The Limbic Leap™ 

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

Let’s discuss the Limbic Leap™. 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. (Kliewer, Fearnow, & Miller, 1996)

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. (Lazarus et al., 2016)

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.

Chart showing the rapid growth of the amygdala during the limbic leap.

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. (Mckee et al., 2004)

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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82 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!

        1. My son just turned 4 in July and every sense late August/September he has been so very emotional. What is the hardest for him right now is going to bed. He tries to find all the ways not too. Is there any correlation to the limbic leap and sleep/bedtime?

          He is kicking and screaming and getting very angry in his fight or flight state. We don’t know what to do to help him. Please help us.

          1. Yup, that’s the limbic leap.

            Make sure to get him some good proprioceptive input before bed. It makes all the difference.

        2. I am so relieved to find this article, as I have found myself saying recently that I don’t even know how to parent my 4 year old son anymore.. He is dysregulated at the smallest things constantly, like having any company over (even if it’s very familiar people and family), he doesn’t listen at all anymore to the most simple things we say or ask, he is showing anger/some aggression out of no where, etc. He is way more emotional and quick to yell/have a melt down. He is more defiant than ever and I feel like I lost my sweet little boy. He also is very adamant about not wanting either myself or dad in bed with him at times when he used to want and need us in there every night. I was online trying to find any advice on what to do and stumbled on this page. I really just hope to get a resolution on how I can help him and myself get through this time.

          1. As I say in the article- consistency and predictability go a LONG way towards navigating this time. But also, this leap can highlight a lot of concerns that weren’t big for a toddler, but will be big for a 5+ year old if not addressed. I’d really encourage you to check out my free class at allanarobinson.com/freeclass if you want some more guidance.

      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. Oh my goodness, this makes so much sense! Thank you! I’d been googling all sorts to work out why my almost 4 year old boy has become SO emotional, so sensitive to any direction (he cries and says “you’re telling me off” when I’m really not), screaming repeatedly and even lashing out at his little sister and me, it’s like he’s completely unable to control himself and then suddenly he will be back to normal. It must be the leap!

        3. Glad to have found this article thank you. My son started this and he’s about to turn 4. I wanted to ask are there any knock on effects this would have to his play? His play has become much more physical ie fighting, and lining all his super hero’s up in a row.

          1. Oh yes- none of this happens in a vaccuum. Can you see how, if you’re not sure what is and isn’t dangerous, how appealing superheroes and physical prowess would be to emulate?

    2. This is SO helpful! Thank you! My son is 4 and turning 5 in a couple of weeks and honestly, the last month or so has been SO tough. He loses it at almost anything and it’s just exhausting. I was starting to think maybe he had ADHD as he’s had slight developmental delays with toileting etc but after reading this and all the comments it definitely just sounds like the Limbic leap!

  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!

      1. Thank you for this article! We’ve been going through a very difficult period for the past couple months with our 4.5 year old and it sounds just like this. It felt so inexplicable and confusing and it feels comforting that there may be some normative reason. Is there any research on this you can share? Would love to read up more!

  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

      1. I work in neurology and my exact thought was, why would you say that without imaging? lol. Glad you felt the same way.
        Also, this is very helpful and accessibly written. It has made it easier to share with my family; thank you!!

  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.

        1. My daughter is about to get 4 year old and has developed for the last month a very strong scare of nursery. She also has some of the symptoms described in the article. How do you then reduce the exposure to the stressor if it is the nursery? What can I do to help her? She is having particular anxiety about the noise. Thank you

          1. How can you reduce the noise? Ear defenders? How can you help her feel comfort? A comfort item? Breaks? I don’t know your situation so I can’t effectively answer this question- but if you come join us in ParentAbility we can figure it out together!

  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

      1. My son is 4 and a half and I’m reading this because I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on with him. It started after Christmas break. He is normally a pretty high energy, upbeat kid that loves socialization. But upon going back to school he was very cranky, rude, emotional (crying/angry) and tired. He’s never said he was tired in his life. It’s been a couple of weeks now and he’s not sick lol. He also said he doesn’t want to go to school because he misses me and wants to be with me. Not that he doesn’t like the people there or school – he says he likes the people. There have also been a few instances over the past couple of weeks where I just feel like my toddler is turning into a little boy. I can’t explain it fully but it’s in his expressions and movements – just less toddler, which is kind of sad on my part. He’s also grown recently. So I’m guessing this is all part of it. I’m having him go to bed a bit earlier lately to see if that helps. Fingers crossed.

  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.

  15. Could the limbic leap also cause bad dreams? My 3 year 7 month old daughter (described as verbally and socially advanced) has been having bad dreams every night and is so tired the next day. She’s super clingy to mom, meltsdown at little things, is refusing favorite foods, and insisting she can’t put on her socks/underwear herself. That last one made me think limbic leap, and that maybe the bad dreams are part of it.

