Each year, I find myself hearing (and thinking) “2/3/4… it’s hard!” and wondering what it’s all about. Invariably, growth spurts share the characteristic of a major developmental leap of some kind. Most often, personal independence features strongly and whilst the nature of the beast may vary slightly – the roars are comfortingly familiar with each new phase. At 2, maybe they want to run into the road and you, you horrible parent, are spoiling this most amazing of adventures. Or maybe they want to move into a big boy/girl/parents bed (assuming you aren’t already co-sleeping) and will remind you by scaling the sides of their metre high cribs. At 3, they’re basically self sufficient so why can’t they hold that carving knife? They’re also masters of physical prowess, but there’s some sort of tear in the space-time continuum and that darned floor/sofa/tree just keeps coming out of nowhere.
So, what about 4?
Well, 4 has very similar properties to 3 – but with added linguistic skills, physical agility and cognition. The older your child becomes, the greater their need for independence becomes. This is the (thankfully) gradual process of total independence. But don’t worry, it’s not quite time for them to fly the nest just yet.
At 4, your son or daughter rightly believes that the world is their oyster. They are bursting with new-found potential, zest for exploration and a fierce desire to do it all by themselves. Dear old mum and dad, however, just keep on getting in the way. It stands to reason, therefore, that well intentioned parents find themselves repeatedly caught in the crossfire as their children struggle to find the balance between demonstrating (several times each day) what they are capable of doing and what is safely achievable or what works for the whole family.
Suddenly, they are wanting to dress themselves all of the time. Which is great, except it’s almost never before you need to leave the house and sleeves are the most frustrating invention your child has ever encountered. They might also be getting to grips with a deeper sense of social justice and feel genuinely wronged if they aren’t taken seriously or their friends aren’t playing fair. And then there’s bedtime, that familiar battlefield. They want to dress themselves, but not yet, but wait look at that teddy… and that sock… and what about another drink? Unless you’re the kind of parent who is blessed with endless patience, it can be a difficult time trying to convince your darling child that the longer they take to go to sleep, the less sleep they will get and the following day will likely have no energy to enjoy themselves. Particularly since, as with most of these things, their comprehension of the repercussions of these decisions isn’t quite up to speed just yet.
Understanding growth spurts is one hurdle in helping parentis to handle them in the most positive way. Knowing what to expect and that you aren’t alone is always a comfort. There are, however, a few more things you can do to make life a little easier for the whole family:
• Freedom. Whilst children do need to understand safety and respecting other people’s boundaries, certain freedoms are important when it comes to learning how to be a self-sufficient and independent human being. Having freedom in the big things can often help children to feel independent, in control and reduces the need to fight over the little things.
• Natural Consequences. One of the most effective learning strategies is learning the consequences of your actions based on the natural consequences. Staged consequences such as removing freedoms and favourite toys are arbitrary seeming and often send the message that parents are in control, rather than that there are reasons why certain things aren’t acceptable. Safety and respect concerns aside, the more a child is able to push boundaries and explore these consequences – the faster the penny will drop. Most parents make the mistake of assuming that boundary pushing requires stricter boundaries. It’s simply not true that children feel more secure with boundaries. Whilst some children with sensory processing issues may well benefit from deferring to caregivers, most children grow to be more confident and secure when they are aware of their personal limits.
• Keep it light. You catch more flies with honey. Don’t be tempted to use your serious voice when your happy voice is far more likely to catch their attention, and is also more likely to actually change your own mood too. Faking it until you make it really does work.
• Model behaviour. Show them how to be. When you are frustrated, if you snap and shout at your children – it shouldn’t come as any surprise if they begin to shout when they are feeling tense themselves. Explain that you understand they are feeling angry about “insert situation here” and suggest alternative ways to process their emotions such as hugging, sitting together (or alone, if your child prefers) somewhere quiet or simply talking it out.
• Stay positive. As your child hollers through from the living room about how much they hate you… or how unfair you are being… just shout back that you love them. This is when they need your unconditional love the most.