In this episode: Janet responds to an email from a parent who describes herself as exhausted by her formerly good-natured toddler who has suddenly become defiant, argumentative and combative since turning 4. She says, ”I feel like a switch has flipped… and am clueless for how to deal with this new person.”
Transcript of “Age 4 Seems Like Another Planet”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury, and welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be responding to a parent who’s noticing a drastic change in her daughter’s behavior since she turned four. She’s become very defiant, both physically and verbally, and she seems to argue about anything and everything, so this mom is feeling exhausted and wondering what’s up.
Here’s the email that I received:
“Dear Janet, we’ve been reading and listening to you since our daughter turned one, and we have found your gentle and intelligent guidance to be the best statement of our parenting philosophy and the most useful resource when we need to tune up our relationship with our now four-year-old daughter who’s a curious, funny, emotionally intelligent kid. Four has so far seemed like another planet, and to be honest, I’m not sure I have the right equipment to survive in its caustic atmosphere. I feel like a switch has been flipped, and I’m just not sure how to handle it. Instead of the generally good-natured toddler we had who experimented with and developed self-confidence and autonomy, we now seem to have a child who actually enjoys defying us about even the simplest things. We’re suddenly disagreeing about silly things like hand washing and getting in her car seat.
Now, instead of resisting when we set the limit and responding with a burst of emotions after we acknowledge them, she just coldly says, ‘I’m not going to do that,’ and all of my strategies for sitting with those feelings and still maintaining my limit come up short. She’s too big for me to stop physically. Mama bear, which has been my mantra, does nothing. She will try to hit and bite, and more bizarrely, she has started outright lying. ‘I already washed my hands, flushed the toilet, am in my car seat,’ etc. I feel like I am on my back foot. My spouse and I read several of the blog posts and podcasts on your site that seemed relevant, but a lot of those include clear triggers like a new baby or a divorce. Everything in our lives is the same.
I’m clueless for how to deal with this new person. I’m excited to see her brain grow and develop. These behaviors are, after all, signs of changes going on in her too, but I’m also feeling exhausted at the thought that this is four. She is making literally everything an argument, and she’s actually arguing. I have been trying to avoid standoffs and not repeat myself, but beyond that, I just don’t know what to do to adapt my own thinking. With thanks for any help you can offer and with solidarity with parents of all the other four-year-olds out there.”
Okay. It’s very interesting that this girl has changed so dramatically. That’s interesting to me. I would love to hear more about every detail that’s going on with this family so that I could maybe pinpoint other factors, but all that aside, yes, four is a classically difficult age, especially for children that tend to be more intense or have a stronger will. The testing and resistant behavior they have is a little different from a two-year-old, who is more dramatic, maybe more overtly emotional about things, and has tantrums. We ideally learn to take those things in stride and understand that they’re normal and respond to them that way. But then the four-year-old is a little more complex. Still pretty obvious in the things they’re doing. For example, in this case, “I’m just not going to get in my car seat.” It’s coming out verbally rather than the two-year-old that just stops in their tracks and we have to move them through. There’s more mature language, and children learn how to use it to test us, to test our authority, and to assert themselves.
As this mother is noticing, this is a wonderful stage for children to develop more autonomy and more sense of self as separate from their parents, but they’re doing it in a more advanced way. I would say that even if there aren’t any changes going on for this girl, feelings under the surface with the parents going on or within their extended family, things like that that children will internalize and will express through this kind of behavior, if there’s absolutely none of that going on, we just have to trust that a big blossom just opened up here, and this was the perfect time for this stage of development.
Trusting that it’s normal for this child at this moment is one of the first steps for us, so just as we approach the two-year-old’s tantrums as healthy and normal for them, I would approach all this resistance and back-talking and kind of bossy behavior, defiance, bordering on rudeness, I guess you would say. All this language is normal. The challenge for us is to perceive it that way and then be able to take it in stride, not get caught up in it.
This little girl has matured and advanced in her forms of resistance and testing. Therefore, she needs her parents to advance in their ability to see her and be her leader so that she can feel that she’s not putting one over on them, that she’s not more powerful than they are. When children feel more powerful or crafty than we are, they can’t completely relax and be the child in the relationship that they need to be.
