Inside: Find out how to handle a 4 year old who doesn’t listen using gentle and respectful strategies. This post might contain affiliate links, which means if you buy a product then I may get a commission – at no extra cost to you! More information here.
What to do when your 4 year old doesn’t listen
So do you know that moment when you’re cooking in peace, thinking how nice it is that your child is playing quietly, but then you look up to see they’ve dumped every single puzzle piece on the floor.
You ask them to clean it up and go back to cooking dinner before it burns.
A little bit later you go out to the living room again and there’s that pile of puzzle pieces – completely untouched.
Your child didn’t listen. You’re frustrated, but not surprised.
If this is happening to you over and over again with a 4 year old then keep reading because I’m going to address how to handle a 4 year old who doesn’t listen with an easy approach.
Realistic Expectations for 4 Year Old Listening
Before you can tackle a 4 year old who doesn’t listen you first need to have realistic expectations of your 4 year old. This can be the most important part to see more compliance from your 4 year old because in general the expectations put on children are way too high compared to their current development.
The truth is expecting immediate obedience from your 4 year old without help is unrealistic.
Kids generally take longer to process what has been said than an adult would, and as a parent it’s easy to assume they’ve understood what we’ve said right away. If there are other sounds or distractions it can take even longer for everything to click together.
On top of that 3-5% of children have auditory processing disorder, which creates an even bigger challenge. You can read more about auditory processing disorder here.
It’s quite likely that even if your child has fully understood what you’re saying that they still don’t have the impulse control to comply. 4 year old children can still be incredibly impulsive, as children only start to develop appropriate ways to control their impulses at age 3.
They may have some skills to control their impulses, but it’s not a fully develop skill that you can expect them to use at all times.
If you’re asking them to stop doing something they really like or that seems out of their control (ex. aggressive behaviour) it might be really difficult for them to listen without your direct interference.
Asking the Right Things
Sometimes parents set up unrealistic expectations by the way they ask their child something.
If you say, “Pick that up right now,” then the expectation is that they must immediately pick it up. That can be hard for a child.
Instead you can say, “After you’re done playing I need you to pick that up, let me know if you need any help.”
If you ask them to do something immediately and they don’t do it then you should be intervening, otherwise they will learn that they don’t need to do what you have asked them to do.
So if you say, “Pick that up right now,” and they don’t, then you should go over to them, hand over hand, and help them do it. If they didn’t really need to pick it up immediately though, should that be the expectation? Probably not.
You could give them warnings, such as, “We’re leaving in 5 minutes so you’ll have to put your shoes on,” then they have time to stop what they’re doing and go put their shoes on with their own timing, but once it’s time to go that’s when they’ll need to follow through with what you’ve asked, and that would be the right time to say, “I need you to put your shoes on right now.”
Easiest Approach When 4 Year Old Doesn’t Listen
There are a lot of strategies to get a 4 year old to listen. There are so many strategies because getting a 4 year old to listen can be a difficult task and a lot of parents are expecting too much (but see above).
When your 4 year old doesn’t listen I want you to try this easy, understated strategy, but below I will recommend more strategies to handle a 4 year old who doesn’t listen.
The easy strategy I want you to take is this:
Take a break.
When your 4 year old is running around, not listening to you and you really need them to this is a great moment to “take a break.”
How to take a break
Taking a break looks like this, first you can say, “Hey, we need to take a break for a moment, let’s go sit together on the couch.”
Hold their hand and take a deep breath, and encourage them to take a deep breath too.
Then you can make eye contact and say, “I wanted us to talk about…”
It might sound like this, “I wanted us to talk about our plan to get ready to leave. We’re going to grandma’s house soon but I don’t think we’re ready yet. What do we need to do to get ready? …. Yes, that’s right we should put on our shoes, we should also go to the bathroom. What do you think we should do first?…Ok let’s do it your way. Are you ready to start now or should we cuddle for a little bit? …Ok let’s cuddle…That was a nice cuddle, ok let’s start.”
There are a few important things to notice from this example dialogue of taking a break:
- Taking a deep breath and sitting down together helps children to calm down.
- Sitting close and holding hands can foster the feeling of connection they have with you (which makes it easier to listen).
- Listening to your child’s ideas and letting them contribute to the plan helps them to follow through with it.
- Slowly addressing what needs to be done, with less stimulation, helps them fully process what you’ve said.
- Giving them an opportunity to connect a little bit longer (extended cuddle) helps them feel even more trust with you to follow through with what you’ve asked.
Taking a break is very simple but it’s an understated way to help a 4 year old who doesn’t listen.
It won’t work for every single situation, that’s the truth, but it will work for a lot of situations and will help your child have positive experiences of following through with what you’ve asked – this teaches them they are capable of listening and can trust you.
What If Your 4 Year Old Gets Aggressive When You Ask Them To Do/Not To Do Something
Now I know a lot of parents who are dealing with a 4 year old who doesn’t listen are also dealing with a lot of aggression and I want to address that.
Maybe they’re being aggressive and don’t listen when you ask them to stop, or maybe you ask them to do something like get ready for bed and that’s when they start to get aggressive.
Taking a break can still be an effective way to get them to listen because a lot of times this aggression can be happening for two main reasons:
- They need more quality connection with you which helps them regulate their emotions
- They need to build more trust with you that you have their best interest at heart when you ask them to do something
Big emotions that lead to aggression can be extremely difficult for a parent to deal with, and if you’re dealing with aggression then that’s the issue you want to really address, not just the not listening. Here are some very quick tips though to consider when dealing with an aggressive 4 year old who doesn’t listen.
When it’s a matter of safety it’s absolutely necessary to intervene with your child’s aggressive behaviour.
Without getting emotional yourself, and staying very matter of fact, you can remove their hands, hold their body, etc to stop the aggression while saying things such as:
- “I won’t let you hurt me.”
- “It’s my job to keep everyone safe.”
- “Let’s practice being gentle.”
- “Let’s find another way to get the anger out.”
- “Come sit with me.”
- “I know you’re really angry about ___”
Give them opportunities for big play
This means time to run around outside, jump on things, push something heavy. Do this especially if they’re not listening when you ask them to stop jumping on the couch or running in the house.
Make sure you listen to them
Do you always brush them off when they ask you for something reasonable? Give your 4 year old opportunities to make decisions for themselves or for the family. This can be an “easy yes,” like which clothes to wear, or going along with the ideas like it would be fun to set up the sprinkler in the backyard.
Teach them strategies to calm down
Regulating emotions is a very important but difficult skill that even a lot of adults haven’t mastered yet.
If you want to learn how to teach your child to calm down, regulate their emotions, and express their feelings in appropriate ways then I suggest you check out my Calm Down Corner Kit. This kit is printable materials to set up in a corner of your home with tools for you, the parent, to coach your child.
More Strategies When a 4 Year Old Doesn’t Listen
Taking a break is one of the best ways to help a 4 year old who doesn’t listen, but if you want even more tools to help you then I have some recommendations.
Read this blog post with 5 respectful ways to get kids to listen.
Read the book How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.
Start apply more gentle parenting strategies in your day to day life to continue to nurture a trusting relationship.