Here's why your 4 year old's behaviour is out of control - by Allana Robinson; Parenting coach

Feb 01, 2022

Most parents find it easier to cope with their children’s challenging behaviour when they understand exactly why it’s happening. Having an empathetic point of view will help to stop you from losing your temper so you can help your child work through their feelings in a more positive way.

With this in mind, today I’d like to introduce you to the Limbic Leap™️. This is a term I came up with to describe the transitional period that kids go through around the age of four due to development in the limbic system of the brain.

“But what is the limbic system?”

Before we look further at the Limbic Leap™️ and how it might affect your child, you need to have an understanding of the different areas of the brain and what they do.

The limbic system is a part of your brain that deals with three things: emotions, memory, and safety.

There are several sections of the brain that make up the limbic system, including the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus.

You can think of the limbic system as a bridge connecting our lower-level primitive brain functions with higher mental functions like thinking, language, and knowledge.

When we’re talking about the Limbic Leap™️, our main focus is the amygdala. Many parents find that when their children reach the age of four, their behaviour becomes extremely challenging, almost out of the blue.

At this age, kids are becoming more independent and they can communicate well and manage a lot of self-care. Then- The Limbic Leap™️ hits!

If you have a four or five-year-old, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about- you start to notice that your child is suddenly very emotional about everything, getting tearful and angry at the slightest change.

It may even seem like your child is regressing and suddenly can’t do things they’ve been doing independently for years. Putting their toy in the wrong place? Makes you the WORST PARENT EVER!

This phase can cause a lot of stress for the whole family, not least the child affected, who seems to be taking everything as a personal attack. You’ll probably find that your child can’t even tell you why they’re upset. This is a clear sign of stress behaviour rather than misbehaviour.

So what exactly is going on here?

Once children hit the age of four there are often a lot of changes going on in their life. Many parents attribute this dramatic change in behaviour as a response to starting kindergarten or their baby sibling getting more attention.

It’s true, changes in expectation and routine can cause behaviour changes, but the main reason behind this over-the-top emotional response is not that they’re struggling with the transition, but rather, it’s because they’re going through the Limbic Leap™️.

Let’s explore this in a little more detail. If you study charts of the brain in growing children, you’ll see there’s a rapid period of growth in the amygdala, right around four years of age.

There’s a huge amount of activity going on in this one area of the brain. This means that, for a time, the electrical signals in the brain are sort of misfiring and causing dysregulation.

You have to remember that the brain is basically an electrical system. This is exactly what’s happening when your child’s brain is growing new neurons and synapses, and it makes the amygdala hyper-sensitive and alert to any kind of stimuli.

Essentially, your four-year-old’s brain is triggering the fight or flight response for all sorts of things that aren’t real threats. Just like a home alarm system that hasn’t been configured properly and goes off every time a leaf falls on the lawn, your child is on high alert, and their “alarm” is getting set off by the slightest new or unexpected thing.

Depending on the child, the Limbic Leap™️ can last anywhere from a few months to an entire year, or even longer.

“So how do we manage this?”

The most effective thing you can do as a parent is to keep to a consistent and predictable routine to help your child to feel as safe as possible.

Work together with children on skills to help them calm down when they’re feeling stressed. This is more empathetic, and it’s more effective too!

If this sounds familiar to you and you’ve just realized your child is likely going through the Limbic Leap™ - I encourage you to come find us in the Parenting Posse Facebook group, or join us for a free parenting class for more brain-based ways to reduce stress and build skills!


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