Renee Chou: Formidably fierce parenting required during the fierce fours

You always hear about the “terrible twos” or the “terrible threes,” but those stages of toddlerhood never lived up to the infamous hype when it came to our daughter Elsa. We easily sailed through what I now fondly recall as the “terrific twos” — the sweet, compliant, easy-to-redirect and eager-to-please phase. As a three-year-old, Elsa started to assert her independence. I would call it the “manageable threes.”

And now we’re four months into age four. I would call this phase the “FIERCE fours” – she’s exhibiting her force of a personality, which amazes and frustrates her mother and father in the process.

Elsa is four going on 14. There is no warning or red flags for Hurricane Elsa. It’s no longer driven by hunger or prompted by a need for nap. The trigger for what upsets her changes with each situation, no matter how I try to anticipate or circumvent it. Inevitably, when we’re having a perfectly nice time together, something will happen — something I said, something I did, or something I didn’t let her do – that causes her to go from zero to a Category 5 in seconds.

Positive, but maddening part of development

The experts say this is a time when kids are simply overwhelmed by emotions and impulses that are bigger than they are. The independence, assertiveness, and defiance they show are positive signs of their development.

But when they’re directed at me or my husband? Or when they’re unleashed just minutes before we are about to leave the house and have somewhere to be? Or during a meal at a restaurant? It can very maddening and extremely difficult to keep cool and stay in control, especially when you as the parent are sleep-deprived, a bit stressed and trying to squeeze a million to-do things in your day.

‘Foo foo head‘

One evening, one of our squabbles turned into a full-scale standoff.

I can’t even remember what prompted it. But Elsa was furious. She stomped her feet. She shook her arms in frustration. She whipped her hair around back and forth. I kept asking her, “What is wrong? Please tell me why you’re upset.”

She was so mad that the words never came, which only added to my frustration. I could see her anger bubbling through her body. Then Elsa GLARED at me, her mouth pursed in anger… and she yelled out, “You’re a crazy foo foo head!”

OK, I’m laughing as I wrote that sentence, but that night, I was not laughing. I was hurt that my four-year-old could look at me with such…. hostility. That was the first time she came up with an insult for me and hurled it at me with all her might.

I had enough. I’m not a yeller. I looked her straight into her enraged eyes, and in a low and deliberate voice, I said, “That is unacceptable behavior. You do NOT call me names. You do not call anyone names. I’m going to leave until you calm down.” And I walked out of her room before I dissolved into a pathetic name-calling battle with my four-year-old.

I then told my husband that he’s going to have to get her ready for bed, because I refused to deal with it anymore. He went into her room to comfort and talk with her, while I tried to simmer down. Several minutes later, he comes to me and says, “She’s crying because she thinks you don’t love her anymore.”

Oh, my heart.

A better parent

I went back into her room, where her eyes were all red and puffy as tears rolled down her cheeks. She saw me and immediately said, “I’m really, really sorry, Mommy. Do you not love me anymore?”

I told my daughter of course I loved her, more than anything else in this world. I asked her when she was mad at me, did she still love me? She nodded. “Same here,” I said. “Even if mommy is upset at how you’re behaving, that doesn’t change how much I love you. That will never, ever change.”

Elsa looked at me and declared, “I will always love you. Forever and ever and ever. Even when I go off to college!” (Yes, we’ve already talked about college. Never too early, right?)

So often I’m focused on trying to get her to be compliant because, admittedly, it would save a whole lot of time and make my life a whole lot easier. I realize these meltdowns and tantrums mean she’s evolving emotionally and socially as she should – and hopefully I’m evolving too.

For me, this phase is teaching me how to be a better parent. One who has more patience; who is more attuned to her feelings; who can let some things go; who is never too busy to comfort, and who looks for ways to make my daughter feel loved and valued. Even on the days when I mess up, when I am far from the perfect parent, my love for her – like her current phase in life—is formidably fierce.

Renee Chou, WRAL-TV morning anchor, is the mother of one. You can find her monthly on Go Ask Mom and all of the time on .