How do I help my four-year-old learn to not be an asshole?
March 1, 2013 1:47 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are wrestling mightily with parenting our four-year-old daughter, who is an asshole. I use the word "asshole" because we are taken aback by how mean and insulting and nasty she can be. I know we are supposed to love her unconditionally but we are struggling to deal with who she is rather than how she acts... Help!

We expected tantrums and we expected to correct spoiled and selfish behavior, but we didn't expect a four-year-old who scowls, and spits, and refuses to speak, and sometimes says she hates us. The pattern we are trying to break is a pattern of brinksmanship where she either gets what she wants or ruins the whole family's day, including her own, by being truculent. And while we try to take everything in stride, it just doesn't seem like other children her age are nearly this ... assholey.

We try to use positive discipline. We try to give dispassionate, constructive consequences in response to her bad behavior. We try really really hard not to spank. We forgive a lot. We try to wipe the disciplinary slate clean and continue to give her rewards and enriching experiences. But I feel like we're just sliding downhill as our daily life becomes less and less pleasant and more and more antagonistic. She is especially good at pushing my wife's buttons and she pushes them every chance she gets. It hurts to be hurt by her. It hurts to watch her sit around and be unhappy. This sucks.

She's brilliant and funny and perceptive and unusually literate and articulate for her age and all this gets shadowed behind her growling and slamming herself in her room and saying hateful things and sobbing and it sucks.

The other big stressor in our situation is her baby sister, who is a wonderful easy baby during the day and who wrestles with serious sleep problems at night. We're operating on 14 months and counting of interrupted sleep and ... at the end of the day we have two kids' worth of parenting to do. Sometimes we feel like we're direly ignoring our older daughter's increasing needs just to try and get some rest.

We have discussed family therapy but we're on a tight monthly budget and our insurance covers nothing worth mentioning. :(

What would you all do? Do you have suggestions for correcting her behavior? Do you have suggestions to prevent her meltdowns from affecting us so badly? I need a strategy and I just don't have one.
posted by mindsound to Human Relations (51 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
First of all, I am so sorry you are going through this. This is terrible, and my heart hurts for all of you.

We had a similar situation with our first child, although not nearly as bad as what you describe. Getting him into a three-day-a-week, five-or-so-hours-a-day "parents day out"/preschool type thing (ours is at my wife's church) was an absolute game-changer, and we saw spectacular results within a month or so. Combination of other authority figures besides us, and being in an environment where other kids were around him all day ... it dramatically changed him for the better. If I were you, I'd call some local churches and ask what they have as far as preschool/daycare goes.

(There is usually cost of some sort involved, but these being churches, if they are truly doing what The Man commands, they'll work to help you out as much as they can. Maybe even just one day a week?)
posted by jbickers at 1:54 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was going to say, you need a strategy.

1. Have an exit plan for any outing. If you are out, in the grocery store, at a restaurant, at a movie, if your daughter starts acting up, give her a chance to correct herself, and if it doesn't happen. Simply pick her up and leave. Your spouse may have to get the food to go, while you and the jerk are in the car, but them's the breaks. You have to be 100% consistant on this, so it may mean that the whole family goes grocery shopping together, so that one parent may scoop up the truculant one and take her to the car while the other finishes up.

2. Attention is a reward, even negative attention. So when she's being awful, pay her no mind. Simply say, "I won't discuss this with you until you can talk nicely." Just remove yourselves from the battlefield, and go elsewhere. Let her have the living room, you all can have a nice time in the bedroom, playing with the baby.

3. If she's deliberately waking the baby, while she screams and howls, take her to the car until her fit is over. Bring a Kindle with you so you can read while she does her thing. (and an iPod) Only bring her back into the house when she's calm (and exhausted.) It will suck when you first start, but I doubt you'll have to do it more than once or twice.

She only says she hates you because it gets a rise out of you. My dad (a brilliant family therapist) used to say to us (if we were being assholes) "You have a right to be angry" validating our feelings. Then he'd continue on with whatever it was he was doing. (Pipe and a crossword usually.)

Another thing he used to say was, "I love you too much to let you get away with this shit." So we knew that although he was angry with our behavior, that he still loved us.

I like jbickers idea of pre-school.

My dad said that raising us was front-loaded. That it was a ton of work up front, but when we got older they were golden.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:59 PM on March 1, 2013 [101 favorites]

Oh, do I hear you. I was just talking about my son being an asshole yesterday (after getting out of the house really, really late because of a meltdown about pants) and this made my friend with slightly older kids laugh and laugh. They absolutely wear you down at this age and I think it's oftent the case that kids who are smart and articulate and creative struggle with these behaviors in a more obvious way because 1) when they are charming, man oh man, they are awesome and by comparison this sucks and 2) they have all kinds of huge ideas and feelings and thoughts about things and their ability to reign in their emotions just hasn't caught up at all yet. All this to say, you are so normal for thinking your kid is an asshole.

Some ideas that have helped
1. checking in with friends who have similar aged kids who can lob out some new ideas you may not have thought of when you're exhausted.

2. One friend is actually a behavioral psychologist who has helped us when things got totally off the rails with the simple strategy of using a sticker chart and rewards: come up with 1 or 2 rules phrased as a positive behavior (e.g., "use gentle hands and body" instead of "don't hit."); come up with a short period of time, like 10 minutes to start, that your kid can be successful in following that rule, set a timer and when it goes off dance, praise and sing while you stick a sticker on a chart. 4 stickers or so and you get some kind of treat (e.g. play with a special toy for 10 minutes, get a couple M & Ms). Yes you're already praising her, but for whatever reason the stickers are magic! When she's mostly successful you can focus on a new rule or you can lengthen the time before the next sticker. Another bonus is that this strategy helps you to remember how often she is being "good" (sometimes a nice thing to be reminded of) and also structures a way to lavish all kinds of attention on her when she is being successful.

