Acting out as mom's going back to work

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 11, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara, I have been a stay at home mom for 5 years since we had our daughter in April 2005. We also have a 3-year-old son. I am going back to work full time this week, so we have been putting the kids in day care for two days a week for the entire last month. They love it there, but when they get home, my son acts out really badly.

He's punching and hitting daddy and his sister, he is playing with my candles (that he knows not to go anywhere near - he set a book on fire last night!!!). He is peeing the bed; he has never peed the bed, ever! He is acting out also by talking back, throwing things, destroying things his sister has made at school. All he says is, sorry!

We do not know what to do. I asked the day care this morning if he has been acting like this there, and she said no, he is a very well-mannered, well-behaved little boy. So why is he doing this just at home? Please help -- I am looking forward to going back to work, but if this is how it is going to be, I am afraid I will be staying home until he gets to high school!

From: Tonia, Regina, Saskatchewan

Dear Tonia,

Your son is working very hard to keep his emotions and behavior under control at day care. When he comes home, he's had it. He can't keep himself in check any more, and he lets it all go. Typically, that's considered a healthy sign -- that he knows home is safe, and he feels secure enough there to know that no matter how bad his behavior, you will still love him.

Wetting the bed? In an older child, that might be a red flag. At 3? Not so much. Some 3-year-old boys aren't able to get through the night at all, so this particular regression is a way for his body to register that he's under stress. I wouldn't make a big deal out of it; it will pass more quickly if you react matter-of-factly.

Setting a book on fire? (OK, a short aside here. I don't mean to scold, Tonia, really I don't. But lighting candles while children are awake and having them within their reach? Please, please, stop doing that NOW. Fires started by children cause at least 400 deaths a year in the US. It's not a risk worth taking, no matter how many times you tell them, "Don't touch." Fire light is beautiful and it leads to curiosity. In fact, it's possible lighting the book on fire is not related to the other acting-out behaviors; it was a temptation that he would have given in to sooner or later: "The candle is beautiful! What would happen if I hold the book to the candle?" At 3, a child is not cognitively able to make the connection that holding the book to the flame could start a fire, or how dangerous that could be.) It is your job to to prevent a tragedy from happening by removing the temptation altogether. Oh -- and if you light candles after he's asleep, be very careful never to leave matches where he'll find them.

Taken together, and assuming these acting out behaviors are all new, they all are regressive and all could be his way of expressing anger and frustration at going to day care. He can't be upset that you're going back to work because you haven't started as of this writing and he can't understand what that means. Right now, he's just reacting to the change in his life.

Some things you can do:

1. Make sure there are clear limits, boundaries and consequences at home when he acts out. Try to have the consequence be immediate and related to the behavior. If you can, catch him in the act: Gently grab his arm if you see him winding up to throw something. Tell him firmly, "NO. No throwing." Then have something soft that he can toss or punch, like a pillow. This is no more, no less, than a temper tantrum. Label his feelings for him: "You must be be feeling very angry to want to throw something! So angry!" Get down on the floor with him and just be there with him, physically.

2. When you first get home with him, especially once you begin to work, try not to be in too much of a rush to change your clothes, get dinner on the table, etc. Create a routine that allows you and your children to re-connect. Maybe this is when you read a story or cuddle. Something that says: "We missed each other, let's be together right now." Not a bad idea to voice that sentiment to them, either.

3. One day, ask him to draw a picture of what he likes about day care, and help him to frame a story. Another day, ask him to draw a picture of what he doesn't like and create a story around that.

4. Keep the teachers in the loop about what's happening at home, and continue to ask them what they're seeing, especially in these next few weeks. He may need extra help and attention at day care.

4. Two books that might help: "My Working Mom," by Peter Glassman; "Trade-in Mother" by Marisabina Russo.

5. If behaviors escalate rather than calm down as time passes (he's so out of control that you fear he will hurt himself or his sister), seek professional help.

Lastly, keep your sense of humor! He'll get this under control before high school, I promise!

