Q: A few weeks ago, my son moved up in class at his half-day private preschool while also starting half-day public preschool. I expected some adjustment, but he’s been reverting to violent temper tantrums, throwing fits about random and strange things. Even if I fix whatever’s wrong (cutting apple wrong = new apple), he finds something else to be upset about. Should I stop trying to do this when he becomes wildly upset about silly problems? He doesn’t like the public school, which will be his grade school next year (bad food! bad toys! etc.). I’ve talked to him, when he’s not upset, about working on handling his emotions. I’ve also talked to teachers at both schools, and they say he’s great in class. I know the answer is to just be patient, but it’s frustrating.
A: You have my full empathy. Many parents and caretakers reading this are in the same pickle. They have children who are angels at school, only to come home and wreak havoc on the family. This leaves the parents feeling exhausted, frustrated and confused. Let me see if I can bring you some comfort.
Four-year-olds are known for being opinionated, strong-willed, emotional, helpful, loving, thoughtful, curious and bright, as well as occasionally rational and deeply empathic. If you feel as if you are on a roller coaster while you are parenting your 4-year-old, you are.
It is extremely important to understand that a 4-year-old doesn’t handle frustration well. (Repeat that out loud.)
We know that your beautiful son is frustrated; this much is obvious. He is throwing tantrums, and the tantrums are about issues of little consequence — to us. He is becoming more controlling (replacing apples after he dislikes how they are cut) and moving his anger to other topics after you try to fix the initial problem.
You may notice that the more you fix the problems, the worse they get.
So, what is frustrating your son? I think it is safe to say he is probably exhausted. School (in two environments, no less) for a whole day is a lot for a 4-year-old’s mind. He is spending all of his mental energy on being good for his teacher, good for his classmates, good in circle time and good for the transition to a new place. By the time he sees you, there is no more good left in him. You have a little boy who has hit the emotional and physical wall.
Okay, we know he is tired, but is this it? Yes and no. Another issue with 4-year-olds is that they do not handle separation well. Simply put, his frustration comes from fatigue, but it also stems from not seeing you. Children this young enjoy venturing forth, trying new things, experimenting with the world around them, playing make-believe with other children — all in the shadow of a parent or caretaker. Four-year-old children enjoy play with frequent breaks for connection, and then poof, off they go. I am guessing that this new schedule is testing the boundaries of what your son can handle regarding separation.
And because 4-year-olds are still pretty immature, your son can’t turn to you and say: “Listen, I am having a hard time being away from you. I would like to have a good cry about this.” Many 4-year-olds experience separation as a pure emotion of frustration; they badly want to be with you, but by the time your son sees you, his frustration spills over.
What can you do? Here are a couple of ideas:
1. Reduce separation whenever and wherever you can. This might include eliminating the second half of school (which he doesn’t need from an academic perspective but which I understand you may need if you are working), ending separation-based discipline (timeouts and sending him to his room) and never ignoring him. Separation plus more separation equals more meltdowns for the young child.
2. Build deep and positive connections when you are together. This means inserting more fun and joy into your parenting life with him. Get silly! Do something he loves and really throw yourself into it. Allow him to see you be truly happy with him. When a 4-year-old is tired and throwing a tantrum, it can be hard to find moments that are easy and good and calm. Don’t wait for your child to create these moments; this is up to you.
3. Allow these tantrums, and love him through them. He is not “wildly upset about silly problems”; he is trying to cope with his huge emotions. If you change your perspective from “My son is misbehaving” to “My son is having a hard time and needs space and support,” you will find your soft heart for him. No, don’t keep giving him a different apple. That is just extending the frustration. Understand that the apple just happens to be the focus of his out-of-control emotions and that another apple will not change anything. Just leave the apple and let him scream it out. Will this be fun? No, but the switching of the apple and the extended screaming is not fun, either. You might as well use friction and frustration in the service of growth and empathy.
Don’t look for overnight changes here. Keep your patience and empathy, and you should soon begin to see this smooth out.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Oct. 12.