3. The books "1, 2, 3 Magic" by Thomas Phelan and "No More Meltdowns" by Jed Baker might be helpful. Both are really good step-by step guides to ignoring interfering behaviors and really encouraging the ones you want to see (RuthlessBunny has it above: any attention is rewarding enough to keep the behavior going).

Hang in there. This too shall pass.
posted by goggie at 2:03 PM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am not a parent, but I am an older sister (and a very involved auntie) and I suspect some of this may stem from the fact that your little girl is now sharing your attention with her younger sibling and she doesn't care for that at all.

Sometimes we feel like we're direly ignoring our older daughter's increasing needs just to try and get some rest. And I think this is why she is acting out, at least in part. She wants your attention, and she can tell you're stressed. I don't think therapy ever HURTS, but I also don't know that I think this is anything beyond Bratty Toddler Acts Out For Attention From Parents After Addition of New Baby Makes Parents Distracted. Are you giving your older daughter quality one-on-one time? She may be acting like a pill because she knows you'll pay attention to her when she does. Adjusting to sharing your parents' attentions and resources is a long hard road for some older siblings.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 2:03 PM on March 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

You are giving her way too much power and she is eating it up. Toddlers have huge feelings that overfloweth their little physical cup. I let my kids feel whatever they felt and express it. I also let them know that I did not feel the same. No big.

So your toy broke and this is a big deal to you. It's okay that it's a big deal to you. Feel free to cry and spit nails. Don't expect me to be upset. I have other priorities. Time to cook dinner. Let me know if your problem involves blood or broken bones. Mmkay?

My oldest was twelve when I finally figured out he picked maddening arguments and tormented me when bored. I then spent two years redirecting his attention and giving him mental conundrums instead of arguing with the little shit. He eventually stopped being a career asshole, and he has career asshole genes from both sides of the family.

Join a gifted list. Read a few books about parenting challenging children. Get her more intellectual stimulation. Idle hands are the devil's workshop and a bored gifted kid usually means there is hell to pay.
posted by Michele in California at 2:06 PM on March 1, 2013 [20 favorites]

Came in to say pretty much exactly what Countess Sandwich said. This sounds very much like a case of sibling jealousy, or at the very least, it sounds like that may be contributing to the troubles. I don't really have an answer for how to fix it, but don't discount that angle as an underlying cause as you look for solutions.
posted by agentmitten at 2:09 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have heard good things about (and experienced some success with) 1-2-3 Magic as well -- some of it sounded like common sense or things we were doing, and our problems weren't nearly as bad as yours sound, but I was glad I checked it out.
posted by theredpen at 2:17 PM on March 1, 2013

My daughter is younger than yours, but I get it. I have a five-month-old and since he's been born she alternately hates, loves, or is apathetic towards him, but the universal constant is that if I am not spending LOTS of quality, one-on-one time with her, she is a nightmare. I mean, screaching, throwing, punching walls nightmare. When she gets one-on-one time, and I do mean lots of it, and lots of opportunity to run around outside and play and get out her energy in other ways, she's 180 degrees different. I know firsthand how incredibly difficult and stressful it is to provide this kind of attention when you're chronically underslept, overstressed and running on empty 24/7, but really it is the only thing I've found that works. No punishment, no ignoring the tantrums, no reward system makes any difference for my toddler - me sitting on the floor talking to her and drawing hearts for two hours (her latest obsession) DOES. Unfortunately, this can be a choice between "shower and clean the kitchen" or "play with daughter" and playing with daughter doesn't seem as urgent or necessary, but experience shows me it absolutely is and I will pay for it and/or reap the consequences later in the day.
posted by celtalitha at 2:20 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think one thing you seem to be asking is, is this normal or something really worrisome? And we Internet Strangers don't really know. I can think of some questions to start with, though:

Did all her problems start when the baby came or did they preceed it? Was it a sudden change at any point? Does it happen in a consistent way, at a consistent time of day, about consistent topics, or is something peachy-keen one day and End of the World the next?

Either there are reasons for her behavior that you can fix with changes in your family's routine, or there is a larger mental-health issue that requires intervention. If it is the second, you will need to find money somewhere for assistance.

But first, you can't figure out the problem without some observation and experimentation with your daughter. Since you have a baby, this may have to be something only one of you can do at a time.

If she is going after her mom particularly, this may point to a sibling jealousy issue; presumably new baby is getting a lot of mom's time. Maybe if Grandma took the baby for a day or so and you three could just hang out, it might help.

Also, try not to think of your daughter as an asshole. She's not getting any pleasure out of this. She's clearly unhappy and while she may seem diabolical, she really isn't. If it helps, remember that the nastiest kinds of kid behavior usually boil down to some kind of fear; of having something/someone taken away, of loss of control, of embarrassment, of not being loved, even of just having strong feelings and not knowing how to handle them. Try to find what she is afraid of, though she may not be able to tell you. Try to connect with her. It's about attention, but also about reassurance and it's ok to give her reassurance even when she's "bad"'re not saying it's ok to hurt others, you want to help her find a way to not want to hurt others.
posted by emjaybee at 2:20 PM on March 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

Is your older daughter getting enough sleep? If her sleep is also getting interrupted by the new addition it might make it harder for her to control negative feelings or emotions. Not that I think this is the whole cause, but it might be exacerbating it.
posted by HMSSM at 2:24 PM on March 1, 2013 [11 favorites]

Get her more intellectual stimulation. Idle hands are the devil's workshop and a bored gifted kid usually means there is hell to pay.

