The Limbic Leap™ 

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.

Most parents find it easier to cope with their children’s challenging behaviour when they understand exactly what’s causing it and why it’s happening. When you know your kid is misbehaving for a very good reason (whether that’s physical, emotional, or environmental), you can see things from their side. This empathetic point of view will, in turn, help to stop you from losing your temper so you can help your child work through their feelings in a more positive way.

So, with this in mind, today we’re going to be talking about the Limbic Leap™ . This isn’t an official term, so don’t go Googling it – you’re unlikely to find anything useful! This is a term I came up with to describe the transitional period that kids go through at around the age of four due to development in the limbic system of the brain.

The Limbic System Explained

“But what is the limbic system?” I hear you cry – sit tight, all will be explained shortly.

Before we go into what exactly the Limbic Leap™ is and how it might affect your child, you need to have an understanding of the different physical areas of the brain and what they do.

The limbic system is a part of your brain that deals with three main things: emotions, memory, and arousal.

There are several sections of the brain that make up the limbic system, including the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus.

You can think of the limbic system as being a sort of bridge connecting our lower-level primitive brain functions with higher mental functions such as thinking, analyzing, and evaluating.

When we’re talking about the Limbic Leap™ , it mostly concerns the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that takes over when we might be in danger to trigger the “flight or fight” response. You can think of it as being the brain’s built-in security system.

What Is The Limbic Leap™ ?

So this brings us to the Limbic Leap™ . Many parents find that when their children reach the age of four, their behaviour suddenly becomes extremely challenging, almost out of the blue.

At this age, kids are becoming more independent – they’re definitely not toddlers anymore, and they can communicate well and manage a lot of self-care. Because of this, a lot of parents feel they’re finally through the challenging toddler phase, and then BAM! The Limbic Leap™ hits!

If you have a four or five-year-old, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about here. Many parents with a child around the age of four start to notice that their child is suddenly very emotional about everything, getting tearful and angry at the slightest thing.

This behaviour can be extremely puzzling and distressing for parents, and it may even seem like your child is regressing and suddenly can’t do things they’ve been doing independently for years. Tying shoelaces becomes a mammoth task. Being told to fetch their own glass of water makes them collapse on the floor sobbing. Putting their toy in the wrong place makes you the WORST PARENT EVER!

As you might imagine, this phase can cause a lot of stress for the whole family, not least the child in question, who seems to be taking everything as a personal attack. You’ll probably find that your child can’t even tell why they’re upset, which is a clear sign of stress behaviour rather than misbehaviour.

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The Emotional Effect of The Limbic Leap™

So what exactly is going on here?

There’s often a lot of change going on in children’s lives once they hit the age of four, and so many parents automatically assume this dramatic change in behaviour is a response to starting kindergarten or their baby sibling getting more attention.

Yes, it’s true, changes in expectation and routine can cause behaviour changes, but the main reason behind this over-the-top emotional response is not that they’re struggling with the transition, but rather, it’s because they’re going through the Limbic Leap™ .

Let’s explore this in a little more detail. If you study charts of the brain in growing children, you’ll see there’s a rapid period of growth in the amygdala, right around four years of age.

There’s a huge amount of activity going on in this one area of the brain at this time. The brain is growing neurons and synapses almost too quickly for it to keep up. This means that, for a time, the electrical signals in the brain are sort of misfiring and being thrown out of whack.

You have to remember that the brain is basically an electrical system. Neurons fire an electrical impulse to send messages to where they need to go.

Now imagine trying to rewire your house without turning the power off first. You’d end up with crossed wires, sparks flying, and electricity going all over the place. This is exactly what’s happening when your child’s brain is growing new neurons and synapses, and it makes the amygdala hyper-sensitive and alert to any kind of stimuli.

Essentially, your four-year-old’s brain is triggering the fight or flight response for all sorts of things that aren’t real threats. Just like a home alarm system that hasn’t been configured properly and goes off every time a leaf falls on the lawn, your child is on high alert, and their “alarm” is getting set off by the slightest thing.

Helping Your Child Through The Limbic Leap™

Depending on the child, the Limbic Leap™ can last anywhere from a few months to an entire year, or even longer.

