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The Terrible Twos, Threes, Fours and Fives

by The Next Family February 04, 2011

By: Joe Newman

terrible twos

There’s a reason parents tell one another that it’s no longer the “terrible twos” but the “terrible twos, threes, fours and fives.” When you combine the natural characteristics of an already willful child with the empowering parenting methods being used today you get children with extremely strong, sophisticated, and resilient omnipotent identities. It’s only natural these children will challenge boundaries in more tenacious and complex ways than the generation before them did.

I recently worked with the parents of a boy named Adam who was three and half. Adam was very large for his age and was often mistaken for a five-year-old. Adam was attending a mixed age pre-school with thirty children between three and five years old. In his first few months at preschool Adam’s mom often received a call to come and pick him up before noon. The preschool’s hours were between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., but the director said that often by noon Adam was getting too “pushy” with the other children and was difficult to control.

By the eighth month of preschool Adam’s behaviors had escalated and he was becoming more and more aggressive with the other children and defiant with the staff. The director of the preschool had suggested that his parents have Adam evaluated for a possible behavior disorder. On the day I went in to observe I saw Adam grab another boy by the back of the hair and pull him down while both were running toward a toy he wanted.

Problems at home had also reached the boiling point. Adam had gradually become more wild and disobedient. He would refuse to take time outs and when his mother tried to enforce them he would run away, yell insults, hit her and even spit at her. After a long and detailed discussion his parents and I realized that as Adam’s behaviors had gotten more difficult, the consequences they gave had become weaker and the lectures longer. Rather than following through with time-outs, 95% of the time they simply threatened to give them.

When I went into the preschool, I saw that when Adam (or any of the other children) misbehaved, the staff explained to him which behaviors were okay and which weren’t. Sometimes they would talk with him to see what had caused the problem behavior, but they set very few actual consequences. Adam liked being the center of attention and enjoyed the conversations that followed his misbehaviors even when he’d been aggressive and the staff was clearly upset with him.

Adam is naturally testing the boundaries and trying to find out how things work at the preschool. From his perspective, he observes: When I push someone at pre-school, or when I insist on getting the things I want, an adult comes over, talks with me and shows me new things. At preschool, I’m the one in charge.

Adam and his family were lucky; the director of Adam’s preschool was very open to new ideas and solutions for working with Adam. She’d seen one or two children each year whose behaviors had slowly escalated as Adam’s had, and she was eager to learn a method to achieve a different result.

I taught the preschool staff and Adam’s parents to use short, immediate, one-minute consequences in response to his misbehavior or defiance. We also stopped giving Adam warnings about behaviors he already knew weren’t okay. When there was a problem behavior Adam was told to sit down and take a one-minute break away from the activity. If Adam refused, he was given a five-count and if he hadn’t sat down the adult would take him to another room where he would sit quietly next to the adult for five minutes. If he tried to run away the adult held him until he would sit quietly and start his time-out. Conversations about the behavior were only allowed after the time-out was finished. However, Adam was usually more interested in getting back to the activity than having discussions when the time-out was over.

Five days after starting the behavior protocol Adam’s most aggressive and defiant behaviors had stopped completely. Everyone, including me, was surprised at how quickly Adam changed. This had a lot to do with the fact that his parents had committed 100% to doing the method at home. Although during the next three or four weeks Adam continued to test boundaries, all of his physically aggressive and defiant behaviors ended. His mother commented to me that her biggest surprise was that Adam was less anxious, happier and more at ease in the weeks they had started the time-out system.

The truth is, not all schools are a good fit for all children. If your child is a lion, like Adam, and the preschool you’ve chosen thinks that children just need to talk about their feelings and discuss the rules in order to behave, your child is going to eat them alive. Adam’s natural aggression and strong-will were too much to be contained by the warm and fuzzy approach the preschool was using. The parents of lions (strong-willed children) need to look for schools and classrooms that have clear boundaries and consequences that are enforced consistently.

Now imagine a child, just like Adam, whose parents and preschool teachers are committed to using only the childrearing method originally used by Adam’s preschool. His sense of omnipotence might remain entirely unchecked. He would experience the “reason and distract” approach not as compassion but as abandonment. His aggressive, willful and challenging behaviors would escalate in an anxiety-driven search to find the boundaries. As these behaviors became more extreme and out of the norm, the school staff might incorrectly assume these behaviors were resulting from an inability to reason and understand. Based on this assumption they might expend more effort reasoning and talking with him about his behaviors and actually loosen the boundaries to give him more leeway because of his perceived lack of ability to understand. By the time he was four or five he might have developed more extreme tantrums and manipulations and be diagnosed with a learning or behavior disorder.

These are the lions I see every day. Normal, healthy children who, because of an unfortunate combination of challenging characteristics, a society that has strengthened their sense of omnipotence, and well-meaning teaching and parenting methods that have backfired, now exhibit behaviors that seem so far off the norm that they must be a sign of some neurologically based disorder.

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[photo credit: mndanys]

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