I agree with much of the above posters' advice, but this is especially good advice for a gifted-but-truculent little dictator in the making. Our now 8-1/2 year old daughter was an extremely difficult child until she learned to read, but since then, she's been able to easily and consistently amuse herself, and we are all happier for this. I'll spare you the details of our own battles at home, but giving a child who is a strong strong reader a steady supply of good, challenging, interesting books several years above her grade level is a game changer, or at least was for us. The trick was getting her to read books that were challenging while still being "emotionally appropriate" for someone who was five or six.

If you haven't already done this, sit down with the Newbery Award and Caldecott Medal winners lists and work your way through them. Always have a book or three at hand, and be willing to listen to her discuss plot points and character motivations. It is much easier to distract a gifted four year old than argue with any four year old, especially one who is gifted. Based on our own experiences, this method does work.

Good luck, and (continue) to practice as much patience as you can muster. It does get better!
posted by mosk at 2:24 PM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am very sorry you are going through this.

FWIW, we have had a similar experience with an older child being an absolute monster; the brinksmanship, the ruining everyone's day, the overall surliness and saying mean things. We actually did take her to therapy! It turned out to be sleep deprivation. The kid was staying up past her bedtime reading and/or sneaking electronics into her room.... and even when she wasn't, she was having trouble falling asleep. A few nights with a little bit of melatonin syrup worked a MIRACLE on her, she was like a whole new child.

You have a toddler who isn't sleeping well at night. Is it possible that your four-year-old's quality of sleep is being disrupted just like yours is? These two problems could well be the very same problem. It may be if you solve the sleep problem for the little one, you'll solve the behavior problem for the big one, especially if she wasn't always like that.
posted by Andrhia at 2:29 PM on March 1, 2013 [12 favorites]

I'd also offer a gentle reminder that she's literally testing boundaries. You say you're trying really really hard not to spank her...but that means you are sometimes spanking her. Probably when she gets the worst. When she's the most out of control. When you're feeling the most out of control. When everyone is spiraling and you want something to just....stop. But spanking done out of anger is truly a terrible situation for everyone. Including you. But especially your daughter.

It doesn't do anyone -- you, mom, daughter -- any good to get into that cycle, with it ending with a spanking. It does more harm than good. While you're figuring out a long-term solution, agree with your wife that if that inclination is there, that you just stop. Put her in her room, or tell yourself to sit on your hands and count to 30, or anything it takes, but do not spank in that moment of rage.

It's not the solution, but it's a start.
posted by barnone at 2:30 PM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Is it possible that she is also being woken up repeatedly by younger sib in the middle of the night, and is not sleeping well herself?

Because if I were four and super sleep-deprived, I'd be an asshole, too.
posted by BlueJae at 2:30 PM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Or, what Andrhia said.
posted by BlueJae at 2:31 PM on March 1, 2013

The kid needs more sleep. If you two are getting up during the night for the baby, she is getting a bad nights sleep too even if she isn't getting woken up fully her sleep will be disturbed. If night times are a hard time to get her to sleep, maybe work on having some naps during the day. Even if you just lay down on the bed with her and talk quietly for a little while. Don't make it a battle for her to go to bed, make it a fun relaxed space she's having some time with mum or dad and "we" are going to nap. If you do it while the baby is down for a nap too, it can be a bit of quality quiet time one on one.

Four year olds don't know they are tired they just know they feel like shit and want to take it out on everyone. Throw in sibling rivalry and the fact she could probably use some time at Day Care away from you guys and it's all coming to a head the only way she knows how.
posted by wwax at 2:35 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's funny that everyone is mentioning the sleep deprivation, because I've always wondered about Dr. John Rosemond's technique of telling misbehaving kids that "the doctor" said their behavior problems were happening because they weren't getting enough sleep. He says to clear out their room of all distractions and toys, tell them that you spoke to the doctor and he said the kid was acting that way because he/she needed more rest. Then you send them to their room right after dinner "until you are rested enough to stop doing x." He calls it "kicking a child out of the Garden." His methods are pretty controversial, but sometimes drastic measures are called for.
posted by raisingsand at 2:53 PM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Kids, Parents and Power Struggles was incredibly helpful to me - I was able to better adjust my part in the dynamic when my own daughter's ragey, horrible, meltdown situations. Often my instinct was wrong, and my own behaviour was escalating the problem.

Raising Your Spirited Child was also a boon - again, I needed strategies that weren't instinctive to me.

For example, one thing my kid did that annoyed the shit out of me was to walk in circles in stores or offices when I was trying to shop or make a transaction. I never realized she was self-soothing, and when I tried to stop her, I was making things worse. Trying to discipline that created other problems, and it was all because I wasn't aware of what she was already doing herself to make things better. To this day, she's itchy and a fidgety kid. Her current teacher told me this week that she missed out on two months of my wonderful and creative child because she was so distracted by my kid's constant movement, and it took her time to figure out what would help her. Letting her doodle and draw was all it took to relieve her stress, and the teacher told me that it reminded her of her own daughter who's now in her third year of university studying law - she did the same thing.

She's brilliant and funny and perceptive and unusually literate and articulate for her age and all this gets shadowed behind her growling and slamming herself in her room and saying hateful things and sobbing and it sucks.

For example, when my kid did this, the last thing I felt like doing was stopping everything and hugging her - it felt exactly like rewarding crappy behaviour. Turns out it was exactly what stopped the tantrums, diffused the anger, and set us on the path to getting her brilliant, funny, literate and articulate self to solve her own problem. Brains like that have really, really big feelings, and you have my empathy.

But I think a lot of this would be better supported if everyone were getting better sleep. You sound exhausted, and I feel for you. I've answered questions before on sleep, and had a lot of difficulty with my own child in that regard too, but I think the adults in your family need to put on their oxygen masks first. Your daughter may be sensing your own insecurities and exhaustion, and you need to shore yourselves up a bit.

