Why has this boy's behavior turned nasty?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 15, 2010 06:00 AM

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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

Hi Melissa,

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.

Other possibilities:

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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7 comments so far...
  1. Does he see any violence at home, or hear any yelling at home? Children imitate what they see. If mom or dad yell at each other, or if he can hear hitting, etc., he is going to do this too. Even if he is in the other room when it happens, he can hear.

    Posted by jlen November 15, 10 08:51 AM
  1. This letter describes my 4 3/4 year old exactly. I don't believe this type of behavior is unusual for the age. Generally, I find that the behavior is worse if my son is tired. He reaches a point where he just can't cope--especially if he's been working hard to exercise self-control at school. The bottom line is not to give in to his demands and to keep calm until he recovers himself.

    Posted by Lola November 15, 10 10:01 AM
  1. Thanks for your comments. I'm the original LW. My son doesn't see any violence at home. My husband and I are very calm people, we don't yell and we never argue in front of our son (and very rarely argue) and we limit my son's tv watching to appropriate, non-violent preschool programs. I'm going to speak w/ his daycare teachers. One of the moms recently made a remark to me about a couple of other kids using inappropriate language and acting aggressively - maybe he's picking it up from them.

    Posted by Melissa November 15, 10 12:28 PM
  1. We've been going through this with our 4.5 yo as well, and several of our friends have mentioned similar things. I think Lola raises a good point with the tired issue, our son is trying to drop his nap at these issues are definitely bigger on days w/o the nap.

    We made it through the 2yo phase pretty much tantrum free with our son but now feel like he's mimicking the behavior of his more dramatic/tantrum prone 2 yo sister when he gets frustrated which is definitely a regression for him. We definitely do the leave the store/park/room methods (so much easier when we only had one child!) but I'd love pointers for the tantrums that happen when we are trying to leave the house to run an errand or make it to a doctor's appointment. We already let the kids know what's coming up, get them as ready as possible so that there isn't too much last minute juggling to get out the door, etc and but when they simply don't want to leave is there a good option other than physically picking up a screaming child and walking them out to the car? I feel like i'm missing something that should be in my bag of tricks.

    Posted by elle November 15, 10 12:36 PM
  1. First of all, you need to get out of your denial stage-his behavior IS threatening. He's not following through do to your calmness but he is still threatening. Have you taken him to his pediatrician for an exam? His thyroid and sugar levels should be checked. Both hypothyroidism and hypoglycemia can cause anger, anxiety or tenseness, especially when one is tired or hungry. Quite often it's just a case of "growing pains" but a physical cause should be ruled out.

    Posted by annieo November 15, 10 07:02 PM
  1. " Sometimes I will just hold him because it seems that that's what he needs."

    You get the behavior you reward.

    Even infrequent rewards are effective in encouraging whatever behavior gets the said reward.

    The other family members do not have the same issue because... drumroll... they never reward it.

    Trust me (and most all child experts) - it's as simple as that.

    Posted by H-B-X November 15, 10 07:13 PM
  1. It sounds simple as H-B-X said...stop rewarding the behavior. Many people jump on board the "evaluation" train! Please don't be that quick to jump aboard that one. Not unless there is real substantial reason. If people had their way every time, there would not be a kid that isn't diagnosed with something or other. anyway, try something new...like Barbara said, every time he does this ...leave the store and don't reward it

    Posted by JD November 16, 10 02:46 PM
 
7 comments so far...
  1. Does he see any violence at home, or hear any yelling at home? Children imitate what they see. If mom or dad yell at each other, or if he can hear hitting, etc., he is going to do this too. Even if he is in the other room when it happens, he can hear.

    Posted by jlen November 15, 10 08:51 AM
  1. This letter describes my 4 3/4 year old exactly. I don't believe this type of behavior is unusual for the age. Generally, I find that the behavior is worse if my son is tired. He reaches a point where he just can't cope--especially if he's been working hard to exercise self-control at school. The bottom line is not to give in to his demands and to keep calm until he recovers himself.

    Posted by Lola November 15, 10 10:01 AM
  1. Thanks for your comments. I'm the original LW. My son doesn't see any violence at home. My husband and I are very calm people, we don't yell and we never argue in front of our son (and very rarely argue) and we limit my son's tv watching to appropriate, non-violent preschool programs. I'm going to speak w/ his daycare teachers. One of the moms recently made a remark to me about a couple of other kids using inappropriate language and acting aggressively - maybe he's picking it up from them.

    Posted by Melissa November 15, 10 12:28 PM
  1. We've been going through this with our 4.5 yo as well, and several of our friends have mentioned similar things. I think Lola raises a good point with the tired issue, our son is trying to drop his nap at these issues are definitely bigger on days w/o the nap.

    We made it through the 2yo phase pretty much tantrum free with our son but now feel like he's mimicking the behavior of his more dramatic/tantrum prone 2 yo sister when he gets frustrated which is definitely a regression for him. We definitely do the leave the store/park/room methods (so much easier when we only had one child!) but I'd love pointers for the tantrums that happen when we are trying to leave the house to run an errand or make it to a doctor's appointment. We already let the kids know what's coming up, get them as ready as possible so that there isn't too much last minute juggling to get out the door, etc and but when they simply don't want to leave is there a good option other than physically picking up a screaming child and walking them out to the car? I feel like i'm missing something that should be in my bag of tricks.

    Posted by elle November 15, 10 12:36 PM
  1. First of all, you need to get out of your denial stage-his behavior IS threatening. He's not following through do to your calmness but he is still threatening. Have you taken him to his pediatrician for an exam? His thyroid and sugar levels should be checked. Both hypothyroidism and hypoglycemia can cause anger, anxiety or tenseness, especially when one is tired or hungry. Quite often it's just a case of "growing pains" but a physical cause should be ruled out.

    Posted by annieo November 15, 10 07:02 PM
  1. " Sometimes I will just hold him because it seems that that's what he needs."

    You get the behavior you reward.

    Even infrequent rewards are effective in encouraging whatever behavior gets the said reward.

    The other family members do not have the same issue because... drumroll... they never reward it.

    Trust me (and most all child experts) - it's as simple as that.

    Posted by H-B-X November 15, 10 07:13 PM
  1. It sounds simple as H-B-X said...stop rewarding the behavior. Many people jump on board the "evaluation" train! Please don't be that quick to jump aboard that one. Not unless there is real substantial reason. If people had their way every time, there would not be a kid that isn't diagnosed with something or other. anyway, try something new...like Barbara said, every time he does this ...leave the store and don't reward it

    Posted by JD November 16, 10 02:46 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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