Category Archives: 3.5 – 4 years

Parenting challenge #1: Let’s pretend

Playful Parent book cover
Today is the first day of a series of posts that will provide a bunch of small suggestions for effective discipline strategies, or parenting approaches, or whatever you wan to label them. Read more about the Parenting Challenge in this post. In short: The idea is that we can all use a few more strategies to try out in our most trying situations with our kids. None of these strategies is meant to stand alone as THE. ONE. BEST. WAY. TO. DEAL. WITH. YOUR. KID. I'll put a new challenge up every Monday and you all can come back to the comment sections with feedback about what happened when you tried it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We can all learn so much from each other: we have kids of different ages, with different temperaments, we OURSELVES very different personalities (with varying experiences of being parented that have shaped those personalities), we come with different parenting philosophies, varying family structures (married, single parenting, grandparents around, siblings in the picture, etc.). I'm willing to bet that all the strategies I put out here will vary in effectiveness with all those differences.

I'm going to try not to write pages and pages about the philosophy behind this or any other technique on Monday — I want to simply put the idea out there. For the rest of the week, I'll try to provide you with some background and research (when there is some) on the strategy, interspersed with OTHER topics, so you guys don't die of boredom from this one theme. 

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, comes from excerpts from Playful Parenting. It's SO simple and yet I find it so difficult to implement if I'm in a crabby mood, generally stressed or I'm sleep-deprived (usually they coincide). The idea is to take any discipline challenge or conflict type that seems to recur and turn it into a game of imaginary play. Remember the words: LET'S PRETEND. And when you least want to do it, when you most want to put your foot down and insist that she JUST LISTEN to you… stop, breathe in, and say OUT LOUD "Let's Pretend." Say it as cheerfully, loudly, and animatedly (that's not a word, I'm guessing). This is one of those instances when you'll probably be faking it until you really mean it. With this "LET'S PRETEND…" introduction, most post 3 year-olds will stop in their tracks and you'll have them watching you for more instructions. Now here's the part that can take some practice. "Let's pretend…" what? You've got to come up with something that will pull a child into complying with your wishes without him realizing that that's actually what you're doing. But the mere act of pretending, WITH YOU ESPECIALLY, changes any power struggle into a fun way to connect and collaborate. It can work miracles. (There's a good reason why generations after generations have used the "here comes the airplane/train/car, open the station!" to get kids to eat a few more bites). Here are just a few examples:

  • If your child doesn't want to get dressed in the morning: "Let's pretend that our clothes give us super powers! Once you put on your pants and shirt, what superhero will you be? MY clothes make me SUPER STRONG, maybe yours will make you invisible/able to fly/etc."
  • If your child doesn't want to switch off the t.v.: "Let's pretend that [enter whatever character she's been watching on tv] is down the hall and wants to play with us. Who do you want to be [in the tv show]? I'm going to be [enter character]." 
  • If you need 10 more min to get ready in the morning/to finish a conversation on the phone/etc.: "Let's pretend that I'm the queen who is coming to visit your castle for a feast. You're the King who has to get all your animals ready, cleaned, dressed, and at the table ready for my inspection! The Queen will be in your room in 10 mind… QUICK! Prepare for the feast!" 

Seriously, there's way too many examples to list. I JUST used this strategy a second ago, to buy myself 10 more editing minutes with this post. I told my boys: "Let's pretend that I'm Sir Toppenhat [dear god are you ever lucky if you don't know who that is] and that I will be coming to your train station. The trains need to be all cleaned and in their right order for the big race today!" Off they went to assemble the trains for the big race. Guaranteed that if I had told them to go play so that I can finish my work they would (a) have never left or (b) if they had, they would have been back in 30 sec asking if I'm ready to play. But providing them a REASON that I HAVE TO stay away for a few minutes worked. In fact, they just called back to me: "Don't come in yet, Sir Toppenhat! We're still working on the track!"

Some considerations:

  • Kids much younger than 2.5 years old may not be as into the pretend stuff. There are lots of reasons that pretend play usually starts after that age (I'll spare you that review for another time). With younger kids, you can just ACT OUT whatever pretend scenario you want, without having to tell them to "pretend." (So, act like the big monster that will eat their food up for them if they don't eat it first; Pick up your child and fly him around the hall once he FINALLY gets his "super flying boots" on, etc.)
  • Some kids are less inclined to pretend play than others. No big reasons, just some are more fantasy-oriented than others (just like some kids like to play with numbers and letters and others are bored stiff with that stuff early on). Most kids WILL get into it with you, if you "practice" these pretend scenarios with them.
  • The older the child is, the more I would try to enlist them to make up scenarios with you. 
  • It's a good idea to come up with a few of these pretend scenarios BEFORE a conflict or power struggle arises. In the throes of these conflicts, we're often angry, frustrated and exhausted, not the best context for coming up with magical situations to play out. If you have a few pretend situations that you know will peak your child's interest, think of how they could apply in all sorts of conflict situations.