What would you all do? Do you have suggestions for correcting her behavior? Do you have suggestions to prevent her meltdowns from affecting us so badly? I need a strategy and I just don't have one.

When my daughter was at her worst, I talked to the family doctor. One thing that really, really helped was me getting some meds for my own anxieties. It was like patience in a pill, and it gave me the breath I needed to more calmly assess and handle a situation, and make better decisions. Your doctor can also talk to your daughter, and may recommend a course of action. Ours kept notes for years, and when certain things were slow to improve, she was able to connect us with specialists and a clinic for some therapy.

For correcting her behaviour, I can only recommend figuring out what it takes to make her feel secure, and loved, and that will help diffuse the difficult situations more quickly. You don't need to solve everything when the tension is at its peak. That's not going to be the time for her to learn and improve. Most of it will happen when she's calm and ready for it.

She may have a "love language" that you can use to quickly communicate security her, and that will calm her down faster. Also, as a family, we had to change a few habits - such as not making the dinner table a place where we discussed discipline or bad work days or stressful things. That was a place where she felt most loved. She doesn't like arguments in her bedroom - it needs to feel happy, she says. Her perception and association of negative things was strengthened by the face-to-face interactions, and it was too intense for her. If we want to talk about major things, we take a walk or go for a ride in the car. The movement helps with her anxiety and she doesn't feel so powerless against adults when we're side by side. YMMV.

As well, we learned that taking things away - toys, privileges and affection - only toughened her up. She learned that sometimes having her way was worth more to her than what we took away. Our daughter is more likely to work for something she thinks of herself than some artificial goal. She never valued stickers and charts - she always works harder to earn something she's thought of herself. I admire how smart that is, and we support that. We discuss consequences when she's calm, and don't keep adding more if she gets angrier and angrier.

As to how to prevent her meltdowns from affecting you so badly, all I can say is figure out how you heal. I, for one, find crafting something or finding cool stuff on the internets relaxing and distracting. It's my reward. That, and making the best damn coffee I can to start the day and steeling myself by remembering I'm the adult. I have a mom friend who'll meet me for a quick coffee and let me vent and who'll make me laugh.

I wish you the best. I know it's hard not to have the easy kid. We walked out of playgroup after playgroup; left stores and Broadway plays; learned to ask for the bill first at restaurants. Now that she has better control over herself, she still has all of those lovely qualities your daughter has that you are good to remember -- but not as much of the frustration because she has the self-control to match her strong will. Some of it she just had to grow out of.
posted by peagood at 3:00 PM on March 1, 2013 [16 favorites]

Your whole family sounds strung out and exhausted. It sounds like the first thing to focus on is the baby's sleep problems, and the resulting sleep problems of everyone else in the family. It is so hard to think straight when you're tired. Just so hard.

As far as being an asshole, our four year old occasionally slams doors (what is she, thirteen?) or refuses to speak to us. That's just an occasional thing. Lately she's been quite charming and in a fantastic mood, but every once in a while she goes through a prolonged period of just...dark jerkiness. It's weird. We usually chalk it up to sudden developmental pressures, like a growth spurt, maybe mental or physical or a leap of logic she's making, and then it will go away after a few weeks. I think there are pressures kids are under that are sort of biological and they don't happen at a steady growth rate and sometimes it's just a lot to handle when you're four and can't articulate your inner life and pressures very well.

So between the sleeplessness, the crankiness of everyone in the family, feeling eclipsed by a younger sibling, and normal little kid developmental periods--it sounds like it would be really worthwhile to figure out how you can take some of the pressure off each of the members of your family as individuals.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:11 PM on March 1, 2013

Oh, have I been there. This was me, a short time ago. I'm amazed to say that he started to phase out of his Total Asshole behavior not long after posing the question- it was as if he knew we were at our wit's end and finally decided to be a normal human. He still has his days, though, and he's still tougher than a "normal" toddler. But it was a relief, because we were pretty much steeling ourselves for a behavior disorder at some of the bad parts.

I hope that this is the issue for you, too, even though ages are different. I took a nice relaxing evening bath, we took turns getting time away from Tiny Asshole, we did whatever we could to survive. And oh my god, daycare. It was expensive because we work at a mom and pop that is just starting out, but there was just no way around it, it helped us immensely and he does love it and feel safe there. Our four year old loves part-day preschool.

The other things that have helped both our boys were: including them in decisions, basing a day around their desires every once and again, giving them to their grandparents overnight for a break (they love this!), giving them choices and sometimes just being unfailingly nice to them even if they spit on us because we knew they were having a crap day.
posted by kpht at 3:13 PM on March 1, 2013

By the way, for what it's worth, our four year old gets about eleven or twelve hours a sleep a night. I really don't know if that's typical or what, but I thought I'd mention it as a data point because it seems like quite a lot (and she's the only four year old I know.)

If your daughter doesn't have a white noise generator in her room, it helps to drown out household noise.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:17 PM on March 1, 2013

My 13 year old stepson is a challenge and has always been so according to his parents who have been with him all along. (I entered his life when he was 8). His IQ is low normal, so it is not boredom.

Some additional resources you might find helpful:
- The family therapist we are working with now suggested The Whole Brain Child which helps you understand how your kid's brain develops and gives you strategies to help them be happier and calmer.

- A previous social services agency we worked with suggested The Explosive Child.

I wish you luck.
posted by elmay at 3:17 PM on March 1, 2013

Oy, this stuff is so hard.

I loved the (terribly named) Explosive Child, mentioned above. Also, googling "spirited child" will yield some suggestions. Family therapy might be helpful, but if you can find a play-based peer group type thing, like a social skills building group, that might be more helpful for building real social skills in the kid, and might be cheaper. Some HMO health plans offer one, and there are groups in the community that again, might be cheaper and better than therapy. A lot of this behavioral stuff has no easy answer or solution - some kids are just harder than others. I say this as someone who knows from experience.