This period can be extremely challenging for both the parent and the child. The most effective thing you can do as a parent is to keep to a consistent and predictable routine and help your child to feel as safe as possible.

Work together with them on skills to help them calm down when they’re feeling stressed. Talk very calmly with them to figure out why something triggered an emotional response. Practice good breathing habits.

Above all, cut your kid some slack! Due to everything going on in the brain at this time, four-year-olds are inherently stressed due to being on high alert. Many parents scoff at the idea that a four-year-old has anything to be stressed about, but at this age, anything can be a stressor. We’ve discussed this before; anything that causes energy expenditure is a stressor, and at this age, children will be spending most of their energy trying to regulate their brain’s hypervigilance.

Being stressed is exhausting, as you probably know! So, make things as easy on your child as you can. This doesn’t mean letting our kids be rude and run around doing whatever they want. But try to have realistic expectations: Don’t expect your four-year-old to sit quietly and be polite for a 3-hour visit with Aunt Mildred, because they physically can’t!

Look for ways you can help your child to calm down and deal with stress. Focus on reducing stressful situations, rather than just dealing with the surface symptomatic behaviour. This is more empathetic, and it’s more effective too!

I’d love to know if any of this sounds familiar to you. Maybe you’ve just realized your child is going through the Limbic Leap™ right now. See if you can change your response to their behaviour, and take note of how this affects your child’s emotions and the overall stress levels in your household. Drop me a note in the comments to let me know your thoughts!

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37 thoughts on “The Limbic Leap™ ”

  1. This is so well written and understandable! Ty I really had no idea that’s what it was. My kids are all grown now but I distinctly remember how difficult those years were. Great read!

    1. Can these happen around 5?! My daughter was 5 in June and while the emotions have been slowly building she’s suddenly been going through a phase of needing to confess everything she has ever done that may be “ wrong” ie – putting a toy in her mouth
      Also she’s begun having what she calls sudden thoughts that pop into her head – some intrusive some just very random

      1. It can, kids aren’t robots- they don’t level up. 4 is just the typical time for it to happen. We also go through small limbic leaps our whole life- this is just the grand Daddy one. But the smaller ones tend to pass in a month at most. If she’s typically on the back end of the bell-curve milestone wise, it’s very possible she’s just hitting it later than most!

      2. My daughter turned 5 in June too and I’m experiencing this EXACT same thing! Confessions about things she thinks she’s done wrong, thinking she’s a bad kid. Intrusive thoughts that are really alarming. I’m sorry that you’re experiencing this too, but I have to say it is a relief to know that there are others out there who may relate.

        1. Thank you so much for this information, my daughter is 4 turning 5 in January and she is 100% going through this right now and has been for a while now.
          She cry’s at absolutely everything and sometimes she even says she doesn’t k ow why she is crying, I do breathing techniques with her to help her but it has been becoming extremely stressful for me and especially her at late as it’s been getting worse.
          I was worried this emotional child she has become was how she would be moving forward, I feel so much better after reading your article and this will help me deal with the situations better now I understand why they are happening

  2. Jecyrina Nagarajah

    Thanks for the article. Sounded like you’ve just described my daughter. She just turned 4 in June. Everything and anything, even the smallest of thing can trigger a massive meltdown. Will have to read up more on this before she drives us all crazy!

  3. This right here. Thank you for writing this. I’m not crazy. Now I feel terrible and wish I was more prepared and understanding of my daughter. She’s in the storm of this leap, so now I understand what’s happening. I can help her calm down more. She’s not ignoring me to be defiant, these kids go through so much. So glad I came to read this.

  4. My 3 yr old grandson (will be 4 November 2021) has been having behavior issues. He just started preschool with very little peer socialization because of Covid. He has had an initial evaluation and is average or above average in many areas, however has emotional, social and behavioral issues. The evaluator said he may have an enlarged amygala. I’m doing research to get more information on how to help him at this age and have mostly found helping him to learn mindfullness and breathing techniques. Mom is already doing these things. I’m wondering if you have any other suggestions or sites to give us more ideas on how to help him. Thank you.

    1. Hi Lori,

      Regulation doesn’t always look zen- and while the mindfulness and breathing techniques certainly can’t hurt- chances are they aren’t going to solve the dysregulation problem.

