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The Frustrated Four Year Old

The Frustrated Four Year Old

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

Longtime reader here, since my oldest was born, and he’s a couple of months older than Ike. I’ve heavily used your advice columns in the past – thanks for being real and no-drama about, well, all the things.

My husband and I are a bit stumped lately, not to mention extremely tense, and we’re afraid our wonderful daycare teachers are nearing their wits’ end as well.

My just-turned-four year old has recently starting having problems with his frustration levels at daycare, and occasionally at home. It generally stems from him not being able to accomplish something he wants to do, or something didn’t go quite as he planned it. This is a very recent development – he’s generally pretty chill. He gets frustrated, but we just tell him to either calm down and ask for help/figure it out, or go take a break, and he does one or the other and it’s fine. In the past three weeks, however, he’s had incidents at school where his frustration escalates to levels of trying to bite his teachers, kicking, throwing chairs, screaming, and even slapping one of his classmates. Again – completely different from his standard reactions. We have a younger child as well, nearing 2, at home, but we only see this behavior at home rarely. It’s always in very (to us) small deal situations. This morning it was because the cheese didn’t come out of its wrapper correctly. Yesterday it’s because his teacher asked some of his classmates to step away from the play doh area, where he was playing but he wanted them to watch his creation. Last week it was that he was told not to climb up the slide, which is a long-standing rule.

So far, we’ve only found what doesn’t work. Touching him, trying to talk him down, only makes him react more strongly. Giving him consequences (no TV time, timeout in your room until dinner, no getting to do the fun family activity we had planned) seem to make him contrite, but not enough to actually change his behavior when he gets upset. We’ve had reward systems at school – a sticker for each area of the day he’s a good listener in, even a teacher-made racetrack that he gets to progress along when he makes it through certain sections of his day without incident. These work for about a week, usually, and then he decides he’s done a good job with that and its not worth behaving well to get that same kind of reward again. We’ve come into daycare during our work hours not because they asked us to, but to impress upon him the gravity of how he’s acting. He had another incident later that same day. Timeouts can work, but only if he chooses to listen and actually go to his room/the quiet area at school, since he often will ignore instruction and continue screaming and throwing things. We think it might be exacerbated at school because regulations dictate he can’t leave the room and be alone for three minutes to calm himself down and with 20 kids in it and 2/3 teachers, even the quiet area at school can be right in the middle of the other busy activities of his preschool. Whenever he does get into trouble, he can parrot back to us what he should never do (hit, scream, kick, bite), and that when he does get upset, he either needs to calm down and communicate, or take a break. And he is great at saying he’ll be a good listener from now on today, or tomorrow, or whatever, but he can’t seem to control himself in those moments. I know, he’s 4, but when it’s enough to have multiple parent/teacher meetings, we need to find some sort of way through.

We’re wracking our brains for possible causes. He could be waking up at night and we just don’t know it, hence he’s overtired. His teacher told me today that in that same time period, his naps have gone from a solid 1.5/2 hours to barely 45 minutes. He lays quietly and does eventually fall asleep, so he’s still resting.

So I’m really asking two questions: 1) advice for the suddenly arrived and violent frustrations? and 2) If he is transitioning out of naps, which is likely at his age, advice for how to make the rest of us survive it?


Not Above Solitary Confinement

Welcome to four years old! Remember all the times I complained about three years old? Yeah. Sadly there’s no magical overnight leap in maturity, and the behaviors you’re describing — an inability to handle frustration, outbursts suddenly turning aggressive, verbal skills going out the window when he’s actively upset — are really, really normal.

Of course, they are also totally crazy-making and deeply frustrating for us, the adults who have to deal with those behaviors. Because even though aggression is NORMAL at this age, it’s obviously not OKAY. But helping him navigate and control his emotions is a process. It will take time, patience and consistency. There likely isn’t a specific “cause” here, other than the simple developmental issue that little kids feel BIG emotions, but their brains simply aren’t mature enough to help them cope and logic their way through them. So even the world’s most verbal preschooler can still be prone to sudden violent tantrums over the slightest frustration. (“Use your words!” “NOOOOO I DON’T WANT TO USE MY WORDS!”)

