My preschooler starts to cry out of the blue!

Q: My four year old son is the sweetest child when he's in a good mood, but it can change so quickly! Here's an example:

The other morning we were getting ready to go to the park. He was so excited that he started telling me which park we were going to, and I was agreeing to everything he was saying.

Within seconds, he suddenly changed. He could not put his shoes on, so I asked him if he needed help. He replied, "No, Mommy, I can do it." He kept trying, but with no luck, so I asked him again, "Would you like Mommy to help?" Again he said no.

When I stepped outside to get things ready he started to cry and cry and cry. I assured him it was going to be fine and that I was coming to help. Then he was crying because I was doing things my way, not his way. I got very upset and cancelled our trip to the park. He went to his room but he fought every moment he was there.

This happens often, and in the same order. What should I do? He is a happy kid, and he gets plenty of attention from both my husband and me. What kind of punishment should I give him? I really don't want to spank him at all, but often time out will not work. Please help!

-Confused Mom in Calgary

A: Thanks so much for writing. In the incident you described, it seems to me like the crying is an attempt to release the energy of frustration. Little nervous systems can reach critical mass very quickly, and melt down with no warning.

One minute, life is good and he's excited about the park. The next, that darn shoe won't go on, and his frustration level skyrockets. We see this even more often in kids who are conscientious and intelligent, as well as eager to be capable and competent. They hate accepting help because they really really want to do it themselves. Yet their abilities can't quite keep up with their intentions.

Four-year-olds have not yet developed the capacity to anticipate overwhelm. Nor do they know how to avoid the meltdown by communicating their feelings verbally to head it off at the pass, or taking a break until they feel calm again. Those are adult strategies.

Kids typically have only one strategy: keep trying until they become too frustrated to function, at which point they cry, give up/withdraw, or lash out angrily.

So what's a parent to do? Fortunately, you only need to remember one word: empathize. When your child is frustrated because he wants to put on his shoes and he can't, you say, "I know honey, it's really frustrating when your shoes won't go on! And you don't want my help - you want to do it yourself." Keep going like this -- not helping him, not telling him it's okay, not telling him to settle down, not trying to distract him -- just understanding him, until he starts to settle down a bit.

At that point, you might try to offer a tiny bit of assistance. You may, or may not, depending on your sense of the moment, ask his permission to help. Some kids just can't stand to admit they need help (it sort of hurts their pride, which is perfectly understandable), and in those cases, it's fine to just do it - open up the laces and set the shoe near his foot, or simply put it on for him (but if he starts kicking, please back off so you don't get hurt, and start empathizing again).

You'll get a read on what's called for in each situation. He may continue to cry, and that's fine. He needs to release those neurochemicals that got dumped into his bloodstream as a result of frustration. Crying is a good way to do that. He'll stop soon enough on his own.

In the meantime, if you are feeling upset or agitated by his frustration or crying, then you have neurochemicals dumping into your bloodstream too! So you'll want to find a way to release them. Maybe a little dance around the yard, maybe a few whoops or hollers, or a quick jump up and down. And you'll also want to find an adult companion who can listen to you later, to prevent your frustration from building to meltdown levels. We all need to vent.

So to recap, there's no need to punish him for releasing frustration through crying. Those big feelings have to go somewhere. That's why spanking and time out often don't work to control behavior - we can't consequence away feelings! So instead, let him know you understand his frustration. Help him gracefully if you can, and/or let him cry while you comfort him.

One thing that can sometimes disrupt the cycle is humor. Try picking up his shoe and saying, Hey, you shoe! You get on that foot right now! and then sort of wrestle with it, and say to your son, It's a rascally shoe, isn't it? Let that rascally shoe knock you over and roll you around a little, then triumphantly subdue it and say, Quick, bring your foot over here! I think I got it to hold still for just one second! Quick! Quick! Put your toes in to hold it down!

Kids like this approach because the shoe gets the blame for being rascally, and they can't resist laughing when they see you having a silly problem, too.

I hope this helps! Please let me know if you have any further questions.


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Anonymous said...

Thank you, Karen. This has given me insight into my 2 1/2 year old and confirmed some of my instincts. She is trying so hard to be a big girl!

karen alonge said...

you daughter is blessed to have a mama with such good instincts who is also open-minded and curious enough to read up on things like this! thanks for taking the time to comment, Alison. :)