How Do I Teach My 4 Year Old That She Doesn’t Rule The World?

Four year olds are full of imagination, creativity and boundless energy. But even though they have discovered free will, they aren’t always up to speed with boundaries. They know what they want and they don’t understand why you won’t give it to them! Just hang in there – they’re still discovering that the world around them is not always fair and not always theirs to rule.

Read on for advice from Dr Justin Coulson.

My four-year-old girl is very stubborn, often doesn’t listen or follow instructions (until time-out occurs), she constantly needs attention and talks over and interrupts all the time and is very bossy. Sometimes i get embarrassed by how bossy and controlling she tries to be to her sister and other kids! And feel I am constantly having to tell her off and having to negotiate with her. How do I get her to realise she does not rule the world!

People complain about the terrible twos, but in my experience, our toddlers grow up into some very challenging children. As much as you probably don’t want to hear this, from your brief description it sounds as though your four year-old daughter is pretty normal. Here’s a little bit of theory to help understand why she is this way – and why most four year-olds are just a little egocentric.

Up until the age of approximately four or five years (sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less), children are yet to fully develop what psychologists call ‘Theory of Mind’. Theory of mind is the capacity to recognise that other people have motives and desires and beliefs that are not the same as ‘mine’. In short, your four year-old thinks that everyone thinks like her, and if they don’t she does not understand why and therefore feels compelled to let them know how they should be feeling … and that is, of course, that they should be feeling just like her.

The most common way to test for theory of mind is something called the ‘false-belief’ task. Here’s how it works (and yes, you can even try this at home with your own kids). In this task, we tell a child a story about two characters, let’s call them Gemma and Sophie. Gemma and Sophie are friends, and they are playing with a box and a basket. Gemma also has a marble. Gemma decides to go outside on her own for a few minutes, but before she does so, she places her marble on the floor and covers it with the basket. Once she has left the room, Sophie moves the marble from under the basket and places it under the box instead. Gemma comes back into the room and wants her marble.

At this point, we ask our child where Gemma will look for the marble. If she says “under the basket”, that would suggest that our child understands the thought processes of Gemma. She knows that Gemma will think it’s there because she didn’t see it get moved. If our child says “under the box”, then it suggests that she thinks everyone sees the world through her own mental representations, and that theory of mind is not yet developed.

Why theory of mind matter?

Simply put, it’s likely that your daughter is not listening, following instructions, and being stubborn because at the age of four, she hasn’t yet realised that your motivations and beliefs might be different from hers.

A couple of other suggestions to help work through some of the other issues you raised:

  • If your child constantly needs attention, is talkative, and is regularly interrupting there are a couple of things to do. First, become really genuinely emotionally engaged with her. This means stopping, paying attention, and being right there with her. My favourite phrase is “be where your feet are.” If your feet are where she is, be there with her. Right there. Many parents will feel that they are creating a rod for their backs by “indulging their child” in this way, but paradoxically the more we emotionally engage with them, the less needy they become. It may take some time, but she will feel valued and respected, and will become less needy over time.
  • When she is impatient, rude, or bossy, give her what I call “gentle reminders.” This means that instead of being bossy and controlling yourself (and having to tell her off), ensure you have her attention, state her name, and then say a simple two to three words to reinforce your rules or limits. For example, “Abby, your manners.” Or “Michaela, we wait patiently.” You can decide on how you want to gently remind her, but this is a useful strategy.

In short, it sounds like you have a fairly normal, energetic, enthusiastic, confident four-year-old. Emotionally engage with her, gently re-affirm limits, and you will find that she will remain happy, involved, and lots of fun.

One Comment

  1. Shenugget 20/10/2017 at 1:24 pm

    This article couldnt have come at a better time. My daughter sounds exactly like this and this just reconfirms the method im going to approach from. Now I just need to figure out how to work along side her fussy eating!!!

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