How to Peacefully Parent
By Dr. Laura Marham
Ages three to five have been called The Wonder Years, and wondrous they are, ping-ponging from exuberance to whining, from tantrums to cuddling, from belief in fairy tales to mind boggling intellectual leaps.
Preschoolers are explorers, scientists, artists, and experimenters. They’re experiential learners, so they keep pushing on limits to find out what’s solid. They’re still learning how to be friends, how to engage with the world, and how to control their bodies, emotions, and minds. With a little help from you, these years will build a secure and unlimited foundation for your son or daughter’s entire childhood.
What Your Preschooler Needs to Thrive
1 Structure. Regular routines help kids feel safe and are vital for preschoolers, who grapple with big fears on a daily basis. The world is chaotic and scary to them; their household should be predictable. A calm, orderly, and fun atmosphere, with regular meal and bedtime routines, will produce happier children who have the internal resources to meet daily developmental challenges. No, that doesn’t mean you need to be rigid. But your child does need to know what to expect.
2 Enough sleep. Preschoolers may resist bedtime, but without sufficient sleep, three to five-year-olds simply do not have the resourcefulness to cope with the demands of their day. Develop a regular routine that helps her wind down and start relaxing well before bedtime.
3 Control over her own food intake. You decide what food is accessible in your house, but your child needs the responsibility to decide how much she eats. Remember that children need frequent small meals, and if you don’t provide that, they’ll end up snacking all day. If you always provide a variety of healthy food, you can feel comfortable letting them choose which foods they eat and how much.
4 Help with Emotions. While your child may no longer have frequent tantrums, he still has big feelings, and he still needs you to “listen” to those feelings on a regular basis. All kids need daily laughter to vent the anxieties that inevitably build up in a small person grappling to manage herself in a big, often overwhelming world, so be sure to build daily roughhousing/physically taxing activities into your schedule. You can also expect your preschooler to sometimes express her anger: “I want a new Mom!” YOu can reply: “You must be so upset to speak to me that way . . . I guess you’re very disappointed . . . You really wanted to, and I said No . . .”
5 Empathic limits. If you want well-behaved kids, resist impulses to punish them. Kids this age need guidance and limits because they are actively learning the rules and how the world works, and naturally, they will test to see just where those limits are. Remember, though, that their brains are still developing. They get flooded with emotion very easily. When you set limits, they get upset, partly because they want what they want, but partly because they worry about your disapproval. It helps them to calm themselves if you empathize with their disappointment or anger. Research shows that when young children are punished, their behavior actually worsens. Instead, set limits and empathize with feelings to help your child WANT to behave. This helps him develop self-discipline, rather than relying on you to regulate him.
6 Interaction time with parents. Your preschooler’s brain is experiencing rapid growth and consolidation, both in learning facts and in learning emotional self-regulation. Lots of intimate time with physically and emotionally affectionate parents is critical for your preschooler’s emotional—and even brain—development. This means what psychologists call “Floor Time,” which is getting down on his level to work together building that train track or tower. The point isn’t the intellectual work of the building, but the emotional connection you make over it—and the nurturing support you offer when the project inevitably runs into snags. Daily, unstructured “Special Time” with your child during which you let your child take the lead will build your relationship. If you can’t bear one more game of superhero or dollhouse, offer your child “Cozy Time” instead. Just snuggle up on the couch with a pile of books for a lazy half hour, and make sure you take plenty of time out to talk about what you’re reading,or about her day. Here’s a whole page of Games to build closeness & emotional intelligence!
7 To be Heard. Preschoolers are famous for asking questions, from the incessant “WHY?” to badgering parents to change their minds about a limit. This can drive a parent crazy unless you look under the surface at the reason for the question. Your child wants more than information; he wants to feel heard, to be acknowledged, to tell you what he thinks, to weave together his world view with your help, and to have you respond to the turbulent emotions that often threaten to overwhelm his emerging intellectual control. When your child pesters you with WHY? questions and doesn’t seem satisfied with your answers, so she keeps on asking, turn it around, and ask her the question.
8 Whining. Whining can drive even the most patient parent crazy. But whining is a signal that your child needs help, either in processing emotions that are weighing on her or in meeting other needs. She’s not just trying to get her way; she’s expressing the need all preschoolers have to begin to master their environment by asserting some control. For Dr. Markam’s online tips on eliminating whining: https://www.ahaparenting.com/Ages-stages/preschoolers/Life-Preschooler/pre-empt-whining.
9 Social Time. Since our children are usually in groups of same-age peers, they often need adult help and modeling to learn to “take turns” or refrain from bossiness. Four-year-olds are experimenting with appropriate use of power, so they’re famous for bossiness and even bullying. Don’t feel bad about stepping in at the playground to model appropriate social behavior. How else are they supposed to learn?
10 Downtime. Everything is stimulating to your preschooler, from seeing the dump truck on the street to the candy in the grocery store. While playdates and field trips stimulate his emotional and intellectual development, he needs substantial unstructured time at home to simply play and regroup in the safety of her cozy home base, where she can let her hair down and take a deep breath.
11 School. Children three and older usually thrive at school, and for most of them, it is preferable to a full day at home with a parent or caregiver. But we need to remember that kids under the age of five have to work very hard to hold it together in a group setting. Their cortisol levels—that’s the stress hormone—become elevated when they stay at school in the afternoon, compared to children who go home after lunch, indicating that they’re under stress. Happily, this effect is much less pronounced in settings where the caretakers are stable and the child feels connected, so it’s worth the effort to be sure your child feels “at home” at her school. #
For more great parenting advice, check out Dr. Laura Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids (ahaparenting.com).