I would guess that the reason his behavior is different at home vs. school is because he’s overstimulated there, sensory wise, so when a request/rule/restriction comes his way he’s already overwhelmed and thus more likely to amp it up to 11 in the span of a new second. Ask his teachers how much advanced notice they give him before transitions, and whether he could be given an extra heads up about any changes. He also needs his own real and true Quiet Area where he can calm down and get a sensory break. Something right in the middle of the room isn’t going to help anyone calm down and probably just makes a freaking-out kid feel worse and maybe even self-conscious. Any halfway decent school should be able to make a sensory break accommodation, by the way, so consider it a red flag if they refuse and yet continue to complain about his meltdowns. A floating teacher’s aide/school employee should be able to take him out in the hallway for a few minutes a couple times day for a break — a trip to a water fountain, a walk down a hallway and back, etc. — without it disrupting the child/teacher ratio. Or you could suggest a modification to the current Quiet Area, like having it be an enclosed tent/fort, or have noise-canceling earmuffs available. Also, going to the Quiet Area is NOT a time-out or punishment. Yes, he should be redirected there during a fit, but it should be done in a positive way. “I can tell you’re really angry/frustrated right now! It’s not okay to hit/bite/throw toys, but it IS okay to be angry! Let’s go be angry outside/over here.” Give him the words he can’t say. The idea is to offer the Quiet Area as a self-soothing/coping technique, so with time (A LOT OF TIME), he might actually begin to use it on his own BEFORE he hits the breaking point.

These are all things/techniques my oldest son DESPERATELY needed for his sensory issues, but are really, REALLY helpful for all little kids. Because all little kids can get overwhelmed by sensory input, especially in a big, bustling daycare full of sounds! Colors! Smells! Textures! People all UP in your personal space and adults making requests that totally aren’t your jam and KABOOM! The frustration builds and the logic centers shut down. It’s meltdown time.

I’m NOT saying your son has sensory “issues,” by the way, but the fact that you mentioned he can’t get a couple minutes to himself to calm down at school (and can at home and is successful at it) suggests that he would probably respond really well to a small sensory-break accommodation at school. The intersection of overtired and overstimulated is a terrible one, and while there’s not much you can do about the nap transition (other than bump bedtime earlier while it happens, 15 or 30 minutes), you can hopefully do something about the overstimulation. If you go back to his teachers and they are just straight-up “NOPE” on finding him a better Quiet Area alternative and the meltdowns continue, he might benefit from a smaller class somewhere, or even Montessori. (The classrooms are quiet and designed to prevent the kind of overstimulation that can occur in the typical STUFF EVERYWHERE!!! play-based rooms. Also mixed-age classrooms expose the younger kids to older children who HAVE learned to use their words, ask for help, etc.) I would definitely mimic the set-up at home, with the positive feeling language giving him words for what he’s feeling, and the Quiet Area as being a Nice Happy Place, rather than a naughty step or time-out stool.

But above all: This too shall pass. It’s a phase and it will pass. You are not raising a sociopathic little rage monster who is going to be expelled from kindergarten for biting/hitting/punching. He’s just a little body with big feelings right now, and he’s going to need help coping with those feelings for awhile. Reinforce whenever possible that it’s TOTALLY OKAY for him to have those feelings, and make sure you praise good behavior/reactions/problem solving as well. Comment on your own moods and feelings around him so he knows that grown-ups get frustrated or angry or sad too, and talking about it can help and feel better than getting in trouble over a tantrum.

And then, you know, look forward to five years old and all the weird stuff that it will bring.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Amber

    June 17, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    I hate to scare you, but my son is almost six, and we have been dealing with this since he was 3.5. He hits and throws tantrums when he gets the slightest bit frustrated or if Timmy cuts him in line. It’s awful. We thought it could partly be ADHD, and he’s been on medication since 5, but it’s not helping. He has good weeks. And then three weeks of red faces in his notebook. We don’t see the physical behavior at home, only at school. We try to work through the frustration and tantrums (walk away, take deep breaths, count to ten, ask for help) but he completely forgets the next time he gets mad. We’ve tried every kind of punishment- making him wear mittens as a physical reminder not to hit, taking toys away, taking ALL OF HIS TOYS AWAY, time outs, loss of various privileges, rewarding the GOOD behavior. Nothing works. The punishments/rewards do not motivate not hinder him. It’s frustrating and awful and I’m at my wits end. We’re seen three therapists. The first one said, “oh, he’s three. It’s normal.” No. Sometimes it’s not freaking normal; it’s a gateway to getting calls from the teacher saying, “you’ll have to make him absent for the field trip bc he can’t keep his hands to himself!” (She didn’t help at all) or the principal saying that he punched another kid in the face. 
    i would suggest getting in with a REALLY good therapist NOW who will listen to you and not dismiss your concerns, in case this isn’t just a case of “being three”

