BONUS: Your preschooler’s brain

Introduction

I completed the course “Making Sense of Preschoolers” in December 2022, a course run by the Neufeld Institute. Dr Gordon Neufeld is a developmental psychologist, and his work is based very firmly in attachment theory. Essentially, for our children to grow and develop into well-rounded human beings, this can only happen from a place of deep-rooted attachment to at least one adult. 

If you want to read more about preschoolers, one of my all-time favourite books is “Rest, Play, Grow” by Dr Deborah MacNamara. She is a member of the Neufeld Institute and her book is a great summary of what we know about preschoolers and what makes them tick. 

Unashamedly, the following module is a summary of what I have learned from both Dr Neufeld and Dr MacNamara. It is, however, a brief summary of both the course and the book, so if you are pressed for time hopefully it will be enough to at least provide a foundation for understanding why I recommend some of the strategies outlined in this course. 

While in the UK children start school around 4, for the purposes of this course I define preschoolers as being between 3 and 5 years of age.

Preschoolers are misunderstood

I LOVE preschoolers. My own kids were precocious, enfuriating, delightful, stubborn, cooperative, thoughtful, selfish, irrational and impeccably unarguably logical. Often, all within the space of an hour! But why are they like this? 

Dr Neufeld explains that preschoolers have at their nature a few core tendencies, which make them behave the way they do:

They are untempered

Essentially, preschoolers are unable to hold onto two emotions, or focus on two things at once. When they say they hate you, they are incapable of feeling any other emotion in that moment. When 10 minutes later they say “I will love you for ever”, they truly believe it and feel it 100% with every fibre of their being. This purity of emotion means that they can believe in something completely irrational (like magic) because they want it to be true. Because they are unable to hold two emotions at once, they are also unable to problem solve or see alternatives. There is no “On the other hand” with preschoolers. (This ability to see two perspectives won’t kick in until around the age of five at the earliest.) But what if a preschooler acts kindly or gives a gift unprompted? This DOES happen but only because in the moment, the preschooler is incapable of thinking of himself or herself – his only focus is you. He may spontaneously share his last Haribo sweet with you and then get upset because you ate it because he realized that actually, it meant he didn’t get to have it. This characteristic of course means that they are impulsive, and unpredictable and unreliable! They will also probably be unable to delay gratification. If you tell them to wait because something better is around the corner, it is impossible for them. They want the smaller reward NOW! 
 

They are inconsiderate 

Preschoolers will say exactly what they think without caring how it might affect the other person eg. Mummy, that person is really FAT! The whole world revolves around a preschooler – he/she will be unable to see events from the perspective of others and his/her ideas of fairness will be very one sided! Often, when a preschooler acts, it will be in relation to his/her needs and it will be hard to see the needs of others. 
 

They struggle with separation 

This is a kicker isn’t it? After all, if you’re doing this course it’s probably because you want some separation from your preschooler at bedtime. However, the need for closeness and connection is vital if preschoolers are going to develop normally. They may crave physical closeness, and become afraid of separation. This may play out in their imagination (fear of being kidnapped for example), or nightmares or being afraid of being left alone at night.  They may be extra sensitive to disapproval, as they sense that disapproval can mean separation (which is just one reason why strategies like “time outs” can be so devastating to preschoolers). Preschoolers attach by being like you and by belonging so anything that threatens this, will make them feel the separation more acutely. 
 

What do preschoolers need?

Play!

Preschoolers need lots and lots of play. We often think that play should be directed or result in learning, but what preschoolers really need is play without consequences – they can act out their fears and emotions freely. Play should be expressive and exploratory and play should be the goal itself, not the means to the goal. 

Rest

Rest in this context is not in relation to sleep, but in regards to relationships. They should never feel like they have to work for our attention, our affection, or to stay in attachment. Preschoolers need us to compensate for them not being able to hold on. We need to hold on to them, so that they can rest and relax – so they aren’t doing the hard work! Preschoolers are “working” when they feel they need to earn our approval, or “be good” or behave in a certain way. A preschooler can truly rest in your presence, when they feel that they can express any emotion, and it will never push you away from them. 

True tears 

We often see emotions in terms of “good” or “bad” emotions, and if we are responsive parents then we often feel that we have done something wrong if our children either get angry, upset or cry. However, the purpose of parenting isn’t to control behaviour, but to understand the emotion that drives it. When we can empathise with our children, we help them deal with the big emotions that they are feeling. 

So, for example, if you say “No” to little Jonny who wants a cookie before dinner, he may get upset. Sure, you could give him the cookie and he’ll be happy but we know that’s not the best action, right? It’ll ruin his appetite for the more healthy food that he should be eating, plus (and perhaps more importantly), he doesn’t learn to deal with that emotion of frustration. Our job as parents is to empathize: “I know, cookies taste so good, don’t they? I’d love to eat one right now too”, while holding that boundary. As the emotion of frustration erupts in little Jonny, we don’t try to make him stop feeling that emotion. You can say something like “Oh, you’re really mad and frustrated right now aren’t you? I’ll be right here for you.” That way, little Jonny doesn’t feel like that overwhelming emotion is so big that it’s going to push you away, or that it’s too big for you to handle. It may be too big for him right now, so he needs your presence to help him deal with it. 

