Pre-schoolers: 8 reasons why 2 to 4 year-olds are the worst

The thing with kids is that just as you think you have got the hang of it, they go and change everything. They go and grow a little, they go and find something new to throw at you. The sooner you realise that you will never fully come to grips with motherhood, the sooner you can feel free to enjoy the ride.

Never be disappointed

If you never expect it to get easier, then you can never be disappointed when it doesn’t – get easier. Instead, buckle your seat belt, brace yourself, let out a howl of terrified excitement and thrill at the wild joy ride that is now your life. And have fun, cause if you can’t laugh, you will cry and life is too short for runny mascara and blotchy skin.

The grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence. When you have a newborn, you wish you had a six-month-old, when you have a six-month-old, you wish you had a toddler and when you have a toddler you wish you still had a newborn. This constant wishing for a different time is a sign of motherhood – it is always hard. And hindsight is twenty-twenty.

The pre-school years

They speak about the “Terrible-Twos”. Then they say, ”Well, enjoy your two-year-old, cause “Threenagers” are much worse.”. And then they say, “Well don’t get me started on how bad the effing fours are!”.

Firstly, who is this “they” anyway and why are “they” speaking in such broad terms?

Secondly, what “they” are basically telling me is that your kid is an arsehole for the first four or five years of their lives. There is a five year window between six and eleven where they are pleasant. Then they reach their tweens and the hormones start kicking in. And this hormone cluster f*ck of rage, attitude and rebellion carries on till they are about nineteen. Just in time for them to leave the house. WTAF!?

Anyway, as usual, I digress. Whether they are two, three or four, there is a period in a young child’s life where they are particularly difficult – the pre-school years. And this difficulty all seemingly stems from a single source. Pre-schoolers are struggling to navigate their world. They are feeling a wide range of emotions, for the first time, that they are not yet mature enough to fully understand or manage.

Big feelings

Child-psychology expert and author, Alicia F. Lieberman, in her book The Emotional Life of the Toddler details the dramatic highs and lows of kids aged one to four.

“When Johnny can walk from one end of the living room to the other without falling even once, he feels invincible. When his older brother intercepts him and pushes him to the floor, he feels he has collapsed in shame and wants to bite his attacker (if only he could catch up with him!). When Johnny’s father rescues him, scolds his brother, and helps Johnny on his way, hope and triumph rise up again in Johnny’s heart; everything he wants seems within reach. When exhaustion overwhelms him a few minutes later, he worries that he will never again be able to go that far and bursts into tears.”

Lieberman writes, “If adults experienced and enacted the full range of feelings available to an average pre-schooler in the course of a day, they would collapse from emotional exhaustion.”

Lieberman in a 2017 interview with The Atlantic, said, “There is a new understanding that tantrums, oppositionalism and negativism are not a sign that the child is terrible or that the child’s age is terrible. It’s a sign that the ability of the child to think through a situation has collapsed because of overwhelming feelings of fear and frustration that dysregulates their emotional composure. There is more awareness that when we say the “terrible twos” we are really talking about the adult experience rather than the child’s.”

Pre-schoolers are prone to mental & emotional malfunction

Basically, what she is saying is that at this stage in a child’s life they are prone to mental and emotional malfunction. This is caused by the sheer volume of stuff they are trying to come to grips with. We, parents, need to understand that a pre-schooler is not an arsehole, they are just acting like arseholes in that moment.

Let’s take a minute to look at the science behind their arsehole-ness.

Dr Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and father of two, says that the early days of our brain development are fascinating. All of the components needed throughout life are forming and coming together. And this tectonic forming and shifting in the brain’s neural pathways result in a certain behaviour.

1. Pre-schoolers’ brains are not programmed for remembering

“Everything for toddlers is new and exciting; they don’t have a wealth of experience on how to judge things.”, explains, Dr Burnett. As adults, we have a well of experiences and memories to help you understand the world around you. We draw on this well when making decisions on how to respond to certain things.

Our brain has been building models our whole lives, young kids simply have not built their models yet. Their brains are not yet wired that way. In fact, according to Dr Burnett, children under 7 are hardwired to not store too many memories. Because if they could recall everything new and important they would have to recall everything and their brains would melt.

2. Pre-schoolers’ brains work on repetition not comprehension

Some parts of the brain work on muscle memory. In other words, a child can learn to crawl by repeating the same action over and over again until they get it right. But reasoning is not built through repetition. Reasoning is built as a child’s ability to comprehend develops. This takes longer to mature. Repetition is a toddlers only means of gaining stability and provides them with a sense of control or comfort.

“All the connections in their brains aren’t made yet,”, says Dr Burnett, “when their expectations aren’t met, toddlers have lost control. They don’t know how to react, so they get distressed and sound the alarm bells because you have given them a red sippy cup instead of a green one.”

3. Pre-schoolers’ brains work twice as hard as ours

Now, you may think that your fledgeling’s puny little baby brain is less impressive than your own cognitive capabilities. And in some ways, you would be right. “There’s actually a lot more connections in a child’s brain than in an adult one.”, according to Dr Burnett. “It isn’t until adolescence that the process of pruning begins, whereby the brain starts shedding connections that aren’t ever activated to be more efficient.”, he says. So actually their little pea brains are processing too much information, not too little.

