When your toddler acts insane, do you have no idea how to deal? You don’t know what they want, you don’t know how to respond and you have no clue WHY they’re melting down? Same here.
“If only they came into this world with an operating manual that would translate what they need in those moments when all we can see is behavior but fail to understand how to respond,” says parenting expert and best-selling author, Einat Nathan. “As parents, trying to figure them out is exhausting and leaves us with the question: have we handled it right? What do they really need from us? What is this behavior signaling on emotional and developmental levels?
So, in an effort to help us all, Nathan did a little role reversal. She wrote a letter to a set of parents from four-year-old child explaining why she acted the way she did and what she needed in that moment. So that us mortals can get a little bit closer to the why and how behind the behavior.
Letter From a 4-Year-Old
Dear Mom and Dad,
I know it all started with the best of intentions and that you just want to educate me. I also know that you read lots of books and listen to experts who talk about authoritative parenting and about how children need boundaries. I even heard you telling Grandma, “Now he’s testing the limits, our little adolescent”. I also heard you arguing, and Mom telling Dad, “Why do I always have to be the bad guy?” and “Why are you second guessing what I said?”. Funny, I didn’t know you could second guess things.
So first of all, I’d like you to know that I’m not a teenager, I’m just four. I know that you feel as if I’m already big, especially compared to my one-year-old sister, but I’m only four. So even if I did understand, Mom, when you said that I can’t have dessert before supper, I still really, really wanted it – my mouth wanted it, my tummy wanted it, my heart wanted it. So I got angry and shouted and cried and even said “you’re a doo-doo” and I don’t love you.
And then Dad, you got even angrier and shouted that if I don’t calm down and sit nicely at the dinner table you’ll take me to my room by force. And you went on shouting, saying that tomorrow I won’t be able to have my friend over for a playdate like we said, ‘because 4-year-olds who behave like babies can’t have playdates with their friends’.
But Dad, how did you expect me to calm down? I was really angry because I wanted something and wasn’t getting it; I was scared because I knew I would be dragged into my room in a minute by an angry parent; I felt helpless because you have the power to decide when I can have dessert and when I can’t, when I have to take a shower and when I can skip it, when we have to go out to kindergarten right now because you’re late and when it’s okay to watch a little more TV – you get to decide everything for me and I don’t know what to do. Because sometimes, when I insist, you give in. And when we have guests then you allow lots of stuff and you talk to me much more patiently. And yesterday, when I cried for fifteen minutes, then you, Dad, said, “Okay, you can play a little longer”, even though a moment before that you said that you’re counting to ten and then I had to go to bed.
So I’m confused. I’m frustrated by the limit you set and think that maybe if I cry hard enough, argue long enough, get angry enough and tire you out, maybe then the “no” will turn into a “yes”? So if your “no” can turn into a “yes”, why can’t you just say “yes” in the first place? Why don’t you ask me how important it is to me, so that I learn to respect you when something is important to you? And if you really mean it, the “no”, then you shouldn’t get so angry at me. You’re supposed to realize that I’ve just had to face your “no”, and that’s why I’m angry and out of control.
It would be much easier for me to calm down if you just empathized with me for a moment without changing your “no”. If you managed to see me through eyes that understand I’m angry and realize what I’m angry about instead of saying, “what’s the big deal?” or “if you don’t calm down right now, we won’t speak to you”. When I feel as if I’m understood, my anger lessens. But I still have to deal with your boundary, and that’s hard for me because I’m only four. So please, without changing the reality, without pushing me away, be on my side.
You’ve got to understand: when you give me a punishment that has nothing to do with what I did, you’re hurting me so that I learn, through this pain, not to do the same thing again. But in fact, what’s happening is that you’re humiliating me, making me angry and, especially, teaching me the language of force. When you feel as if you’ve drawn a limit and won, I learn to look at the situation as if there’s a loser and a winner. So from now on, every time I encounter a limit, am I supposed to accept it and feel defeated? That’s too hard. And if you teach me that force wins the game, then one day I’ll be strong enough to win myself: I’ll run away from home in anger when I’m 16, or start controlling you through my sleep, my needs, or the food I put in my mouth – the only places where you can’t control me. I’m sure you too wouldn’t want to spoil our relationship just for the sake of feeling you’re the ones with the authority.
Mom and Dad, do you know what I really need? I need the limit, even if I don’t agree with it; I need the logical explanation, even if I am protesting; I need your empathy about having had something unpleasant just happen to me. When you understand me and still keep the limit, I don’t feel as if you’re against me and I’m also in less of a hurry to be against you. Only when you’re standing on my side, facing the boundary drawn, getting upset with me about the fact that it’s time to go to the bath, even if you do have to drag me there – without anger and with understanding – then I’m available to understand the real meaning of a boundary.
Remember when you took me to the doctor and I had to get stitches in my chin? You told me it wouldn’t be fun and asked me if I wanted to sit in your lap, Mom, or in yours, Dad. When I shouted and cried you held on tight and didn’t get angry, you just felt for me, you were with me facing the clear boundary. And when I calmed down, you told me that you were proud of me and that I was a real hero and we had ice cream together. I remember that so well, because even though you used force, I didn’t feel defeated. You didn’t get angry and I was free to realize that I had to have my chin stitched up. I remember that you made me feel that, even though there was a clear boundary, you trusted me to handle it, you didn’t fall apart, didn’t lose it. You were on my side and, for a moment there, we were together, facing the boundary.
I wish it could always be like that.