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July 2007
Ages & Stages
Weathering the Storms of Preschool Emotions

by Emory Luce Baldwin, LCMFT

The Scott and the Donohue families were enjoying a pleasant evening together at a neighborhood park. Both families had 3 1/2-year-olds who played together at the playground while the adults socialized at the nearby picnic table. While the dads cooked on the grill, the moms set out the paper plates and salads on the picnic table and the children played. Suddenly, they heard the jarring notes of Mikey’s screams and saw Jillian trying to force him off a swing while he hung on tight. "You can’t have that swing — it’s mine!" yelled Jillian.

Preschoolers are complex little people. They are often friendly and easy to get along with, especially when life is going their way. But when something, or someone, stops them from getting what they want — look out for trouble! Your 3 1/2-year-old is more verbal and social than she was the year before, but her skills are not yet sufficient to help her get what she wants. And if there is one thing a preschooler is sure of, it’s that she wants what she wants when she wants it. She will often use direct action to reach her goals and that usually means using physical force. It’s not that the Scott’s little darling was turning into Herman Monster — it’s just that Jillian has a very hard time coping with frustration. She is not capable of negotiating or waiting for what she wants. Like many young children her age, she will try to get what she wants by pulling, tugging, hitting, pushing or kicking.

Devon climbed up on the sofa between his mom and her boyfriend, Sam. They had been talking together quietly, and Devon seemed determined to put a stop to it. "I’m hungry, Momma. I wanna snack." "I’ll fix something for you, buddy," said Sam. "How about my special peanut butter and cheese crackers?" "No!" said Devon, pushing Sam away with punches and kicks. "I want Momma to make my snack!"

The typically bossy and inflexible preschooler is often flooded with intense feelings that he doesn’t understand or know what to do with yet. He often shows how he feels through his inappropriate behavior.

Responding to an Angry Preschooler

So, what do you do when the 3 1/2-year-old is pummeling you with her fists and feet?

  • Refuse to be hurt

The first priority is to refuse to hurt or be hurt. Simply moving away from a hitting and kicking child, or moving behind her to safely restrain her, is one way to stop the child from hurting you.

  • Stay connected

While you move away to protect yourself, talk to your child calmly. Let her know that hitting is not allowed.

  • Describe feelings

Encourage your child to use words to express her feelings. Gradually, as you describe the feelings your child is demonstrating, she will learn the words to describe her own feelings. Say things like, "Wow, you sure are angry!" "Gosh, you are really frustrated right now." "Oh gee, I can see how much you want to do that and how disappointed you are that you can’t."

  • Set realistic expectations

Sometimes the biggest problem parents have with their children’s aggressive behavior comes from the adult’s own unrealistic expectations. Preschoolers are busy learning how to get their own way and how to cooperate with others. It is a learning process that will take several years, at least.

It may help to remember that even the pushiest, most demanding and selfish preschoolers can (and do!) grow up to be very nice adults with lots of friends. So, don’t be too embarrassed by your child’s bad behaviors —her poor social skills are a reflection of her age and immaturity, not your failure as a parent.

  • Take a step back

Another good point to remember is that the mean words and rough behavior young children sometimes use is often more offensive and shocking to the adults who witness it than to the children themselves. Take your cues from the children —if they are dealing with it okay, let them work it out together. If they are "stuck" and can’t seem to move forward, then they may need some new suggestions and choices about how to solve the problem.

  • Resolve a conflict

Belligerent preschoolers can be a real handful for parents and caregivers to deal with! It is tempting to want to protect the victims and punish the aggressors when problems occur, but that doesn’t really help the situation. Typically in children’s quarrels, neither child is completely innocent nor in the wrong. Both children need to learn new and improved ways to solve their problems.

A more positive approach is to urge the more "hurtful" child to help the "hurting" child feel better. Redirecting the children into helpful and cooperative behavior restores good feelings quickly.

  • Help extremely aggressive preschoolers

Some children have more problems with aggressive behavior than others. Often, these children are especially sensitive; certain sounds, smells and textures, for instance, might be highly irritating and overwhelming. Or it is possible that a more aggressive child has problems with auditory processing, making it even harder for her to understand and respond appropriately to other children and adults.

Unfortunately, these particular children often invite the worst from adults who find them difficult to understand and manage. Adults may keep extra-tight control over an aggressive preschooler by using lots of rules and punishment. This sets the stage for tremendous no-win power struggles, and both the adult and the child feel unhappy and discouraged.

If you see your child’s inability to handle frustration or disappointment increasing rather than gradually improving, or if your child is increasingly negative and rigid, it is worthwhile to have your child evaluated by a specialist, such as a developmental pediatrician, who can assess your child’s growth and needs. Other professionals, such as family therapists, can help the parents of extra-aggressive children learn new skills to use with their child, as well as ways to deal with their own guilt, anger and embarrassment with their child’s behaviors.

Tips for Dealing with Aggressive Behavior
Courtesy of The Parent Encouragement Program

  1. Refrain from intervening when children have disputes with each other, unless it’s absolutely necessary.
  2. Keep your expectations reasonable about how well preschoolers can behave when dealing with frustration and disappointment.
  3. Redirect an aggressive, hurtful child towards helping and healing.
  4. Incorporate teaching and modeling good social skills into your daily routines with your child.
  5. Seek a professional evaluation with an expert in child development if your preschooler’s behavior seems to be getting more controlling, more rigid, more intense and more negative.
  6. Get support for yourself from a helping professional, such as a family therapist, if you find yourself deeply hurt, offended, outraged and angry with your preschooler.

Emory Luce Baldwin is a family therapist. As a certified parent educator, she teaches classes and workshops for the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), which holds classes for parents of children from birth through the teen years. Visit www.ParentEncouragement.org.

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