Q: I fear that I am failing my 4-year-old. She is smart and intensely emotional, behavior that I wasn’t expecting until she was a teenager. We bicker frequently, and she is argumentative for fun. I try not to say “no” when there isn’t a good reason, I try to respect her intelligence, and I try to show her that she is loved, but she is still very difficult. My mom likes to make comments along the lines of “Now you see what I went through” when I mention any of this, and I do recall feeling like an adult in a kid’s body and having big emotions that I didn’t know what to do with. I had a normal, secure childhood, but I am finally okay acknowledging that my mom did not know how to relate to me as a kid and that we are less close as adults because of it. She had similar issues with her own mother. I am terrified of this happening to me and my daughters (younger one is 1½ and so sweet, as was the older one at that age), and I feel like I am already letting her down. How much of this is normal, and how much of this is her unique personality or me putting my issues on her? She seems so frustrated so often. It can’t be pleasant for her, and I know it’s not pleasant for me.
A: Thanks for writing. There are two issues in this letter: the struggle to understand your 4-year-old daughter and, more significantly, the fact that your mother did not seem to understand you (and still takes cheap shots at you). Both of these are difficult in their own right, so let me tackle the first one.
Four-year-olds can be a challenge. They’re known for strong opinions, convictions, and likes and dislikes. (Many of these seem to be nonexistent for the first two to three years of their life.) Four-year-olds can show rational thought and patience but then turn around and have a tantrum like a 2-year-old. Four-year-olds will no longer be fooled, deceived or easily distracted; all of your parenting tricks seem to go up in smoke. Four-year-olds may begin to have friends and play independently but will also become needy, clingy, whiny and cuddly after being away from you for too long. Finally, 4-year-olds can use their burgeoning language skills to negotiate, argue and try to overpower you. It’s exhausting. Take that 4-year-old and add sensitivity and above-average intelligence, and you have some parenting work in front of you.
What is difficult is that I don’t know what you and your child are arguing about. For instance, do you hold too many boundaries and your daughter is (healthily) asserting her independence? Do you hold reasonable boundaries but give in or move your boundaries as soon as your daughter pushes against them? You mention that your child is “argumentative for fun,” but I am here to tell you that no child argues for fun. For boredom? For power? Out of insecurity? Yes, yes, yes, but her arguments are telling us something. I just don’t know what.
Assessing the questions I just listed will help you understand why you are struggling. Picking up some simple child development books will go a long way toward helping you to know what is “normal” for a child. I recommend “The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them,” by Elaine N. Aron, as well as the Louise Bates Ames series on understanding young children.
I am also wondering, do you associate struggle with not knowing your child? Can we know our children and struggle with them? The answer is a strong and definitive yes. It just depends on why we are struggling. I am also wondering whether you are putting your childhood woes onto your daughter’s shoulders. You state that you, as a child, felt like an “adult in a kid’s body” with “big emotions.” We know that your daughter is not you, but this brings us to the real matter of this letter: your mother.
Although you say you had a secure childhood, there is no doubt that your mother has been a great source of pain. Her comments caused you to feel insecure in your relationship with your own child. You describe mothers not relating to their daughters as something that is being passed down, almost like a hereditary trait. Of course, you know it is not genetics, but I hear you: You are afraid that you have a blind spot when it comes to a deeper understanding of your child. And yes, it doesn’t help that you don’t feel as though your mother ever got you, but I am here to tell you that we are not prisoners of those early years.
I am not sure whether you have ever tried therapy, but a good therapist can walk you around these difficult feelings and help you find a way to move forward with more confidence in your own parenting. We don’t erase or forget our pain; we learn to dance with it. It does not have to steal your parenting confidence, and when it does, you can tell the fear to back off.
I don’t know why you are arguing with your child, but I do know that the sooner you begin to resolve some of the issues with your mother, the more focused your parenting life will become. You are the parent your child wants and needs; get the support you deserve to feel that way.