Let’s go over some of the details that this parent offers so we can take a look at what I’m talking about. She said, “We now seem to have a child who actually enjoys defying us about even the simplest things.” I think the fact that this girl is not getting upset or seeming uncomfortable overtly in these situations, that doesn’t mean she’s enjoying them. This is the way even a one-year-old will try hitting their parent, and sometimes they’re smiling. It doesn’t mean they’re enjoying it. It actually means they’re a little uncomfortable expressing it as, “I’m doing this. What are you going to do about it?” It’s not a deep kind of satisfying enjoyment that they have. I don’t think she is enjoying this. I think she’s throwing out her best show and her best stuff, hoping that her parents will still be able to rise above and be her leader, so I would re-frame this for yourself in the way that you’re perceiving it as actual enjoyment.
She says, “She’s defying us about even the simplest things. We’re suddenly disagreeing about silly things like hand washing and getting in her car seat.” Right. Well, it’s her job to disagree, but it’s our job not to get pulled into that, trying to argue our point of view or get her to agree. This is actually a similar dynamic to dealing with a younger child. Maybe this girl wasn’t displaying this level of testing behavior at that age. Now she is. Bring it on. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn how to be the leader for a strong child and to feel that confidence in ourselves that children need us to have. When you say, “It’s time to wash your hands,” and she says, “No, I’m not going to wash my hands,” or, “I already did wash my hands,” or something that is push-back, I would just smile, or not smile if you don’t feel like smiling, and say, “Oh, that’s very interesting. You’re saying no, but this is what we’re doing.”
I would still be mama bear in terms of your confidence, putting your hand on her back or shoulder, escorting her. “Here we go. We’re going to go wash your hands.” Doing that right away, not allowing the power struggle to take hold by waiting for her or trying to argue why she should wash her hands. Using that confident momentum, which we’re only able to do if we see this behavior as normal and positive, and a sign that we have a healthy four-year-old. She’s right on track. With that perspective, we can be ready for this to happen and welcome it and override it with our confidence. We’re not getting caught up trying to defend ourselves or our point of view. We’re not repeating ourselves. We register that, “Aha. That’s very interesting. Thanks for your opinion. This is what we’re doing.” That attitude. It’s loving. It’s not mean. It’s not going to hurt her in any way. It’s not stern. It’s, “Very, very interesting. You’re disagreeing with me on this,” as you’re moving her forward.
Same with the car seat. I think you’ll notice that if you handle this with aplomb rather than getting thrown off-kilter, that you won’t see as much physical resistance. For children, once they start to go there, it’s almost like saving face means they have to stay there, and that’s what makes for the physical lashing out. It usually is minimal or doesn’t happen at all, if we’re coming into the situation with confidence and momentum and not getting stopped in our tracks. Practice this in your mind. Visualize yourself in these situations and how you’re going to expect her to say these interesting things and how you’re going to love that little strong girl and keep being the parent, keep being the leader, not getting pulled down to her level.
This mother says, “Now, instead of resisting when we set the limit and responding with the bursts of emotions after we acknowledge them, she just coldly says, ‘I’m not going to do that.'”
That could be very intimidating, right? We can’t let it. Don’t let her be the boss here. That’s the way she’s talking to you. She’s showing you her best “I’m the boss” skills, so don’t let it throw you. This mother says, “All my strategies for sitting with those feelings and still maintaining my limit come up short.” Right, so we’ve got to shift our expectations. As our children are shifting and maturing, we’ve got to shift with them to be able to give them that leadership they need. She may not be sitting with feelings, but she’s still got to maintain her limit. Maintaining her limit in the face of, “I’m coming at you,” behavior, rather than maybe something that seems more vulnerable and emotional. Maybe that’s easier for this parent. I think it probably is easier for all of us, but now she’s got to reach higher into herself.
