The January Jitters

By Tricia Eickelberg

I can always tell it is January by the questions and comments parents and teachers ask --

“I am not sure what’s happening but Jimmy has really been clinging to me lately. Is something wrong?”

“It was really hard for me to get Janie to school today. She has told me recently that she doesn’t like school.”

“I thought that three-year-olds were supposed to be sweet and agreeable. My little one has a real attitude lately!”

Surprise! It is the January Jitters! That is not really a factual statement but more of an observation of what happens frequently at this time of year. It would be nice to blame the change in your child’s manner or behavior on the weather or the recent vacation time. Unfortunately, it is more than likely that you are noticing the changes because your child is taking the one or two steps backward before the big leap forward in development.

Dr. Arnold Gesell, one of the pioneers in the study of child development, attributes these steps backwards as periods of disequilibrium. Whether you have a three-, four-, five- or six-year-old, your child will go through periods of calm, content equilibrium followed by contrary, questioning disequilibrium. It is a natural process and is often followed by a growth spurt or newfound ability. I am sure you all had times when your newborn baby seemed to finally settle into a routine or seemed calmer and more easily pacified. Just when you’d figured that out, they would grow or get a new tooth and you would be back at square one. These recent experiences of “what has happened to my wonderful child!?” are similar in many ways. And just as when they were babies, this too shall pass.

While your child may not show any of the following signs, some typical behaviors for three year olds in this period of disequilibrium are refusal to obey, becoming more anxious or insecure, or self-willed and determined. Four-year-olds can become more physical, they experiment with inappropriate language, test authority and have tantrums. Five-year-olds can become hesitant, they dawdle and are indecisive, and can become overly demanding or explosive. At six, you might see defiance or they can become overly sensitive, brash and mischievous.

I am sharing this not to make any of you worry that your lovely child will suddenly become a monster at home, but rather to assure you that if you happen to experience monster-like behavior, you are in good company! And just when you think you will never see that wonderful, sweet, kind child ever again….they shift into equilibrium, grow and are back on track.

For further information on Gesell, I encourage you to browse the website for the Gesell Institute for Human Development, especially their answers to many parent questions. For a good laugh, take a look here, which should put it all in perspective for you!