Whoever dubbed the term “terrible twos” had not yet had a “threenager”. Brian and I joke about this all the time, but in reality, we both feel that the transition to a 3 and now almost 4 year old has been WAY more difficult than a 2 year old.
I have found myself struggling this past year to maintain my parental calmness around Paisley at times. My social work brain continually tells my mommy brain that she has been through so many big transitions (new baby brother, cross country move – separating herself from all her family and friends, staying home full-time with me) this past year, “no wonder she is acting this way”. For some reason, even though I know this, it doesn’t give me the peace of mind to reassess how I feel in those moments of irritation and anger, and how I handle myself as a result.
When I speak to Brian about it, his go-to response is “what would your social worker brain tell you to do”. As much as I don’t like to admit it, but he is right. I needed to step out of my mommy brain and look deeper into the root of the behaviors. I decided to crack open the old therapy books and give it a go.
*Disclaimer: I am trained as a social worker that focused on individual therapy with children who experienced trauma, mainly who lived in the inner-city, and who’s families experienced “complex trauma” (multiple, generational traumatic events). My experience and background speak to that. I also focus on strengths-based approaches, shying away from punitive or shaming techniques because they don’t fix the problem and rarely help. My techniques will be relationship building and strengthening techniques, and most of the work is to be done by us…the parents. ALSO, techniques I share may or may not work for your child. Each one is different, along with parenting style and personality. It truly is an experiment that is best done consistently and for a 2-3 week period to determine if it works for your family.*
A little about 3 and 4 year old development to help set the stage for the strategies that I suggest:
- 4 year-olds want to try new experiences. They want to be self-reliant and seek to expand the areas of their lives where they can be independent decision-makers
- Seeking to test limits and boundaries, love to be “helpers” and seen as capable
- Their brains are developing quickly to desire to learn words and letters, problem solving, shapes and colors. They understand days of the week sequence, but cannot tell time.
- Cue all the “why” and “what’s this” questions!
- Emotionally, 4 year-olds continue to learn what causes certain feelings and realize that others may react to the same situation differently.
- They have learned to better manage intense emotions with coping strategies like talking it out or drawing a picture.
- ONLY if they have been previous taught to do so.
After going back through these main points, it helped me realize what is going on in her brain. Before I can do anything about strategies to try, I have to stop and think what triggers I have – what behaviors she does that make me go coocoo cachoo!
My biggest struggle with Paisley is the seemingly blatant not listening and her attitude (screaming “I don’t care”, running away, and the occasional temper tantrum to be a bit more specific). I find myself trying to figure out how much discipline needs to be done, if I have too many rules and restrictions, am I being fair and providing reasonable consequences for her age and developmental stage, was I too mean/harsh, not enough? The struggle is real!
If I started talking about strategies without explaining a bit on the brain, I feel I would be doing you a disservice. Very brief and basic…Our brains are split in to 3 separate parts: Brain Stem, Limbic System, Prefrontal Cortex
This picture was taken from Dr. Bruce Perry’s presentation about brain development. He is my favorite psychologist to refer to when discussing brain development and the impact trauma has on the brain. But that is a total side note…if you want to read a more in depth explanation of brain development go here.
When we react to situations, we are coming from our limbic system (emotional state) rather than responding from our prefrontal lobes (thinking/logical state). As parents, it results in us yelling, threatening, or throwing tantrums ourselves rather than helping our children address their needs in those moments in a logical manner and teaching them the correct way to respond or act.
So back to my examples of Paisley’s behaviors that drive me nutty! She has developed a habit of being SUPER whiny and throwing a fit when she doesn’t get what she wants (which lead to not listening or exhibiting a negative attitude). Depending on the day, will determine whether I react or respond. My reactions usually coincide with my internal feelings of completing my “to-dos” or not. If I feel like I haven’t had enough time to get what I want done, I usually am already frustrated and typically react…and it’s not pretty. After raising my voice, threatening her, etc. her body language says it all. Her shoulders are slumped, she won’t look at me, and sometimes will even yell back “I don’t want you to look at me!” There is nothing worse than feeling like you have screwed everything up for you kid.
Before we can even try to respond to our children’s behaviors we have to get ourselves in check first. It’s all about self-care, taking care of ourselves first. Think airplane oxygen mask example. The flight attendants always tell you to put the mask on yourself, then on any kiddos. What good is your kiddo if they have their mask on, but you don’t? We have to have our brains calm enough to respond appropriately and teach our children the skills they need. (I did a few posts about what self-care is and how to incorporate more ideas into your daily routine. Check them out here, here and here.)
So what do we do to help ourselves NOT react this way? How do we shift the discipline paradigm in our own brains from “punishment” to “teaching”? What strategies or ideas have been helpful in the past and need to be re-introduced?
