quick solution for difficult 4-yr old

iVillage Member
Registered: 11-23-2006
quick solution for difficult 4-yr old
Thu, 08-14-2008 - 9:54am


Over the years I've gotten great advice from the various ivillage forums, but this my first time in the Parenting forums!

I'm not a parent - just the aunt of a four-year-old whom I love dearly - she's beautiful, intelligent and hilarious (I'm not partial at all :)). I'm going to be babysitting her a few times in the coming months, and one time is at a party while my sister will be present but occupied with other things. Sometimes, she's well-behaved and adorable. But often (more often than not), she's out of control. It happens especially when things don't go as she had expected. She screams and cries uncontrollably and refuses to listen or even bargain. I remember one time when we had a picnic lunch together. She decided that her turkey sandwich wasn't good, so she threw it on the ground then ran away and laid down in the middle of the parking lot, screaming.

I'm not her mother (or a mother at all, yet) and don't intend to reprimand or school her, but I would love some hints and quick-fixes for calming her down if there is a crisis, especially a public one! I'm willing to do anything - games, negotiating techniques - but more often than not I'm at a total loss.

Thank you so much for your help!!!!

iVillage Member
Registered: 03-01-2006
Thu, 08-14-2008 - 1:47pm

Wow, you are in a tricky situation!

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iVillage Member
Registered: 06-25-2005
Thu, 08-14-2008 - 8:28pm

The solution will depend in part on whether your niece is a spirited child who is demanding her own way, or whether your niece has difficulty with problem solving skills, surprises, transition, etc.

Two of my children have a mild form of autism. They are extremely intelligent (high IQ) and seem "normal" to almost everyone who meets them, but they don't always think logically and have poor problem solving skills. They would respond similarly to your niece if I gave them the "wrong" sandwich at a picnic because it was something unexpected and they didn't know how to respond. When they are thrown off-kilter, they go into stress-mode, they freak out, and they are unable to be reasoned with.

My other two kids are spirited kids who sometimes have outbursts like you described with your niece, but with them, it is a tantrum, NOT an issue with difficulty knowing HOW to respond to the situation.

All four of my kids have to learn how to behave properly, but I have to approach them differently depending on the motivation for the outburst.

I liked the book "The Explosive Child," by Dr Ross Greene. It's been awhile since I checked it out from the library, so I can't remember all of his tips, but it might be something you want to look into.

If your niece has difficulty with unexpected situations, you might want to prep her in advance for what to do if something unexpected occurs. You could provide her a "social story" explaining what to do in a given situation. For example, "Tomorrow we will be going on a picnic. We will walk around the lake, feed the ducks and play at the slide and swings. Afterward we will have a picnic. Sometimes at picnics there is food we like. Sometimes there is food we don't like. If there is food I don't like, I will give it to my mom or Aunt Susie and say, 'no, thank you.' I will ask Aunt Susie to help me get some food I like to eat."

When my mildly autistic kids go into stress mode, I don't have a one-size-fits-all solution for helping them. Sometimes I have to let them have their outburst, sometimes I have to leave an event we're attending, sometimes I can distract them, etc.

Rather than trying to reason with someone who doesn't have the ability to reason, you might try TELLING your niece what you want her to do when she's upset. Of course, it needs to be something she has the ability to respond to. Something that requires physical effort is very good for helping regain equilibrium. For instance, create an errand you need done. Tell your niece, "I have to go to the water fountain for a minute. I need you to come with me. We'll get some food you like when we come back." Then take a medium length walk. If you can have your niece carry the cooler or something with a little bit of weight, all the better.

When my ds is out of control, I sometimes have to force him to begin whatever physical activity I've instructed him to perform, but once he gets going, he calms down quickly.

If your niece is simply throwing tantrums, then the PP had some good suggestions for behavior modification.

Good luck in finding some solutions.

iVillage Member
Registered: 11-23-2006
Fri, 08-15-2008 - 7:57am
Thanks to both answers to my post...I'm going to have to write this stuff down and take it with me on a notecard!
iVillage Member
Registered: 11-23-2006
Sun, 08-24-2008 - 11:34am


I just thought I'd post an update on my babysitting adventure. I was supposed to babysit my niece during an event at a restaurant while my sister had other duties. My sister and I prepped her for the event, telling her what would happen, that she might not like the food and how to react if she doesn't, etc. We promised her ice cream afterwards if she was good the whole time, I told her I brought her something to play with if she made it through the meal, etc. I even brought my computer so we could watch DVDs if things got out of control.

In the beginning of the event she freaked out, so I took her outside so that everyone wouldn't have to listen to the wild screaming. We walked around, discussed ways of reacting if she got frustrated, etc. I told her we'd go back in only when the screaming and crying stopped, which took a good 30-45 minutes, during which she told me she hated me and bit me on the shoulder. She was ok through the meal, but when the gift-opening began she freaked out again, this time more silently so I was able to calm her down with a toy that I brought for her.

Wow...I am not ready for a child.

Thanks again for your advice - it did help a lot and avoided any gigantic crisis situations!

iVillage Member
Registered: 06-25-2005
Sun, 08-24-2008 - 10:29pm

I'm sorry the restaurant outing was a difficult event for you and your niece, but I'm happy to hear it was at least an improvement.

It sounds like your niece may have been overwhelmed in the restaurant environment. If crowded, noisy places pose a problem for her, you may want to consider some earplugs, an MP3 player with earphones, or noise-canceling earphones for your niece to wear in situations where the noise and commotion will be overwhelming.

You can try to see whether there's any sort of physical contact that is soothing to your niece when she's upset (heavy massage or thumping on back, gripping a squishy ball or textured toy, etc). Additionally, if you're able to cocoon her or shield her from as much of the noise/movement, that might help (for instance, seat her next to a wall instead of on an aisle where people are constantly walking or between people).

Honestly, though, it sounds like your sister might want to start keeping a list of behaviors like this that she sees in her dd and present it to her pediatrician to see whether the doctor thinks your niece should be evaluated for any sensory issues or developmental delays. I see a couple of red flags that I'd personally want to get checked out. If it turns out to be nothing, then all the better, but if your niece does have some challenges, the earlier she gets intervention, the better it will be for her. If the regular pediatrician is unable to help, you can get an evaluation from a developmental pediatrician or neuropsychologist.

I wish you continued improvement in your babysitting experiences!