with Mom, or to let off stress. We all know we can feel a lot better after a good cry when someone we love holds us.

11. If, despite your best efforts, he hits the other child and makes off with the truck, take a deep breath and stay calm. First, comfort the other child.  When the other child is calm, hug your boy, and say: "You must be very upset to hit.  But hitting hurts. Now we have to stop playing.” Pick him up – not roughly, just normally – and hold him while you apologize to the child he hit. “He is so sorry he hit you. He was upset and he forgot to use his words. We hope you feel better.  We're going to go calm down. Here’s the dump truck.”  This is the only time I would ever advise taking a toy away from him, and you should do it as gently and empathically as possible. You aren’t the enemy, the rule is the enemy, like a law of nature: When you hit, you have to stop playing. Then carry him away from the toys into the other room.

If he has a meltdown, hold him while he cries. If not, just help him to process what happened. Empathize with his feelings. Remind him of how he can manage them. Extract a promise that hitting won't happen again before you let him play with the other child. If he hits a second time, call the mother and tell her that you're sorry but you need to end the playdate.

12. Reinforce all progress in the right direction, including the times when he barely restrains himself. “You wanted the dumptruck and you used your words to tell me. You kept your hands on your own body! You used your squeeze ball! You took calming breaths! You must be so proud of yourself! Let’s see if Devon can give you a turn soon. I will help you wait for your turn.”

13. If you can make it a constant practice to honor your little guy’s feelings, he will begin to develop the emotional intelligence necessary to manage them. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with him, or that you stop setting limits. It means you acknowledge his feelings and offer empathy. “You wish you could have that candy. It’s almost dinner time, so no candy. I know that makes you sad. You can have some carrots if you’re hungry, and I can give you a hug to make you feel better. We can snuggle on the couch and read your book. I see you’re too sad and mad to read right now, you want that candy so much you’re crying. It’s hard to be so sad and mad. When you’re ready I’ll hold you and give you a big hug.”

14. The reason we don’t hit other people is that we feel for them. Helping him develop empathy is something you can do all day every day, just going through your daily life. “Look, that little girl is crying in her stroller. I wonder why she’s so sad?” or “Oh oh, Robbie fell down and got hurt. Ouch, that must hurt. Do you think it would cheer him up if we offered him a hug?” or “Kaylee sure is mad. She doesn’t want to go home, does she?” And, of course, every time you empathize with him, you are teaching him to empathize with others.

15. Be ready for meltdowns as you work with your son on his anger management. Sometimes kids hit because they can't tolerate their sad and mad feelings and they haven't been allowed to express them. Your job is to give him language for his feelings and let him express them. If he wants to cry, that's fine. Hold him and empathize: "You feel so sad you just want to cry." He doesn't have to know what it's about, and your goal is to let him get it off his chest, not to cheer him up. If he's too angry to hold, let him thrash on the floor, but stay nearby. Don't try to talk sense into him, just say "I see how mad and sad you are. When you're ready, I'm right here if you need a hug."

16. Your son may be hitting because he can't tolerate it when he doesn't get his way. By accepting the full range of his feelings and loving him through them, you're teaching him that he can't always get what he wants, but he can have something much more valuable: a chance to express the depths of his despair while he is understood and accepted by the most important person in his world. He learns that the full range of who he is inside is acceptable, even lovable. That feeling of being wholly loved and lovable will extend, over time, into more generosity with others.

17. I know this will sound crazy, but I have seen amazing personality changes when kids who were allergic to certain foods eliminated those foods from their diets. Check out the post on this forum from a mom whose kids' behavior improved dramatically when she tried the Feingold diet. You might want to check out her letter and their website, at Feingold.org.

18. Eliminate all TV.  A major study recently found a 9% increase in bullying behavior for each hour of  daily TV watched by kids under the age of four.  This may seem dramatic, but even "educational" TV can be over-stimulating for some kids.  In fact, studies show that three and four year olds learn both the "bad" behavior and the "good"behavior shown on educational TV, so if they see bullying and then caring behavior as the antidote, they are just as likely to copy the bullying.  Instead of TV, give him plenty of fresh air and exercise after preschool, lots of snuggling and stories, and an early bedtime. That kind of a schedule gives every child more self-control. And many kids need a couple of hours of outdoor play after preschool.

