Child Caring

Middle child crying -- figuratively and otherwise -- for more time with mom

I have 3 children ages 2, 4, and 6. My 4 year old son has been very difficult lately. I've followed your blog for ages and try to use the tips I've read here but I am at a loss. Maybe this is a phase and I just need to wait it out but I'd love some advice.

Over the past few months, my 4 year old has been very actively misbehaving. Not with violence but with doing exactly what we ask him not to do. I try to stay calm and give him options but he will just ignore them and keep doing what he's doing. [Here's] the most recent example from last night. He was playing and having a good time with my 2 year old but he was throwing toys. I calmly asked him to stop. He looked at me and did it again. I picked him up and moved him from the room and said that it was dangerous and I didn't want him to keep doing that. But he squirmed away, ran back and threw again. So I picked him up, put him on the bottom stair and asked him to sit there because he was not listening. He sat there but started bawling and screaming "Mommy!" at the top of his lungs for 15 minutes. Finally he stopped and I told him he could come back into the room.

This exact thing happens every day. Not with throwing but it's always something that starts very small and ends very big. I ignore when he's screaming because I don't want him to get the idea that screaming and making himself cry is what gets attention but I also know you've said not to leave kids alone during tantrums. There are times when I have figured out how to handle it (e.g. I ask him to get dressed before he eats in the morning or else he'll eat, then say he doesn't "feel like" getting dressed and it ends up being a battle as I'm trying to get 3 kids out the door. This doesn't happen anymore because I just keep saying, "Sure, I'll get you breakfast as soon as you're dressed.") But there are so many other times when I can't do something like that and these long daily battles are getting beyond frustrating.

From: S.E.K., Boston

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Dear S.E.K.,
The light went on for me as soon as I read that he "started bawling and screaming 'Mommy!' at the top of his lungs." It could just be that this is all about him wanting more of your attention and the only way he knows to ask for it is to act out negatively. It could also be a developmental stage where he wants more autonomy because he feels sandwiched between an older sib who's more independent and a younger who naturally gets more of your attention.
I propose "Mommy Time."
Announce that you are going to have a new plan in your family where you give each child a set amount of alone time with you each day, even if it's just five minutes. You're probably doing that already anyway but the trick is to label it "Mommy & Me," or Mommy Time because that means it's to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. This sometimes requires complicated orchestration (maybe you have the M&M time when the youngest is napping and the oldest is at school). How you manage it won't matter to the child in question (obviously, you have to do this for each one). What will matter are the rules: Set them out clearly: "In Mommy Time, we get to choose what we do. In Mommy Time, mommy won't answer the phone, or the door, or make dinner, or fold laundry, or look at the computer. If someone else needs me, they'll have to wait, (or go to daddy, or the baby-sitter). This is just our time." Also explain, In Mommy Time, with Joe, nobody can interrupt, not even you. And when Mommy & Me time happens with you, then Joe can't interrupt us!"
Only give a choice of activities that you can manage (some kids like to know in the morning what the choice is so they can think about it all day) as well as ones you think match his needs on any given day. For instance, I would always include snuggling with a book, and something physical, like kicking a soccer ball outside (or a soft ball inside; my son always loved that, I suspect, because it seemed so anti-establishment).
What makes this usually work like magic is that once a child knows he is guaranteed access to your undivided attention, he has less need to act out negatively to get it. This isn't foolproof; he will still act out (when he does, remind him, "Oh, you need some Mommy & Me time! It's almost time! Can you tell yourself to be patient?") but I bet, over a week or two, you will begin to see some relief from this. Can't do it every day? Alternate days per child. (with older children , once a week is sometimes plenty) Tweak it as you need -- maybe it's 15 mins for your middle child on a day when the other kids aren't home and won't know that you've given him more time. And giving each child equal time is critical, of course. Use a timer so that when the time is up, there's no opportunity for cries of "more!"
Other strategies: (1) Spell out the behaviors you want and the consequences for not listening: "Remember, no throwing toys! If you throw toys, you'll have to play by yourself."
(2) Set small goals: "Can you play for four minutes without XXing?" Set the timer.
(3) Lavish praise when it's appropriate: "What a good job! How about another four minutes!"
(4) Forget time-out for now, try it again in three months.
(5) Offer choices, offer choices, offer choices. I know you're doing that. Do it even more. You're bumping up against a developmental stage where autonomy matters to him, probably because he's sandwiched between one sib who is older and able to be more independent, and one who is younger and naturally needs a lot of attention.
PS. This works great as Daddy Time, too!