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Terrible Fours — and Beyond

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Remember the days of toddler defiance — when your 2-year-old may have refused to listen, hurled himself on the floor in emotional agony before leaving a play-date, or bolted out the front door like an escaping convict?

Toddlers tend to get a reputation as the most behaviorally challenging, but for some parents of older kids, this phase can seem like a simpler time. In short, older kids are smarter, more complicated, and stronger. They can talk circles around you, invent off-the-cuff rationales, negotiate, and one-up your best arguments (with albeit faulty logic). Their emotional and behavioral struggles are more complex than toddler tantrums. And let’s face it: At the end of the day, it’s harder to throw a 5-year-old over your shoulder and march out of a play-date gone awry.

So if the terrible twos and threes have turned into what feels like the terrible fours and beyond, what do you do to manage the behavior of your older child?

Put your heads together
You are in charge, but an older child is capable of collaborating with you to make life run more smoothly. So enlist her help. Engage in a conversation the next time you run into trouble: I notice that bedtime seems hard for you right now. It’s my job to help you sleep a full night so your body can grow, so we’re always going to go to bed at the same time. But what could we do to make it work better and to make bedtime nice for both of us?

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This doesn’t mean you should give up ultimate authority — in fact, keeping firm rules and clear expectations will make your child feel safe and confident, which will help behavior, too. At the end of the day, you are in charge. Try framing rules and decision-making this way: There are some things I decide, some things you decide, and some things we decide together. That way when something comes up, you can label it as something that you, as the parent, decide alone. Make sure to point out when it’s your child’s turn to make the call, or when it’s a collaboration.

Prep and debrief
One of the best tools you have for handling any age is to prepare your child for tough moments and to help her process them after they occur. You may have already laid the groundwork for this when your child was younger, but now that she’s more advanced verbally and cognitively, she’s ready to hear and understand more.

Before you meet a friend for dinner, talk about it: Let’s talk about what we’re about to do right now. We’re going to be sitting at the pizza place, so we have our usual dinner rules, like always. Let’s see: we sit in our chairs, and at the table we talk, eat, laugh, tell stories about our day. We don’t yell, and we don’t use potty words, right? Anything else?

Later, pick a moment when things are calm and talk about what happened, good or bad. Toddlers can have a hard time holding on to information once it’s passed, but school-aged kids have good memories and can benefit from hearing you debrief at the end of the day, or even later that week. Say things like, Wow, I was really happy about that dinner and I noticed how we both followed table rules so well. I really appreciate that and it makes it super fun to be out and eating together. I had such a good time with you. 

Or, if things don’t go so well: That dinner seemed really hard for both of us.  What do you think happened? I asked you to stay at the table and you started to yell. It seemed like you were really frustrated. You can say this in the car on the way home, but if your child doesn’t respond, you may want to follow up later in the evening — for example, before you read bedtime stories.

Take pauses in your story to allow for any thoughts your child has. If you don’t get any feedback, however, move on. The more you offer up this kind of dialogue, the more likely your child will be to participate.

Look beyond
Aggression, defiance, tantrums and other emotional outbursts — there’s often a reason these pop up in childhood. Some kids have difficulty with transition and change such as the start of a new school year, the birth of a sibling, or even a visitor in the house. Big shifts on the home or school front can disrupt a child’s internal order and make for bumpy behavioral moments. Tension or fighting between parents can also make for difficult behavior, as can one parent working or traveling a lot. Addressing these underlying issues — maybe by cutting back on scheduled activities to simplify life, or making special dates with mom or dad — is important.

Your child may not be conscious of how these elements affect her, so you can’t necessarily expect her to talk about it. Still, if you have a suspicion about what’s going on, address it directly. Sometimes that means drawing a connection in the moment, and other times it’s a delayed discussion. For example, if you’re picking your child up from a long day at school and she’s tired, hungry, and missing you (though not saying any of these) and she starts to melt down or won’t follow directions, trying cutting her some slack. You may even want to get on the ground and offer her a hug, scoop her up, and suggest a snack. Then, try talking when things are quiet (while you’re playing or drawing together is a good time) and saying something like, I know I’ve been working a lot so I haven’t been able to spend time with you as much. I miss you a lot. What’s it like for you when we can’t do our usual bedtime routine? What could we do this weekend that would be special just the two of us?

Sometimes kids act out to make emotional contact with us. Addressing this does not mean giving your kid a free pass, and you always want to have high standards for your kids’ behavior. It just means you should check in to see if there’s something else going on that you can tend to. Being empathetic and firm are not mutually exclusive.

Practice self-regulation
In addition to having your firm rules and expectations, make sure you’re teaching your child how to manage her emotions, by practicing taking deep breaths, stepping back and trying something a new way if it’s frustrating, running around the backyard if she’s got too much energy. Come up with tools that will help your kid build skills at self-regulation. Kids love to hear stories about us, so tell your child about situations in which you were frustrated or had difficult feelings, and how you handled it.

Older kids can be difficult in their own way. But remember they’re also more capable, and — with your help — they often surprise you and rise to the challenge.

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