THE WASHINGTON POST – Q: When my five-year-old son gets upset or frustrated, he often uses language like, “Nobody loves me”, or, “I should just kill myself”. He has big emotions across the board, and although I sometimes think he may be using this language to get a rise out of me and my husband (or to get attention), we always address it head-on. We’ll ask why he saidsuch things, reassure him that we love him and redirect him to more positive activities. A healthy snack is often the best solution, so we already recognise that some of his frustration is driven by hunger.
After the outburst has passed, we’ll talk to him again about these self-harm-type statements. (We remind him that we all love him so much, highlight characteristics that make him special, ask whether he really wants to hurt himself, etc). He often said he was just sad or angry and didn’t really mean it.
Clearly, this sort of language is alarming; you never want to hear your child say such things. He’ll occasionally thump his head on the bed mattress or couch cushion, but he has never actively hurt himself. Still, we monitor him very closely when he starts talking this way.
I would like to hear your thoughts/insights on these actions. Should we be more concerned? Is an immediate doctor’s appointment merited?
A: In every column where a parent asks whether they should go to their pediatrician, I recommend this: If you want to contact your paediatrician, do so. A good paediatrician should always be happy to see you and your child, as well as to listen to all of your concerns. Don’t let the doubts of, “This feels dumb”, or, “I don’t want to bother the doctor”, cloud your judgement. Do what feels right for you.
As for your son, it is highly unlikely that he is actively suicidal or having suicidal thoughts. Has it ever happened? Sure, in extreme cases, there are children who are severely depressed and have harmed themselves. Although I don’t know many details about your family, it does not appear that your son is depressed or wants to self-harm. In fact, when you ask him, he gives you a pretty honest answer: “He often says he was just sad or angry and didn’t really mean it.”
Developmentally, typical five-year-olds have very big emotions, and they can sometimes swing from one extreme to another with alarming speed. You will start to see some reasoning, consideration, logic and patience from five-year-olds, but do not be mistaken: They are still very immature and can become easily hijacked by emotions. This is not – I repeat, this is not – a sign that anything is wrong with your son. It is a child’s job to be young and immature; he is still growing and learning.
You mentioned his hunger as a trigger for these emotions, and this is the direction I want you to keep heading. Everything in your letter (other than the hunger) is geared toward what you do during and after the explosion: asking him why, telling him you love him, redirecting him to other activities, then revisiting it again, rehashing the statements and asking more questions. It is too much. He is five, and although he is quickly developing an understanding of his interior world, he cannot give you the answers you are seeking, so stop with all of this reaction. Your reactions aren’t working.
Let’s instead respond with a proactive approach. Sit with your partner, and make a detailed list of when these outbursts occur. Where are you when the outbursts take place? When do they seem to occur the most? What leads up to the explosions? Is your son overstimulated, hungry, tired or bored? You may not get all of this information, but by taking on this kind of perspective, you are moving your parenting work away from the back end (where you really can’t do anything) and toward prevention (where and when you can), which involves having a deeper understanding of your son.
And although many five-year-olds have big emotions, yours may be sensitive. Allergies, feeling his feelings more, giftedness and impulsivity can all be at play here, and although I’m not a big fan of early diagnoses, it is helpful to keep a record of what you are seeing to best support him as he gets older. There is nothing wrong with being more sensitive, and these children need a slightly different parenting approach from the typical child. Pick up Elaine Aron’s work on sensitive children and parents to discover whether your son fits
You sound like loving parents, and I love that you are reassuring your son of this love.
Never stop doing this. I am going to ask you to consciously connect with your son when he is not exploding. From your letter, it sounds as if he is getting tonnes of attention when he explodes, so switch the connection to special time, family meetings or walking to the park. (Really any other time than when he explodes).
Yes, you are going to stay close and quietly offer loving support and a hug when he does this, but otherwise, you don’t need to say anything. Notice whether the behaviour lessens as you move the attention away from the explosions and toward everyday connection. Good luck.
THE WASHINGTON POST – Q: My child, who just turned three, is smart, fun and lovely, but lately, everything has become a battle, despite how much connection and how many choices we give. How can I help with transitions? We were having luck with minute countdown reminders, but that has stopped working. How do I move things along?
A: Congratulations on having a typical three-year-old: fun, smart, defiant and strong-willed. Transitions are typically tiring with many three-year-olds, so I find it odd when parents tell me that nothing is hard or untoward with their little one. Don’t get me wrong: There is the occasional three-year-old who is easy like Sunday mornings, but they are the exceptions. More important than having easy transitions is understanding the developmental stage of your pre-schooler. When you understand that your child’s brain is under construction, and when you understand the individuation process, your lens will change when you see these behaviours.
The essential needs of pre-schoolers are rest (from separation, as well as physical rest), play (this is how they learn) and tears (to cry about what doesn’t work for them). When your child can rest in their connection with you and you don’t threaten them with separation or send them away, then your child is free to grow and mature.
Unlike the two-year-old who took all of their cues from you (the countdowns worked), remember that the three-year-old takes this and said, “Hey, it’s time to mature!” Having opinions, being willful and doing the opposite, while tiring, are how children establish themselves in this world. And let’s step back: Your goal isn’t to raise an obedient robot; it’s to raise your child to meet their fullest potential. For pre-schoolers to grow, they must push against boundaries, find their voice and experience the world.
Although children are meant to challenge, you are pivoting to find your new parenting role. You are moving from caretaking a growing toddler to loving this evolving person. Their language is exploding, and their bodies are obeying more of their demands, but their brain is years from being logical, so you are balancing these powerful growth spurts with tremendous emotionality. And holding boundaries is loud, violent and exhausting, so we try various techniques: counting, giving choices, offering stickers, creating charts. We want to sidestep this drama, but we can’t. I’m not saying that choices are problematic; they can be powerful tools for gaining cooperation and growing new skills, but if you use them in hopes that a three-year-old won’t be emotional? Failure is guaranteed, almost every time.
First, accept that your three-year-old is meant to change, grow and push. This is their developmental work. Ignore anyone who said it isn’t, because that’s the old way of understanding children. Second, choices should be used when you truly don’t care about the outcome. “Do you want to brush your own teeth or would you rather me brush them?” Accept either answer, and prepare that your preschooler will say no to both. If the child said no, you can say, “Got it. We will do it in the morning.” Then move on to the next task.
By dropping your end of the rope, you are making clear that you aren’t going to argue, cajole, bribe, yell or fight, and frankly, I would rather see some dirty teeth than the epic meltdowns that happen before bed that can hurt your relationship and keep the fights going.
As you stop your end of the argument, your child will quickly pick up that this is not a place to connect, and they will simply brush their teeth. Seriously. No one believes it, but once we stop all the behavioural shenanigans, our children want to be cooperative, helpful and kind. Again: Our culture will tell you differently, but unless your child’s life is on the line, you don’t need to fight about everything.
Boundaries exist to keep you and your child safe, as well as the routines flowing. But see their tears as the necessary outlet of frustration, not a behavioural problem.
To help you, pick up Deborah MacNamara’s book Rest, Play, Grow, as well as Mona Delahooke’s Brain-Body Parenting. Both books will steer you toward understanding your child better, and, because parenting preschoolers can be so tiring, please look into joining a group (online or in person) that can support you, make you laugh and maybe make you cry a little. Good luck.