My phone has been ringing with requests from frustrated parents of four-year-olds—“Help! My child keeps freaking out and nothing I’m doing is working.” To answer this request, I enlisted the help of parenting educator colleagues, Kelly Bartlett and Andy Smithson.
There are many factors which conspire to make parenting children of this age particularly challenging:
Other circumstances can also make life more frustrating for four-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. I’m not surprised that this week has been a challenge for parents of four-year-olds, as the weather has been particularly cold, and kids have been stuck inside.
What can parents of four-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. When empathy feels hard to do, please read this.
Teach & 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. This article shares more about how to do that.
Do so both on a physical and emotional level. It can be hard to stay in like with our raging four-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.”
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.
Once his needs are established, ask him, “Okay, 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!
Give Him Power
Use choices and parenting techniques that support cooperation rather than scaring a child into obeying. Parents often want to address occurrences of aggression with a “doing to” approach, which is using a consequence intended to teach the lesson that aggressive behaviour is unacceptable. While it’s true that behaviours like hitting, pushing, or biting are not okay, they are also not the true problem to be addressed. Use “working with” strategies, like clever language that invites children to follow your instructions rather than “doing to” ones, like 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 four-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 ten minutes of playtime.” For more information on this and other positive parenting techniques, we recommend the book If I Have To Tell You One More Time..., by Amy McCready.
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—sleep expert Alanna McGinn says that should be before 8pm 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. “Working with” is much more effective than a “doing to” approach to guiding children’s behaviour.
Please do not take your four-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.”
We invite you over to our Facebook pages to share your questions and comments:
Justin Bieber’s recent arrest has caused the usual polarizing reactions of condemning or supporting his behaviour. I will focus on how his choices can be a wonderful opportunity for parents.
This is an opportunity because discussions on the topics of drug use, boundaries, recklessness, consequences and empathy can happen without your child rolling his eyes in anticipation of a lecture.
Rather than starting with your personal reaction to Bieber’s choices, ask about your child’s opinion. “Hey, so Justin Bieber was arrested for DUI, drag racing and resisting arrest. I’d love to hear your opinion of this.”
Listen to your child’s words without jumping in. If your child says something like, “I don’t care,” you can do a paraphrasing for clarification like this, “So does ‘I don’t care’ mean you aren’t interested in what Justin Bieber does, or that you have other things to do right now?”
If your child is quick to comment, I recommend nodding and listening for the theme of the comments. Is your child upset? (Many of his fans likely will be) Is your child confused? Or angry? Give your child an opportunity to vent about his or her feelings, without trumping that venting with your judgment.
After your child’s opinion is known, throw in some open-ended discussion starters like,
“I wonder why Bieber made these choices?” or
“Getting arrested has really serious consequences like maybe even having his US work VISA taken away (small chance of this.) He seems to be making some bad choices — what do you think needs to happen so he’ll stop this kind of behaviour?”
In terms of drug use, you can talk about how hard it might be for Bieber to say “no” to them when people likely offer them to him regularly. Ask your child something like,
“How would you handle if you went to your friend’s house and someone put drugs down on the table in front of you?” or
“Why do you think people want to use drugs?”
Another important topic to discuss is the pros and cons of being a celebrity. Many preteens/ teens say they “Want to be famous,” but really have no idea what this aspiration means. You can ask,
“I wonder what life is really like for a famous person?” or
“What is it about being famous that looks good to you?” You’ll probably hear something about money, fans, travelling and being able to do whatever you want. You can educate your child about some of the aspects of being famous which cause many celebrities to have addictions, marriage difficulties, and mental illness. Often, celebrities have little say in their schedule and have to miss important family events to work. Being famous might give a person more money, but it won’t make that person happier.
There are alleged reports that Bieber has been taking anti-depressants. To further this conversation, you could talk about why people take those and then ask,
“Why do you think someone as famous as Justin Bieber might need to take pills to make his sadness go away?” or
“I wonder what Bieber is feeling that is pushing him to do these wild things and take pills to make him feel better?”
Psychotherapist Katie Hurley shared this with me, “We can’t escape the fact that the media, which is readily accessible at all times, glorifies young Hollywood. The struggle is often overlooked in favour of instant success. Until a young star begins to make terrible choice — then the media exploits the ‘fallen star.’ Instead of focusing on how the mighty have fallen, parents can use these stories to start important discussions with their Tweens and teens about drugs, alcohol, fame and growing up too quickly. When we engage in honest (non judgmental) discussions with our kids, we help them process and make sense of these difficult situations. All kids are faced with difficult choices at some point. The more we talk about cause and effect, empathy, and making good choices, the better prepared they are when they encounter a difficult choice.”
"It is our choices that show what we truly are far more than our abilities." -J.K. Rowling
How is your child responding to the news? I’d love to hear from you over on my Facebook page.
