Parents are routinely confused when their preschooler (aged 2 to 5) promises they won’t hit or scream only to turn around and hit or scream again. Part of the problem is young children don’t think twice nor contemplate the consequences of their actions in the heat of the moment. I can assure you this is not part of a secret plot to drive parents crazy and it isn’t personal either. Preschoolers know much better than they can behave and are impulsive by design.
The parts of the brain responsible for self-control are still under development in young children. The brain is only 20% developed at birth and will ideally become more integrated in the first 6 years of life. In other words, the brain is still forming connections that will allow for the various parts of the brain to communicate with one another. Once the brain is integrated and the prefrontal cortex is connected across the left and right hemispheres, preschoolers will be better equipped to control their strong emotions and actions.
I remember a distraught father asking me, “when will my 3-year old learn to stop hitting her brother?” This wasn’t about learning but the requirements for brain development. I explained that his daughter was like a fast car that didn’t have any brakes. She could speed up and head in different directions (and crash), if she didn’t have an adult close by to help guide her. When the prefrontal area of her brain became better developed, she would naturally be able to apply her internal brakes to temper behaviour.
Given that preschoolers can only focus on one thing at a time, when they get caught up in the moment, their adult’s instructions can be eclipsed by what is in front of them. You can call them to come for dinner but their attention is elsewhere making it hard to collect their attention. When preschoolers zero in on something, they can ‘forget’ what they were doing a moment before – including parental directions. They don’t have a back of the mind or conscience that creates internal conflict and yells, “hey stop!!” or “pay attention,” which is why they are so impulsive.
What every parent wants to know is at what age can they expect a preschooler to become more tempered and able to control their actions? Based on the work of the developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, the phrase the “5 to 7 year shift” was coined to refer to the age when a preschooler’s brain should be able to mix conflicting feelings and thoughts. It is the conflict among two opposing feelings or thoughts that puts the brakes on impulsive reactions.
When a child starts to experience internal conflict, their frustration will be tempered with caring, their fear with desire, and they will be able to consider someone else’s needs along with their own. You can witness this conflict first hand as they may shake and shudder but not erupt in the same uncivilized fashion. It is the capacity to experience mixed feelings that puts a standstill to the most impulsive ways of the preschooler. They will be able to think before they speak, and even keep a secret, as well as tell a real lie.
Attachment-Safe, Discipline Strategies for Preschoolers
What every toddler, preschooler, and kindergartener would really like their adults to know is they really do look up to the people they are attached to and generally want to meet their expectations. At the same time, they live in the moment and parental directions can easily get lost when their attention is grabbed by something else. They would like their parents not to hold it against them that they are impulsive and instinctive beings who act upon the impulses and emotions as they arise inside of them.
The following five strategies for discipline with preschoolers are attachment safe and developmentally friendly, buying time for the young child to grow up.
- Collect before you direct – Before directing a child on what you want them to do, it is helpful to engage their desire to follow you through engaging their attachment instincts. This means getting in their face in a friendly way and trying to collect their eyes or ears, for example, noticing and talking to them about what they are engaged in. It is this gentle, yet effective way of commanding their attention and making them receptive to direction that avoids a lot of the challenges associated with ‘not listening,’ and resistance.
- Structure and routine – Having predictable routines and an order to the day helps orient young kids to what is expected without having to ‘boss them around.’ Songs can be used to signal when it is time to clean up as well as when it is time to getting pyjamas on or teeth brushed. Routines help to compensate for the lack of awareness preschoolers have as to the bigger context and can help orchestrate their behaviour in an attachment safe and developmentally friendly way.
- Solicit good intentions – One of the best discipline approaches with young kids involves getting ahead of things they will struggle with, for example, not wanting to hold hands on an outing or sharing toys with others. Instead of waiting for trouble to start, it can be helpful to solicit their good intentions before heading out. After collecting them, you can ask, “Can I count on you to hold hands when we go out?” to which they will give an honest reply. If they say yes, it can be enough to remind them when you are on the outing, that they promised to hold hands. If the child says no, then you can simply help them see why it is important to hold hands to elicit cooperation. When we work ahead of problems and get a young child onside, it can prevent dealing with big reactions and upset in the moment.
- Avoid time outs and other forms of separation based discipline – We need to preserve the desire in our preschooler to follow and obey us and this means not using what they care about against them. Separation is the most impactful of all experiences and time outs to 123 magic type approaches do more harm than good when it comes to our relationship with them. Part of being able to work with a young child and capture their attention so as to direct them, relies on keeping one’s relationship strong.
- Teach a language of the heart – One of the ways a young child needs help is in matching their emotions to feeling words. When they can their words to describe their internal states, for example, “I am frustrated,” then they will be less inclined to use their bodies or screams to communicate their needs. If we want a young child to express themself in a civilized way, then we need to start by giving them some words to use.
Preschoolers represent the wonder and beauty inherent in human development. They evolve from impulsive beings into civilized ones in a matter of years. Parents have an important role to play and this involves compensating for their immaturity, directing them towards civilized ways of expressing themself, and continuing to care for them throughout. When we do our part, then nature will surely do the rest and help us grow our kids up.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, the author of the best-selling book, Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), and is the Director of the Kid’s Best, Bet Counselling and Family Resource Centre.