Why does son act out when dad comes home?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  August 5, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,
My daughter is a stay-at-home Mom of two sunny, happy, funny little ones. Recently, the oldest, a 6 year old boy, has begun having total meltdowns. Crying, screaming, really loud rage-filled tearfests. He seems to regress during these times too, saying things like "Me want Dada." This is normally a very articulate little guy. My daughter is at her wits' end and she and her husband think that these episodes are triggered by their family dynamic. She's home all day with her son and her 4 year old daughter (the children get along famously well with each other) but when Dad gets home, these rages seem to happen. The kids adore their Dad and my daughter's marriage is happy and stable. I suggested that maybe the crying fests happen when the whole family is together because that's when the little boy feels most secure - he can act out in complete safety. Am I nuts? Do you have any advice for my daughter?

From: Julie, Beverly, MA

Dear Julie,

Not necessarily, but this may be one of those situations where it's hard and not productive to try to figure out where these kinds of behaviors come from, especially if there's not an obvious culprit that's causing stress in the family.

Developmentally, this is a stage where a child typically looks to the same-sex parent as a role model. There's lots of imitative behavior: a boy wanting to wear a tie or uniform, just like dad. (I remember my a cousin who, in these early school-age years, would only wear a white shirt, just like his dad). Having dad give him something of his, something he can put in his backpack or look at during the day, might help. I would also recommend that dad establish a goodbye ritual in the morning and a "I'm home" one in the evening. (Does dad go directly to his bedroom to change, or settle down in front of his computer? Make the kids priority #1 right away.) It doesn't have to be elaborate, just something to mark the transition. (If the boy isn't awake when dad leaves in the am, dad can leave a note at his cereal bowl, or next to the toothbrush. Something like that.) Additionally, special Dad Time (5 mins of reading together daily, or a Sat morning bike ride) can be a good antidote because it enables a child to feel he can get the parent's undivided attention without acting out in a negative way. Of course, any of these "special" routines need to be done for each child, not just for one, and, yes, they can be time-consuming. In the long run, well worth the effort, however.

It's also possible that without realizing it, the parents have gotten into a dynamic of rewarding the negative behavior by yelling at him, begging him to stop, or issuing empty threats.. Dad needs to be the one to set the limit -- "Let me know when you're ready to stop stomping on the floor. Then we can play catch in the back yard." Then leave the room and wait for him to run through his tantrum.


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2 comments so far...
  1. Does Dad come home right around the witching hour, right before dinner when the kids have had enough of each other all day and everyone's getting hungry? If so that probably isn't helping.

    Posted by di August 5, 11 01:48 PM
  1. My ex and I used to say that we had different kids; and neither of us liked their behavior when we were together. The acting out in our case was an attempt to get one or the other to take control. The more crazy they got, the more likely one parent would disengage and the other take over. We, as parents, were rarely on the same page and had very different styles. The conflict and confusion when we were together was too much for the kids. We eventually split up for the benefit of the kids; although transition times posed challenges right into their teenage years. The kids are grown and happy. My ex and I both have relationships (but very different) with the kids.

    Posted by M January 10, 14 12:41 PM
 
2 comments so far...
  1. Does Dad come home right around the witching hour, right before dinner when the kids have had enough of each other all day and everyone's getting hungry? If so that probably isn't helping.

    Posted by di August 5, 11 01:48 PM
  1. My ex and I used to say that we had different kids; and neither of us liked their behavior when we were together. The acting out in our case was an attempt to get one or the other to take control. The more crazy they got, the more likely one parent would disengage and the other take over. We, as parents, were rarely on the same page and had very different styles. The conflict and confusion when we were together was too much for the kids. We eventually split up for the benefit of the kids; although transition times posed challenges right into their teenage years. The kids are grown and happy. My ex and I both have relationships (but very different) with the kids.

    Posted by M January 10, 14 12:41 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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