      I can’t tell you anything specific based off that brief description, but I would like to invite you to my free class that explains how stress, executive skills, and critical thinking all work together to make (or break) good behaviour. He’s heading into this limbic leap- so enlarged amygdala or not (what an odd speculation to make without an CAT scan or MRI) he’s going to be exhibiting these symptoms.

      If you’d like to join the free class we run it daily here: allanarobinson.com/freeclass

  5. My daughter turned four in November and suddenly over the last week or so she can’t make a decision and gets upset over it. Where as before she would always know what she wants. If she has options she has a melt down over it and says I just don’t know and gets herself worked up. Do you think this is all part of this leap? She’s even gone off chocolate and treats which before she would scoff it’s like she’s worried about missing out on another treat? I’ve gone with the route of have a think about it and let me know when your ready or mummy can decide for you. But it’s hard very stressful for both sides when before she knew exactly what she wanted xx

    1. Hey! My 4year old has that too!! She was pretty mellow before, but towards her 4th birthday She started struggling with decision and Things would push her over her Limit SO quickly I started to worry and contacted a counselor. This article was honestly more useful than that session. She got a bit Better with decisions, She’s going to be 5 in 4months.

  6. When I tell you finding this helped me realize I’m not a terrible parent and my kid isn’t a terrible child, I mean it! She turned 4 in November, and it was like a switch flipped. I feel so sorry for her while at the same time wanting to pull my hair out. I paid attention to the Wonder Weeks throughout both my kids’ development as babies and it helped keep me sane. When this started happening recently, I googled “is there a 4-year-old leap” and thankfully pulled up this. Such good information.

    1. Oh I’m so glad!! Yeah, it’s really like a switch for some kids. And it stops just as suddenly. Unfortunately, unlike infants…it’s like a year long thing. God speed, Mama.

  7. This sounds exactly like my son. He was 4 in October and EVERYTHING, literally everything causes him to have meltdowns. He sobbed this morning that he was too tired for pre school. His reactions are so emotional and even his pre school have noticed. We have lots of cuddles to try and calm down but it doesn’t always work. His behaviour is exhausting 🙁 poor boy xx

  8. Thank you, so incredibly helpful. We have literally just hit this phase, it might last a year or longer you say – crickey that feels like a VERY long time. Kindness and loads of patience required not just for my wee boy but for myself and my partner too. Exhale! We got this! Super helpful info, thank you.

    1. Allana Robinson

      It does feel like a very long time. Not going to lie. But, it’s really cool when they come out the other side. You’ve got this!

  9. Thank you so much for this. As others have said, I too saw a sudden drastic change that actually came on immediately following a high fever (virus that baby sister also caught), and we were actually wondering about brain swelling from that but this sounds more like it. We also pulled her out of part time preschool, thinking that was a factor. She drastically improved for a month, immediately when we stopped school but is now struggling again. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Can it fluctuate like this? Also, she’s been having crazy dreams and sleep disturbances, even becoming aggressive to us sleeping next to her. Does this also fit the bill? Thank you so much!

    1. Allana Robinson

      It all fits the bill. Pulling her out of school likely freed up some energy and made her world a bit more predictable and consistent for a time, which is likely why it improved. The leap does wax and wane throughout the year- it’s not full tilt all the time. Any kind of change- anything new or unexpected or sudden is going to trigger that “I could die” response, which sounds exactly what’s going on here. Changes are causing issues. We need what feels like a rather ridiculous level of consistency through this leap.

  10. Thank you for this! Our daughter turned 4 in November and the last month has been brutal. Our sweet sweet girl has been extremely disrespectful to dad, it’s like everything he does or says to her makes her scream and meltdown. Everything. Poor daddy. If it’s not her choice then it’s a meltdown. It’s so so hard. Is the choosing to battle with one parent over the other common with this leap? What about screaming and tantrums over the randomest things at the drop if a hat? I truly hope our loving daughter comes out of this.

