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How to Discipline Three, Four and Five Year Olds

Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

How to Discipline 3, 4, and 5 year oldsFor those who visit Cornerstones for Parents frequently, you know that it is our desire to help parents focus on the internal causes for misbehavior in children and not just the problem behavior itself. Any behavior can be stopped (to what lengths you will have to go to stop it will vary depending upon your child’s temperament and personality). Our goal, however, should not be in simply stopping the behavior. We need to address the root cause and underlying heart attitude. Without this important step, you may achieve obedience but you will not achieve lasting change.

This article will explore discipline strategies for 3, 4 and 5 year olds. While the developmental differences between a 3 and 5 year old can be significant, your approach to training and discipline does not have to be. Here are some suggestions for this wonderful period in your child’s life.

  • Pick your battles. Independence is the name of the game at this developmental stage. “I can do it myself!” is the battle cry of virtually every preschooler. You can engage in war or you can concede before it begins. Things like what she wears (as long as it is appropriate for the weather), what order she completes her morning routine, whether or not she has left-overs for breakfast are things that you want to let go. Go to the mat on issues such as gentle hands and words, following directions and showing respect for others.
  • Be consistent. What discipline strategy you use from your parenting tool box isn’t as important as using it consistently. If refusing to comply with an instruction is discipline-worthy in your book (and it should be, by the way), then consistently provide a consequence for that infraction. The consequence can change to meet the circumstances, but the behavior should never be allowed to slide with a “Now that’s not nice” response. Consistency in parenting refers to the fact that an undesirable behavior always results in a consequence. You get to decide what that consequence will be.
  • Speak slowly and clearly with eye contact. To make sure that you are heard, you need to make eye contact with your child before giving an instruction. These instructions should be short with no more than one or two components. You can say, “Go put your truck in the toy box and then come back for your next instruction.” For particularly unfocused children, you may want to have them repeat the instructions back to you before sending them on their way.
  • Use time outs the “right” way. Time outs are a very common discipline strategy for parents of preschoolers, but more often than not, they are used ineffectively. Parents may want to read this article that outlines the effective use of time outs in a values-based parenting context. Sitting your child in a chair, listening to a timer tick will not provide the long-term, internal heart change that most parents desire. You may want to consider using time outs in conjunction with our one-of-a-kind parenting tool, Heart of the Matter Parenting Cards, developed just for this purpose.
  • Provide opportunities for problem behaviors to emerge when you are present. You may be scratching your head wondering if that was a typo. It was not. Remember: your goal as a parent is not to avoid problems, but to address them through discipline and training. Now is the time to do that. If your child struggles with social interactions with others, take him to indoor play places – often. Establish rules and expectations before you go and follow through with consequences if and when they are breached (even if that means leaving and trying another day). You want him to have ample opportunity to act up when you are there to correct it. Strike while the iron is hot . . . shape while the clay is wet . . . you get the idea.
  • Find a school that supports your style of parenting. For many children, this is when they will enter a formal school setting for the first time. You will need to choose wisely. While you may not think that this should be part of your discipline plan, it is. You will be entrusting your child to the care of other adults for several hours a week. If the staff and environment do not support your family’s values regarding personal conduct, you will find yourself with daily repair work to do in the area of discipline.

This is a fun but also tiring time for parents. Put in the effort now and you will reap the results in the future.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed therapist who offers individual and parent counseling to individuals in Connecticut. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married with a young adult son and a teenage daughter.


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