This will be a great challenge to get your input in the comments section because some of us are more challenged in the fantasy make-up stuff than others (I count myself as one of the less "naturally" imaginative… but I'm learning). Give it a try and tell us: How did it go? What did you come up with? If it didn't work so well, why? If it DID work, what was so effective? Any new insights, thoughts, concerns that come up because of this exercise for you?

Edited to Add: CLEARLY I needed more than 10 more min to edit this post properly…

When Parting May Not Be Such Sweet Sorrow

Wow! That was a lot of guilt purging last week. I hope we're all travelling a little lighter this week if only because we've been reminded that we are not alone in carrying that MOTHER LOAD of guilt. Seriously, thanks for all the sharing. Not only has it been great to hear that we are not alone, but it's been great to get to know you a bit. We aim to please…so the more you tell us, the more you can help shape this site, what gets covered etc. 

In that spirit..
Last week's group carthasis started with Bella's guilt over her departure to Europe, but someone (Paola?) mentioned that she was also interested in the garden variety of separation anxiety.  I thought I"d give a little background into the research on separation anxiety (regular kind) but then leave you with a couple of questions that, to my knowledge, are not so well covered in the research literature. The first is an issue about separation anxiety that I"ve experienced with my son (there we are in the pic in those "all important" early days). I've also heard about it from friends re: their experiences with their own children. Once again, it would be great to hear about your experience…

Here's a quick "Did you know…?" to set it all up (just some highlights mind you, the literature on attachment is MASSIVE).

Fig4 1. One of the key studies that influenced thinking on human attachment came from a study with monkeys. Infant monkeys were given a choice of a). a surrogate mom made of wire, with a plastic nipple attached that delivered food or b). a similar wire mother with no food access but who was covered in a soft terry cloth. Although they nursed from the wire mom, the monkeys preferred the cloth mum (as in, they spent 17-18 hours a day with the cloth mum versus 1 hour with the wire/nipple one), even more so when food was not at issue but the monkeys were frightened by some foreign object that entered the room. You can read more about the study here. Although this finding came from a study with monkeys and not human babies, it raised the idea that food supply may not be as central to developing an attachment to a caregiver (as previously believed) as comfort and security. 

2. Of course the MAJOR line of research on human attachment came from Mary Ainsworth's work in the lab using something called the "Strange Situation". Basically, moms and infants come to the lab and spend some time in a "waiting room" of sorts (magazines for mom, toys for baby etc.). Over the course of 15 minutes, the people in the room change. At first mom is alone with baby. Then a stranger enters. Mom leaves baby with the stranger. Mom returns, then leaves again. Then the stranger also leaves and baby is alone. Stranger returns, then mom returns. Each of these scenarios last only a very short time; less than a minute to 3 minutes max. The researchers were mostly interested in what happens when mom and baby are reunited. Based on baby's reaction to mom's return, the babies were classified as either a). securely attached, b).avoidant attached or c). anxiously attached. The secure babies (about 65% of the infants tested) got upset when mom left but were comforted and quickly re-assured by mom on her return. In contrast, the avoidant (about 23%) babies were somewhat detached, did not show much emotion, even avoided mom or acted unaffected by her departure and also her return. Interestingly, biological markers (such as heart rate and skin conductance) later showed that these babies were nonetheless in distress. And the anxious babies (about 13%), were VERY upset at mom leaving, seemed upset or even angry on her return and were not easily reassured. 

The argument goes that securely attached babies, confident in a secure base to return to, are more free to explore their environment and therefore to learn. There is evidence that they fare better than avoidant- or anxiously- attached babies on complex problem -solving tasks and that they are generally better adjusted in later childhood and beyond.

3. In case you're freaking out because you don't believe that your child would react like a securely attached baby, here's something to consider. There is evidence that the proportion of babies in the different categories varies across cultures. E.g. supposedly there is a greater proportion of "avoidant" babies in studies with German infants  (although a more recent study with a German sample showed more of a "normal" distribution of babies across the three categories)  and of "anxious" babies in studies with Japanese infants.. Makes sense if you consider that parenting practices and styles definitely differ cross-cuturally, although perhaps less so nowadays what with the whole global village, internet etc. revolution.  In that case, it would be normal, and perhaps highly adaptive, for babies' attachment behaviors to reflect the culture they are being raised to function in.