Discipline has such a negative connotation. Discipline is about teaching a child the skills to calm themselves down, not punishment. Discipline is not something you do to children, but something you develop within them.
We, as parents, have to find what our children need and that will give us our answer on how we respond to those needs. Needs are tied to the parts of the brain. Always ask yourself:
- Is my child safe/being safe?
- Basic needs of safety and security (brain stem portion of the brain) – food, shelter, water, love
- The way to respond is with attachment, nurture, love and care
- Is my child seeking connection?
- Respond with attention, self-regulating activities (dancing, singing, rocking, swaying, hugging, etc)
- Is my child bored, seeking challenge?
- Respond with stimulating activities, increase skill level to create a challenge
*I will get more in to this in a different post, as this is already getting lengthy!*
We cannot teach what we do not know. Modeling appropriate and wanted behavior is the easiest and most effective way to teach.
First and foremost, we must remain calm and in control of our own internal state (it helps keep us in our prefrontal cortex/logical part of the brain). Literally stop your thoughts, take a deep breathe (may even require us to leave the room – as long as the child is safe – and collect ourselves prior to speaking) and tell yourself “I can do this”. Next, focus on assertive language with your child. Tell them what you want them to do not what you want them to stop. Paint a picture of what you want your child to do.
For example, Paisley loves playing with cars (so much so, she literally played with cars and “parking spots” for 2 days with grandpa this week…all day). Prior to dinner or bedtime I may say, “It’s time to clean up the cars. Put the cars into the bucket.” (specific and clear, assertive instructions)
If she complies, say “You did it! You are cleaning up the cars and putting them in the bucket.” (positive affirmation and awareness that she is doing what is asked)
If she refuses, say “I’m going to help you start putting the cars in the bucket.” (modeling appropriate behavior, providing a relationship building moment by assisting)
If she complies this time, say “That’s it. You’re doing it. It’s hard to stop when you are having fun.” (tuning in to her desire to have fun and not wanting to stop, makes her feel heard)
If she refuses and turns or jerks away, notice her body movements and say, “Your arms went like this (demonstrate) and your head went like this (demonstrate).” (tuning in to her body language and actions, makes her feel heard, but also serves as a distraction or stopping her brain for a bit)
When she looks to see what you are doing, take a breath and say, “There you are!” Then offer two positive choices such as, “You can put all the blue and red cars in the bucket or you can put the silver and purple ones in. Which do you choose?” (noting that you see her looking at you, offering two choices – gives her a sense of control/putting her in her prefrontal state or logical brain – end result is cleaning up the cars)
When she chooses to clean up, give positive and specific praise. I realize that this example seems pretty “fluffy”, but cleaning up is one of our biggest struggles – cue the raging tornado and drama-mama or this sweet girl who does it the first time. Her not cleaning up when I ask, makes me nutty and sometimes turns me into the wicked witch. But going back through these very simplified steps and realizing that she is ONLY 4 YEARS OLD (barely 4, she’s been on this earth longer as a 3 year old than a 4 year old), helps me remember that she just doesn’t have all the skills and self-control I think she should have, or that she showed yesterday!
I have to continually tell myself that children are just that, children. They learn through play. They learn by example. They dive deep into their play and trying to pull them out of it before they are ready can result in the tasmanian devil showing up for a bit. They are people just like we are. They have feelings just like we do. What they don’t have yet is the social-awareness and self-control to keep them in check like we do.
That is where we come in as parents and caregivers. It is our job to teach these skills, to model appropriate ways to behave, to help them through a tantrum rather than trying to make it stop.
It is a big task to be a parent. Being a parent means we signed up for the most self-less job in the world. We give up a lot to put full focus on the needs of our children. With this, we need to remember that we are people too, who have needs.
We need to take time out EVERY SINGLE DAY for ourselves, even if it is something small. It helps re-balance our brains to put us in our prefrontal state – logical/thinking brain – so we can best provide for our children.
I hope this is somewhat helpful and not too all over the place! My brain wants to go in so many different directions with these topics, but I am trying my best to keep everything coherent.
I posted on Facebook a few days ago about topics you all were struggling with as parents, hoping to gather some direction on content you’d like to see. So far topics are potty training, discipline, babies who seem inconsolable, strong-headed children (and parents). I will do my best to address these in ways that I know how. And please know that not all my strategies or suggestions will work with your kiddo. It truly is a game of trial and error to figure out if the example above works with your child or sets them off even more.
For all you readers out there, here are a few books that I love for parenting:
I’d love to hear your concerns or what strategies you use that are effective! I am NOT THE EXPERT, just someone who has tried a lot of different strategies and found some that work for my kiddos and those I used to work with.