    1. Could be. Different kids react differently. Bad dreams tend to come from the hippocampus, though. Which is also growing and in the limbic system- so although it might not be the exact root cause, it could certainly be related.

  16. Thank you for this wonderful insight! My son is naturally a sensitive guy, but the most mellow, chill, loving personality. He turned 4 about 3 months ago. Just recently, he has become extremely emotional about everything little thing. For example, if a commercial comes on during his favorite show or if his baby brother touches his toys. He’s easy to call down at home. I try to acknowledge/validate his feelings and then assure him that I’m here to help him. He usually stops crying within a minute. He’s been showing these behaviors at preschool and he’s also refusing to do some tasks in school like putting on his coat by himself saying he can’t do it and begins to cry. He also does this with wiping his nose. The teacher seems pretty annoyed and is a tough love type. She says she can’t wipe 16 kids’ noses and put on 16 coats. She says when he gets upset she can’t understand him and can’t get him to calm down. She recommended him being evaluated by a doctor, but he was evaluated a month ago and scored in the normal range for cognitive and motor skills, etc. It’s only been a week – 3 days of school – but I’m wondering if she is making it worse for him. I also don’t want him to miss out on enrichment, but I’m considering pulling him out of school over her reaction. He loves school though. I’m so torn and just want to help my son get through this. I was thinking I was wrong for not liking the teacher’s response/reaction, but I honestly just think my kid is a normal kid going through a rough patch.

    1. He sounds typical from your brief description. Sometimes a program just isn’t a good fit for a child. And these old school tough love types generally haven’t had any professional development in a long time- as if they had, they’d realize this approach isn’t supported by evidence. That alone makes me question if children are receiving “enrichment” or if it’s just a stressful situation for them. I know you’ll make the right choice!

    2. My 4 yr old great grandaughter is having these screaming tantrums over everything. Sh has a 2 yr old brother and a new baby sister coming in a few months. Her father is military and they are moving into a new state and home in a week. She has also been slipping on her potty training which complicates things. Any suggestions?

      1. There’s a lot going on there that is exacerbating an already challenging developmental time, Debbie. Her parents are going to need a plan to navigate all that change during a time when change equals danger to her, plus juggling the younger kiddos. I’d encourage them to join my free class, and if they want help coming up with a plan- get in touch so we can work out a strategy to get them through the rough waters and into their new home with as little chaos as possible. As a fellow military spouse- this is not a fun time!

  17. So thankful that this article came up in my google search. The methods I’ve used to deal with my sons tantrums as a toddler haven’t been working now that he’s 4, and the big emotional reactions are for both positive and negative emotions so that really confused me initially. Thanks for posting this! Is there another article that talks at length about some methods for responding to this phase? Or is it only schedule, flexibility in expectations and trying to stay calm for them?

    1. Those are the general strategies, yes. If you want more personalized support through this phase- my ParentAbility program would be the right fit!

  18. This sounds like what my new four year old must be going through. She is very emotional about separations and is suddenly scared of being around cars. I’m scared how I’m going to handle it because I’m having my second baby in a couple of months.

    1. It can be a very stressful time for everyone. Congratulations on the new baby! If you’d like personalized support with this as you go through this transition, consider joining us in PA!

      1. This was a very informative and great article. This describes my 4 year old to a T. We also have added sensory issues and he’s on the ASD spectrum so we’ve been having trouble trying to understand what was triggering these intense emotions. He works with an OT, speech language pathologist, special education teacher and BCBA and we were all struggling to understand this unusual behavior for him. Especially, as he seemed to be improving 6 months ago with coping with his emotions and sensory input. Thank you so much for this article, it really puts somethings in perspective.

        1. Allana Robinson

          I’m so glad it helped clarify things! 4 is rough, but add in sensory issues and it can be hell. Keep on it, it will pass!

  19. My Son recently turned 5 and all of a sudden we’re seeing a huge roller coaster of emotions. He’s having really angry episodes that he’s struggling to calm down from. During these big angry outbursts he name calls, hits, spits, kicks and throws things. I’m trying hard to stay calm but he is pushing boundaries big time. He’s hitting his younger brother a lot over what seem like small things (to us as adults anyway), he’s being really defiant and not listening at all and he has started crying a lot too over small things that he wouldn’t have cried over before. We’re absolutely scrambling in these moments to know what to do – we’re in uncharted waters! Does this sound like the limbic leap?

    1. It could be, but 5 would be very late for a limbic leap onset. More likely that he’s recently started school and is having to use his executive skills at a higher level, which is resulting in a lot of dysregulation.