4. A student of Mary Ainsworth – Mary Main – went on to do pioneering work on adult attachment. She was interested in how your memories regarding attachment with a primary figure when you were a child compared to the type of relationships/attachments that you form as an adult (in friendships but particularly in romantic relationships). Turns out that in ~75% of cases, that early style of attachment stays with you and is similar to the types of relationships/attachments formed in later life. Although, keep in mind that it has also been suggested that certain "buffering" factors can help mediate that connection. So a rough time in childhood does NOT necessarily mean that you are doomed to repeat that pattern as an adult.  

So there you go, some points to ponder. Here's what I'm interested in hearing from you:

My son has been very attached to me, since very early on. At 18 months of age, he would get upset if I left the room to go the bathroom, even if he was in the company of his father or grandparents who he knows very well and loves dearly. A good friend of mine's child went through a phase (granted he was quite young, maybe only 6-7 months or so) where he would get upset when she bent down over the sink to brush her teeth and was momentarily out of his view. Both of these kids improved immensely, but then with no warning would show this intense reaction all over again. No precipitating event, so stressful time, no new baby, move, change of preschool or daycare, illness of loss of a family member etc. Then it would subside, only to return again. And so it went. This summer,at almost 5, my son went to a day camp for the first time (for 2 weeks). He did not know a soul, it was in a location he did not know well, first time taking his own backpack, own lunch etc. But he did not even blink. "See ya Mum". That was it. Ditto the first day of school some weeks later. So we seem to have come out the other side. It's understandable to me that there may be sensitive periods in development when kids are more likely to suddenly seem anxious about separation agai
n, but sometimes he would sail through those sensitive periods without a blip and sometimes not. 

I'm interested to hear from you about "bouts" of separation anxiety. Anyone out there have a child who would "zoom" in and out?  At what ages?  What do/did you attribute it to?

Finally, as a mum of only 1, I"m always interested to know how kids with siblings cope with things. If you have more than 1, are/were your kids similar or different when it comes to separation anxiety?  Also, do you think that how the younger one or ones handled separation from you was different to how their older sibs handled it because they had sibs – read: company – to help tide them over until you returned? 

Send me your thoughts…


Get back to play and learn some self-control, Johnny!

Pretend play
Thanks to one of our readers, Bonnie, for suggesting the topic of today's post, this New York Times article. It would be silly for me to review the whole article here, given it's the NYTs and their writers are kinda good. So… go read it first and then we can talk a bit about some of the issues it raises.

Back?  Excellent!  So, the article presents a program that is attempting to teach children the kinds of self-control skills that we've been talking about this week — not just delaying gratification, but also being able to shift attention when you have to, being able to SUSTAIN attention when you have to, being able to wait patiently for your turn, being able to persevere without being distracted until you've solved a problem, and so on. Unlike other school programs, this particular one (called Tools of the Mind) doesn't try to teach kids with explicit directions to control themselves, nor does it advocate using behavioural principles like negative feedback for "bad" behaviour and positive reinforcement for "good" behaviour. Instead, the program is designed to foster self-control by creating a learning environment that is steeped with opportunities to USE and practice these skills. A large part of the day is spent encouraging (and even "teaching") children how to engage in "productive" pretend play. Yes, they're TEACHING children how to pretend to be princes, princesses, mommy with baby, batman and robin, and so on, all with the idea that this helps children practice and get better at sustained attention and self-control. Here's the most interesting quote out of the the whole article for me:

"Bodrova and Leong drew on research conducted by some of Vygotsky’s
followers that showed that children acting out a dramatic scene can
control their impulses much better than they can in nonplay situations.
In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still
for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a
minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were
guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than
four minutes. In another experiment, prekindergarten-age children were
asked to memorize a list of unrelated words. Then they played “grocery
store” and were asked to memorize a similar list of words — this time,
though, as a shopping list. In the play situation, on average, the
children were able to remember twice as many words. Bodrova and Leong
say they see the same effect in Tools of the Mind classrooms: when
their students spend more time on dramatic play, not only does their
level of self-control improve, but so do their language skills."

Interesting, huh? So, at least for the 3-6 year olds, making playdates (how I loathe that word) during which we encourage kids to dress up and play house, doctor, superheros and restaurant (and hope they leave us alone to eat our cake and gossip) is just what they need to acquire those self-control skills. MAAAAAAAAAAAAYBE.

The truth is, the jury is out on the science part of this claim. The crux of the article, if you read it all the way through, is
that they're not quite sure IF this whole pretend-play focus and Tools of the Mind in particular works. Equally important, even if it does turn out that it works, they have
no idea WHY. The current studies aren't even looking at the various elements in the program (and there are many) that may be facilitating greater cognitive and emotional control. And there are no other well-designed, replicated studies that have established effective strategies to teach children cognitive control. 