  • Jeanine

    June 17, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    Firstly, don’t let ANY comments with positive or negative experiences scare you or own your thoughts on this subject. Don’t give them any headspace, take what’s useful & rid the rest. …. My personal experience with my NOW 6 yr old has firstly, speech and coginitive developmental delays, meaning she has trouble understanding words directions from adults teachers etc. Then she has problems deciding which words to use in response to any situation. Could you imagine how much frustration that would cause your baby? Uh my heart breaks. So I have been my daughters BIGGEST Advocate in school especially. She HATES IT. Mainly because she doesn’t want to be responsible for picking up but there are other reasons too. It is soooo EMENSELY DIFFICULT for Her to express herself in social interactions with her peers, which often causes hmm disturbances as you’ve described. BUT, to give you hope:  ALOT LESS than 3 years ago when it that type of physical behaviour peeked. Again, I am NOT alos suggesting your child has special needs in any way. I only know my solution and experience. I just wanted to share with you to let you know what I did. I requested from my family doctor every assessment under the sun! I requested Speech Therapy AND what Canadians calls “OCCUPATIONAL therapy” –NOT telling you what to do. BUT, once I got the Schools Attention, I requested a Meeting including:  Both Teachers from her Kindergarten class, the Principal, and two of the schools “SERTS” (Special Education Resource Team basically) … Once we were at the meeting, it provided us ALL together a support system, a time for “Joining Forces” kind of thing, and they all then agreed to get assessments Through the School (different from doctors) … Within a few weeks 6? maybe less, she had a Speech Therapy Group, and the SERT Team lead now takes her for a walk around the hallways with a Weighted Back Pack and special in class Dance Breaks–Then, we meet every two months or as needed to recap, regroup our efforts, and continue to use what works etc… Also, I am not suggesting your child has Sensory input or Output needs as my child does but, I can say the sensory tools and ideas and speech combined all has made a great difference. FYI–I used to keep my daughter HOME NOT sending her to school 2 days per week bcuz it was torture, for her, the teachers, other kids, until I MADE them listen about the help I needed, then things changed. My daughter also sees a second speech therapist who also works with her on cognitive development they’re NOT just for “Speech” sounding issues! This has made the WORLD of difference! Don’t give up, keep trying, DONT be afraid to ASK for help, & TAKE that help! Try stuff that doesn’t sound like it will work! Try it all! The speech/cognitive therapy I wanted to mention because Maybe it will assist tour son in Nameing and easing through these emotions. If they don’t recognize them cuz they can’t, how could they Possibly know how to work through it. .. Love and support , Jeanine 

  • M

    June 17, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    I would also recommend a trip to the pediatrician. The sudden onset of this behavior could be a red flag for other things. Like the previous commenter, I do not want to scare you, but a kid whose behavior turns on a dime like that (you mentioned he is normally quite chill, but then his behavior has changed very acutely) is concerning for abuse, or a mood disorder, or even an electrolyte imbalance. 

    To be clear, the chances are very good that he’s just learning to regulate his emotions, and figuring out how to work his social interactions, etc. But I think it would benefit everyone to run things past his health care provider. Sudden personality changes in a kid (or adult, for that matter) should not be ignored.

  • Tiffany

    June 17, 2015 at 4:06 pm

    Like Amy said, sooo normal for a four year old! I’ve worked in childcare for 12 years, thought I could give some perspective from that side:
    First, if your daycare is wonderful like you say, they get it, they’ve seen this 98 times before (I certainly have). Every child has these phases they go through, and no half decent childcare worker is going to judge or hold it against the parent or child. 
    You didn’t say how much time your son spends at daycare, or how long he’s been going, but a lot of the children I’ve worked with who have had similar behaviour issues are the ones who have been there a long time, have long days and/or spend the most time there through out the week and they’re just done. It’s like work, right? If your day to day routine is feeling monotonous, if you need some time off, you start to feel fed up with it, you’re getting easily frustrated, short tempered, etc… Amys suggestion of getting him out of the class for a few minutes here and there is exactly what I’d do, it just changes things up for him, gives him a break, like a coffee break for preschoolers. Or if he could have the occasional day off with Grandma, or an early pick up every once in awhile? Even if he’s only part time, a switch up from his regular routine might help.