  20. Great read!

    My 5 year old boy just all of a sudden became erratic, throwing huge tantrums over the smallest thing, and being very rough with his 2.5 year old brother. He used to be so sweet, and thoughtful. But now he doesn’t listen to a word we say, and only on occasion will act respectful.

    Both his mom and I parent gently and keep an open and empathetic mind with him, but when he throws a hard object at his brothers head it’s so hard to stay calm.

    Do you have any recommendations for deescalating violent behaviour, or post tantrum debriefs?

    Nothing seems to be working with him currently!

    Thank you!

  21. Thank you for this, it explains a lot! I don’t usually write replies on posts like this, but I feel like like knowing this will be such a huge help in ensuring I cut my four year old some slack, whilst also not over worrying about why he is randomly getting upset. Thanks again ????

    1. Thank you for this article! My son is about to turn 4 and the last few weeks have been a roller coaster. Suddenly he is very emotional, does not want to go to school, and “mom and dad are mean!” if he doesn’t get his way.

      I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with these behaviors but it helps to know something bigger is going on, it is just a phase, and he is struggling too. I know it will still be a challenge but it is much easier to be more sympathetic.

  22. Thank you for this article. We keep thinking our daughter has adhd she’s almost 4. How do you know if it’s this limbic leap or adhd. Also does the limbic leap affect sleep? Fighting to go to bed and staying asleep?

    1. You can’t distinguish ADHD from typical development at age 4. The major indicators of ADHD are typical until age 7. The Limbic Leap impacts any situations where the child perceives danger. So in terms of bedtime- if it’s unpredictable or inconsistent in any way, or they feel their autonomy is being compromised, yes, it can impact sleep. It doesn’t generally impact staying asleep.

  23. I find this EXTREMELY interesting! My 4 year old son just started having absence seizures, and I learned that age 4 is a very common age for them to develop. “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.” When I read that paragraph, I had an “A-HA” moment! It makes total sense to me why some kids might develop absence seizures around this age, and also makes sense why they most often grow out of them within a few years. Thank you!

    1. You’re not a bad mom! This stuff is hard. If you need support getting through this stage, consider joining us in ParentAbility. We can talk through all the struggles, get some customized strategies in place, and make the stressors manageable for the whole family.

  24. Very interesting article! I’d be curious to hear what kinds of skills emerge on “the other side” of the Limbic Leap… while I’m patiently waiting out meltdowns I keep imagining what cool new skills might come of this, lol!

  25. Thank you for this article. It really gave me insight into my 4 year olds mind. All symptoms to a T. I started to think he was even going backwards on what he had learned. Now, at almost 5 all of this applies. Never heard of the limbic leap, very helpful and glad I have. Now to learn more coping skills to help him throughout this journey in his youngest years.

  26. What do you actually say/do to help little one calm down? When I try to talk to my son about what happened, or say something like I know it’s hard when it’s your brother’s turn to wear that costume etc. he just starts screaming and won’t stop! I don’t really know what to do in that kind of situation, it has made my 2.5 yo so mad as well that he start’s screaming at my 4 yo to stop screaming.
    It’s great to understand why he’s having a tough time, but I’m not sure how to navigate the situation. Any advice would be appreciated!

    1. I wish I could give you a blanket answer, but the honest truth is: it depends on a few factors. What stressors are involved, what the child’s goal is, what their executive functions look like, etc. I’d encourage you to take my free class (here: allanarobinson.com/freeclass) and then if you still need more, book a free call with me so we can talk it through and come up with a plan.

  27. Can this happen earlier than 4? My son is 3y 5m and has recently in the last few weeks showed signs of Limbic Leap. Any necessary transition (brushing teeth, meal time, putting on clothes, taking a bath, etc.) after being in focused play mode has been really challenging, and in his most cranky moments leads him to very aggressive behavior like angry screaming loudly and closed fisted directly into my face, and scratching/clawing me in the face—even when I give him multiple heads-up of the transition ahead of time. I try my best to connect with love first and then being firm but calm in telling him no and the reason why. But it gets really hard for me on days when he’s doing this every transition of the day, and I can lose my temper by using a firm and angry tone myself (but not raised voice as that’s never something I want to model). This behavior is unusual for him, when in the past he’s complained during transitions but eventually went through with it. I know he knows what the kind/respectful way to behave when anger/disappointment fills up, but he just can’t bc he’s in a phase of growth… but this feels so disheartening for me bc I have my own personal boundaries and limits to aggressive behavior towards me, but I know I need to be the bigger person and show patience as he’s just a toddler. Would love any advice or thoughts on whether limbic leap might be what he’s going through, or if this is something else.

    1. It can! Kids aren’t robots, they don’t level up all at the same time. 4 is the average age that this hits- but kids can hit it as early as 3.5 or 5 in my experience.

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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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