My guess is that there are some things we can do to help (provide lots of practice with waiting for a reward, teach self-distraction strategies, play games that require turn-taking, enforce rules about listening to others at the dinner table, etc.), but that the vast majority of children are in environments that already naturally foster these skills at develomentally appropriate ages. Executive function or cognitive control or whatever you want to call it has been shown to increase steadily over the ages of 2 and 5-ish (and it keeps going, just at a slower rate). For a fabulous paper (Carlson, 2005) that reviews the neuropsychological and cognitive studies, click on the first link in this Google Scholar search (I keep trying different ways to post original scientific papers through links on this blog). 

And in answer to the orginal question on Monday about what to do with a 1-year old that can't delay gratification: I'd say apart from Tracy's recommendations to just keep the enticing stuff out of sight, there's not much you can do… and that's TOTALLY fine. One-year olds don't have the mental capacity yet to control their impulses, thoughts, or emotions (nor will they until about the age of 2 and then, just barely).

So, at this point, your guess is as good as any scientist's: What do you do with your children that may be helping them to develop better self-control? Do you think there are some things we do that may delay these acquisitions?

– Isabela

Step Away from the Chocolate Cake: Strategies to Help Delay Gratification


 I don’t know about you, but I have a bit of a sweet tooth.
When confronted with oh say, a 
slice of good quality chocolate cake, I’d have a hard time waiting to
eat it, such as after eating all of my green vegetables. So all this talk about
waiting to eat marshmallows got me thinking about how I would have fared with
the marshmallow task as a child. Probably terribly (but can I just point out
here that I’ve done okay…I’m just saying…). And naturally, I’m wondering what
my son would do (read: what are his future prospects in life and other enormous
parenting questions that I should know better than to worry about). So how do
young children cope when they have to delay gratification?  What are those future Bill Gates doing
to help themselves keep their little fingies off of those marshmallows? And
yes, can parents influence this emerging development of self-control?

If you watched the video at the end of Isabel’s post on
Monday (if not then try here), you were probably amused, as I was, at some of
the strategies children attempted to keep from eating that sweet, seductive
cloud of confection. They covered the gamut from the girl who just stuffed it
into her mouth, unapologetically (even remembering to clear her plate from the
table after wards – nice!), to the boy who pushed it up against his nose, to
those who just studied it carefully. But it was the boy who turned his head to
the side and just did not look at it, that really got me. Hmm… that seemed like
it might help.

Turns out that in Mischel’s early work he gave children
choices about what they could and could not look at while they were waiting
such as the real reward vs. a colour photograph of it. He also asked them what
they preferred to look at. Get this, preschool children actually looked at, and
preferred, the actual reward over the picture! In other words, they seemed
unable to anticipate that this would only drive them into a frenzy of
frustration and effectively sabotage their efforts to wait for the bigger
reward. Oh, the agony.

Children start to see the light around their 6th
birthday. So e.g. they start to prefer to cover the reward rather than to leave
it out in the open. By grade 3, their prefer to think more about the waiting
than on the eating of the marshmallows. And by grade 6, they’ve moved on to
prefer thinking of marshmallow properties e.g. that they are puffy like clouds.
So don’t worry, it’s not a write off if your preschooler is having trouble
waiting now.

The good news is: you can probably help your little one
along the way. For one thing,  out
of sight is out of mind baby!  So
whatever you do, take the tempting item away. Put it on a high shelf, in the
other room or cover it up. When you have dessert planned for after dinner,
leave the pie in the fridge until you are ready to serve it. You’ll have a
better shot at getting your little one to focus on the task at hand – dinner. You
can also help by distracting your child. Get them to focus on things other than EATING that ice cream.

Here’s one last thing to chew on…As you become more aware
that it is actually quite hard for young children to control their natural
impulses, wait, delay gratification etc., you may become tempted to be more
lenient. “It’s so hard for them, this insistence on getting that Halloween
candy now is part of normal development etc., it will come in time", so you reason. But perhaps when
parents insist that children wait for that treat for after dinner, they are
effectively training them to get used to waiting and to find ways to make it
work. Maybe those kids who managed to “step away from” the marshmallow in
Mischel’s studies came from homes where this was more the case (too bad they
didn’t interview or give questionnaires to the parents). Since, according to the
research, they would go on to fare better on a host of measures including
academic achievement, you could be doing your child a huge favour by saving the
chocolate cake for after they’ve eaten their brussels sprouts (well okay, maybe
not brussels sprouts). Just a thought.