  • Kay

    June 17, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    Going to echo the comment of having a doctor or another qualified professional check things out.  Sudden changes in behavior are worth looking into.  If there’s something physical or environmental going on, you can address it.  If not, well, peace of mind.  

    A couple of thoughts on consequences:  If he’s getting stickers on the chart towards earning something at the end of the week, it may help to have both a daily and weekly award to keep him motivated.  Like, if he gets all his stickers one day he gets candy/small prize/special privilege/etc for the day, and then they ALSO go towards earning something at the end of the week.  (You may already be doing that, but I couldn’t tell from the letter.)  Let him be involved beforehand in picking the reward for the day/week, too (within reason).  

    Also, keep negative consequences brief and salient.  Grounded in his room until dinner — depending on what time of day this occurs — he is likely to stop associating the consequence with its trigger.  Ditto for taking away privileges.  The consequence needs to be long enough to matter, but brief enough that he doesn’t learn he can live with/without it.    It’s also best if it’s something you can implement immediately and consistently.  Time outs actually don’t need to be longer than three minutes to work effectively (if you’re using it as a punishment rather than a self-soothing technique.  “Time away” is a nice reframe of time-outs for self-soothing purposes).  

    The fastest way to deal with the tantrum is to ignore the rage part of it.  Eventually he’ll move from rage to something more like sadness, and once he makes that shift, he’s way more likely to accept help calming.  But the really white-hot rage — keep him safe and interfere minimally until he starts moving forward emotionally.  As you noticed, interfering just makes it worse.  If you’re able to catch and help him calm before he gets to that point, great!  But if not, ride it out.  Our bodies are not meant to sustain that level of emotion for super long periods of time, and he will eventually start to calm.  

    Absolutely echo everything Amy said about dealing with the school.  

    Very best wishes and much sympathy.  

  • Angela

    June 18, 2015 at 8:40 am

    how do you build/keep a Quiet Area at home? i think my 4 year old is in need of this sort of thing, so i keep trying to make a reading nook or something with just a few pillows and a couple books. and inevitably my Quiet Area either gets filled with random other toys and becomes the set of some lively activity or both kids want to play in it at once and it becomes the Fight Area. or the pillows get stolen to become part of a fort. 

    • Autumn

      June 18, 2015 at 9:18 am

      We put the old nursing boppy on the floor and she called it the crying pillow when my daughter was newly 3.  It just sat on the floor of her room, and if she was melting down in the kitchen (which I have no tolerance for while I’m making dinner) I would carry her to the boppy and let her calm down there.  After awhile, she started going there on her own accord when she needed a break.  Then she started putting her stuffed animals there when they needed a break too.  

      Now she goes and hides behind the chair in her room.  It’s her little safe spot.  She also hides there when service people (plumber, etc) are at the house

  • Holly W.

    June 18, 2015 at 11:14 am

    Letter writer here – thanks Amy and others for all the wonderful advice! We had another major incident yesterday in which a thrown chair hit another student (by accident) – not my son’s finest moment. We spoke with the pediatrician about it, and he clarified that while 4-year-olds have the analytical mind now to understand good choices and bad choices, they really have no control over doing that in the moment of the Big Feelings. Thanks especially to Tiffany for her suggestions of taking a break a couple of times throughout the day to get some alone time (he has been in 8-hour-day daycare since he was 11 weeks old, so he’s a long-termer for sure), and especially to Amalah’s thoughts of the Quiet Area being not a time-out punishment, but a let’s go over here where its peaceful while we feel all the feels. We’ll be working on replicating that at home. And thanks most of all for the “this is normal, and it will pass,” because the more ongoing this becomes, the more tense I feel and the more I think of myself as the worst parent ever. Solidarity amidst the confusion  has helped immensely 🙂

