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The Formidable Fours: Why Being a 4 Year Old is Hard

I was complaining about the formidable fours recently, wondering what had gotten into Gavin – more to the point, what had I done that had resulted in this. Then I took a leaf out of Brain Rules for Baby – I’ve been so busy teaching my children about empathy, how about applying a little of that on myself? So I put on his shoes and walked around in his world for a little while and got a feeling for why being a 4 year old is so hard (thus leading to the behaviours we have been witnessing of late).

I’ve also been thinking over the whole Onerous Ones, Terrible Twos, Terrible Threes and Formidable Fours episodes and rather than labeling them as such, I think they are more like a series of pockets of difficult times that our children are going through that lead to an escalation of difficult behaviour. Because the Terrible Twos was not an entire year of hell, and neither were the Terrible Threes. There were good times and there were bad times. During the bad times, there were many environmental factors contributing to the situation. Throw in the mix of your child’s personality and you get fireworks.

I think there is a fallacy in the belief that how a child behaves is completely the result of how his parents raise him. The fallacy in that assumption is that a child is born a clean slate with no personality or temperament – and that we know is erroneous. Just looking at the polar differences between my two sons is enough to remind me of that. For example, it would take all the guile and cunning I had to get Gavin into his car seat, but Gareth usually allows me to strap him in quite easily. Gavin is a talker, Gareth is very physical. Gavin is very sensitive, Gareth is gregarious, bold and adventurous. Sometimes I think they could not be more unalike.

When it comes to life, everyone goes through ups and downs. As adults, with a wealth of experiences under our belt, it is easy to brush off the “difficulties” in a child’s life because they seem miniscule compared to some of the daily problems we face. But for a child with only four years of experience (or however many your child happens to have had) “little” problems can be quite big – like coping with the disappointment of not being able to eat a his favourite restaurant because it’s closed.

Then there are other problems that children face that are difficult to deal with, such as coping with the arrival of a sibling after being the star child for so long. These are issues that even as adults we still have difficulties dealing with – like living in the shadow of a star sibling who always gets all the praise, attention and admiration of others. If we can feel that with all our years of experience, just imagine how it must be for a child who is still learning about the ways of the world?

Sometimes it seems like adults are allowed more freedom of expression of our emotions than are children. We get angry, we shout and that’s okay because we’re adults and no one tells us off for it. People might think we’re bad tempered or have poor manners but few people will really pick up on us for it. But children get told off for “misbehaving”. For example, a child doesn’t want to stop watching TV or put away his toys even though it’s nap time and he’s tired, then he acts up. Is that really any different to the adult who is driving home after a long day of work and starts cursing at a car for cutting him off?

I’m not saying the behaviour is acceptable, then again, neither is road rage acceptable. But it is understandable – long day, everyone’s tired and emotions are frazzled. What our children need is not more reprimanding for being human and having emotions, but understanding and help dealing with these emotions. Perhaps if they have help learning to deal with their emotions, they won’t grow up into adults with road rage.

Once in the empathy role, it is a lot easier to see why Gavin’s behaviour has deteriorated as it has. Since the arrival of Gareth who puts everything into his mouth, Gavin hasn’t been able to play with toys that pose a choking hazard to his brother. Even though he welcomed his brother into the family with open arms, his baby brother who did nothing but eat and sleep in the early days is now becoming a source of irritation because he destroys all Gavin’s sense of order when he’s playing. For a child like Gavin, for whom order is everything, having his little brother pour out his colour pencils and mess them up is like having an itch you can’t scratch.

As if it weren’t enough that his little brother is annoying him, but now everyone else thinks his brother is so cute and adorable and everything his brother does brings nothing smiles and exclamations of delight. At the same time, all he gets are constant reprimands for doing things his brother gets away with just because he’s “just a baby and doesn’t know better”. That’s quite a lot to have to deal with for a child.  The problem with being an adult is that we forget what it was like to be a child – how hard things were.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

2 thoughts on “The Formidable Fours: Why Being a 4 Year Old is Hard

  1. I agree with you that there’s no other way than using empathy to understand your child’s behaviour. I find that everyone else seems to be so quick to judge/have explanations about how our children should act/behave & I find that annoying. As if we mothers don’t know our children, we who spend the most time caring for our children. People say that we are explaining away or condoning their so-called misbehaviour if we don’t discipline them immediately but little do they realize that something as simple as the child’s interrupted sleep/diet/various environmental factors affect our children’s behaviour. I find giving my child hugs & loving words in spite of her difficult behaviour whenever I realize that certain factors may have affected her behaviour, more often than not, my child immediately calms down. I find that this would draw us closer together. After all, I had always appreciated kind words whenever I feel stressed out so why should my child be any different, right?


  2. Yes and isn’t it funny how no one says anything when the kids are well behaved but yet are so quick to point fingers in my direction when they act up! And when they act up, it’s always, “You see! Because you always pander to their whims and now they’re like this…”

    “After all, I had always appreciated kind words whenever I feel stressed out so why should my child be any different, right?”

    Absolutely! I always find it ironic how we hold children up to standards higher than those that we are expected to meet ourselves. It’s like they almost have to be inhuman in order to be considered “well behaved”.


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