–by Tracy


Why we fear and how to deal with the scared child

Halloween is a great week to talk about fears!  Just leaving home this
morning revealed a spookier neighbourhood than I remember seeing the
last time I looked up to take it all in on the way to work.

So why do we fear? Makes sense that one explanation appeals to evolution. The idea is that we have evolved a tendency to notice quickly potentially scary things. The sooner you can pick up on that snake in the grass, ferocious lion coming at you, or huge brown bear within swiping reach, the faster you can act to avoid it, flee, get help, make some noise etc. In other words, it's essential for your survival.

Some very cool recent research has shown that children as young as 3 years of age will notice potentially scary things more quickly than non-scary things (think snakes vs. flowers). Since we find the same pattern in adults, this suggests that the rapid response to potentially scary stuff kicks in rather early. Good thing, if you want to make it past early childhood!  Rather than summarize how the researchers came to these conclusions, take a look at the video and see for yourself. Just keep in mind that since they didn't actually measure fear (which you could do by say, looking at heart rate or other biological markers), the study is really getting at PAYING ATTENTION to fearful stimuli rather than being afraid of it. Still, it makes the point quite nicely that we may be equipped to pick up on that thing that just might be about to pounce fairly early on. Check it out.

My point here is to say that fear serves an important purpose. You want your child to notice potentially harmful things and to act accordingly. Thing is, not everything is a predator about to leap. So children need time to sort out what they should be afraid of and what they don't need to fear. Think of the differences between a cartoon snake on television vs. in a 3-D movie vs. a real snake in the zoo or in your back yard.

As with everything in development, there are also individual differences in fear responses. Children vary in how sensitive they are to scary things, in how strongly they react and in what they find scary. They may also cycle through times of being scared and times when they are not. My advise?  First of all, acknowledge the fear. I hate snakes, but have no problem with heights. Others may not be the same. But telling me to just forget about it, or how so and so doesn't fear snakes will not help. So even if it's hard to understand what's scary about a Disney character, the fact is, your child finds it scary. It can be very reassuring to hear someone say, "it's okay to be afraid" or "I can understand how you feel, sometimes I feel scared too". Second, don't force the issue. There's no timetable for getting over your fears. I like to use a bit of cognitive behavioural therapy or talking my son through his fears. In other words, I try to get him to think differently about what he is afraid of in the hopes that it will affect his behaviour e.g. "That's something in your book, it's not here in your room. It can't come out of the page to hurt you.". We revisit the fearful thing every once in a while but I don't push it. Eventually, he moves on.

My little guy helped me pick out a witch's hat for Halloween, then made sure to stress that I should be a good and friendly witch. It's a small thing to ask for while we work through our fears. And hey, I kinda like to think of myself of as a good and friendly witch anyway.

Please share your stories on dealing with fears. I"m particularly interested in the first time you noticed a fear response in your child or children, the context, how old they were etc. On my next post, I'll talk a bit more about what might contribute to those early fear responses.

– Tracy

Please, not that same book/game/song again! I can recite it in my sleep!


Okay, here's my first blogging challenge. I cannot get the author to change from Bella to Tracy. The post below is by me – Tracy. Anyone want to pitch in and help me get this sorted out? You can't say I did not warn you.

Every parent has heard the repeated request “Again!” to read
a favourite book, play a favourite game or sing a favourite song at one time or
another from their young child. How is it, we all wonder, that they can not
only stand, but insist upon, this incessant repetition when most parents are
driven to distraction by it? Turns out, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, that
some of the answer lies in what we know about the developing brain.

Children may like repetition, in part, because they have
trouble stopping it. Cognitive and neuro- scientists talk about a phenomenon
known as perseveration, or the
uncontrollable repetition of a particular
response such as a word or a behaviour. Although perseveration is often
associated with some type of brain trauma in later life (injury, serious
illness etc.), it is also characteristic of the developing brain, especially in
the preschool years. In fact, an important achievement of early childhood is
being able to control, or inhibit, your own behaviour (think: Simon Says).

Developmental psychologists have devised
several tasks for use with young children that provide a glimpse into their
developing capacity for inhibition. In one task, children are shown cards with say,
red and blue flowers and cars. They are asked to sort the cards into two piles,
either according to colour (red here, blue there), or according to shape
(flowers here, cars there). After several sorting trials, children are asked to
switch to sorting to the other dimension (so if they first sorted by colour,
now they have to sort by shape – BTW, it doesn’t matter which one you ask them
to do first). The results of numerous studies show that until about 4 years of
age, children continue to sort the cards according to the first dimension or
the first set of rules. In other words, they PERSEVERATE! What’s striking is
that younger children will perseverate with the first set of rules even when
they are reminded of the new sorting rules and even when they can produce the
new rules every time they are about to sort a card! The argument goes that the
young brain is not yet able to control itself, or to INHIBIT the first
behaviour (sort by the first set of rules) and switch to new a new behaviour
(use the other set of rules).

