NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
AGE 4 AND THE DAWN OF CONSCIENCE
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
This article is adapted from “Mastering Anger and Aggression,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.
A 4-year-old knows that she matters. She no longer needs her earlier defiance. She can handle her feelings with less effort now, and can more easily make her needs known. Now that she is less focused on herself, she is curious about the world. She can only understand it, though, in terms of her own experience. But she can look more deeply now, and sustain her interest for longer.
More aware of others, the 4-year-old is watchful, almost on guard, as she monitors those around her for their reactions. At 4, a child is developing the ability to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others. She can begin to see, now, her ability to affect them: “If I hit her, she won’t want to play with me. If I take her toy, she’ll scream and Mommy will blame me.”
Now a child can judge the effects of her behavior with a better understanding of its consequences, a new sense of right and wrong. With this awareness comes the dawn of a conscience. Guilty feelings are new, too. They can be a powerful motivator.
A 4-year-old has also begun to be aware of her own feelings and to pay attention to them. She has more words to describe them. As she learns to name her feelings as they well up inside her, she has a chance to think about them, what they are telling her, why she is having them, and what she can do about them. This is the beginning of an important new ability that some psychologists have called “emotional intelligence.” It is also critical to learning to handle her aggressive urges.
Now that she is beginning to be aware of her aggressive feelings, and of their consequences, the 4-year-old may be frightened of herself. Her aggressive acts carry a new cost! As she tries them out, she is fearful. She knows she’s wrong, and she expects to be punished.
At night, when her defenses are down, when she is regressing to a helpless sleep state, fears and nightmares begin to surface. “Is that a witch under my bed? Is there a monster in the closet?” In her nightmares, they may be coming after her to punish her for her “bad” behavior. Or they may be aggressive in all the ways she’d like to be but knows she shouldn’t.
Fears that are near the surface — of being “bad” and hurtful, of deserving punishment — will be called up during the day by any frightening event, even a dog barking or an ambulance’s siren. Thunder and lightning terrify a child of this age. To her it sounds like an angry scolding from someone who sees and hears all the “bad” things she’s done. At night, fears like these overwhelm her. She is aware of her ability to hurt others. She is frightened of her own fantasies of being more powerful than she really is. At this age, losing control is more frightening than ever. Conscience and being aware of other’s feelings have made it seem more dangerous.
HELPING A CHILD WITH NIGHTMARES
- During the day, look for monsters and witches under the bed and in the closet with your child. This is one way to show that you can take her worries seriously without reinforcing them.
- At bedtime, read stories that help children understand nightmares, such as “There’s a Monster in My Closet.” You can also read stories about dreams – such as “In the Night Kitchen” – because they help children understand that dreams come from the worries and other feelings we store up during the day.
- Show your child where the nightlight is. Shut off all the other lights and let her look around while you are still there.
- Reassure her that you’ll be in your room while she’s in hers.
- If she does wake up with a nightmare, go to her. Sit by her bed. Let her tell you about it. (My mother used to say that if you tell someone about your nightmare, it won’t come back. I think she was right.)
HELPING A CHILD WITH FEARS
- Don’t put off facing a fear. Waiting will only make the child think that there really is something to worry about.
- Make a list with your child of all the ways she’s learned to make herself feel better when she is scared: for example, holding your hand, talking together, trying to think of something different, or of times when facing the fear has helped. These are self-comforting strategies.
- Then, make a list of all the things that are scary about the feared object or event, and rank them from most scary to the least: for example, “I hate when the dog barks, I hate just seeing the dog _ especially when she shows her teeth, I hate seeing her dog bone in the yard when she’s not there, I even hate just thinking about her.”
- Now your child is ready to face her fear. She can think first about the least scary aspect of the feared object or event and then practice all her self-comforting strategies. Once she can calm herself while thinking about the least frightening part of the fear, she’s ready to move on to the next. Step by step, she’ll be able to conquer her fear.
(This article is adapted from “Mastering Anger & Aggression: The Brazelton Way,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.