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
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!
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