Behavioral Problems in Preschool Children: What to Do?

Persistent disobedience of certain rules and defiance of authority can lead to a variety of behavioral problems in preschool children.
Behavioral Problems in Preschool Children: What to Do?
Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 18 May, 2023

Parenting is a daily challenge: Meals, schedules, homework, and activities. To make it all work, rules are necessary. However, sometimes we encounter children who resist them from a very young age. Opposing isn’t a bad thing–in fact, it’s even considered healthy, as it fosters autonomy and the development of their own personality. However, when confrontation is permanent, then we may be talking about behavioral problems in preschool children.

What are the most common behavioral problems in preschoolers?

“Rebellious” attitudes are to be expected in children. However, behavioral problems refer to persistent, age-inappropriate behaviors. They involve disobedience and defiance of rules and authority. As a consequence, there are difficulties in the family, social, and academic environments.

When these behaviors are prolonged, they can lead to oppositional defiant disorder. This can begin before the age of 8 years and must have a duration of at least 6 months to be diagnosed as such. In addition, it tends to occur more frequently in boys than in girls. Among the most common behavioral problems at preschool age, we find the following:

  • Disobedience and defiance of authority. Refusal to comply with what their parents or adults tell them to do.
  • Deliberate non-compliance with rules and norms. No negotiation, understanding, or respect for limits.
  • Rude behavior.
  • Lack of cooperation.
  • Irritability. Loses their temper and argues with adults.
  • Blaming others for their own behavior.

On the other hand, there’s an exception that can be consulted and validated by a professional: These behaviors may appear as a way of expressing the emotional impact caused by the separation of their parents or a bereavement, among others.

A child jumping on the couch and yelling at her mom, who's sitting down looking distressed.
When dealing with behavioral problems in preschool children, always consider the child’s context, that is, what they’re going through at that moment.

How to deal with behavioral problems in preschool children

Some recommendations to help your child with behavioral problems are the following:

  • Explain the importance of respecting certain rules. Point out why people need to work together.
  • Empathize with disagreement but set limits. Many kids say they prefer to play because they find it boring to tidy up their room. Validate how they feel, tell them you understand that they don’t want to do it, but then also tell them that sometimes in order to enjoy something, you have to make an effort.
  • Highlight their accomplishments. In this way, you encourage them to continue those desired behaviors.
  • Ignore “triggering” behaviors. For example, when children shout to get something, don’t give it to them. In this regard, it’s convenient to establish a limit and guide the behavior. For example, “If you want to get this game, you can talk to me nicely. You don’t have to yell at me.
  • Negotiate some rules of coexistence. Make agreements. It should also be made clear that there are other rules that are non-negotiable, either because they’re related to values or to prevent them from being endangered.
  • Make it clear what the consequences of certain behaviors are. These consequences should be commensurate with the age and seriousness of the issue. Limits should be immediate to the child’s behavior and should be consistent. Consequences for misbehavior shouldn’t be considered according to how upset or impatient you are, but according to what happened. That is, you shouldn’t use an “emotional thermometer” as a parameter.
  • Take time for rest and leisure. Just as stress has effects on our health, the same happens with children. Nowadays, they have a full schedule of activities that leaves little space and time for spontaneity and rest.
  • Teach relaxation techniques. For example, you can try slow breathing. In preschool, it works to ask them to inflate and deflate like a balloon.
  • Work on social and communication skills. It’s especially important to put an emphasis on impulse control. Help them think about what makes them feel that way or how the situation got to that point.
  • Ask for professional help. Many behavioral problems require professional intervention, as they exceed our personal resources. Sometimes, children need a space to think about themselves and understand what’s happening to them. Also, someone to guide them on how to build the best coping resources to resolve conflicts.
A little girl covering her ears while her mom yells at her.
When you put yourself on the same level as children, get angry, yell, or insult, the message you transmit is incoherent. In addition, these attitudes fuel behavioral problems.

Working with adults is critical

First, it’s important that, as a parent or adult, you review your behaviors. For example, the parenting patterns you use with your children, how you deal with tantrums, and your own conflict tolerance threshold. You should keep in mind that very authoritarian and rigid parenting doesn’t work for behavioral problems, but, on the contrary, it enhances them.

It’s true that sometimes you can lose your patience, but when you notice that you do, it’s better to take a moment, apologize, and acknowledge your behavior in front of them. Then, when you’re calmer, you should restart the conversation. Being an example of good behavior is helpful.

In this regard, improving the environment in which you live with children also has advantages in regard to your own behavior. Reach out, talk to them in a friendly way, and affectionately point out what they need to improve.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Ortiz Giraldo, B., Giraldo Giraldo, C. A., & Palacio Ortiz, J. D. (2008). Trastorno oposicional desafiante: enfoques diagnóstico y terapéutico y trastornos asociados. Iatreia, 21(1),54-62.[fecha de Consulta 26 de Febrero de 2023]. ISSN: 0121-0793. Recuperado de:

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.