4. Pre-schoolers’ brains cannot perceive the severity of a threat

As adults, we can assess the severity of a threat. We can tell the difference between a real threat and a perceived one. A small spider on the wall versus a spitting cobra rearing up before us induce very different levels of response from us. But for young children they cannot tell the difference. Everything is unfamiliar. Their “flight or fight” response developed over the past 200 000 years is guiding their response, or over-reaction. All in the absence of life experience and reasoning to tell them otherwise.

5. Pre-schoolers’ taste sensations are more vivid and their brains seek energy-rich foods

This might explain why the minute a kid becomes a toddler, they become fussy eaters, toddlers have different taste sensations to us. So, a zesty squirt of lemon to us might taste like a neat shot of citric acid to a two-year-old. Just to add fuel to the food war fire, brains like high energy foods. This is especially true when the brain in question is dispatching reserves of energy left, right and centre for multiple physical and mental growth spurts. So sugary foods are not just a treat but to their minds a damn necessity.

6. Pre-schoolers’ brains struggle to self-regulate or control impulses

How often do you struggle with impulse control? I am sure often. A pair of new shoes, you don’t need nor can afford. Another slice of cheesecake when you have already eaten two. A hundred bucks placed on black at the casino.

Well for young kids, impulse control is not yet biologically possible. The pre-frontal cortex, which is part of the brain responsible for “executive function” skills (impulse control, aggression, self-regulation, reasoning), is still developing in children under 5 years old.

Self-regulation is a resource (for adults and children alike) and it can be depleted, especially during the course of a day. Don’t expect them to faultlessly deal with hard things later on in the day. Especially the same things that you don’t even have the energy to deal with.

7. Pre-schoolers’ brains (and hearts) are dealing with complex and vacillating emotions

Also known as “Big Emotions”. Consider a baby, they know hunger, cold, hot, wet, tired, safe, scared, that is the extent of their emotional intricacy. Enter toddler-hood, with its jump in cognitive development. All of sudden your child is now dealing with a multitude of emotions in a myriad of shades. Jealousy, anxiety, anger, rejection, frustration, joy, pride, triumph, uncertainty, courage, shame, guilt, love, dislike, disappointment and amusement, to name but a few.

And often these feelings can rush in like a tidal wave obliterating everything in its wake. They don’t fully understand what they are feeling, nor how to deal with the feeling. They certainly cannot label it for you to understand. This lack of understanding or external mirror for their emotion means the emotions take longer to lose their charge and dissipate.

8. Pre-schoolers are finding their feet and their independence, quite literally

Tovah Klein, associate professor of psychology and the director of the Barnard College Centre for Toddler Development, in New York City, says, “They are saying: ‘I am my own person,’ in a big way. They are saying: ‘I have ideas and I want to carry them out..”.

Klein warns, “The trouble comes in when you think you are speaking to a very reasonable human being. Verbally, they sound older than they are.”. In her book, How Toddlers Thrive, Klein writes, “They are caught between two battling needs: the desire for self and independence versus the need for comfort, security and the familiar – in other words, mama or dada.”.

And while all of these things make living with a child aged 18 months to four or five years old difficult, they are also crazy fun to live with.

Pre-schoolers can also be crazy fun!

They believe wholeheartedly in themselves, Izzy often in response to my question, “Can I help you?”, is “No! Help myself, mommy.”. They don’t care what people think, they know they are awesome and they are not scared to let everyone know. At least 37 times a day, Izzy put her hands on her hips and says, “Mom, mom, I are a superhero. To the rescue. Save the day. On the double.” An amalgam of what she has seen on tv, but she believes she can save the world, and in those moments, I believe it too.

They love the shit out of everyone – you, their gran, the dog, their cousins, everyone. Pre-schoolers are sensitive little souls and they wear their heart on their sleeves. Why protect what hasn’t been hurt? They are interested in everything this world and life have to offer, even the most seemingly trivial thing.

These little ones have wild imaginations and love to adventure, even if it is just into a pillow cave. Izzy is always cooking up some little story and some little theatrical performance. And this makes them fun. There are no boundaries, there are no taboos and they do not get easily embarrassed. They are uninhibited, not like us, adults. Pre-schoolers are funny and they think we are pretty funny too. This will definitely not be the case when they are fifteen. They are so honest and pure, you never have to question their words or their actions. Two to four-year-old are all take it or leave it, you get what you see.

Don’t be afraid to stoop to your pre-schoolers level, the air is kind of nice down there.

So, try to see the world through their eyes both to better understand them and to better deal with them. Klein uses an example of the difference in perception between adults and toddlers. We see a date night, they wonder if their parents will ever come back. We see sleep as relief and as a pleasure, they see a whole night of darkness alone in their bed.

Pre-schoolers need to feel in control

As stressful or frustrating as it may be, give them control over their own worlds as often as you can. Let them sweep the floor or wipe the table, no matter how poorly they do it. Let them choose their clothes for the day, even if they end up looking like an escaped mental patient.

Play with them, be silly with them. Don’t be afraid to stoop to their level, the air is kind of nice down there. Teach them to laugh at you, at themselves and at life. Having a sense of humour will help you deal with them too. Taking life too seriously is a recipe for disappointment. Read books or blogs about parenting that make you laugh. This will show you that you are not the only one struggling and that laughing at these trying situations is a far more enjoyable reaction than trying to micromanage them (shameless plug there, did you see that? I can’t help it, it is really good advice).

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