She said, “She’s too big for me to stop physically.” Well, as I brought up before, she still must stop her physically, because that is what children need. They need us to still be able to hold the line on our limits in terms of if her daughter’s coming at her, or hitting her, or grabbing something she doesn’t want her to have. She’s got to be confident in intervening physically. At four years old, this should still be very possible, so if I were this parent, I would take a look at why I’m getting intimidated with my child at this age, and what I’m afraid of in terms of stopping her physically. She says, “She will try to hit and bite.” Can’t let that happen. Got to stop that at the outset. There’s less need for us to use our own words at this stage, so I wouldn’t say much, just, “Whoa. Nope. Not letting you do that,” and then acknowledging maybe, “I know you wanted that,” if you can connect it to something that’s going on. “You want to go in my bag. I’m not going to let you. Nope.”
Comfortable being that leader. I know I’ve said that a lot of times. I really can’t say that enough, because it is the key to everything. It’s not about words or strategies. It’s about how comfortable I am holding my own as the leader to this child. That’s exactly what children are testing, unconsciously, a lot of the time, but they’re testing. They’re putting up all their best shows and all their best tricks, really. Not in a manipulative way, but out of a need for that protection and security of somebody a lot stronger than them so that they don’t have to worry about us, so that they don’t have to fear not having the structure that they need when they’re wobbling all over the place, when they’re taking leaps in development. They can’t do it without that sense of security.
This mother says, “She will try to hit and bite, and more bizarrely, she started outright lying. ‘I already washed my hands, flushed the toilet, am in my car seat,’ etc.” Well, that’s pretty blatant, “What are you going to do now?” type behavior. Again, she’s doing her best act, but it’s still within the realm of very, very obvious stuff. She’s not in her car seat, and she’s saying, “I am in my car seat.” I mean, it’s kind of amusing, right, and kind of blatant. “Come on. See what’s going on here. Don’t get thrown by it. I’m just being a goofball. I’m just trying really hard for you to be my unintimidated leader. I’m trying really hard to bring that out in you.”
Again, when she says those kinds of things, I would respond, out of that confidence, it might sound like, “Boy, I could have sworn that car seat was empty. I must be imagining that you’re over here and the car seat’s there.” You could be saying that as you’re nudging her confidently into the car seat. Even just the fact that you’ve seen through her and have shown her that you’re unintimidated will help her to get in her car seat. Another way that might look is, “Wow. I’ve got to get new glasses. Okay. I’m going to go get in the car, and I’m going to hope she’s in there.” As you’re confidently getting in the car, I would visualize her getting into her seat. That works for me a lot of the time, that I see it happening. I project that assurance.
But whatever you do, don’t let it rile you up. Don’t let it throw you. “She’s lying.” It’s all very innocent stuff. Nothing to worry about. Innocent, obvious, in-your-face, “help” behavior. Not help that she’s in terrible pain but, “Help, guys. You’re not quite giving me what I need yet, so please make this look a little easier for you to handle me. I’m talented. I’m strong. You’ve got to be stronger.” That’s what she’s saying through this. If it’s about, “I already flushed the toilet,” honestly, I would let a lot of that go in order to not give those words power, those lies power. I would say, “Well, could have fooled me!” and then maybe just leave it for a few minutes or just flush it, shrugging your shoulders. Who cares? This is for the bigger picture. This is to show her she’s not going to get to you. It’s an attitude, and it will feel good when you get in the groove of it, because you’ll see how capable you are. It’s almost like if we can handle clever children like this at this age, we can do anything. Real life is easy.
You can do this. We can all do this. It just requires finding that place in ourselves that loves our child so much that we’re going to give her what she needs, give her that unshakable mom or dad that sees the tiny four-year-old girl in all of this, that little sweet girl. You can still be the mama bear.
She says, “I’m feeling exhausted at the thought of all this.” Right, because it’s like this mother’s paddling, paddling to try to stay afloat rather than being captain of her ship. That’s an image that Susan Stiffelman, who’s, I’m a fan of her work, she uses that. Be the captain of the ship. You won’t be exhausted when you step into that role. Dog-paddling is exhausting.
I hope this helps.
Please check out some of my other podcasts. They’re on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all in topic categories, and you can also use search words to find the subject that you need help with, and there are well over 100 now. Both of my books are also available on audio at audible.com, Elevating Child Care and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an eBook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and apple.com.
Thanks for listening. We can do this.