Is it just me or does something happen to our children when they turn three, four and five?
Like all of the sudden emotions are more potent and behaviors are more exasperating.
I can’t tell if it is a regression or maybe my son is falling forward into a new version of himself. I shudder a bit at the thought. Oh Gawd, please don’t let this be the long-lasting version of him. This version is confusing as hell.
It feels as if overnight my son’s needs changed and I am over here scrambling to catch up.
- He became more emotional about everything, and those emotions became more fierce.
- My bids to co-regulate no longer had the same effect. My son began to deny my invitations to his Calming Space and he certainly didn’t want to take those three calming breaths with me anymore.
- He began to push back when I helped him notice and label his feelings. It used to be that when he was rattled, I could call it out. “I see you’re feeling mad.” Now, he yells, “I am not mad!” in resistance to my observation. Me talking seems to piss him off more.
As a result, my own nervous system is sent into alarm. I panic. How am I supposed to connect with him if he won’t let me?
My fear kicks in. Did something happen? Did I miss something? Am I failing him?
I go into problem-solving mode. Maybe if I move bedtime earlier … If we cut back on activities … If I add more boundaries or consequences or something …
Yea, I guess you could say we were both spiraling a bit.
Brain Growth Affects Behavior
I consider myself a lifelong learner and so one night I decided to get ahold of myself and step into my power. I began researching and reading and learning about my son’s brain development. And what I realized was this wasn’t a my child thing. It was a development thing. It was a kid thing.
At this age, there is significant growth of the amygdala, a region of the brain primed to keep your child safe. Think of it as the brain’s built-in security system, always looking for threats. When it detects one, it tells the body to fight or flight. The name of the game is survival.
Around age four, there is a surge of activity happening in this area of the brain. The brain is growing new neurons and synapses so fast that it is challenging to keep up. This causes the amygdala to be hypersensitive to any stimuli, big or small, even those things that aren’t truly a threat.
What this means is that, even at baseline, your child’s nervous system is living in a low-level stress state. Add to that, they are still learning about emotions - what they feel like in the body, what to do with them, and how to communicate them. Add to that any life changes like a new sibling, prepping for Kindergarten, or shifts in routine. Add to that an immature logical brain.
What we observe is the surface-level stuff - increased moodiness and misbehavior. Our perception may even lead us to believe that their intensity is willful defiance. But really, it is an effort to regulate their brain’s hypervigilance. The meltdowns, power struggles, and force are symptoms, not problems. Just as a baby would cry to communicate their needs, your child is communicating her needs now, through behavior.
Emotions Get Complex
Another factor at this age is that our child’s emotions become more complex. It’s no longer just happy, sad, calm, and angry. There are layers.
As they interact with the world and as their brain centers mature, they begin to feel a fuller range of emotional sensations. Just as it becomes trickier for them to decipher and name what they are feeling, it becomes more challenging for us to decode too. The best thing we can do as parents is to remain curious, especially when it comes to anger.
Anger is often a secondary emotion. So, their anger could be anger. Or it could be jealousy … or disappointment … or frustration … or fear … or even sadness. Anger is often an easier emotion to express than hurt, and since our child’s brain is deeply under construction, they will default to the skills they have, to the emotions they know, and to what feels safe.
It sounds a tad outlandish to call anger “a safe feeling” and yet our brain is wired to look for familiarity as a survival mechanism. It will follow the most known path, even if that path isn’t the most productive. Beyond that, our children are still developing impulse control, and so it makes sense that their anger can grow larger than them.
4 Tools To Regulate Your Child’s Nervous System
Here are 4 tools to help your child’s nervous system regulate amidst all of these changes.
1. Release expectations
Your child isn’t the two or three-year-old version they once were and they aren’t some future version either. See who they are right now, in this moment. What are their behaviors and what could those signals be communicating? When we stop comparing them to who they were and wrangle in our fear of who they could become, we can respond in a way that meets them where they are, and this provides them with the sense of safety they need.
2. Notice it to tame it
When our children were younger, you may have named their emotions to awaken their higher-brain circuits. Now, as our children become older, they may feel manipulated by our attempts to validate them in this way. Additionally, because our children are stepping more into their power at this age, they may push back and resist you telling them how they feel.
Instead of naming your child’s emotions, notice them. Observations are non-judgment. So it may sound like this, “I see you stomping the ground with your feet and your fists are clenched. Something didn’t go the way you wanted it to, huh.”
3. Follow their lead on proximity
The Calming Corner is not a time-out, and so there is a good chance that if your child does not choose to go on their own, your invitation will not entice them. If anything it may be met with more resistance and a firm, “No!”
While there once was a time when we took a Time-In together during my son’s dysregulation, as he got a bit older I noticed that he began to pull away from me when he was upset, slamming the door in my face. In those moments, I did not force calming strategies on him. In fact, I did very little talking. Instead, I said, “I love you. I am here for you when you are ready.” I sat outside the door, peeking in occasionally until it became clear that his nervous system was ready to accept me. For more on what to do when your child doesn’t want to go to the Calming Corner, read here.
4. Delay talks
After an emotional meltdown, I immediately wanted to talk. That’s the way we used to do it when my son was two or three. What I have found now, however, is that most times, my son wants to delay. Not because he is avoiding but because his nervous system just finished unloading moments before and needs some time to reboot. What he seems to need now directly after dysregulation is connection. We color, snuggle, read a book, or do some other child-led activity.
Now, I know you’re thinking, what about the lesson! I am not saying don’t address behavior and don’t explore feelings, especially if there is a lesson to guide them through. What I am saying is to wait until the time is right so that they can receive your message. This may be later as your family comes together to talk about the day or at night before bed as you snuggle up. And sometimes you will find that during your connection-based activity, your child will be more likely to share and listen.
Parenting is no easy gig. Sometimes you feel like you have things figured out only to find yourself back at Square One. Yet if our children weren’t changing, they wouldn’t be growing. And as they grow, so do we. In this way, parenting is a beautiful cycle, a journey we walk together.