My four year old son is very sweet and lovable, but he can be very challenging – he goes from angel to absolute #devilchild. At kindy he doesn’t like following instructions. When pushed to conform he can lash out. He is really switched on and loves a challenge. We have seen an educational psychologist but she seems to be at a loss as to how to help us. I’m hoping you can help.
Dr Justin responds:
Everyone complains about the terrible-two’s. Then it gets worse once our children become “threenagers”, and at age four, things get a little confusing. In so many ways, our four-year-olds seem grown up and mature. But when they are bad… wow! It seems like we literally have a #devilchild in our family.
The way you describe your son makes me think there is a reason your educational/developmental psychologist couldn’t help you. Your son sounds completely typical in his developmental progress. Four year old children tend to be terrifically sweet, until… they don’t get what they want. Then they turn into bigger, angrier versions of the two-year-olds they once were. They often behave in ways that are entirely disproportionate to their situation.
There are key reasons for this behaviour in our young children. First, they lack the ability to tell us how they’re feeling. Second, they have yet to develop good behaviour and emotion regulation. Third, they still don’t have a special ability psychologists call theory of mind.
Language expression skills
At the age of four, our children can communicate quite well at times. However, once emotions rise, their brain struggles to access the words they need and the only things they seem capable of saying are “I hate you” or “Nooooo!” This leaves us feeling like our child is crazy, when he is just struggling to understand how to get by when things are tough.
Emotion and Behaviour Regulation skills
How old would you think a child must be before he can control his emotions and behaviours? I know you’re probably thinking of some adults in your life who still struggle with this… but researchers have found that kids are usually around age 8 or 9 before they start to get this under control in a significant way. We expect too much if we think our four-year-olds will be able to control their emotions and behaviours, especially in times of stress.
Theory of Mind
When you want something but your husband wants something else, it is not too hard for you to understand things from his perspective. This is what psychologists call “theory of mind”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t develop in little people until they are around 5 years of age. This means that when we tell them something that is at odds with their view of the world, they often have meltdowns. And they can’t help it. They just don’t get it.
Underlying these things, our children all crave the opportunity to make their own choices. They resist being controlled. It is this drive for autonomy that ultimately lead to the difficulties you have described.
So what can you do to help your four year old?
I’m going to suggest three things for you to focus on to improve your situation and your son’s behaviour.
See the world through his eyes
When our children become challenging, we tend to lean in to help them, and if our best efforts fail, we get frustrated and tell them to work it out themselves (or we punish them). But our kids don’t respond to our logic. They respond to our love! And we show them best by being understanding. When it comes to children’s emotions, if you can name it, you can tame it. Say what you see, focusing on feelings:
“I see a four year old who is really mad about this.”
“I’m watching my big boy really struggle and get frustrated. It doesn’t seem fair does it.”
Remember, our children’s behaviour reflects their feelings. If we can help them feel understood, they’ll feel better, and they’ll behave better.
Where possible, ask your son what his preference is. For example:
“Would you like peanut butter, or vegemite?”
“Would you rather dad tuck you in or mum?”
“Would you like dinner in this seat or that seat?”
Choices allow us to set limits in a way that still allows some autonomy. When our children can choose, they typically offer us less resistance.
Play allows our to be creative, explore, develop, use up energy, make decisions, understand relationships, and so much more. Often children will often be hard work simply because they don’t get enough freedom to play, particularly our boys. And remember, “outside” is fuel for our souls.
Focus on building understanding, offering autonomy where possible, and giving your son time to run around and play. He’ll sleep better, feel better, and behave better, and your whole family will be happier.
Find out more about dealing with toddler and pre-schooler tantrums in my Toddler Tantrums Tip Sheet.