My main advice is, don't listen to other people. The social stuff around this for the parents is awful, in my experience. At some point I vowed to only take advice from people who had at least 2 kids (so understood that lots of temperament is inborn) and who had kids older than mine (so they were advising from experience instead of uninformed judgement). Listen to your heart, keep your empathy for your child, and be gentle with yourself.
posted by latkes at 3:24 PM on March 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

I was an asshole kid. I demolished entire rooms in anger, spat hellfire at my mother and other caregivers, threatened suicide, and ran away from home and school--and was completely miserable. I don't know how my mother put up with me. This started around age 5. (I did not have a bad or abusive home life.)

I was clinically depressed. Depression in children often manifests itself as anger. I think your daughter desperately needs counseling and possibly medication.

My assholishness faded with time but it wasn't until a suicide attempt in my teens that I got the help I needed. Please don't make her wait that long.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 3:24 PM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Oh, and while I'm giving advice (while telling you not to take any!), the best parenting advice I ever got, (which came from a mother of 4 including a teenager) was this:

At those times when you really want to kill your child, pick her up, snuggle up to her as close as you can, look her right in the eyes, and tell her you love her. Sometimes this actually really helps.
posted by latkes at 3:29 PM on March 1, 2013 [12 favorites]

My brother is struggling with this with my older nephew right now and it is so hard. He called me a couple of weeks ago and was all "When you were here at Christmas did you notice KidA was...." Me: "An asshole?" Bro: "YES. My god, my child is an asssshoooolllleee."

But look, KidA is four, he isn't really an asshole. A couple of things I noticed at the holidays was that the kid doesn't eat well and doesn't sleep well. If I had low blood sugar and was got 8 hours of sleep over 4 days, I'd be an asshole too. So those are fights they have to fight, not so much the rest of it. The rest of it will probably sort itself out to being back to regular "difficult and four" kind of stuff that's more manageable. By contrast was his similarly aged cousin, who I remarked to someone else "That kid is going to rule us all and IT WILL NOT BE PRETTY." - same stubborn personality but in her case the regular stuff on sleeping and eating balances it out.

So maybe your kid is an asshole, but please make sure he's not just a starved and sleep-deprived run of the mill little kid.
posted by marylynn at 4:04 PM on March 1, 2013

So many great suggestions here. I just came to give another recommendation for The Whole Brain Child. It addresses these issues from such a different perspective and gives you an idea of what's going on in her head and how to help her with some of these big emotions. I just find it's better than some of the other discipline methods (like 1-2-3 Magic) which kind of bury the emotional and developmental side of things. Those tough times can be opportunities to see what's going on with her and build a better connection.

Also like everyone else said, is she sleeping? My older one sleeps 11 hours if she can. Another strategy that we've tried is blocking out 20 minutes a day that is just for you and her. She gets to dictate the play, you do what she likes and no baby allowed. It both builds goodwill between you and helps her feel a bit more like she has some consistency and control in her life.
posted by biscuits at 4:21 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Everyone's offered some really stellar input here. I wanted to throw one other possibility out (and you will need a doctor to evaluate if you choose to seek verification on this point): Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I have worked with a few students who have been classified as having this disorder, and their behavior was very similar to your daughter's. This is not a fun disorder to have or be parent to, so please know that I don't offer it up as a possible explanation lightly or flippantly. Bottom line: this isn't your fault, and I applaud you for doing right by your daughter an working to figure out what's going on.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:36 PM on March 1, 2013

Oh, I'm so sorry. My toddler isn't even two yet, and she's got her days. I'm now terrified of what's going to happen when little sister shows up.

Here's what helped for me: 1. Consistency. This really meant for the whole family -- if I tell her to stay in her chair for dinner, but get up myself without explaining why, she noticed and would demand to be let out too. Of course you have to be flexible, but establishing routines really helped us. She doesn't get "why," but she does know (thanks to a song we made up) that it's always socks, shoes, coat, outside, for example. 2. Empathy. She may be surprisingly literate, but the part of her that really understands abstract concepts and empathy is not there yet. She doesn't know the difference between wants and needs; all her feelings are strong and unmanageable still. Empathy allows me to not take it personally and be the adult when she's being awful. 3. Discipline. There are certain things (hitting, violence, dangerous things) that are an immediate timeout. No warnings or discussion. 4. Breaks. Sometimes I'm not the parent I want to be, and then I give myself a timeout. She's got a room where I can safely put her for 5-10 minutes while I recollect myself.

Daycare/preschool really helped too (they provide consistency and routine, as well as a break for us).

Good luck, and remember, this will pass. She will be a different person in a few months!
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:38 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

We had some of the same issues with our kid. A lot of those cropped up when her little sister was born and she hit 3.5 I'll echo what others about said about sleep -- she needs at least ten or eleven hours a night and some days she still naps a couple of hours in the afternoon.

I also started looking at what she ate, and noticed a lot of food dyes in her regular meals and snacks. When I began to actively avoid those, especially red dye #40, the change was amazing. A few weeks ago she got a cupcake with red icing at a birthday party and was absolutely an asshole for the rest of the afternoon, then crashed and burned two hours before her usual bedtime. So, YRMV, but that's something that worked for me.
posted by Mimzy at 4:40 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort.

There are other great books: Connection Parenting by Pam Leo, Attached at the Heart by Barbara Nicholson, and Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel.

Parenting is hard. I can empathize. A lot of nights I've gone to bed and vowed to be a better parent tomorrow. It's not easy.

