The preschool years are a time of incredible discovery. Your cuddly, wide-eyed infant is developing into his (or her) own little person. He’s starting to voice his own opinions, assert his independence, and explore the world around him in earnest. Alas, while toddlers are a joy to watch, they can be a challenge to parent. It’s not that toddlers want to be difficult, of course; their rapidly growing brains are simply too much for them to handle sometimes.
Parents, too, struggle to adapt during these years. Many parents mistake their child’s early gestures of independence for emotional maturity and therefore begin to expect too much of him, too soon. They think their child is cognizant enough to recognize when he’s behaving destructively. As such, they mistake “problem behaviours” endemic to this age group—such as hitting, biting, and throwing tantrums—for intentional actions. Worse still, parents often take these behaviours personally and become reactive and critical as a result.
In reality, toddlers lack a well-developed concept of right and wrong and their sense of empathy is still in its formative stages. Furthermore, like infants, they’re driven primarily by their emotions and impulses. If you’re parenting a toddler, understanding what is happening in his brain and setting your expectations accordingly can go a long way toward reducing parent-child friction.
One of the most baffling aspects of preschooler development is how erratic it appears. Your child may make a number of surprising breakthroughs within a short time—like learning to pick up his toys, use the toilet by himself, and dress himself—only to apparently “unlearn” these behaviours days later. This isn’t a sign of defiance on your child’s part. If he happily tidies up his own toys without being asked one day, then has a meltdown when you ask him to do so the next day, the problem probably lies in his prefrontal cortex.
During the preschool years, kids begin developing executive functioning skills in earnest. These skills allow your child to regulate his impulses and emotions; they also help him plan and execute complex actions. Unfortunately, executive functioning skills don’t usually develop at an even pace; your child’s prefrontal cortex will be “in control” one moment, only to be thrown off balance the next time he is tired, hungry, overwhelmed, etc. This can lead to seemingly inexplicable changes in your child’s capabilities.
So, how should you deal with your child’s natural instability? Most experts recommend celebrating your child’s achievements while remaining patient with his slip-ups. It’s going to take him a while to turn his breakthroughs into good habits. Likewise, you should understand that even the brightest preschooler has an attention span of between five minutes (at age two or three) and fifteen minutes (at about age four). If you want to engage in an activity or start a project with your preschooler, try to make sure it’s suitably brief.
Preschool aged children are usually happily ready for the increased social interaction that preschool provides. Dynamic peer environments give them ample opportunity to exercise their growing vocabularies and express their active imaginations. Parents often welcome these changes, even if seeing their toddler make his first tentative steps outside the nest can also promote feelings of wistfulness. After all, they know their child is getting the stimulation he needs to grow socially and emotionally. Likewise, his newfound independence allows parents to indulge in a bit more downtime.
Socializing within a structured environment each day often improves kids’ behaviour at home, too. Children who attend preschool typically become better at listening to instructions, cooperating with others, and following rules. By the time a child hits age four or five, he’s often a lot easier to parent as a result of these changes.
At the same time, however, social development brings with it a fresh set of challenges. As your preschooler’s curiosity about interpersonal dynamics increases, he’ll probably start to “try on” new behaviours. It’s not uncommon for preschoolers to experiment with fibbing, for example. Parents should therefore be aware that when young children lie, it’s not usually a sign of moral impoverishment. Instead, this behaviour usually results from the child in question trying to push the limits of his own imagination by telling tall tales. Some children also use fibs as a way to avoid getting into trouble, not understanding that lying can be hurtful. If your child does this, calmly let him know that you saw what he did wrong, then suggest a way to correct his mistake. Once your child learns that there are better ways to fix his errors than lying about them, he’ll probably discard the habit of fibbing.
Though your child’s unstable prefrontal cortex will probably cause him to throw tantrums for a few years beyond the “terrible twos,” by about age four, you’ll notice a sharp increase in his ability to empathize with others. By the time your child reaches school age, he’ll probably be expressing sympathy when his sibling is feeling under the weather, for instance—no matter how much they argue as a matter of course. Your child will start to comfort you when you’re sad, and relate more deeply to fictional characters in books and on TV. As exciting as this development is, it’s important not to mistake this growth for emotional maturity. Your child will maintain a “me first” attitude in most situations, and his ability to empathize will be easily sabotaged by stress and fatigue. Make sure to show that you appreciate his gestures of caring, but don’t come down too hard on him if he slips up and behaves selfishly. Instead, try to give him nonjudgmental guidance on how to interact more productively with others (once he’s calm enough to understand and internalize your advice).
Outside of offering guidance, the best way to encourage your child’s sense of empathy is to empathize with him. Rather than getting impatient when his emotions get the better of him, help him “slow down” and name his own feelings. Validate those feelings and sympathize with them, even when you also have to administer consequences for inappropriate behaviour.
In addition to growing taller, your preschooler is developing better fine motor skills… And he’s probably well aware of this change. As such, you can expect your child to insist on completing delicate tasks (like tying his own shoes and pulling up his own zippers) all on his own. It’s usually best to let him do so without intervening—overcoming these small hurdles will help him feel more confident about his own abilities.
Parenting a preschooler is often fraught with highs and lows. Exciting strides forward are sometimes followed by draining setbacks, and parents are never sure what kind of child they’ll be parenting on any given day: A calm, mature individual who seems wise beyond his years, or a fragile, emotional, and stubborn being who’s set off by the smallest things. The secret to success when parenting a preschooler can be summed by the three “Ps”: Patience, perspective, and perseverance. By keeping the cognitive origins of your child’s behaviour in mind at all times, you can avoid taking his actions personally and provide the strong, steady leadership he needs.