19. I don't know if your son is in preschool full time, but you might consider moving him to part time if possible. Research has shown that for some kids, daycare causes more aggression. These kids need more downtime, or they feel overwhelmed, and they start hitting other kids. They benefit from attentive supervision from adults to learn social skills while they play with other kids, so playdates are better than group situations for them. And most of the time, more quality time with Mom or Dad makes a huge difference.

I know that what I'm describing may seem like a fulltime job for awhile. My feeling is that your son is at a turning point, and he's letting you know it. If you can commit yourself to his well-being, you can reorient him toward a bright future. He really needs you on his side, and now is the time to let him know you're there.

I wish you every blessing.

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Anonymous commented on 27-Feb-2009 05:42 PM
thank you so much for all of the information.
My son doesn't hit but he gets very angry and wants to dominate. Consequently he's having trouble with friends at school. I really like your advice. My husband and I are commiting ourselves to helping him through this period and hopefully it will be successful.
Thank you so much!
Anonymous commented on 17-Aug-2009 11:59 PM
my what a thoughtful and useful post! and cutting out all TV is GREAT advice!!
Anonymous commented on 29-Sep-2009 07:26 AM
my four and three quarter year old daughter just had a complete meltdown after i forced her to put on her socks & shoes before going outside to play on cold wet ground. she'd previously wetted and soiled two pairs of socks (mistaking them as shoes)in the attempt to go outside. frustrating. the meltdown culminated after a series of bargainings and choices offered to her, about sock types, and sock swaps with her older (7 year old sister). anger in her just continued to build up and kicking, hitting, screaming and hyperventilating rapidly became her only language. in hindsight i feel after much exasperation and frustration on my part the threat (and execution) of a light smack didn't improve the scenario, for either of us. she just became more and more hysterical. it was ridiculous. contextualising it- it was the end of long day, she may have been hungrier than expected, i was tired, and her sibling r/s wasn't travelling 100% well that day with some cussing and snapping between them. she also has an occaisionally fractious r/s with her sister, which is sometimes characterised by by violence between them. this anger has increased in the last several months. it tends too be directed at people not always compliant with her wishes. i've read the above, and seen the suggestion of nothing but loving kindness (not always easy), the squeeze ball, and deep breathing. these are good ideas. i give up on the smacking idea - it doesn't work for this situation. irrespective of the context, it also hypocritises any parental advice about encouraging non-violent behaviour in children. so for me the answer is: not to smack.
Anonymous commented on 02-Oct-2009 01:42 AM
Wow thank you so much my son is only 4 and he hits a lot he is always in time out and that's not working. I'm going to do what you said and see what happens???
Anonymous commented on 14-Oct-2009 08:30 PM
great info, many tips and techniques we can take away and try with ur son. thanks so much!
Sam's mom commented on 03-May-2010 12:54 PM
Great information to help with my bossy, sometimes aggressive (but smart and lovable) 4 year old. Time outs aren't working and I think he will respond to your recommendations. Thanks!
Anonymous commented on 12-May-2010 09:23 PM
Thanks so much for the information. I was just informed that my 4 year old has started hitting and pushing and taking other kids toys at daycare. I will print this article and follow some of the steps. I don't know why children don't come with a handbook !!!!! Thanks
Anonymous commented on 15-May-2010 06:26 PM
Man! My son's school admin called me in yesterday to tell me that he is being labeled a "bully". He is four and hearing that word made my heart hurt in the worst way. There have been two incidents at his school, which in my opinion is NOT enough of a pattern for him to be labeled. Being an educator myself, I WILL NOT tolerate my son being labeled, but I want to help my son. So, I have asked his teachers to monitor and observe his behaviors, so we can see what we can do next. These are WONDERFUL points, and I will be sure to use them.
Klily commented on 17-Nov-2010 02:31 PM
My son starting hitting in school and he understands what he does is wrong. I wasn't sure how to handle the situation and how to speak to him but now I fully do. This was a very useful post. I also decided to give him positive reinforcements with a point system. Reward him when he is well behaved with marbles and a jar. He gets excited to put his marbles in the jar and looks for good things to do to help around the house and he has stopped hitting since he knows he won't get any marbles if he does so.
Kim commented on 16-Dec-2010 04:50 PM
My 4yr old son actually has been hitting since he started school. The first couple of weeks were great but then he just started hitting, pushing. It's really ridiculous. He knows what he does is wrong.

When he gets punished, I ask him, Jayden, why are you being punished right now? He says, because I hit my friends. I always make sure to stress why he gets punished. He still does it.

I call the school twice a day from work. Morning and afternoon to get my report. So the teachers are aware, they're aware that I'm aware. We're all trying to work together. The social worker said he's got poor impulse control issues. He also has trouble waiting in line/his turn for things. His patience is thin. Just like his mother's. I googled what they said and ADD and ADHD came up alot. I know I would have to have him evaluated but how does that sound?

A lot of the points of advice sounds do-able. But one thing. I can't really see myself coddling him when he's having a tantrum. Especially if it's in public. If he's throwing a tantrum in a public place and completely embarrassing both of us. I'm not going to talk smoothly to him and hug him while he's having a complete melt down. Usually what I do if I see even a tear beginning to form on his face is I begin to count, Jayden I'm going to count to 3. If by 3 you have not stopped crying we're leaving and we're going home now. He stops by 2 and forgets 5 minutes later why he was crying. I am going to try the other things though. More empathy on other things.
Anonymous commented on 08-Mar-2011 09:53 PM
thank you so much for these ideas. my son is 3 years and 10 months and has been pushing kids around since day one of preschool. the teachers are wonderful and reassure me that it is a normal thing for some kids..not for me..it just makes me ill waiting to see if the teacher is going to ask me to "stay for a minute"...it makes my heart hurt to think that he could be scaring other little kids..not fair to them. we have gone down to 2 hours a day of television, it just isn't realistic in our house to rid of it entirely, but trying. and we started making sure he goes out everyday, rain or shine for some kind of fresh air activity. it's helping:0).so i will be doing these things, and hoping. thank you again.
Tracey @ Don't Mess with Mama commented on 30-Apr-2011 02:13 AM
Really great post. I feel like this was written for me. I love that you address the child's feelings and need to empathize and recognize it. I think I was focused on being too punitive and felt my son had to go on timeouts to serve out his time. In the
end, it would make him more upset and he'd even say I didn't love him. He's so different from my older son who needed timeout too cool down. These are all great techniques and I plan to check out the book you recommended. I think you really nailed it: get
out of the power struggle and get to the root of their feelings to help them cope with their anger better. Great job! I got more out of this post than I have for the last several books on parenting spirited or defiant children. I even wrote a blog post about
my son's experiences and linked to this article. Thanks for your advice! http://dontmesswithmama.com/2011/04/30/is-my-kid-a-bully/
Masha commented on 21-Nov-2011 05:15 AM
Kim, I would like to answer something you said in your post... I really don't understand why do you think your son is ebarrassing both of your when he is crying/yelling, etc in public. When you see a mother with her children who are having a tantrum, do
you think: "Ha, look at her and her children, she can't control them, pfff, what a bad mother!" ? Do you think that? I don't. And I bet no one else does, either. Also, making you child to stop crying is telling him crying is bad. Do you imagine being really
sad over something and being forbidden to cry? It hurts twice as much! It is hard when you feel helpless and don't know what else to do to calm down your child, but it feels so much better when you try what dr. Laura is saying - and it feels better for both
of you. And I think it's really important to understand that your child's feelings are way more important than what other people think about you or your child.
kim commented on 13-Mar-2012 07:44 PM
I have a lot of optimism that these techniques are effective...I noticed a difference when I first started the talking to him...he didn't cry when I spoke to him and he seemed to understand...when I dropped him off at daycare I had to remind him several
times...he is mean to animals also...then kids when he wants a toy they have...but I feel this method is a lot more effective...and I feel I'm getting closer becuz I am getting thru to him....thanks so much for this article!!!
Hadyn commented on 27-Mar-2012 09:19 PM
Thank you for seeing right into my 2nd son's heart (and yup! he's 4-1/2). My husband and I have realized for some time now that his outbursts are triggered most frequently in situations where he experiences rejection, is misunderstood, ignored, or simply
feels threatened (just this afternoon, a stranger at Chik-Fil-A walked up to him and tried to wipe mayonnaise off his hands so my son melted on the floor in angry tears with his fist pulled to hit the guy!). My less-than-helpful parents accuse us of coddling
him in ways we don't coddle our 1st son, but we just know our children and they each respond very differently to stress, new people/situations, etc. We have considered having him evaluated, but I'd like to wait until closer to Kindergarten (another year) to
see if we can help curb his more extreme reactions in the meantime. Thank you so much for your balanced wisdom and for validating so much of my "sensitive" son's struggles.

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