My 4 1/2-year-old son is very articulate and usually very happy, affectionate, and easygoing, but over the past few months, he gets really angry very quickly if he doesn't get his way. It happened yesterday when I wouldn't buy him a toy at the store. He will scream and say violent things to me ("I will throw you out the window") or get in my face and raise his fist to me (he doesn't hit).
I don't get upset - his behavior isn't threatening and doesn't last long. I usually tell him he's being disrespectful and to go in the other room if he needs time to control his anger. I might warn him that a toy or TV will be taken away if he doesn't stop. Sometimes I will just hold him because it seems that that's what he needs. I also tell him that it's okay to be angry and to tell me he's angry, but he can't say mean things. He does not have this problem at daycare or with other family members (other than his dad). Is his behavior normal, and am I expecting too much from him? Thanks.
From: Melissa, Needham
That this is a recent development makes me wonder: Has anything out of the ordinary -- any unusual stress -- been going on in your family in the past few months? Is someone sick, out of work? Did the dog die? Are you and your spouse having problems? Is there a new baby? Has a favorite teacher or babysitter left? Changes in routine or stress level can affect children, even when you think you've done a good job of shielding them. If you can't identify anything, ask the teachers if something has changed at daycare, including a change in his playmates.
He's at a new stage of development and needs firmer limits. "Disrespectful" does not compute for a 4 1/2-year-old; it's vague and abstract. Neither does telling him he needs "time" to control his anger. So, yes, you are expecting mature behavior from a child who, developmentally, can't give it to you.
He's imitating a playmate's behavior or something he's seen on a screen. How much time does he spend in front of a screen? What about at playmates' houses? Some of what he says -- throw you out the window -- are not ideas that typically come naturally to preschoolers. He's got to be getting that language from someplace. Don't rule out the influence of a playmate. Putting a fist to your face sounds like an imitative behavior to me. Are the teachers seeing that at daycare, not necessarily from him but from someone else? How do they handle it when they see it in other children?
He needs help. Sometimes the source of frustrations like you're describing can be more organic rather than situational. Talk to the teachers. Are there reasons to get an evaluation? (This is lower on my radar screen, but it's worth considering.)
If you're in a store and he acts out, take him firmly by the hand and leave the store. Period. You might tell him before you go in the store, what he can expect ("We're going to buy x, y, and z, but no cereal and no toys.") and what you expect ("If you start to cry or scream, we will have to leave.") Usually, once a child sees that you mean what you say, the behavior stops. Yes, it's a pain to leave the cart and have to come back. In the long run, it's worth it. Once you're outside, you can also try to go back in after he calms down. "Do you think we can go back inside and finish shopping? Can you go inside without crying and getting upset?" But if it happens again, you have to leave again. No empty threats!
I love that you're telling him it's OK to feel angry and to tell you he's angry, but the rest of it -- that he can't say mean things -- may also be too unspecific for him. Tell him exactly what words he can't use. If he uses them, the consequence must be immediate, not a warning, not vague, but clear and, if possible, related to the offense: "You called me stupid. I can't play with you when you call me stupid. That makes me feel bad." Then get up and leave the room.
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