Monday, 22 February 2016

The Terrible Fives

Five years old is a really under-reported age in terms of difficulty. You hear all about the terrible twos, but I am OK with toddlers. Toddlers are fascinated by order and want to understand the world around them... Once you get the hang of breaking things down into what I call Toddler Logic, dealing with toddlers is practically therapeutic.

But five years old? That's different. That's temper. Frustration as they realize the limits of their independence, and suddenly their emotions are getting the better of them again.

My daughter has just hit this magical age.

We have been through this before. When our son turned five, he developed a violent side to his temper. I still have vivid memories of when I announced it was time to leave the space museum and he did his five year old best to beat me up. I ended up carrying him out in a fireman's lift, with him screaming the whole way.

At five, that's manageable, but I'd read things about parents of older children who could not discipline them because the child was physically stronger. (Trade secret: probably 50% of my parenting is driven by abject terror of their teenage years.) So our reaction was to place a complete ban on any physical violence in our house, either in sibling squabbles or parental discipline. It's not accepted, and there will be immediate consequences.

I also refused to take him out again without another adult for over a month afterwards. Eventually, we wrote out an agreement on what behaviour was expected when we were out and how we (parents included!) could be more considerate to each other, which we all signed. (This idea was stolen from a classroom agreement at schoolI am all about plagiarising my kids' teachers.)

Mostly though, it was a case of teaching my son that however angry he got, it would not change the situation. Another vivid memory: my son shrieking at me while I stood next to the calendar. Every time he screamed, I crossed off another day for which there would be no television. I think it was nine days by the time he stopped... Sticking to that wasn't much fun for any of us, but it worked. Since then, I only have to ask him: "What will it take before you listen to me?" and I can see him struggling to master his temper, however resentfully.

The hard part moving on from that is to allow his other resolution techniques to work. As a parent, you really do have absolute power, and absolute power really does corrupt. It's hard for me to express how difficult it is to play 'fair' instead of rationalising to what is convenient for me. This past week, I have been failing miserably.

Fortunately, our daughter is not getting violent, but she is flying into intense rages at the drop of a hat, and this needs to be stopped. Of course, this just happens to coincide with an ongoing bout of insomnia for me. I'm exhausted, my patience is minimal, and my daughter is challenging everything I ask/tell her to do. Tackling the problem head on has never been less appealing.

To procrastinate, I've been trying to allow her a little more independence. One afternoon, I let her make the rules, with the end result that we watched a lot of television and did not go out to enjoy the spell of nice weather as I wanted; not a success. I've let her help out in the kitchen, despite how much stress that adds to the cooking; she sliced into her thumb while chopping a pepper—actually, I'll call that a win, considering it taught both of us that such an event was entirely manageable.

Ultimately, though, I need to just grit my teeth and enforce a code of conduct regarding temper tantrums, insomnia or no insomnia! At least I've got one success story in the form of my son, who is such good company these days. (To be fair to my daughter, she's delightful company too... but only for about five minutes at a time.)

But even with my daughter already, I've got one small success already. My husband was out one night last week and I got into a raging battle with my daughter over the issue of bedtime. Neither of us came out of that looking good, but at the end of it when she was recovering from her tears and I was giving her the Stricken Hug of Maternal Guilt, I said to her: "I love you. Even when I'm angry with you, I still love you."

It was partly rote. I meant it, but it was a case of reminding myself to say it, and I didn't really consider that it would mean anything to her. Yet the next day, she repeated those words back to me, after her daily protest against getting in the car for school. Since then, she's said that sentiment or something similar a few times... I can't say I ever take it too seriously when my daughter calls me "The worst Mummy ever!" but it is ridiculously reassuring to hear she doesn't mean it.

It doesn't change the slog ahead of us, as we work through five year old temper, but both she and I feel a little more secure in the relationship we're fighting for.