There is a complex process going on in his brain right now – his amygdala is being flooded with cortisol and the “fight or flight” response is being activated. In order for him to learn how to process big emotions, he has to work through them. Telling him to go to his room, or be quiet or else… that doesn’t help him process those emotions. 

Instead, you sit with him and wait. Eventually, when he realizes that there really is no cookie, he’ll start to cry. This process of moving from mad to sad, or from tears of frustration to tears of sadness – THAT’S where the magic happens. That’s were emotional health is built, and his little brain starts to develop the capacity to process emotion. As he cries, those tears wash the cortisol out of his system, helping him calm down.

How do we get preschoolers to cooperate?

No punishments or consequences 

You’ll probably agree that physical punishment (smacking) is unacceptable. Which means that you’re left with trying to gain your preschooler’s cooperation in another way. Often, this translates into “consequences” which is, to be honest, often just another word for punishment. So, for example, if our preschooler hits the “consequence” might be that there is no tv for the rest of the day. This isn’t a logical consequence of hitting though! It’s just punishment. Plus, by removing something he loves and is attached to, this will be counter-productive because when you remove something a preschooler is attached to, you harden their heart against you and you make them seek out attachment even more. Attachment should be provided freely by us as parents. 

The logical consequence of little Jonny hitting his baby sister is that you comfort his baby sister, but in his presence. If you were to take her away from the room, then you remove your presence (that attachment that he so desperately needs). The logical consequence of not picking up his toys is that the dog chews one and breaks it (this happens regularly in our house!). But, as parents we are responsible for helping our children prevent that favourite toy being chewed up – preschoolers are not particularly good at seeing too far into the future or understanding cause and effect.

We can’t control our children’s behaviour 

Remember, we can’t control our child’s behaviour. The traditional parenting methods have been all about control – you use coercion, threats, punishments etc to get them to behave in the way you want to. HOWEVER, as responsive parents, I’m saying we need to go deeper – look at the emotion that fuels the behaviour and address that. So, for example, in the scenario where Jonny has hit his baby sister, once his baby sister is consoled and safe, you turn to Jonny and say, “Oh dear, you hit your baby sister! Were you frustrated because she kept knocking down your bricks?” Most aggression in small children isn’t fueled by wanting to hurt someone else (remember, they find it very hard to see something from someone else’s point of view). Mostly, aggression is fueled by frustration. Address the frustration, allow it to come out safely, perhaps by jumping up and down 10 times, or by having a good old scream about it, and perhaps then crying because he worked so hard on that tower and now it’s ruined. Then, when your child is calm, you can focus on what you could do NEXT time. Perhaps you need to say, “When you’re building a tower, let me know, so that I can keep your baby sister away.”

OK, that’s all well and good you say, but how do you get them to cooperate at bedtime? Especially when they don’t WANT to get ready for bed?

Collect your child 

Some preschoolers really struggle with transitions. This is often because their focus is on something else. Remember they can only focus on one emotion, person, activity at a time. So, in order to get them on board with what needs to happen next you need to COLLECT them. What does this mean?

Well, say little Jonny is sitting working on a puzzle and it’s time to get ready for bed. You need to shift his attention off the puzzle and onto you. So, you might sit next to him and start talking about the puzzle. Once he has looked up and met your gaze, and responded, his attention is starting to shift onto you. So, you could say “I see you’re really working hard on that puzzle. When you’re finished, it’s time to go to bed.” 

Shift from a “no” state to a “yes” state

If little Jonny is in a “no” state, “I don’t WANT to go to bed! I’m not tired!!”, start asking him questions that he will say yes to. “Did you have fun at the park today?”, “Do you like ice cream?” “Is Paw Patrol your favourite tv show?” Once he is smiling, nodding, saying yes, meeting your gaze, you have shifted his state from one of defiance to one of cooperation (remember, they can only focus on one thing at a time!). Now is a good time to say, “Let’s start getting ready for bed!”

You direct the bedtime routine 

Having a set routine for bedtime often helps move a child from one activity to the next seamlessly, and it’s perfectly acceptable to offer choices along the way, for example “What pajamas do you want to wear tonight?” or “Do you want to pick 3 books to read?”. Just be careful of overwhelming your routine with too many choices. Ideally, your routine should still be directed and led by you, rather than your preschooler. Remember, we want them to rest in our presence. 

Do you want to know more?

This has been a whistle stop tour of the preschoolers brain! It in no way covers the intricacies of their behaviour and ALL the ways to address it. My hope is that it’s given you a few ideas for keeping your child in close attachment to you, and cooperative at bedtime. 

If you want to read more, I’d highly recommend Rest, Play, Grow by Deborah MacNamara, and you can also check out the parenting courses at the Neufeld Institute. If you want a deep dive into parenting and gaining new skills and techniques, Dr Laura Markham from Aha Parenting runs a fantastic parent course called Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids. It’s a twelve week course that I have repeated twice already, and I found to be really transformational when dealing with my kids. 

Published by Rebecca Scott-Pillai

Rebecca Scott-Pillai is a paediatric sleep consultant and lactaction consultant (IBCLC) based in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. She lives there with her two kids, two cats and dog! With over 20 years experience working with families, Rebecca uses her knowledge and experience to provide collaborative flexible plans for gentle, responsive families.