I'm no expert, but when I hear that your 4-year-old is having this kind of behavior, I automatically assume that she is not being heard or validated. I'm not in your household and none of us can really know what's happening, but my advice would be to lose the punishments and rewards. Make sure she's getting enough attention that is low pressure, and that she is getting enough sleep.

There is no need for daily conflicts, punishments, and, "dispassionate" consequences and discipline, and turmoil. Lower your expectations and just try to take it easy for a while. Enjoy one another and don't view her as somebody that is trying to upset you. Don't expect bad behavior. I'm no parent of the year but I never expected tantrums. My kids didn't have tantrums.

When you say that your 4-year-old pushes your wife's buttons every chance she gets, that's a red flag for me. Your 4-year-old is crying out. I will be so bold as to say your daughter has an unmet need. She is terribly frustrated. Maybe you and your wife are upset for other reasons. Maybe it's not the 4-year-old. A 4-year-old cannot control us in this way.

I found that therapy helped me tremendously with my issues that prevented me from being a more calm, accepting, an loving parent. If you want your kid not to be an asshole (no kid is an asshole, especially not a 4-year-old) examine your behavior. Are you giving her the respect that she deserves? Is there a lot of stress and demands from mom and dad that don't need to be there? What do you do and say when she sayd she hates you? Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 4:46 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

We try really really hard not to spank. We forgive a lot.

I want to add that it's very important to apologize to her when you're wrong. You're forgiving her but what about asking for her forgiveness, or simply apologizing if mom and dad are yelling, spanking, etc.
posted by Fairchild at 5:02 PM on March 1, 2013

I will Nth suggestions to deal with any issues you and/or your wife have. When my kids misbehaved a lot, I often looked to the woman in the mirror. Keep a journal. Do therapy. Read a few books related to anything you have problems with. Work more on how you are responding to all this sturm and drang than on extinguishing it per se.

Just starve it of fuel and a lot of it will quietly die. A lot of that fuel is that mom and dad have buttons to push and she is behaving like a kid in an elevator gleefully announcing "push da button!" Stop having buttons, or at least shrink them and make them less obvious, and you will see less of this. Toddlers are just now discovering the power trip of emotional manipulation. Don't grow that as a value. Don't buy her off. Don't act like you can't stand to ever see her cry. Etc. And to do that successfully, you need to break any personal bad habits you may have in that regard.

(I have had parents ask me, in essence, "How do I manipulate my child into being less manipulative?" The answer: You can't get there from here.)
posted by Michele in California at 5:03 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just wanted to add sorries and wishes for better. This is difficult. Pepper your communications with "I love you and ..." whatever else you are going to say. If you read lots of parenting books, only use what feels right to you.
posted by RoadScholar at 5:29 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a high-energy, high-emotion preschooler, and when he gets in a difficult phase we use lots and lots of strategies other people have mentioned, which help, but the single biggest payoff we get is taking him outside. For HOURS. I'd put the baby down for a nap, wrap the big one up warm or slather him in sunblock and put a hat on him, take a baby monitor, and we'd go in the back yard until the baby woke up. We gave him shovels and trucks and a dirt pile and some tomato plants and just let him run in circles and play in the dirt while I'd sit and read a book nearby (which was a nice break for me too). He'd pour dirt on his head. I just ignored it and put him right in the tub when we came inside. He literally never wore himself out, but some combination of fresh air, physical activity, and exposure to nature would make him a more charming child the rest of the day. We also walked a lot, forest trail hikes seeming to have the most positive impact on behavior but just round and round the block was also helpful. I'd strap on the baby, or take the baby with in a stroller to sleep at the park, whatever. But SO MUCH OUTSIDE TIME.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:48 PM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Having been a precocious child and interacted with precocious children as an adult, I'd like to note that it can be very easy for adults to fall into the trap of thinking that a child's emotional life is as advanced as her intellect and vocabulary. When I feel myself reacting to having my buttons being pushed by a young child, I know it's time for ME to have a time out.
posted by camyram at 6:09 PM on March 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

When my youngest expressed a similar energy in being awful, I channeled my discipline into teaching him exactly what to do when he felt angry/sad/frustrated. I gave him coping mechanisms and drilled into him different ways to get the horrible feelings out to make room for the good ones. Once sleep/blood sugar/physical issues are ruled out (allergies? ADHD, etc?) then we worked on appropriate behavior and expectations and respect. From the age of 3 he knew that if he was a dick he got nothing good in return for that. He is now almost twelve and I still have to remind him sometimes that if he is frustrated, there are ways to disperse the feelings without telling me he hates me or screaming and yelling. It's rare now for an outburst to take place, he is quick to soften with a little stern warning or two. It was as mentioned above, front-loaded work and some days it felt as if I was micromanaging his every thought and feeling but he just didn't know where to put everything.

(The caveat here is that, of course, every child is different and some cases will be so much more extreme than others and sometimes rooted in a physical cause. I might be grossly underestimating your experiences and if so my apologies. I just remember when the kids were toddlers and challenging and I was given loads of book suggestions but had no time to read and wound up winging it for a decade straight. Good luck to you and your family!)
posted by pink candy floss at 6:38 PM on March 1, 2013

Been there. Nthing the Explosive Child. There's a lot of helpful advice in there that seems counterintuitive (for example, not prioritizing "consistency"). Have you talked to your pediatrician to see if they think a referral to a child psychiatrist is warranted? I don't want to be alarmist, but if the out-of-control behavior continues you may want to consider it.
posted by Wordwoman at 7:27 PM on March 1, 2013

Oh, I understand. For my son, his 4th year was terrific, but he was a total asshole at age 5. He's gotten better and for us a lot of that realization is that he's a very strong-willed child. Given a direct command "Do this or accept this consequence" He'll take the or else nearly every time.