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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4 comments so far...
  1. My son when he was a toddler would be a grumpy unhappy boy after getting him from daycare. I learned to sit with him on the couch and 'veg' when we got home (usually just having an adult TV show on in the background such as news). It made for a much better night for me and him. After about 10 mins, I apparently reassured him enough that I became boring in a good way and the night progressed in a much happier way. Some children just need the physical time to reassure themselves everything is ok.

    Over time the need for me to sit with him reduced and is now a rare occurance.

    Posted by WorkingMom November 11, 10 08:52 AM
  1. I just wanted to point out that when my siblings and I were very young, we often had Shabbat and Chanukah candles lit and within our reach. None of us ever set anything on fire. So I don't think it's fair to make such a generalization. I agree that in this particular case, until this boy is older, it's not appropriate to light candles while he's up and about, but I wouldn't necessarily hold this parent responsible for not putting candles on hold until after her son has lit something on fire.

    Posted by sabend November 11, 10 09:44 AM
  1. With regards to candles...really, Barbara? Is the word "no" no longer in a parent's vocabulary.

    I and my siblings were raised in house where there were always candles burning without anyone setting themselves, the house or anything on fire. Why? Because from an early age we were told "no" when tried to touch...and our parents actually paid attention to what we were doing.

    Doesn't it make more sense to teach a child that there are boundaries instead of making sure they never have to even know there are boundaries. A three-year old might not get the concept of setting soemthing on fire but I'm sure he understands the concept of "no" and "don't tourch".

    Posted by bak November 11, 10 03:39 PM
  1. Your kid is exhausted. A full day for a 3 year old who is not used to the stimulation of daycare. Obviously, you need to have consequences for his actions but don't expect to have him all smiles when you get him home.

    I am a SAHM and my 5 year old in full day Kindergarten (not by choice). She is exhausted every afternoon. We try to do a lot of quiet things - especially when she first gets home. An earlier bed time might help too but I think your son needs time to adjust.

    Posted by Mom of a cranky 5 year old November 11, 10 05:48 PM
 
4 comments so far...
  1. My son when he was a toddler would be a grumpy unhappy boy after getting him from daycare. I learned to sit with him on the couch and 'veg' when we got home (usually just having an adult TV show on in the background such as news). It made for a much better night for me and him. After about 10 mins, I apparently reassured him enough that I became boring in a good way and the night progressed in a much happier way. Some children just need the physical time to reassure themselves everything is ok.

    Over time the need for me to sit with him reduced and is now a rare occurance.

    Posted by WorkingMom November 11, 10 08:52 AM
  1. I just wanted to point out that when my siblings and I were very young, we often had Shabbat and Chanukah candles lit and within our reach. None of us ever set anything on fire. So I don't think it's fair to make such a generalization. I agree that in this particular case, until this boy is older, it's not appropriate to light candles while he's up and about, but I wouldn't necessarily hold this parent responsible for not putting candles on hold until after her son has lit something on fire.

    Posted by sabend November 11, 10 09:44 AM
  1. With regards to candles...really, Barbara? Is the word "no" no longer in a parent's vocabulary.

    I and my siblings were raised in house where there were always candles burning without anyone setting themselves, the house or anything on fire. Why? Because from an early age we were told "no" when tried to touch...and our parents actually paid attention to what we were doing.

    Doesn't it make more sense to teach a child that there are boundaries instead of making sure they never have to even know there are boundaries. A three-year old might not get the concept of setting soemthing on fire but I'm sure he understands the concept of "no" and "don't tourch".

    Posted by bak November 11, 10 03:39 PM
  1. Your kid is exhausted. A full day for a 3 year old who is not used to the stimulation of daycare. Obviously, you need to have consequences for his actions but don't expect to have him all smiles when you get him home.

    I am a SAHM and my 5 year old in full day Kindergarten (not by choice). She is exhausted every afternoon. We try to do a lot of quiet things - especially when she first gets home. An earlier bed time might help too but I think your son needs time to adjust.

    Posted by Mom of a cranky 5 year old November 11, 10 05:48 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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