Photo: taken from Justin Bieber's Instagram account
Sometimes when I watch my child crumple into a screeching, sobbing mess at my feet, all I hear in my head is, “You have got to be kidding me! I don’t have time for this!” I can’t feel his pain, I can’t understand his mind, and I can’t find empathy for him.
The thing is, though, I know how to be empathetic—as a psychotherapist and parenting educator, I teach others how to do it. Empathy is a parenting cornerstone, it provides the foundation for emotional development in children. Some days, even though I know how to do it, it takes a long time for my own instructions to turn into action. I have stared at my melting-down children and glazed over, momentarily not even caring how they felt.
Being more empathetic is one of my parenting and personal goals this year, so I started digging more deeply into this concept to understand how to put empathy into action.
According to Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative:
"Empathy doesn’t just mean treating others better—it means doing better. Empathy helps us understand and treat one another better, but it’s also a key currency in a world defined by connectivity and change. Gone are the days in which we worked and lived only alongside those who looked the same, spoke the same, and thought the same. How well we do—whether in the classroom, at home, or the boardroom—will depend on how well we forge and navigate relationships. If we can empathize, then we can communicate, collaborate, and lead. We can solve problems—for ourselves and for each other. No matter who we are or what we do."
Empathy is when a person accurately communicates that they see another’s intentions and emotional state. It means watching our child’s frustration and focusing on how life feels in that little child’s body, while putting our own anger and agenda into the background.
Why can being empathetic be so hard?
It is SO hard to understand another’s point of view or distress when we feel exhausted. I remember a sweet childless twenty-year-old woman telling me how incredibly exhausted she was after I had spent a night mostly awake taking care of my baby and toddler. I felt like punching her—and I’m not a violent person!
When financial, work, relationship, or physical stress sets in, we often cannot see past our own challenges.
When we are about to snap, it is very hard to feel empathy for others.
Anyone who has experiences with feeling trapped or abandoned can get quite triggered by a screaming child. I have heard many moms say they go numb and want to walk out the front door. One mom said it’s like getting a puppy and suddenly realizing what you’ve got yourself into, except unlike a puppy, you can’t give the child back.
Some parents might know exactly what their child is feeling, but just don’t want to feel or understand that fear or sadness.
When we have something on our mind, such as a specific task to complete, we can get preoccupied with not getting that task done, and not be able to feel another’s distress.
If a person doesn’t actually know how to tap into the feelings of another, and what to do about those feelings, empathy can be elusive. Affect management means being able to process and allow big feelings to move through us without being afraid of them.
What can parents do to increase their empathy?
I believe the first step to being able to deeply connect with the emotions of another is to be able to shed our own agendas, defenses, exhaustion, and triggers. We need to clear the screen to see another.
The thing a screaming, overwhelmed child needs most is for an adult they feel close with to stop talking, open her arms, and just be there until the screams subside. As one practitioner I know says, we need “to hold the space for another’s distress without trying to fix it.” If there are lots of screams coming out, then likely there are lots of screams built up inside. Those shouts will eventually stop if there is safety and support for them to be released.
I turned to trusted colleagues for their input on how to increase empathy. Ron Lieber shared:
"Often, the ‘losing it’ moments follow directly from moments of intense, utterly unrequited desire — desire that you, the parent, have thwarted. When I see the anger and frustration boiling over, I try to remember the last time I felt that way — about something I desperately wanted to eat or a time I gave in to spending more money than I should have. Then, I imagine myself at 8-years-old, without any user’s manual for my brain or tricks to muffle intense longing. At that point, it's a lot easier to respond with real empathy."
I love this quote. I think it’s a great idea to remember that when we are about to snap or are at the end of our ropes, that our children feel the same way, except they don’t have tools to manage those intense feelings yet.
Andy Smithson had this to say about empathy:
"I've found that acting empathetically when our kids lose it, is as much about what we do before and after the conflict as what we do during the struggle. Anticipate and think about how the child feels when he loses it before it happens, remember what that was like for ourselves, and create a plan so we do not have to rely on our immediate response when we are wrapped up in our own emotions. Evaluation of how empathetic we were after a conflict leads to cycles of greater empathy with each new opportunity. We've all ‘lost it’ before and thus, have the capacity to empathize. We simply struggle to find understanding during an emotional outburst because we are focused on our feelings rather than theirs. So find that understanding before and after the blinders come on and refer to that next time around."
I call my plan that Smithson refers to an “angry plan.” When we set up the steps we will follow when people are melting down around us, we can go into autopilot and follow that plan rather than being hijacked by intense emotions.
This is what I recommend (and do myself) to increase empathy when doing so is hard:
I invite you over to my facebook page, where I continually post free parenting help/ resources and host wonderful conversations with parents. While you are on the page, I would love to hear which part of this article really resonates with you!