My preschooler acts without thinking and has no self-control. He grabs other kids’ toys without asking and sometimes runs into the street. Is this typical behavior for a 4-year-old?
I get asked this question all the time.
It’s common for 4-year-olds to struggle with self-control—and sometimes even be a little out-of-control. Kids this age have a lot of energy. They’re impulsive. They often run around, can’t wait their turn, and interrupt. Expecting them to behave like little adults isn’t realistic.
How do you know when to be concerned? If kids are doing things that put them or others in danger, it needs to stop. For example, opening the car door when the car is moving, running into traffic, or fighting with other kids.
If something like this happens once, a firm “stop it” may be enough. But more than once and it’s time to look deeper. A good way to start is by talking to your health care provider.
Another red flag is if kids can’t make friends because of how they act. If no one wants to sit or play with your child, you need to understand why.
If you’re still concerned, look around the playground. Does your child’s behavior stand out a lot from the other kids? Comparing kids to each other is tricky, but it can be a good measuring stick.
Kids develop at different speeds, but all slowly gain self-control as they grow from toddlers into preschoolers and beyond. No one’s surprised when a 2-year-old snatches a toy from a sibling. At 5, most kids have learned to take turns and share. An active toddler may run away in a crowded mall. But by 5, kids usually ask (or whine) before they dash off for the ice cream truck.
Keep in mind that you may be more critical of your child than of other kids. That’s because when our kids misbehave, it can be embarrassing. Watching other kids can help you get a more honest picture of your child.
Also, when does your child lack self-control? Even calm kids act without thinking in situations they can’t handle, like an hour-long car ride or worship service. All of us, even adults, have a limit to what we can take. And if we go over that limit, we can be just as rash as a 4-year-old.
There are lots of reasons kids may be impulsive. Sometimes, they have trouble telling others what they want or need. Other times, there’s something going on in their lives, like a new sibling or school. And sometimes, kids may learn or think differently.
Whatever the cause, you can do a few things right now to help. Start by looking at your family’s life and what you’re asking your child to do. Is your child on a strict schedule? That can lead to burnout. Does your preschooler have schoolwork? At this age, playtime is better.
Next, think about how to make things easier on your child (and you). Instead of going to the playground next to a busy street, go to a less crowded one with plenty of space to run around. Try a short, kid-friendly worship service over the hour-long one. Small choices can make a big difference for kids.
About the author
About the author
Ellen Braaten, PhD is a child psychologist, professor, and founding director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospital.