Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
706 Cowper Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 • (650) 325-2576
License MFC 28308
blank image for formatting
blank image for formatting blank image for formatting
Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
Palo Alto Marriage Counseling, Couples Therapy Palo Alto, Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
Palo Alto Object Relations and Psychodynamic Therapy in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol L. Campbell, MFT
Palo Alto Anxiety Counseling, Depression Treatment in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol L. Campbell, MFT
blank image for formatting
blank image for formatting
blank image for formatting

Parenting Your Four-Year Old

by Carol Campbell, MFT

Where, you may ask, did your sweet, cooperative little child go when he or she turned four years old? All of a sudden you are dealing with an emotionally volatile little person who is just as likely to argue with you as to respond agreeably to direction. What is going on inside this child that has made parenting so much more of a challenge?

Four-year olds face one of life's most painful tasks: to bear the humiliating and devastating realization that even if mommy and daddy love him/her very much, it will never be the same kind of relationship as the one that mommy and daddy share. Children will always be left out of the coupling of mother and father. Before that troubling reality can be accepted by a four-year old, there will be countless efforts made to try to prove it isn't so. These conflicts between the insistent child and the frustrated parent provide an opportunity for the sensitive parent to equip the child for a lifetime of good relationships if these ideas can be kept in mind.

All children are inherently bisexual, and they will alternate whether their yearnings are for mommy or for daddy. Sooner or later an unconscious stable choice will be made, most often that a little boy will want to have his mother and get rid of daddy, or a little girl will want to have daddy and get rid of mom. These ideas may seem shocking if we are inclined to think of little children as innocent and naïve. They are, of course, but their unconscious minds are filled with aggressive, passionate, and sometimes scary feelings. Childhood sexuality is not the same thing as adult sexuality, but the urges and instincts I am talking about are universally unconscious in children and extremely important to their development.

The task of parenting at this stage of the game is to gently, kindly, but firmly set limits and boundaries that make it clear to the child that he or she cannot interfere with or be part of the union of the parents. In other words, the boundary separating the generations must be obvious and observed. The child needs to understand that the parents are the authorities in the family, that their relationship is wonderful and exclusive, and that no amount of whining or complaining will change that.

What is essential is that the parents keep in mind that the child will be feeling not just ordered around or disappointed, but unconsciously will also be feeling rejected as a possible mate for the parent, a crushingly painful message to take in. He or she also needs to feel understood for wanting to be able to get rid of the non-chosen parent, and not blamed for hurting that parent's feelings. How well this difficult time is handled will determine to a large extent how satisfying the child's relationships with others will be throughout life.

If a child perceives that a parent is hesitant or reluctant to be the firm boss, it creates anxiety in the child, and hope that maybe the natural order of things can be reversed so the child can be the proverbial Oedipal victor after all. Any child who is feeling anxious about being able to trust in consistent, predictable, reasonable authority from the parents will push even harder to try to figure out where the boundaries actually are. They can't relax until they know who is in charge and what to expect. And the most anxiety producing situation is if the child perceives ongoing conflict between the parents, because that suggests an opening for the little suitor to move in and conquer the spurned parent after all. Believing that could actually happen creates enormous anxiety in the child.

Many parents of four-year olds have a very difficult time shifting into this gear. Parenting an infant or toddler or three-year old involves a great deal of blurring of boundaries, because the child needs to be held physically and emotionally so much of the time. The very young child is often literally in between the parents, and many times one parent needs to leave the other in the middle of the night in order to provide the closeness and tenderness necessary to comfort a wee one. Now the story is changing, and the parents need to assert the primacy of their own relationship in a more obvious way.

Two problems are common when parents learn to get firm with four-year olds. Sometimes the parent is too harsh too often, and the child ends up feeling bad, flawed, or worthless. Then the child is likely to assume unconsciously that his or her badness is why he or she is being rejected as a mate for the loved parent, rather than because of the universal taboo against incest. The other common problem is that the parent feels excessively guilty for laying down the law. There is no such thing as a good enough parent who does not need to raise his or her voice some of the time. Parents who are reluctant to be firm for fear of eliciting the child's anger or rejection may have their own oedipal issues bubbling up from their own childhoods. The challenge is to find the right balance of kindness and firmness most of the time.

In our culture many parents face an added dilemma caused by our lifestyle that requires parents to be away from the children so much of the time. The parents feel guilty for their absence, and unconsciously try to compensate for having ignored the child by indulging the child when they are together. This actually takes two forms, as Diane Ehrensaft, PhD., has shown in her book, Spoiling Childhood. First, the parents give in when they should instead be holding a line. Secondly, they treat the child as if he or she were an adult, bringing them along to an adult restaurant, letting them watch movies they have no business seeing, confiding in them the parents' adult concerns about finances or marital conflict, etc.

So what does all this look like for the typical four-year old and his or her parents? Lots of conflict! The child wants to argue about decisions affecting him or her. Cries of "I want Mommy!" or "I want Daddy!" fill the air. What seems to calm things down and still move in the direction the parent wants is when the parent is able to both acknowledge that the child has an idea that makes a lot of sense from a kid's perspective, and also be clear that what the parent wants is what will happen.

For example: Little Maddy is shrieking that she wants to continue playing outside when it is time to come in for a bath. Mom approaches Maddy, gets her attention, and says, "Your idea is that you want to keep playing. That would be so much fun - I can see why that's what you really want to do. We'll have time to do that again tomorrow. But right now it is bath time and we are going in." End of discussion. If need be, Maddy can be physically restrained and carried to the bath. "Less talk, more action" is a good mantra.

Let's say the issue is more related to rejecting one parent for another. Dad has just reached over to cut Jack's meat for him. Jack snarls, "I want Mommy to cut my meat!" Dad has to decide if this is a battle worth fighting or not. It could be that this is a time when Mom is right there and happy to take over, and it's no big deal. Dad can just chuckle and say, "I can tell you sometimes wish I'd just disappear so you could have Mommy all to yourself. I know just how you feel!" The tone here needs to be truly non-shaming.

Or it could be that this is the last straw, Mom is on her way to lock herself up in another room before she loses it, and Dad needs to put an end to the complaining. Then it might be better for Dad to say something like, "You wish you could be the boss here, but you aren't. I need you to be polite when I am helping you. You don't get to pick Mom right now."

I loved hearing a story of a little boy who had climbed into bed with mommy and daddy on Saturday morning for some wonderful snuggles with them. He pressed himself against his mother, then turned to face the father. He pointed his finger at the father as if it were a gun and pretended to shoot him. It doesn't get any clearer than that how a little boy would love to have mommy and get rid of daddy. In this case, both parents played along and let the boy have the great delight of a fantasy in which he was the winner.

The fantasies are of victory; the reality is that the parent is in charge. When all goes well, the child will eventually give up the hope of claiming the parent and turn his or her sights on growing up and one day finding a partner just as wonderful as the parent. Parents of four-year olds are witness to the beginning of an essential period of drama. The story is about longing and fighting and worrying, and eventually accepting cold, hard reality. The underlying issues never disappear entirely, and throughout our lives we face the times of being included or excluded, being in power or being powerless, being embraced or being rejected. The wise parent will hold in mind what a difference it makes to the child if he or she can be lovingly constrained through this troubled stage of development.

[ back to articles ]

Calls regarding appointments are welcome at my private voicemail: 650-325-2576.

Carol L. Campbell, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for individual adults and couples in Palo Alto, California. She has degrees from Brown University and Santa Clara University and has been licensed since 1991. Carol is a graduate of the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program sponsored at Stanford by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and was a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California in San Francisco from 2010-2011. She is also a clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

blank image for formatting

Google+ Author Verification Google+ Publisher Verification