 Just in case you’re thinking that we have it
all licked by the time we’re 5, think again. It turns out that inhibition takes
some time to develop. And though it becomes easier and easier with age it still
requires effort. So you can inhibit answering that cell phone when you are
driving the car (especially if that might cost you a fine), but if you have a
lot on your mind or get distracted, the effort it takes to inhibit just might
be too much for the already taxed brain and you may find yourself reaching for
it. Sorry officer, it was a failure to inhibit.

The take home message? It’s actually harder TO
STOP doing things than it is to DO them, especially for the really young. So
what does this mean for parenting? Let me give you a couple of things to think
about. My son is 5 and I’m still relying on some of them (it takes time

Since it’s harder to curb behaviour, try to
provide instructions that emphasize what TO DO as
opposed to what NOT TO DO. So easy on the use of “No”, “Don’t” and “Stop”,
especially at the start of a sentence. E.g. When your little one seems bent on
pressing the power button on your computer on and off (I can hear the hard
drive crying now, or is that you crying…), instead of “No! Stop pressing that
button.” try “Look it’s like the buttons your toy laptop computer/cash
register/cell phone etc. See? Now you try.”. Or instead of insisting “Don’t
throw your coat on the floor” when you come in the door try, “Can you put your
coat on your special hook?”.

2.  2. Even when children know the rule or what they
should do, keep in mind that it is still very hard to stop a habitual behaviour
and in a sense, redirect the brain toward acting according to some other
knowledge. So try not to see the repetitive behaviour (e.g. always throwing his
or her coat down every time he or she comes in the door) as defiant. Be
patient. Repeat the rule. Eventually he or she will get it. No really, they
will. And you’ll probably have a better relationship that if you just persisted
with the “No!”s.

As for the pleas for “Again!” in very young
children, it could just be that repeating the same thing again and again feels
good. It’s as though it’s the brain’s natural inclination. It’s what it wants
to do. Keep that in mind the next time you feel lured into the “Wheels On the

3 1/2 years old Part II: Reader’s question about waking up and staying up

I've written a bit about what's going on in the three and a half year old's mind during this critical transition period. I'm not sure if I find this stage so fascinating because it just is so inherently damn cool or if it's because I'm watching my own kids creep up to this phase. They're about 3 months shy of 3.5, but they're certainly showing some typical behaviours: increasingly sensitive, more needy, more demanding, more meltdowns over the most RIDICULOUS things ("I don't WANT my sand to fall out of the truck!" ,"J doesn't know how to COOOOOOOOOUNT! He's doing it WRRRRRRRRRROOOOONG!", "I don't EVER, EVER, EVER want to be gooooood. Good is BAD!", "R hit me in my dreams and he won't say sorry."). I'm sure I would have lost my mind by now with these meltdowns if they didn't seem so damn INTERESTING in terms of what it says about their developing minds. And they kind of crack me up too.

OK, onto more important matters. Here's an email from a woman with twin 3.5 year olds. Her kids are in the throes of this transition period and, did I mention, she has TWO of them going through it at the same time? 

I have identical twin daughters who were born in October, 2005.  There
were 10 weeks early, if that makes a difference.  We've always used no
cry methods to get through their sleep regressions.  They are not great
sleepers, but they aren't really horrible either. They stopped napping
about a year ago and their nighttime sleep really improved.  We put
them to bed around 7pm and leave their room. For the most part, they go
to sleep without major issues. On a good night, they both sleep through
and wake up around 7am.  One of them has night terrors which we've
discovered occur when she has a full bladder and putting her on the
potty at the first whimper has solved that problem for us.  Our other
daughter is a mystery that I can't solve.  In addition to occasional
nightmares, after which she goes right back to sleep, about once a week
or so, she wakes up in the middle of the night (around 1am or 2am) and
can't go back to sleep for 2-3 hours.  She's not upset.  She's not
crying.  She's actually in a really good mood.  She's asks if it is
morning and to go downstairs and play.  We've been very consistent
about it being nighttime and she needs to stay in bed and rest even if
she's not sleeping.   We've tried leaving her in bed alone, but she
keeps getting up and comes looking for us.  We've tried putting her in
bed with us, but she just tosses and turns and keeps both my husband
and I awake.  We've tried laying in her bed with her, where she still
tosses and turns, but at least is only keeping one parent awake.  After
2-3 hours, she is sleepy enough that we can leave and she'll fall
asleep on her own.  We've tried changing her pullup and having her sit
on the potty.  We've tried asking her why she woke up, about dreams,
etc.   She never has an answer for why she woke up and can't seem to
verbalize why she can't go back to sleep.  Meanwhile, her sister is
sleeping peacefully in the bed next to her, wearing the exact same
pajamas and sleeping under the same number of blankets and so forth.
She will happily sleep late the next morning to make up for this loss
of sleep, go to bed on time and sleep fine the following night.  I
can't find any triggers for this behavior. It doesn't seem related to
food or activity level.  There is no discernible pattern.  Is this
something that other preschoolers are doing as well? 

So, the answer to that last question is a resounding YES!  This is VERY common for kids around 3 to 4 years old. R.'s question is almost identical to several that I've received (except for the twin part). Moxie just had a great thread
of comments that pulled out a lot of stories of sleep disruptions
during this period, so go check that out too, if you haven't already. Kids this age often have a hard time getting to
sleep (when beforehand many of them dropped off in 5-10 min, now it's
taking hours sometimes) and/or they find it difficult to put themselves
BACK to sleep. I've already mentioned that the biggest change that happens during this stage is the onset of "theory of mind."

Children at this age—and especially those who are more sensitive temperamentally—suddenly feel vulnerable in contexts that were fine before, and they feel especially vulnerable when they imagine that their thoughts or feelings might be viewed as “bad” or inappropriate. They also begin to show other insecurities at this age, including anxieties about others being angry at them and less explicit fears and concerns. Shame and anxiety are such powerful emotions, and they are often emotions that we don't understand well (even as adults). The capacity to feel these emotions on a deeper level can be very unnerving. Sleep problems after the age of 3 is less likely to involve crying spells or other extreme emotional displays. But it may evoke more subtle emotional reactions that are just as disturbing. What is your child feeling while lying in bed, waiting for sleep to come? Is she wondering about how you or others perceived something she did that day? Does she wonder if being left alone reflects your disapproval, your wish to be rid of her? She now has the capacity to imagine that you are thinking just about anything, and a young child’s imagination can go to extremes that you and I would find remarkable and sometimes frightening. Children have plenty of time to ruminate about what their parents might be thinking about them while they are lying in bed alone. Keep in mind, there doesn't need to be any ACTUAL rejection or disapproval from the parent for a child to nevertheless start wondering about what WOULD make mom reject her, what WOULD make dad mad, etc. (IOW, I'm not suggesting that you or any mother out there is intentionally rejecting their child, only that the child now has the ability to IMAGINE that it could happen).

I haven't ignored what R. told us: when her little girl wakes up, "She's not upset.  She's not
crying." That's very common. And I'm not going to profess to really know what's inside your child's mind, you know her best. But it might be that she's actually very happy to see YOU. When you come into the room, she may feel a rush of warmth and security that she wasn't feeling while lying alone thinking the new thoughts she can now think. So, even if she's not traumatized when she wakes up and she's not crying or screaming for you, she may still be feeling the small insecurities that are the hallmark of this stage transition and those feelings may be exactly what's making it difficult for her to fall back asleep. The fact that it's not happening every night may be actually an indication of how generally secure she does feel.

In terms of what you can do about it, my take is that there's not much you can do about the waking, but you CAN do something about how she feels while she's awake. If she asks why she can’t sleep with you, or why you can't play with her now, it would be important
to reassure her that it has nothing to do with her qualities. It’s not
about her being a bad sleeper, or not as quiet as her sister, or babyish, or selfish. (Of course, don’t
raise these issues by name if she doesn’t!) Rather, let her know that
everyone wakes up once in a while and that everyone has many thoughts sometimes in their heads that keep them awake. You can try talking to her about her day and how it all went at bedtime, just before a calming story or song or whatever your routine is. Processing with her some of the experiences she's having that she may not fully understand might help with preventing her from doing it herself in the middle of the night. This kind of reassurance can go a long way during this
period of emotional uncertainty. But the bottom line (and the recurring chorus on this blog) is this stage will pass. If she was a fairly good sleeper before, it is likely she will go back to sleeping just fine through the night in a month or so. 

The last thing I wanted to mention was the CRUCIAL point that R. makes that her other IDENTICAL TWIN daughter (i.e., genetically the same) is having none of these problems at the exact same age and in the exact same context. I LOVE how this example brings home the point that it really can be quite different from one child to the next. Although almost all children go through these developmental stages at approximately the same age, the style with which they COPE with these changes can be vastly different. The beauty of having twins in this kind of case is that you can let yourself off the hook — neither your genes nor your parenting style seemed to have caused these sleep disruptions. And there may be nothing you can do to "solve" the problem either… except providing as much emotional support as you can muster at 4 in the morning.

Anyone else been through this and come out the other side? I'm just as keen to hear war stories of this stage as anyone out there, given I'm just about to watch and wonder while my kids muddle through it soon.

3 1/2 years old Part I: It’s all in their heads

With all the talk at Moxie about three-year olds, I thought I'd post about this next major stage transition in development. More specifically, the transition happens around 3 1/2 years old. This age brings so many fascinating new cognitive capacities and they're linked to a whole host of emotional changes. And of course, if you're following along at home, this transition period means possible sleep setbacks. It's also not a stage that I'd recommend trying to change sleep habits (around 3 is fine, around 4 is good again, but this middle period can be tough).

Here's an excerpt from Bedtiming that explains what's going on in the child's mind at this age:
"The biggest change that happens in the young preschooler is that they acquire what developmentalists call "theory of mind."  Theory
of mind
is the understanding that other people have their own goals,
feelings, internal states, thoughts, and opinions. In short, other people have
minds of their own, and the contents of those minds are very often
different from the contents of one’s own mind. False-belief
understanding marks the culmination of theory of mind: the child can
now predict that other people will believe whatever they perceive
through their own senses, regardless of whether it’s true or false.
Many studies have demonstrated that 4-year-old children understand this
basic principle of human perception, while 3-year-olds do not. By the
age of 3 ½ to 4, when children can separate their own beliefs from the
beliefs of others, they have undertaken a remarkable shift in social
understanding. They have now begun to glean that each mind is like a
chamber filled with its own perceptions of the world, and no two minds
need ever see the world in the same way.

[Here's a video
that explains the idea quite well and gives you a sense of how developmental researchers test
kids for theory of mind (at least the first half)]

Understanding that your parents have minds of their own can be quite a
shock at first. Up until now, you took it for granted that Mom saw
things the way you did. In fact, you didn’t have to explain to her how
you saw things, because there was only one way to see things: the way
they really are. Now that people’s beliefs are seen to be private
affairs, carried around in their own heads and not accessible to
others, a number of issues have to be worked out. When my stepdaughter
was 3.5 years old, she rode on the back of her father's bicycle to
nursery school every day from her third birthday on. She would
typically point to interesting sights as they rode by, saying, “That
flower is blue! That boy has a funny hat!” and so forth. Around the age
of 3 years and 4 months, however, her language changed. She began to
phrase these comments as questions rather than statements: “Did you see
the blue flower? Do you think that hat is funny?” She was clearly
conceding that his reality was not the same as hers. But other changes
were less cheerful in tone. At exactly the same age, she would be
sitting at the table eating her cereal when her father came downstairs,
and she would shout “Don’t look at me!” While turning her head away or
hiding behind her cereal box. WTF, why did she freak out with no
apparent trigger? If your parents have minds of their own, and if you
don’t know what’s inside them, then you might well worry. They might be
looking at you, and they might be thinking…anything! They might be
thinking that you just spilled your cereal, or that you were supposed
to wait, or, more generally, that you’re a bad, selfish little girl.
How would you know?

In this way, false-belief understanding can be a ticket to a new suite
of insecurities. A private mind, with its own thoughts and beliefs,
might harbour thoughts about you that aren’t very nice. I've come
across so many parents' stories that keep reinforcing how huge this
change is. Parents of 3 ½ -year-old children have told me that their
daughter suddenly stopped letting them hear her sing. “Go away! Don’t
listen!” Or “Don’t look at me!” Or “Go away until I tell you!” This is
often also the age where children suddenly stop letting their parents
help them at the potty, if they’ve been potty-trained for a while.
These reactions suggested extreme self-consciousness. These kids
apparently worried about being seen, or being heard, because there was
something about themselves that might not live up to such scrutiny.
Something unpleasant, or greedy, or bad. In fact, false-belief
understanding seemed to bring about a spurt of intense shame reactions."

There are more implications to this shift, including the ability to feel true empathy (in a way that has never been there before) and the unfortunate ability and motivation to lie. We'll talk more about these in the days to come.

The reason why
sleep goes all to hell for lots of kids at this age may be due to all these incredible cognitive and emotional changes they're experiencing. At around three and a half, when children try to fall asleep at bedtime or try to put themselve BACK to sleep in the middle of the night, they may be experiencing the creeping insecurities and anxieties that accompany the dawning of a whole new suite of emotional and social perceptions. That's a whole lot of new stuff that they're trying to sort out and as I rush headlong into this new stage with my own two boys, I want to keep their little minds in mind for the next few months.