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Part Two: Discipline by Age and Stage: Three and Four Year Olds

The challenge of discipline is to teach lessons positively rather than punitively. Positive discipline does not mean that the child will always be happy with limits. They may express sadness, frustration and anger at the limits placed upon them. These feelings are normal when we want something we cannot have. A parent can empathize with these emotions but still maintain the limit. A parent should always be accepting of feelings, even when behavior cannot be sanctioned.

Understanding a three-/four-year-old

A child of this age now uses language to express their desires. The child is becoming more social, and interested in people beyond their parents. As they progress into the third year, they begin to recognize that others may think and feel differently than they do. This understanding, however, is quite rudimentary. This is why the notion of cooperation remains a struggle for a three- or four-year-old. However, the child now has the ability to internalize instructions. They have a greater capacity to understand cause and effect. Remember, though, that this understanding is often trumped by a child’s drive to explore the world. As a child approaches four, they will become more skilled at planning behavior. The developmental goals of this age group are will, purpose and self-control. It is important not to shame the child’s wishes and desires. A parent can acknowledge and validate these desires, while still teach the skills for self-control.

Parents and caregivers may apply some of these disciplinary guidelines:

Be consistent on the green, yellow and red zones of behavior.

Green is always permitted, yellow is slow down or re-direct, and red is not acceptable under any circumstance. A three- or four-year-old gets very confused if a behavior is in the yellow zone on Tuesday and in the red zone on Wednesday. For example, hitting a parent is a red zone behavior. For red zone behaviors, it is important to immediately state what is unacceptable and provide the child with an alternative such as, “I cannot allow you to hit. People are not for hitting. If you are mad, stomp your feet instead.” On the flip side, it is important to allow what is allowable. Children are childish. They are going to run instead of walk, talk in loud voices and be messy eaters. If children are given a reasonable green zone, they are more receptive to limits in the red zone.

Accept feelings, state limits and then problem-solve.

It is important that a child has their feelings and wishes acknowledged before you start stating limits. An understood child is a calmer child. You might begin by saying, “You are very excited about your new tricycle.” The limit can then be stated, “We cannot ride the tricycle in the street because it is unsafe.” Finally, you can problem-solve and find alternatives, “You can ride your tricycle all up and down the driveway.”

The child is not always going to like you.

They may say, “I hate you!” They may show frustration and anger when limits are set. A parent can accept the child’s feelings and even acknowledge the wish behind the anger such as, “You wish that you could stay up all night.” It is remarkable how much a child’s anger diminishes when their wish is acknowledged – not granted – just acknowledged.
Time-outs may become an appropriate strategy around age three.

However, time-outs must be used sensitively and curiously. It is not necessary to use a time-out when a simple re-direction will do the trick. A parent might consider using time-outs only for red zone behaviors, such as hitting others. The purpose of a time-out is to remove the child from the problematic situation and to help them calm down. It is best if the time-out place is one where the parent and child can see each other. Please avoid using terms like, “the naughty corner.” Simply call it the “time-out place.”

As for the timing, respond to the child’s cues. If the child is calm after 30 seconds, end the time-out. This helps the child to understand the purpose of a time-out, which is to calm down. If a child is kept in a time-out once they are already calm, they are less likely to internalize the meaning behind it. It is very important to see the time-out from the child’s perspective. A time-out, if mishandled, can appear to the child as a form of rejection or banishment. The message of the time-out needs to be, ‘I want to help you to calm down.’ The child needs to perceive the time-out as a tool for learning, not a tool for punishment.

A child of three or four is a remarkable being. They are beginning to understand the relationships between ideas, and their thinking is growing more complex. This is in parallel to the great excitement and curiosity that they have about the world. Through the use of consistent and sensitive strategies, parents can teach self-control while preserving the child’s self-esteem.

Stephanie Foster, R.Psych, practices in Calgary. She works extensively with individuals, parents and couples. Stephanie’s goal is to empower clients by providing support and good information. To learn more about Stephanie, visit

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