Parenting Tips: Dealing With Four-Year Olds, Tantrums, and a Death in the Family

Dear BabyShrink, I have a son who will be 4 in April.  Recently he has taken to laughing at us when we get mad at him. He despises doing anything he is asked to do and will cry and carry on until he gets his way. I know giving in is wrong but the tantrums become unbearable sometimes. In the last 2 weeks there has been the added stress of dealing with the death of my father. I'm willing to give my son space and time to grieve the way I imagine a 3 almost 4-year-old would, but it's taking a toll on my stress level and I don't want his behavior to escalate into something bigger that we have no chance of getting our arms around.

Please help!


Karla, MN

Hi Karla,

I'm so sorry about your loss. I can certainly relate, having lost my own father a few years back, with little ones at home too. First, know that little kids really don't understand death until they're 7 or older. You can't do anything about that, it's just their level of cognitive development.  If your son and Dad were close, you can talk to him about " Grandpa has died and we won't see him for a long long time", but ONLY if your son brings it up.  Follow his lead.  Don't assume that he is suffering....or is not.

Most likely he is upset by the adult emotions that must be strong around the house nowadays. That's inescapable of course; but you can try to give yourself room and have supportive people around for YOU...away from your son, so he does not have to get upset by YOUR being upset.  When you feel OK, you can talk calmly to him about it, in very short, simple sentences; just a little sound-bite at a time.  But focus on reassuring him that you are ok, and he is ok, and the family and house have rules, and that they have to be followed by everyone.

In terms of his behavior, hold the line.  He is testing you partly because he sees that you're down.  He is wondering:  "What happens when Mommy is upset?  Can I get away with things now.....and will things fall apart?" He's pushing the limits to see if he's safe, and if you're OK.  I bet a few days of consistent expectations, and consequences, will set him on a better path.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink