All stages of childhood bring with them new challenges, but never has this been more evident in my house as it is now that my daughter is four.
My calm, reasonable toddler has transformed into a little girl with a determination that is both admirable and frustrating. Her temper has shortened and it’s possible for something like my choice of shoes (for myself, that is) to spark a meltdown of tears and wails. And all my friends with four-year-olds are noticing similar behaviours.
It seems that the fourth birthday brings with it a whole new set of tests for parents.
The return of tantrums and meltdowns
Young children are known for tantrums, but by the age of four these seem to be on the increase once again. Child behaviour consultant Nathalie Brown from Easy Peasy Kids says that although pre-schoolers have an enormous vocabulary, they’re still unsure of how to express their feelings. “Emotional intelligence lags behind communication skills at that age,” she explains.
Brown suggests trying to pre-empt when meltdowns are most likely, in order to avoid them. “It’s like a switch goes off in their head and they have no control over that switch; it just goes. The switch can be triggered by many things: if they’re slightly over-tired, hungry, over-stimulated, bored or not getting their own way.” If you notice a pattern try to change routines to help things run smoother for everyone.
But some meltdowns are unavoidable. Brown says to validate your child’s feelings and then try and remember that it’s not personal. “They manage to push our buttons because we love them so much,” she reminds us. And when all else fails, look on the bright side: “It’s actually a good thing that they’re having a tantrum! At least they’re releasing it.”
Seeking greater independence
For many children, attending preschool or kindergarten means leaving the family fold for the first time. This brings with it a whole new routine, new expectations and lots of socialising – it’s a big leap towards independence, and a lot to keep up with.
“Their social skills are put to the forefront at kinder,” says Brown. “They’re learning so many skills, it can be overwhelming for their brains.”
With that independence comes a realisation that there are other ways of doing things. “They’re making choices while they’re (at kindergarten), and then they come home and we’re saying that here there is a different set of rules,” explains Brown. “It’s a big change.”
You can help your child by teaching them to navigate friendships and explaining the different rules at home versus preschool.
While a toddler has trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction (which results in what adults consider lies), a four-year-old is often beginning to see the difference. And yet the lies continue.
What’s important to note is that a child’s lies are still pretty innocent. “Children are just testing their boundaries and not doing it with malicious intent,” explains Brown. “They know it’s a lie, but not in the way an adult would lie.”
So what do you do when your beautiful four-year-old has told you a big porky? “Don’t be shocked,” advises Brown. She says it’s pointless asking the child why they did it because they won’t really know, however it’s important to work out those reasons yourself. “Is it because they didn’t want to get told off? Is it that they’re after a bit more attention? Or is it something they’ve overheard at kinder?” Try to speak to them about it afterwards rather than in the heat of the moment.
As for teaching more honest habits, it’s vital to communicate in a way they can understand and visualise. Stories are a great tool, and you can use any of the stories you have on hand: “When you’re reading a story to them you could say, ‘What would happen if (this character) had said this and lied? How would that make this other character feel?’” Play is also a form that kids relate to; creating small role-playing situations with your pre-schooler’s favourite toys can help with this lesson. And of course, don’t forget to model honesty in your own life – although it can be tricky for adults to stop telling white lies!
Many four-year-olds, although toilet trained for quite some time, will experience some setbacks in these skills. Brown suggests that this is perfectly normal and is usually associated with being distracted by all the other things happening in their world. “At kinder they are fully engrossed in what they’re doing and they just forget,” she explains. “And once it starts coming out they can’t stop it, they don’t have that bladder control.” And if it’s happening at home, remember that tiredness after a long day can be a factor.
However, Brown says toileting accidents are usually associated with the first term of the preschool year. “By term two it should be fine again,” she says. Give it 12 to 16 weeks and if it’s still happening, look at other factors and consider getting it checked out. Remember that you know your child better than anyone so if at any time you think it’s something to be worried about, seek help.
On the upside…
Despite the challenges, four-year-olds are wonderfully funny, creative and interesting people. At our house the good moments well and truly outweigh the challenges, however it’s important to understand the hard bits and find some empathy with our kids.
After all, the more easily we overcome the challenges the sooner we can get back to enjoying those lovely moments.
Are you a parent of a preschooler? Discuss these challenging and rewarding years with other parents in the Essential Kids Forums.