The 4-8-12 Phenomenon

There is a very common phenomenon among the children that I see in my office. I call it the “4-8-12” phenomenon although I also call it the “5-7-9” phenomenon and other variations depending on how old the child is. However, these number can be multiplied in many ways as I will explain.

I have been a child psychologist for almost 50 years and continue to see a number of children in my office. It intrigues me that I can still enjoy sitting on the floor with a child, like I did yesterday, as we played marbles on the floor. I thoroughly enjoyed playing marbles with Jacob, as did Jacob himself. I often wonder what it is like for such a child, like Jacob, to go home and engage in video gaming and sibling arguments after we have had such a lovely cooperative/competitive game of marbles.

Most of the children that I see have some kind of “behavioral problem.” In Jacob’s case he has periodic “meltdowns”, usually when he doesn’t get his way, which can be yelling and screaming or throwing and breaking things. I never see these things in my office, but I do see a child who is “immature” in many ways, his immaturity showing in great difficult with losing, but more importantly, great difficulty in now getting what he wants. Jacob is eight; hence the “8” in the 4-8-12 phenomenon. Importantly, and in a way…”unfortunately,” Jacob is very bright. His IQ puts him on a par with someone who is about 11 or 12. He has good abstract reasoning, which is the heart of intelligence. He can figure things out. He likes math a lot and does well in it. He is less interested in some aspects of language arts, especially writing. Because his abstract reasoning is so high, his intellectual ability is about that of a 12-year old; hence the “12” in the “4-8-12” phenomenon. What about the “4” element in this 4-8-12 phenomenon

Jacob’s penmanship is pretty sloppy, quite a bit worse than we would even expect from an eight-year old. But the real problem is not how he writes; it is how he explodes, although sometimes he “explodes” when he can’t seem to write as fast as he thinks. His explosions might be described as coming from an inability to adjust to conflict, particularly the conflict between what he wants and what someone else wants. Jacob’s inability to deal with loss and conflict suggest that his “emotional/social age” is about four; hence the “4” in the “4-8-12” phenomenon. As you can imagine, these age numbers could be 5-7-9, 10-15-20, or any other combination. The key is that the kid is “smarter” than people his age, hence talks like people older than he is, and hence learns to debate and eventually argue like someone older than his age. What I find with these 4-8-12 kids (or 5-7-9, etc.) is that their parents have talked to them at a level above their physical age from the time they began to talk. So when the kid was two, he was talking like a four-year old, and when he was four, he was talking like an eight-year old, and so on. This doesn’t seem so bad on the surface because it seems that if a parent can “reason” with a child, all would be better. Talking and reasoning is much better than saying something like, “…because I said so” and certainly better than punishment. Right? Wrong.

The problem with 4-8-12 kids is that they have not matured emotionally, and have not matured socially. Jacob, like many other bright eight-year olds, walks like an eight-year old, talks like a 12-year old, and feels like a four-year old. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he feels absolutely awful. Likewise, when he loses a game, he feels completely awful. This awfulness is a four-year old phenomenon, not an eight-year old phenomenon, and certainly not a 12-year old phenomenon. You can’t argue with a four-year old. You certainly can’t debate with a four-year old.

By the way, an argument is a debate plus emotion. I often suggest that when people discuss things, they separate emotion from facts and begin with emotion. You can’t do both at the same time. So when a parent is arguing with a four-year old, whatever the chronological age of the child, that parent is engaging an activity that is not reasonable for any child, much less a four-year old child. “Starting with emotion” means allowing emotional expressions without much restraint. If a child of four is also four intellectually, that child will express extreme emotions. She will say things like, “I hate you,” “I want to kill you,” “Nobody loves me,” or even, “I want to die.” Some kids rage without words. Other kids swear in whatever language they have learned. So expressing emotion is good, but it is not the same as dealing with facts. So I ask parents to separate the emotion and fact and allow for the emotion first. Most of the time this functionally means, “I don’t get what I want and I hate the world.” This emotion. It is not fact.

So the 4-8-12 kid is in a difficult place. He has the body of someone eight, the mind (more accurately the brain) of a 12-year old, but he has the emotional development of a four-year old, and hence the social development of a four-year old. Emotional development means that one knows one’s feelings and adequately expresses one’s feelings. Furthermore, by the time a child is eight, the child should have added the ability to contain these feelings, i.e. not insist on expressing his feelings all the time. A lack of social development means that the eight-year old Jacob sees the world of people the way a four-year old sees the world, namely, a world of people who serve him…or don’t serve him. So the world for this four-year old is wonderful or awful depending on how much he gets of what he wants.

