Many parents find themselves in the situation where they feel like they put an innocent child to bed one night and wake to find an unexpectedly mature little person the next morning. We ask an expert child psychologist how to copy with this speedy development in four- and five-year-olds, and what parents can do to support it.
From birth, the mental, physical, social and linguistic changes occurring in our children are incredible. Parents frequently ask whether their child’s questions are “normal”, worried that their little ones seem to be behaving “older” than usual. While most changes are completely normal, parents may not be truly prepared for how early children develop a mature outlook.
By the age of four or five, children develop Theory of Mind (ToM), which is the innate ability to understand that others have desires, beliefs and intentions that differ from one’s own. Prior to this, in the preschool years, children tend to be in a blissfully simple and danger-free world, which consists mainly of fairy dust and Santa Claus. They tend to believe what their parents say, and they (mostly) follow their instructions without questioning. When children develop ToM, they tend to “wake up” from their magical world; they begin to question their parents, other adults, daily routines and concepts like Santa Claus.
Children at this stage attempt to imitate their notion of mature or “adult-like” behaviour through play, and even incorporate gender-specific roles, such as pretending to bake cupcakes like Mummy does. They become more aware of their surroundings, and the people in them. It dawns on them that gender differences are clear-cut, and that specific expectations such as “boys don’t cry” exist.
It is pivotal for children to feel safe and secure in their family unit while this development is occurring. We adopt the following strategies at IIS, and encourage parents to continue them at home:
1. Stay calm and welcome change. Change can create emotional stress for children and parents alike, and most people require some time to adjust. Remember that change is the way children hit the developmental milestones we want them to accomplish.
2. Treat every change as a teachable moment. Welcoming change and maturation helps children, and parents, establish a clearer sense of personal identity and emotional strength. Children who are allowed to experiment with life’s fascinating experiences tend to develop greater independence, self-respect, discipline and confidence.
3. Monitor the child’s adjustment ability. Parents need to be able to identify good and bad change. Children who are overwhelmed and do not have the ability to cope with some environmental or even biological changes can become testy, combative or withdrawn. Symptoms such as susceptibility to colds and flus, stress-related habits such as nail-biting, sleep disturbances and later on a drop in school performance (in school-aged children), for example, may signal that the child needs parental, or even professional support.
4. Allow children to ask questions – and yes, even to challenge you. Students who are allowed to question teachers, theories and concepts are exposed to broader experiences, which encourage innovative skills, flexibility and problem-solving abilities.