“What did you do today at camp?”
“I was drooling”.
“Drooling? Um, ok.”
“Oh wait, do you mean you were drilling things?”
“Yeah, drooling! I was drooling today. Like I said!”
My eldest child is caring, smart, curious, stubborn, strong-willed, persistent and highly entertaining. He has the potential to be an amazing adult as he grows. I catch glimpses of that kind, thoughtful and loving person every day. He can be the first to run and comfort his little brother or sneak him food. Stands guard against others bothering him. Tells him how cute he is and held his hand as he took his early wobbling steps.
I’ve always believed in my kids contributing to the household chores. Admittedly at four years old he still adds more work to my plate than he takes away. Still, he’s generally amenable to assisting with daily chores. We work together as a team to clear the dishwasher, put away laundry or set the table. It’s not his fault if we’re late to start the evening tidy up – knowing full well that enthusiasm for putting away toys drops relative to hunger and tiredness levels.
His excitement for simple activities knows no bounds. He will spend an hour constructing elaborate games with little intervention required. He’s a fountain of information on all sorts of topics. Often he is found intently perusing books as if panning for gold nuggets of knowledge within their pages. His endless curiosity leads him to learn more than I might expect him to be capable of at this age. He knows his own mind and likes to watch out for his friends and family to make sure they’re ok.
Yet he’s also very hard work. Of all the ages so far, four has been the most difficult for us. A combination of external and internal forces have made it a real struggle to help him manage his ups and downs. In his fourth year of life he has had to adjust to the reality of a new sibling. He is no long the centre of our family’s attention and has to compete for the attention he craves. He started preschool (and abruptly ended it after all the turmoil of settling in). He now lives in a new country. He moved house. Twice. We’re learning a new language. Exploring new social circles. It’s a lot of change for a young child and he’s been amazingly resilient and positive for the most part.
Sometimes, though, I forget that he is four years old. Only four years old. As mature and helpful as he can be, he is also not. He rebels against any attempts to control what he does or doesn’t do. He is frustrated and furious at the real and imagined injustices he suffers. At three the tantrums and turmoil were regular and predictable. Even if the level of anger on display could be worrying it was a case of sticking around and helping him ride them out. At four we’ve reached new heights of frustration. The physical demonstrations of his anger are more intense. It feels like we’re going backwards.
While he can more easily verbalise that he’s feeling angry, the ability to process any kind of logic fails him during a meltdown. Meltdowns that are increasingly common. Ones where he can argue against what he’s being told better, but can’t empathise or listen to any reasonable attempt to calm the situation down. He’s utterly out of control and lashes out indiscriminately trying to find a way to make others feel exactly the same kind of anger.
At least a couple of times a day he flips into self-destructive mode. No matter how pleasant the day was up until this point. In fact just when you’re conned into thinking that the day has been going relatively well he’ll blow up in your face. He actively seeks to irritate and annoy anyone around him. He stomps and kicks, and prods and pulls. He bangs and shouts. “I don’t like you!” he screams. His manner becomes frantic, manic. He shakes with unsuppressed rage at the world.
He’s desperate to convey just how angry he is. How upset. How tired of, or just at odds with the world. No amount of empathy or unconditional sympathy will sway him. He pushes and pushes until he achieves his goal of triggering someone else into meltdown mode themselves. He drags everyone down to his level and the incident escalates with no end in sight. Remaining calm only inspires him to new levels of rage.
Then abruptly it passes. He flips back to normality, ready to move on. Back to an average level of whining and complaining. He runs off to play with a toy and clumsily prances about, freed of his demons. Leaving the rest of us exhausted, sitting in the dregs of his discontent.
This is Four. Exhilarating highs. Devastating lows. The everything in between.