The real world of a four-year old (or perhaps as young as three and as old as five normally), is one in which the child gets very little of what she wants. She got most of what she wanted when she was 0-3, but pretty soon she wanted more and more and seemed to get less and less. She got “less” because she wanted more. So these 3-5 years are fraught with a great deal of frustration, disappointment, and anger. These are crucial years for a child to get the idea in her head that she doesn’t get most of what she wants. This is a lesson that many people seem never to learn, but it is a very important part of getting through the 3-5 years when I want more and more and get less and less of what I want. Actually, I get more of what I want, but because I want so much more, the percentage of getting what I want decreases from about 75% at age two to about 10% at age four. Raise a child right, i.e. with lots of limitations and “no’s”, and children who are five or six come into the school years prepared to share, lose, and face limits. The 4-8-12 child has not learned that lesson.

So what is there to do with the 4-8-12 child? The answer is quite simple…but also difficult. The answer is what I tell parents of these kids: “limit, limit, and limit;” I also recommend “100 no’s for every yes.” This is what we should be doing with four-year olds: limiting and no-ing. Few parents seem to know how to do this. Reasoning is fine…for a 12-year old, and to some degree for an 8-year old, but not for a 4-year old. The four-year old needs primarily to learn that she doesn’t get most of what she wants. And that is very hard on her. But it also builds character, something that is lacking in many children and many adults. So if you have a 4-8-12 child in your home, or any other such combination, I suggest you love the child completely, value the child for her intellectual ability, and treat the child the way you would treat any four-year old: limiting.

Limiting, by the way, is not punishing. In fact, the more you limit, the less you will have to punish. Furthermore, punishment is usually too late because it comes after some kind of fruitless argument or outrageous behavior, and never really helps. Neither does reward help. Many parents tell me the same thing: it seems that neither rewards nor punishment seem to help with Johnny. Of course not. Johnny is four years old emotionally, not eight, and certainly not 12 where rewards and punishment might be better motivators. But not for four-year olds. Children of an emotional age of four need limitation, not rewards for “good” behavior or punishment for “bad” behavior. They simply need to learn that they don’t get most of what they want. There is no explaining to a four-year old why he can’t have everything he wants, nor should there be explaining. Explaining is for a 12-year old, or to some degree an 8-year old.

The limiting I am suggesting should be done sans words…except “no.” No explanations and no justifications. And no punishments. A four-year old child shouldn’t be punished for raging. Perhaps if the raging turns into physical damage, then there might be some further limitation…but still no words. This is very hard to do. After explaining this process to parents with their beginning to understand the concept of limitations, it is interesting that these same parents go right into “talking” to their child as they leave my office, instructing the child to “not touch” or something. I advise against all of this instruction. Just limitation.

This limitation usually means some kind of physicality. I do not mean spanking or hitting. I am not completely opposed to the rare swat, but it should be rare…very rare. In place of hitting, and in place of talking, I suggest holding the child, moving the child, taking the child by the hand, and picking up the child. Unfortunately, this is a lot easier to do with a chronologically four-year old than an eight-year old, much less a 12-year old who is acting like a four-year old. It takes some real practice to be “physical” with a child and not be punitive. What parents find when they stop talking, threatening, arguing, and yelling, is that they need to be more physical. What is even more interesting is that children respond favorably to physical limitation. When a child is limited, he feels safe. Thus, if you are even carrying Jennifer to her room while she is screaming and crying, she feels that she is safe in your arms. It doesn’t matter that she says she hates you. What matters is that she doesn’t get her way.

Limitation (not punishment) needs to be immediate, severe, and short. This means “grounding” for a year doesn’t work. It doesn’t even work for a week or a day. It is too punitive, and it is too long. “Severe” means that it restrains the child from doing anything that she wants. There is no mediating and discussing. She just doesn’t get to watch TV, be with the puppy, or sit at the dinner table. She is in her room. And you might have to stay in her room (without talking) for a while, or you might have to hold her for a while. “Immediate” means right now. Not at the second infraction; at the first infraction. No threatening; no saying, “One more time and…” none of that. Immediate, severe, and short. As short as possible. Perhaps just a few minutes, and rarely longer than 15 minutes. There is no scaling the limitation to the level of the crime. Big infractions don’t need to have big limitations.

Ron Johnson