We've come to a lot of understanding of what's going on. He tends to disbelieve what he's told until he has collected data himself. He tends to push opposition to full-out confrontation and appears to feed on the conflict. If he doesn't buy in, he can't be pushed because that will just make him dig in his heels. He needs to win every time, and when he sees no choice but to lose, he's taking everyone down in flames.

Yet, when he has bought in, when he has collected corroborating data, he's about as sweet and thoughtful a child as you could possibly hope for.

Sound familiar? If so, consider reading "You Can't Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded)", which is chock full of constructive approaches to de-escalation and negotiation. They don't always work, but they're a whole lot better than the zero-to-conflict in 3.2 seconds.
posted by plinth at 7:57 PM on March 1, 2013

Agree with getting enough sleep, including some down time during the day. Agree with seeing if food changes will help.

Some other things: schedule a day where every so often if it just her with just mom or dad. Don't ever threaten to take these away because of her behavior. Do expect reasonable behavior while doing these.

When she does the "I hate you!", you can't react, except to say "That is fine that you feel that way right now. But I want you to know that I will love you forever!" And then leave her alone. Don't react to what ever else she says, say it that one time during the event and move on. My daughter only tried this on me a couple of times when I gave that answer - she didn't get a rise out of me. Remember, she is saying these things because she EXPECTS a rise - she wants the power to make you as angry as she feels. Don't give in to it. Do get the book "Love you Forever" and write in the front that you are giving it to her because you both love her so much. Read it to her often. (Warning - it makes me cry every time I read it!)

Maybe get a young tween or teen to help out in the afternoons after school. Have them take her to the park to play, with or without you or your wife. Have them play in the back yard. Have them take her for nature walks. What ever works to get her outside and away from mom, dad and baby sister. If raining/snowing, have art supplies and games ready so they can play inside. This could be done much cheaper than preschool, and most little kids LOVE being around older kids. It doesn't have to be every day. Just enough to be something special for her. Again, if you do this, don't take it away as punishment. If she does melt down right before the tween comes, do have her have a cool down time before they go play, but don't take away the whole time.

If nothing else works, get her checked by the doctor for worms. Kids do ingest dirt at times, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility. Pin worms are active at night, and keep kids awake, resulting in kids who are very tired and who can't control their emotions.

And yes, some kids need counseling. If the suggestions listed here don't work, talk to your doctor, talk to your school district, talk to mental health professionals to see what you can get without giving up the house or car.

Wife of 445supermag
posted by 445supermag at 8:46 PM on March 1, 2013

Good nutrition, sufficient sleep, patience, respect (including no spanking), involvement in decision-making, having and adhering to routines, preschool (Montessori), ignoring rather than responding to tantrums. These are things that can help make for a better-adjusted child. The facts that you apparently do sometimes spank and that you are referring to your child as an asshole make me think you have not internalized the idea of respecting the child as a person. If you are using physical violence as a way of trying to get what you want, even if it's as infrequently as possible, should it be any surprise that your child is doing the same? Spanking is more a humiliation than anything else.
posted by Dansaman at 11:32 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

This book: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk might help save your sanity. Lots of good stuff in there about acknowledging "bad" emotions rather than fighting them. Recommended!
posted by ZipRibbons at 12:33 AM on March 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I know we are supposed to love her unconditionally but we are struggling to deal with who she is rather than how she acts... Help!

This is an unclear sentence in your context. I deeply hope you are trying to focus on loving your daughter and correcting the behaviors. Instead of getting her to be a better person. (though if she IS an asshole actually diagnosable person with a processing disorder or RAD or something, that should be addressed by therapy and not just handled at home. For your sake and hers.)

Some insight on why I hope this can be had in Brene Brown's work. She's done a couple of Ted talks and written some books. It boils down to guilt vs shame.

Guilt can be constructive. Shame is not.
Guilt is about what you did. Shame is about 'who you are.'

I think this is why expressing love for kids in the middle of their tantrums can be effective: they aren't bad. They ARE lovable. But the distinction between 'you're behaving inappropriately' and 'you are inappropriate' seems so granular to adults...until we think about it. But they build fundamentals into kids differently.

why did you scream and wake up the baby? Don't you love her? The second sentence is shame shame shame

put your shoes on! You always make us late! hey, more shame.

When you use your outside voice, the baby can't stay asleep. Let's practice our inside voices. No shame there (unless you add I with your tone....)
posted by bilabial at 5:08 AM on March 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I haven't read all the replies, but my 2.5 year old granddaughter often gets upset or frustrated, as all kids do. Her parents are great at talking her through things. "Exactly what are you mad about?" "What do we need to do to fix this?" And then giving her SPACE. She'll even say "I need space." and remove herself from the situation until she feels better. Sometimes it's what they need.
posted by SoftSummerBreeze at 7:17 AM on March 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with the idea that a kid's emotional life is generally not nearly as precocious as their vocabulary. Speaking of vocabulary, 'assholish' is problematic because it sets up expectations and imposes values rather than observes behavior and seeks solutions that are constructive (which is what I suggest you do).

I realize this isn't easy, but treat her behavioral problems at least in part as problems, and I mean problems she has (and not just problems you have with her). Then, keep a diary if at all possible, noting the kind of responses she has and the kind of triggers: just describe, note time of day, note specific problem, note how much she slept, any differences in your own behavior (tone of voice, breakfast, wake-up time, anything different). The reason I say this is that this is a strategy to put some distance between you and your emotional reactions to her emotional reactions, which only complicates you finding a solution. Then look over your diary after about 2-3 weeks. Further, I recommend (if at all possible) you find (and observe her, if possible) in different settings outside the home-- daycare, okay, but ideally an alternative daycare (like Montessori or similar) that has alternative ways of working with kids' needs. Another alternative to daycare is to get her into a sport-- yeah, even very small children (age 4+) can be in a sport program like figure-skating, gymnastics, etc. Get her to a place which supports healthy structure (sports) and/or actively works to promote tolerance (alternative pre-school).

