Question: My four year old sometimes takes naps around 2pm. On the days he takes naps he's great, but on the days he doesn't he can be a real terror.
How do I discipline my child when he is in a tired, tyrannical state? His misbehaviour demands a response, but I know he's only acting a certain way because of his lack of sleep. Do I need to adjust my parenting style when he's tired,and am I delivering an inconsistent message if I do that?
Answer: You are not alone in facing a cranky child who may be struggling to give up his nap. You are asking questions about discipline and consistency and I will get to that, but first I want to address another issue: Helping your son to give up his nap.
Every child settles into their own nap schedule after they are born. Typically, there is a midmorning nap and another nap in the afternoon; the younger the child, the more sleep they need. That being said, every human also has their own set point for what is going to work for them, sleep-wise.
Despite the age and sleep needs, at some point every child will drop all of these naps. To some extent, every parent struggles as their child adapts to a new sleep schedule. Is it time for your son to drop this nap?
Yes, he will be exhausted. Yes, you will have to put him to bed earlier. Yes, you will have to be gentler and more understanding while still upholding the rules, but it may be worth it for the greater good: consistency in routine.
I cannot tell you whether your child should drop his nap, but I do know it is worth looking into, especially during the summer months, when there is less on the line, behaviourally speaking. If he goes to preschool or day care, summer is a nice time to transition out of naps because his bad mood will not affect his learning or attitude at school as much as it would in autumn, for instance.
And if you are going to give up the nap, just do it. Let your partner know what's coming, and get ready. Do not have formal plans set for the afternoon or evening, and make fresh air a priority. Any physical activity where he can swim or play or run and jump is a nice distraction for a four year old, will exhaust his little body, and will make for a slightly gentler bedtime routine.
Am I telling you to give up this nap right now? No, but I am strongly suggesting that the "sometimes napping" and "sometimes not" may be contributing to the 4-year-old's already fraught mood.
As for your actual question: Is it okay to apply different discipline techniques depending on your child's fatigue level? The answer is a resounding, "YES." Not only is it okay, it is the kindest act of a parent.
When fatigue compromises the brain of an adult, we are hard-pressed to make good decisions, stay patient and stay reasonable. We snap at people, eat junk, cut corners and have meltdowns - and we are supposed to know better.
A four year old is only beginning to be able to hold on to some maturity, so even the smallest amount of fatigue will quickly disregulate his little brain and flip him right into frustration and tantrums.
The energy it takes to identify and express your emotions calmly and clearly is already a heavy lift for many four year olds, and as soon as the brain is exhausted? Poof! He more resembles a two year old than a four year old.
When you understand that your son's misbehaviour is a brain-science issue and not a willpower issue, it is much easier to find compassion. Why would we harshly punish him for something he cannot control?
I am not advising you to let go of all of your boundaries, though. If you do so, you will quickly find him becoming more tyrannical and out of control. Instead, try to change the environment so that he will find fewer places to make trouble. Move through these storms with ease, flexibility, consistency, boundaries and kindness.
When your son is exhausted, it is not the time to create rules, consequences and apply punishments. View these issues as short-term problems that will fix themselves once he finds a sleep schedule that works.
Take a look at changing his napping schedule, and absolutely change the rules when he is so exhausted he cannot cope. Focus on getting him get the rest he needs rather than controlling his behaviour.
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