Q: I've seen lots of articles about dealing with older children's reactions to stay-at-home situations, but nothing for 3- to 4-year-olds. My grandson, who is almost 4, is too young to understand why he can't go to preschool, play with his friends or visit his grandparents until the "germies" go away. Even when we do FaceTime, it can take him 20 minutes or more to decompress because he can't see us in person. He has even gone backward in toileting routines, which isn't pleasant. How can we help our wild child (and his parents, who are stuck with this behavior 24/7)?
A: Thank you for being a caring grandparent. Although most of the attention is paid to parents during this crisis (and understandably so), grandparents are facing their own challenges. Often isolated and unable to help the family they love, many grandparents are left feeling helpless and hopeless. Not to mention, it is so hard to not physically squeeze your precious grandchildren during this strange and awful time. Challenges are at every turn for parents and grandparents alike.
A 4-year-old's mind is filled with both strong willfulness and magic. At this age, children want to express their opinions and be taken seriously, and they may also believe in the tooth fairy. Four-year-olds seek some independence, which is why they flourish in a supportive preschool, and they rely on routine to make them feel safe. They can spend some time apart from their attachments (parents, grandparents), but they do become needy for their special people. Four-year-olds can begin to express what is in their hearts and minds, but they are quite easily hijacked by their big emotions and can have a meltdown.
Take this already emotional time in a child's life, and now turn his routine on its head. Gone is the morning routine, seeing his teacher and friends, and participating in activities. Add to this his inability to blow off steam at parks or with other children, the inexplicable fact that he is in the house all day, and most of all, extra technology and screens. Behavior is going to go south.
A 4-year-old isn't mature enough to handle this change well, and because he cannot verbalize his big feelings, his body compensates for the emotional upheaval. Like adults, 4-year-olds will have trouble with digestion and sleep, but in your grandson's case, toileting. This is not the time to double-down on young children, create threats or rules, or endlessly talk about it. It is an unconscious worry in the child, and there is no amount of logic that will fix it, so buy some pull-ups, put some potties around the house, and get ready for extra laundry.
As for how else you can help a 4-year-old who is feeling dysregulated, I am going to recommend movement, being outside and true play. I know that parents are over a barrel these days, what with work, kids and anxiety, but a child's body is meant to run. A child's body is meant to play, and it is definitely meant to be outside. If you get all three to happen in one day, awesome, but even one will go a long way toward helping a 4-year-old to feel tired, safe and less wired from screens.
Finally, how can you help your family as a grandparent? Be an empathic and listening supporter. Because there is nothing you can safely do in person, please offer the shoulder to cry on, the quiet support and the cheerleading that every parent needs these days. Keep reminding the family that this will pass, 4-year-olds can be tough, and he will toilet typically again. And when in doubt, just stay quiet.
As for small gestures, have dinner sent over via delivery, because dinnertime is especially hellacious for parents of young children these days, or have groceries sent. Drop off your favorite cookies or homemade bread. Mail coloring books, easy puzzles or Play-Doh. Send a subscription box meant for 4-year-olds; I love Jambo Book Club (jambobooks.com), which specializes in multicultural books. Mail an old-fashioned letter to your grandson, filled with pictures of when he was a baby, but don't expect much in return. Just do it because children love to receive things. Don't push FaceTime (because it isn't working for the 4-year-old), but do exchange pictures with his parents via text. This will pass, keep the faith, and good luck.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.