Anyway, as a foundational thing, assume she isn't being a brat, or an asshole, or any of that, but trying to communicate some issue/problem she has that she doesn't know how else to express. Most 4 year-olds don't really have a clear idea of grown-up's emotional needs anyway, so regardless your perception of what she's doing to mess up your day and her perception of what she's doing, it's miles apart. Regardless, nothing she does should have the power to ruin your whole day if (at least for now) you operate on a more flexible schedule and do not assume her cooperation (for now) as a starting point. Unless it's a doctor's appointment or similar, you rarely have to drag her anywhere anyway. I speak here (admittedly) as a former problem-child 4 year-old who was often dragged places. Allow her more independence (I mean, comparatively), so that there are consequences to her choices but she's merely informed of those consequences (like, you can't come with us if you don't come now) rather than pushed. Having a 4 year-old stay home alone isn't child abuse (I think), but then modern life has become super over-protective.

Another thing it's not clear to me you've done yet is asked her for feedback on how she felt about X (bad time) or Y (thing she hates) when she's in reasonable and articulate mode. Children are more aware than adults assume, and she may express herself more clearly if the opportunity was given. Good luck!
posted by reenka at 10:19 AM on March 2, 2013

Is there at-home tension (especially between you and your partner) that she could be reacting to? My brother used to act like this, partially because our parents were fighting all the time- even when they weren't shouting. He didn't have a good way to express his upset and fear, so he was awful.

They were also very inconsistant about discipline and rules, which was frustrating and really hard on us both because we both need a lot of consistency, or at least an explanation of why things are different this time than last time.

Our parents didn't communicate with us very well so we often thought that they were just unpredictable tyrants. I imagine it's tough with a baby and no sleep to stay consistent and it sounds like maybe that's been a challenge- trying not to spank rather than spanking, not spanking, or having spankable offenses where the reason for the punishment is clear and is not "angry parents", but is "x rule broken, therefore y punishment", for example. I'm not trying to criticize your parenting at all- just offering some thoughts. I'm an adult, and inconsistent rules and consequenses STILL make me pretty hard to deal with.
posted by windykites at 2:05 PM on March 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

My three and a half year old son is a turd on a daily basis. His big sister said "I hate you mommy, you bug fatty" when she was four.

There's a reason my long term daycare provider calls it the "fuck you fours". Many, many kids are total assholes at this age-lots of explanations and strategies above, but I just wanted to let you know you ain't alone. Bright side? My teenager telling me she hates me has zero power now-while my friends who had easy kiddos are devastated by that-so she doesn't do it nearly as much

Behavior charts can be pretty magical at this age, if you haven't tried that yet.
posted by purenitrous at 5:23 PM on March 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just wondering, is there a white noise machine you can borrow/buy/ online app that can put/streamed in the 4 y.o.'s room? Might diminish nighttime noise of you caring for baby, and give 4 yo a better sleep.
posted by NorthernAutumn at 10:45 PM on March 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't have any special advice but was talking to a mom of 3 the other day (twin 5-year-olds and 2-1/2) and she and her family spent some time with a parenting coach. I had no idea things like that existed and I've mentally filed it away for the future. It's so hard when you're sleep deprived or stressed to come up with and implement new ways to handle your kids and the various challenges. I imagine getting someone in who is tasked with assessing and helping that it would make things a lot easier. And it seemed low-stress, too. Like not a therapist, not a behaviorist or something that feels like a crisis. Or a broad-brush parenting class. You know? My friend said that it was so helpful and she and her husband have really turned around some annoying patterns and feel much better. Might be something to look for in your area.
posted by amanda at 1:43 PM on March 3, 2013

So... first of all thank you everyone for your thoughtful suggestions. It was the end of a bad run of days when I posted this question and, wouldn't you know it, she has been pretty angelic since. So it goes.

My wife thought people's suggestions regarding sleep were especially insightful. We are trying to make a more relaxing routine out of going to bed, and we also tried giving her 1/2mg of melatonin with honey at bedtime. It's only been a couple of days, but she seems to be going to bed more readily and she seems more rested and much more pleasant in the mornings. Cross your fingers.

For the curious, we spank nearly nearly nearly never, we aren't a fighty or tense couple, and we eat a relatively natural diet (almost all home-cooked food tending towards paleo/organic). I almost wish we were abusive McDonald's addicts because that would be straightforward to remedy. :b
posted by mindsound at 8:31 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

In response to your update: Don't rule out dietary changes as a possible part of the solution too quickly.

Giftedness is correlated with allergies, more ear infections than normal, and genetic disorders. (The more ear infections than normal piece defies the general statistics that ear infections in kids are often promoted by parental smoking. There is a stronger correlation between higher education and smoking less than there is between higher education and higher income.) Dietary changes have been a big deal with me and my sons.

Eating too much yeast bread and peanut butter turns my oldest son into an impossible asshole, even though the occasional peanut butter sandwich is perfectly fine. He has a genetic disorder, which is a relatively mild form of the disorder thus was diagnosed later than usual. His body does weird things with relatively normal food. It does not have to be "junk food." In fact, some junk food is perfectly fine and some seemingly "healthy food" is not perfectly fine. He is also allergic to raspberries, not anaphylactic allergic but allergic enough that forbidding him from ever again having a rainbow sherbert as a child helped cut out some of his fits and crankiness.

My point: I cooked from scratch a lot when he was growing up and that alone was not sufficient to eliminate his significant but subtle diet related behavioral issues. It took some serious observation and research and a proper medical diagnosis to get it resolved.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 10:11 AM on March 6, 2013

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