Can a 4-Year-Old Have an "Attitude"?

My four-year-old daughter was raised by my parents for a couple of years while I finished my schooling and she moved in with me in September. I have always been actively involved in her upbringing and discipline, as well as her father seeing her every other weekend. Recently she has begun this attitude where she doesn’t feel she has to talk to anyone, that is even saying ‘hi’ or ‘bye’ to teachers, her grandparents, myself or my live-in boyfriend, who has been living with us since December. In the past week she has been extremely rude to both myself and my boyfriend. He is very good with her and is trying very hard to become a part of her life. I am very worried, and am wondering where this attitude and rudeness is stemming from. I have told her we will no longer put up with it, and will start taking away some of the things we give her on a regular basis, such as taking her to fun places. My boyfriend and I have had heart to hearts with her, telling her that her attitude reflects the way people will see her, and stressing the importance of manners and being nice to others. She is really trying the patience of my boyfriend since he has to care for her when I’m working evening shifts. He’s not sure how much discipline he should enforce and what would be considered too much. We both need some ideas on how to find out what is bothering her (I’ve told her she could talk to me about anything) and also what to do about her behaviour. Please help us.

I am genuinely concerned about your daughter. In a nutshell, she has lost the security of the only home she remembers and the people who were her everyday parenting figures, and has had to suddenly adjust to living with one person she knew only as a visitor and another person she didn’t know at all! That is a very difficult situation for anyone, but particularly for someone only four years old.

A four-year-old is too young to be seen as having an “attitude.” She is depressed and grieving. Part of that depression is anger at you and your boyfriend for taking her away from your parents. Probably your style of discipline is different from that she’s used to. At this time she needs a lot of nurturing. She needs to spend lots of time, preferably some weekends or even full weeks, with the grandparents she used to live with.

Anger is one way in which a young child expresses her grief and depression. Listen to her anger; don’t just tell her to shape up her attitude or her behaviour. Let her express it. Tell her you know it must be hard for her, and ask her what you can do to make it easier for her. Don’t take away privileges, but give her regular good times with you and your boyfriend so she can experience this new family as positive. Set up routines with stories, outings, treats, which she can rely on as good family experiences. Give these regardless of her behaviour.

You have told her she can tell you anything, but she may be too young to know how to put what she is feeling into words. So you need to learn to tune in to her nonverbal expressions. Also, she will not tell you anything if she knows you are likely to disapprove and tell her to shape up. If, for example, she is being hurt somewhere, how can she tell a parent who is likely to tell her off for misbehaving? She will not understand your “heart to heart” talks; she is too young, and she will probably just feel blamed and either get hurt and angry or tune out. That is normal for her age.

Regarding your boyfriend’s role in her life, they say that it takes a child twice her current age before she can fully accept a step-parent. That means it won’t happen until she is eight! That is normal. She didn’t ask for him to be part of her life. You should be her primary parent, and he should only have the same authority you would give to a teenage babysitter. He should not attempt to be a disciplining parent until he has won her heart by treating her gently and with respect. You also need to talk to her without your boyfriend around, and promise not to tell him what she says, so that she can feel free to tell you if he is disciplining her inappropriately or hurting her in some way. If she tells you something which you feel should be shared with him, you must ask her permission.

I suggest that you and your boyfriend take a parenting course together, so you can learn about what is normal for this age and how to handle it. You might also benefit from family counselling. It’s amazing that we spend 12 years in school learning other things but there is no course in parenting! When a family blends, often the two adults don’t agree on all discipline techniques, so taking a course and/or taking counselling together can really help you get your act together.

I am really concerned about the degree of your daughter’s depression. Please be nurturing and understanding towards her; otherwise the problem will only get worse.

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