My 4 1/2-year-old son is a sweet boy, but he seems to lose his ability to listen or calm down whenever he is deep in play with his friends. He also uses words like "stupid" for fun, despite my telling him that these are hurtful words. I was an only child and haven't had much experience around children, but I want to raise a good boy. Would you chat about this?
4-year-old boys come in a variety of shapes, sizes and temperaments. Some happen to be mild-mannered and easy to manage, but most will -- at least sometimes -- get wound up and find it hard to settle down. Many adults have a hard time calming down when they have become overstimulated. So it's not that surprising that your son has trouble shifting gears into a more cooperative, receptive state when he has become excited by playtime with his friends.
Here are my thoughts:
• Adjust your expectations. We can only get upset about our child's behavior if we tell ourselves that it should be different than it is. (You may want to take part in a three-part webinar series I will be offering with the wonderful Byron Katie, which will be live streamed right here on the Huffington Post May 13th, 20th and 27th.) Instead of telling the story that your 4-year-old shouldn't tune you out when he's playing with his little friends, consider why he should tune you out at those times. By recognizing the ways your son's behavior make sense, you will be less inclined to allow it to throw you off.
• Learn about developmental stages. While each child develops uniquely, there are some general truths about 4-year-olds, one of which is that they love to test limits. Think of your son as a little scientist. He needs to find out so many things about life, and one of the best ways of doing so is to experiment. What does mommy do when I use a naughty word? What do I have to do to get my buddies to laugh? Lecturing him about not using hurtful words isn't going to stick in those moments when he's feeling especially goofy and wants to see if he can get a rise out of you, or a laugh out of his playmates.
• Make physical contact. Children live very much in their bodies. When they hear a voice announcing that it's time to clean up toys or come to the dinner table, that voice can feel very far away. When you need your son to listen to you while he's playing with his friends, come down to eye-level, place a hand on his shoulder and make sure you have his attention before you ask him to do something. It will be much more difficult to tune you out if you have established a connection before you make a request.
• Reflect on your own childhood. This last tip may seem odd, but it's an important one. When we find a child's excitability particularly upsetting, it is sometimes a result of having been reined in or heavily restricted as a child. If our own parents forbid us from getting too silly or rambunctious, it may feel almost terrifying when our children get out of control. Look into the past to see if your son's rowdy behavior feels scary or "wrong" to you. If so, you may want to connect to that younger version of yourself and offer new information: Even though I wasn't allowed to get a little wild, it is a normal part of a child's development and it's OK. You may even feel a little bit of sadness for the version of you that was tamped down, if indeed those feelings are there.
Hopefully, these tips will help you feel a little less rattled by your son's rambunctious moments, and a little more at peace with his yet-undeveloped social and emotional skills. Over time -- with your loving guidance -- he will no doubt become better able to settle down, listen and resist the urge to test out those naughty words.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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