    1. Allana Robinson

      Im glad it was helpful! Yeah, it’s pretty typical. 4 year olds are also going into a gender-affirming stage where they affirm their gender identity based on what they aren’t. I’m a girl because I’m not a boy. And part of that is rejecting anything “boyish”…often including Dad. Choose some things that are “Dad’s job” and don’t save her from him during those routines. A popular is bath time. The screaming and tantrums at the random stuff is the perceived danger she’s alerting to. Anything new or unexpected is going to feel like it’s going to kill her- literally. Mind-numbing levels of predictability.

      1. O wow this article has been so helpful. It was as if you were describing my son. Being a Kindergarten (Grade R in RSA)teacher for almost 20yrs , I thought parenting would be so easy. My son’s behavior has been frustrating for me.Looking forward to reading more of your articles.

  11. Is it possible for this to start closer to 3.5 in a highly emotional/advanced kid? I pray so, because I can’t imagine it getting even worse. She’s extremely anxious, pouty, and demanding. Thankfully, there have been great days along with the bad. We’re about to start daily swim lessons and then go to our road-trip/summer home/vacation for a month (the month before age 4) and I’m slightly terrified that the extra energy needed and unpredictability will throw us into a tailspin. Hopefully we can help her through with extra sleep, good foods, and heaps of grace.

    1. Allana Robinson

      Yeah, 4 is just the average age it hits. Little girls and kids who tend to be “ahead” on their bell-curve of development do tend to hit it earlier than others. Even within new experiences and environments you can create a lot of predictability and consistency!

  12. This was really fascinating to read as it fits with our son’s current presentation-he’s usually so calm! He’s only 3yrs + 2months though. His language has always been advanced (approx 18months-2yrs) and his thinking skills are also quite above his age but I believe his social skills are more in line with his chronological age. Is it possible this leap can happen earlier than 4 years? Or perhaps it’s just a ‘regular’ developmental leap… He recently had tonsils and adenoids out and the ENT said a growth spurt following is likely due to improved sleep quality. We didn’t expect something quite this emotionally insane!! Any thoughts? Thanks!

    1. Allana Robinson

      So we have limbic leaps our whole lives…the one around 4 is just what I refer to as the “granddaddy” one…the BIG’UN. It’s the most intense and the longest lasting. What you’re experiencing is most likely a smaller, shorter-lived one. Usually they’re a monthish long and then things settle down again. It can certainly happen, but usually kids who truly hit it early are between 3.5 and 4…not so much in the first 6 mos of 3. The same concepts apply- MIND NUMBING consistency and predictability!

  13. To my mind, it’s just wrong that people are plunged into parenthood with no training whatsoever. I was mostly lucky with my instincts but I definitely had these challenges. Eldest turned from saint to such a little monster, it nearly broke our beautiful bond. Youngest shrieked like a banshee at the least thing. Stressful doesn’t do it justice. The banshee now has an unpredictable four-year-old and just found this article, which has been a game changer for her. It should be taught in prenatal classes.

    1. Allana Robinson

      Nana, think back to being a new Mom. Were you worried about what your baby would be doing at age 4 at that moment? Nope. You were busy preparing for birth. Most parents don’t even consider what’s coming down the pipe- beyond the knowledge that they do in fact need material supplies for this kid. I fully agree with you that these things need to be taught- which is why I teach it! But overwhelming new parents with information far in advance of them needing it isn’t the solution. I’m so glad your daughter found this article when she needed it- please do encourage her to attend my free class (or maybe do it together over a cup of coffee and some baked goods?) as she needs more support!

  14. My 3 years a 7 month old daughters behaviour has recently become really challenging. Her speech etc is advanced for her age, never had her assessed in anyway, but can tell v other kids her age. Very emotional, naughty, horrible to her dad for no reason and hyper clingy to me, she just screams carry me constantly and has the worlds biggest meltdown if I don’t stand up and carry her, even if she’s sat on my knee. What can I do, I feel like my house has become a war zone, I figured it was a leap, but struggling to find something that works, any advice appreciated, I’m getting worried I might lose my job as her clinginess is so extreme.

    1. She sounds extremely dysregulated- which means you need to teach her to regulate. Around 3 is when they realize that they are their own person, and that can be absolutely terrifying for them. Combined with the impending limbic leap- it sounds about right. Have you taken the free class that’s linked on this page? I think that would be very helpful for you.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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