  • MR

    June 18, 2015 at 11:41 am

    My take on telling a kid to calm down is that they can’t. Because they don’t know how to. So, they need us to teach them how to calm themselves down. So, I recommend to start teaching the appropriate ways to handle anger. We all get angry in life, and we can’t just simply calm down and ignore it. We have to have an appropriate outlet. So, start teaching your child how to let that out. Start when they are calm. Talk about the most recent incident and say, “I understand you were feeling really ANGRY, so I’d like to talk to you about appropriate ways to handle that anger safely.” I teach my girls that they can put their hands on their hips and stomp their feet and say, “I’m MAD, MAD, MAD”. I also teach them that they can hit a pillow (NOT people or animals), or they can go in their room and scream, or say, “GRRRRRR!!!!!” And we also practice some light meditation, “Breathe in, and out. In… and out… in… and out…” And I do a hand motion along with that of bringing my hand up (palm up) and then flipping it and moving it down when we get to out. We practice these things periodically when they are calm, and then, when they are mad and throwing a fit, we simply remind them of the acceptable ways to handle their anger. The meditation part is especially handy when my oldest starts throwing an overtired fit. She screams “no, no, no, NO, NO, NO!!!!!!!!!!!” and is crying and starts kind of hyperventilating. She fully cannot hear me, but I use my words to say “breathe in…. and out….” and do the movement as a refresher. The movement registers before my words, but it is enough to get things going until she can hear me, and then the words work by themselves and I can start rubbing her back or whatnot. But, I’d talk to his teachers and see if you can all come up with something he can do physically to vent his anger, something he can do both at school and at home. They probably won’t be ok with him punching a pillow, but what about jumping jacks? If you can teach him to do those, while silently screaming the count in his head, that might be a good alternative. And then you can do a simple arm movement to remind him, and the teachers can also do that. So, as soon as anyone thinks they see the start of it, do the arm movement and remind him to do his jumping jacks. You basically want something that will be physical enough to tire him out just a little. It will take out the anger and calm his brain enough that he can then use his words. I hope that helps!

  • kimm

    June 19, 2015 at 12:16 am

    There is a good board book, Calm Down Time. About getting your feelings out, going to a safe special place when you need to take a break, breathe in 1-2-3, I am taking care of me. Its worth getting.

  • Kim too

    June 19, 2015 at 12:47 am

    The other possibility I’m going to throw out there is sleep apnea. Both my girls have had it.  The oldest snored from the moment we brought her home, but the younger one didn’t, and hers is actually much worse. Both of them had their tonsils and their adenoids removed when they were four, and that was an immediate fix for my oldest.  My youngest now wears sleep mask,just like her daddy, both for anatomical reasons.
    More and more children are being diagnosed with it, and it’s nice because it’s a measurable thing.One sleep study and you’ll know.  
    Going to throw one more thing out there: sleep apnea can mimic ADHD symptoms, so again, might be worth looking into. However, anecdotally, finding the right ADHD requires more tweaking than a lot of people seem to realize, and it can as simple as going off the XR formulations.

  • Anne

    June 19, 2015 at 7:19 am

    Poor baby! I have a daughter with big emotions too. Please be empathetic to him tell him he’s a good boy and we all make mistakes sometimes!
    For my daughter we eliminated artificial additives in her diet and body care products which helped. So kids are sensitive and they cause irritation.
    Talk about how he feels Before he has a meltdown. My daughter and I have a silly face where I squish my palms on my face to distort it and u say “uh oh that yucky feeling inside is going to make your face like this soon. how can we solve this problem? Jumping up and down? Asking teacher for a hug?” Whatever and reinforce before you drop him off what he can do to get help when he is feeling bad. Please don’t punish him for expressing his feelings but talk to him about how hitting makes the other person so sad and we love them and don’t want them sad etc.

    Good luck! Having a high emotional needs kid is hard but they also have great passion and determination. Now my daughter is better at controlling her reactions and I tell her I admire her will and how he knows what she wants but how we sometimes have to do what is required in tie situation. Feeling validated helps and moves them out of frustration mode.

  • S

    June 23, 2015 at 11:46 pm

    We found that food dyes added to my sons irrational aggressive behavior. We can tell when he has had them. As he ages he also has told us loud sounds bother him, we can tell when he has been overstimulated. Definately think about reaching out to your school district if you think it is an ongoing challenge. They can provide suggestions to day care staff. Sleep changes and season changes can also affect kids. Does he have allergies. This affects behavior in several kids I know.
    Good luck.

  • Ashley

    July 15, 2015 at 2:41 pm

    A good idea for a quiet area is a tent filled with pillows. It is away from everyone while still being there and supervised. 

  • Melis

    September 25, 2017 at 3:37 pm

    OH MY GOSH, I SO needed to read this article. This mirrors my life almost to a T!! Wow, thank you Amy for helping me feel normal. –Such great advise. And thank you to the mom who wrote in about this!! I feel ya girl!