My phone has been ringing with requests from frustrated parents of 4-year-olds: "Help! My child keeps freaking out and nothing I'm doing is working." One mom said to me in despair, "They don't call this stage the f-ing fours for nothing!"
There are many factors that conspire to make parenting children of this age particularly challenging:
• Life's frustrations may manifest differently as children grow out of the toddler stage -- aggression might surface.
• Four-year-olds are more self-sufficient, have better gross and fine motor skills and increased social and emotional capabilities -- and seek to test the limits of them all.
• They are very curious, active learners and often imitate adults. They have a greater desire to do more difficult tasks, but lack the attention, skill, mastery and emotional tolerance to fulfill them.
• Power struggles are common between parent and child, and can escalate quickly.
• The 4-year-old brain is still immature with poor communication between the midbrain (where emotions are felt) and the prefrontal cortex (where logic, reasoning, and self-control originate).
• Parents expect that their child's increasing vocabulary means they should be able to understand logic and their own actions (which they don't).
Other circumstances can also make life more frustrating for 4-year-olds, and they include: the arrival of younger siblings, parents who are constantly pressed to get tasks done against a timeline and even the weather. It's not surprising to hear 4-year-olds are doing worse when they've been stuck inside for a day.
What can parents of 4-year-olds do to handle these challenges?
Seek ways to really understand your child's new struggles. Empathizing with your child can draw out tears instead of aggression. Try using language like, "I can tell you are really frustrated right now -- you're very angry that your friend knocked over your tower. It is so sad to lose a game, isn't it?" Let your child cry. Actually encourage the tears, because they facilitate the adaptive process by providing an emotional outlet. The brain can then adapt to adversity instead of reacting to it with aggression.
2. Teach and Practice
Teach and practice new skills during the good times. Take time to walk your child through the instructional steps of tasks that might be really frustrating for him. Remember that you are a teacher simply by how you react in your life. Be a role model with calm responses instead of big freak-outs.
Coach your child how to get through his big emotional outbursts by creating a plan that he and you will follow each time he freaks out. I call it a "calm-down plan." Find calming strategies like breathing or sitting down that will work for your child's personality.
4. Move Closer
Do so both on a physical and emotional level. It can be hard to stay in like with our raging 4-year-olds, so make the effort to stay connected even when you want to do the opposite. Children can feel it when we start to move away from them -- keep their attachment tank full.
Physically, be close with him to support him through his big emotions. Prevent him from hurting others if you see him getting that frustrated. Realize that he has an immature brain and is physically unable to control his aggression when his emotions are running strong. Get between him and anything that that could be hurt, while letting him know, "I won't let you hurt anyone."
5. Address His Needs
Once you have addressed his feelings, address his needs by commenting that you "see" him. Try statements like, "You were feeling hurt -- you need to be included with your friends. You felt annoyed -- you need to be able to make your own choices." Identifying valid needs is the first step for a child to be able to understand how to solve problems.
6. Problem Solve
Once his needs are established, ask him, "OK, what can we do about that?" and brainstorm different solutions (other than hitting, or whatever he has done). Don't try to fix his problems for him!
7. Give Him Power
Use choices and parenting techniques that support cooperation rather than scaring a child into obeying. Use strategies like clever language that invites children to follow your instructions rather than threats or time-outs to curb behaviour.
When a child feels connected to his parents and that they are "fair," he will be more likely to want to do what you are asking. One of the best strategies to get strong-willed 4-year-olds to cooperate is to use a "When - Then." When used effectively, this technique can really reduce battles. An example of a "When - Then" is: instead of saying, "Get changed, we're going to be late!" try, "When you finish changing, then I can put the timer on for 10 minutes of playtime."
8. Reduce Compromising States
Any person will not be at their best when tired, hungry, over-stimulated or overwhelmed. Make sure your child is getting to bed early enough -- before 8 p.m. for preschoolers. Keep young children fed and watered, stick to routines and make sure they have enough rest time and not too much screen time. Lastly, find a way to get your child's sillies out, as child-musician Raffi says in his song, "Shake My Sillies Out." Children need to run around every day.
Note that this is an ongoing learning process -- it will take time with your child as his brain matures and develops new pathways of communication.
Please do not take your 4-year-old's outbursts personally. The combination of new learning and undeveloped skills can easily turn his frustration into aggression. Make space to understand your child's big feelings when things aren't going his way, and try these techniques to give him strategies to turn those big feelings into problem-solving skills. And lastly, please remember, "This too shall pass."
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