Have mom & dad lost control?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  September 21, 2011 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

Our son, who is almost 4 1/2, is giving us a run for our money. He was the sweetest, most well-behaved boy until he hit his threes, and the fours have been driving us to drink! He has a 15 month old brother, and it seems as he is still getting over the blow to his perfect universe.

Some background: two parent home, he gets lots of attention from both parents (away from his little brother), he goes to daycare and preschool and the reports from both have been glowing, he has loving and supportive grandparents who play a fairly large role, and he has always been verbally advanced and I suspect he's highly intelligent.

The problems: He has been telling people (mostly my husband, my mother, and my other son), "I don't like you. I wish you were dead." I try to ignore this as much as possible but he's relentless and will keep saying it until he gets a reaction. I'm not sure if I should totally ignore it or just give him sort of a blowoff, "I hear you," or do something else. He also will say, "Stupid Daddy," or "Stupid Brother," or occasionally, "Stupid Mommy." (My husband is regretting telling him that he had to go to a "stupid meeting" at work.)

Also, he goes through stages where he gets very rough with his brother and his father. He will punch his father and do little sneaky things to his brother -- step on his foot, knock him over, etc. I suspect my husband has not drawn a clear line between "horsing around" and what goes beyond that. Any ideas to get him on track with this? As for when my son is rough with his little brother, I've tried the naughty step and sending him to his room, but often it seems as if the roughness escalates after this instead of diminishes. It's like he is paying me back for having given him consequences. The naughty step used to work quite well, but it seems as if it's not working any more.

Sometimes I worry that he has something wrong with him! I don't know what is "normal" behavior for four year old boys, or what has been caused by inconsistent parenting. I try to be consistent.... I take an active role in things and read a lot for advice etc. But sometimes I just don't know what to do because it seems like nothing works. And then he'll go back to being a sweet little boy for a while with no problems whatsoever.

Help! And thanks.
From: NoName, Ludlow, MA


Dear NoName,
Sounds like your son has you two wrapped around his little finger, which isn't good for him (it makes a child feel too powerful) or for you. Children want to feel they have some control over their world (it's why we give them age-appropriate choices), but they also feel most secure when they know the adults in their life are in charge, keeping them safe.

1. "Stupid" is a very popular word among the preschool set so dad can let go of his guilt trip; your son likely heard it before and after dad said it, and OK, yeah, dad saying it probably added cachet, but kids this age glom onto this word so much because it carries lots of power: It gets adults to pay attention, and it gets them pretty darned upset. I think there are two good ways to handle this. One is to tell him, "'Stupid' is not a nice word. It hurts people's feelings. I can't listen to you when you use that word." Then turn your back on him whenever he says it. The other is to tell him, "Go into the bathroom and say 'stupid' as loud as you want, for as many times as you want. After that, no more 's' word. I won't listen to you when you say it."

2. Being consistent means responding in the same predictable way every time. Otherwise, a child just keeps pushing because he's trying to figure out where the boundaries are: "What happens if I do this again? What about this time? And this time? What do I have to do to get mom to be in charge?" Being consistent takes time, patience and repetition. Since you're acknowledging that you lack in the consistency department, it will take that much more time for him to see that you mean what you say. This is about you, not about him. You have to be prepared to make sacrifices. You go into a restaurant. You tell him, "Remember the restaurant rule: We use our inside voice in a restaurant. Otherwise, we can't stay." Ten minutes later he's shouting. Do you heatedly tell him, "No shouting! Remember the restaurant rule?" or do you pick him up and carry him outside? No matter how much he screams. No matter how many people stare. Some parents think of this as a "Shock & Awe" strategy. I like it because it works.

3. Hurting the baby, even if you aren't sure it's purposeful, is not acceptable, of course. Since you know he's prone to this behavior, do not leave him alone with his brother. Keep an eagle eye on him because now your best strategy is to be able to stop him before he does something hurtful, when you think he's thinking about it. Kids are impulsive, they don't give you a whole lot of warning, but generally if he's winding up and getting frustrated about something, and he has a history of taking it out on the baby, well, that's your cue: "I can see you're getting frustrated. Use your words to tell me." If his arm is raised to hit, stop it mid-air: "No!" In a quieter moment, you can tell him, "You know, it's my job is to take care of you and make sure you are always safe. It's my job to do that for your brother, too." You don't need to spell out that you're protecting the baby from him; he'll get it and, in his own way, he's happy to hear you say so.

4. Lastly, you and your husband may benefit from a few sessions with a parenting coach (I do this, although geography is not working with us here), especially if you find yourself frequently frustrated and out of patience with him. That's not going to help your relationships or the dynamics over time.

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2 comments so far...
  1. So beat him until he gets back in line. That is what discipline does to children when they misbehave. It's not rocket science, folks! It's simple. Discipline will set all kids straight and get them in line. You don't need a parenting coach. Is this a a joke? A parenting coach? Mommy and daddy need to straighten up themselves and get with the program so we don't have to listen to your kids whine when they're 16 years old.

    Posted by Daveh September 21, 11 10:45 AM
  1. I have a 6-year-old and age 4 was also tough on our little family. I had just given birth to my daughter when my son turned 4 and he lashed out for quite awhile. And I agree wholeheartedly about the consistency piece. STAY CONSISTENT and follow through with consequences to negative behavior, but I would also pay as much attention to those times when he is a sweet little boy and acknowledge that behavior, too.

    By the time my son was 4, time outs weren't as effective, either. So we changed strategies a little, gving him quiet time in his room to calm down if he was upset. Took away privileges (special toys, desserts, video games) when he displayed negative behavior.

    Whatever you choose, stick to it; you are not alone! Also, if grandparents play a big role, get them on the bandwagon as well.

    Posted by Gina September 21, 11 02:57 PM
 
2 comments so far...
  1. So beat him until he gets back in line. That is what discipline does to children when they misbehave. It's not rocket science, folks! It's simple. Discipline will set all kids straight and get them in line. You don't need a parenting coach. Is this a a joke? A parenting coach? Mommy and daddy need to straighten up themselves and get with the program so we don't have to listen to your kids whine when they're 16 years old.

    Posted by Daveh September 21, 11 10:45 AM
  1. I have a 6-year-old and age 4 was also tough on our little family. I had just given birth to my daughter when my son turned 4 and he lashed out for quite awhile. And I agree wholeheartedly about the consistency piece. STAY CONSISTENT and follow through with consequences to negative behavior, but I would also pay as much attention to those times when he is a sweet little boy and acknowledge that behavior, too.

    By the time my son was 4, time outs weren't as effective, either. So we changed strategies a little, gving him quiet time in his room to calm down if he was upset. Took away privileges (special toys, desserts, video games) when he displayed negative behavior.

    Whatever you choose, stick to it; you are not alone! Also, if grandparents play a big role, get them on the bandwagon as well.

    Posted by Gina September 21, 11 02:57 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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