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Child Caring

What's behind this preschooler's cruelty to step-mom's cat?

Barbara,
I need some guidance in handling my step son. Before he started going to school, he was the sweetest little boy, not a single problem from him. Since he started school at age 3 (Trauma during birth caused a bleed in his right brain. Suffers from seizures. Taking medicine for it. Physical therapy and speech therapy since he was a baby. Early school program.), he seems to have transitioned into being cruel to people and animals. My cat, for example, he finds it hilarious to pull his tail, or push down on his back until he has him pinned down. I even caught him choking the cat twice. He only bothers him when he sees him or knows where he is. He sometimes seeks him out under the bed and drags him out by his tail. Because of the no corporal punishment rule his mother gave me, all I have is verbal and time out. So each time I have caught him doing these things to the cat, I have explained to him what he has done wrong, told him those things aren't allowed and explained that what he does is hurting my cat, and put him in time out. When it's time to allow him to get up, I ask him to tell me again what he did wrong, and he usually does. Then I allow him to get up. I do 1 minute for every year he is old for time out.

He is also cruel to people, too. His teachers get bit on a daily basis. Children in his school get hit with toys, and if they won't give him a toy, he stomps on it until it is broke just to hear the other kids cry. With me at home, he throws toys at me, bites, kicks, punches, claws, pulls my hair, grabs my ankles to watch me fall. He's pulled his privates out and peed on me, spits on me. During bath time, he had a pitcher he uses to pour water on his head. With him only being Preschool age (4), and having a disability (his seizures) me or his father have to stay present during his baths. The few times I have sat in there with him, he's thrown pitchers full of water in my face and laughs when I start choking. To reiterate, I don't have the option of swatting his hand or butt. Just time outs and verbal. He doesn't do this to his mom or his dad. I've been around him since he was 2. His parents were separated for a while before that, and I don't think it has to do with me coming into the picture. He was fine before that. I just don't understand what it is. Or even if it's because his mother keeps telling him not to listen to me (He told me she said that, she denies it, but kids repeat what they hear, right?). I need help. Badly.

From: Jessica, Ashland, MA


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Dear Jessica,
To say this is a troubling story is an understatement.
The cruelty to the cat is in itself cause for worry; for years, researchers have identified a child's cruelty to animals as an early warning sign for future anti-social behavior. Other research shows that children who are cruel to animals typically have been abused themselves or been witness to abuse. Something to consider.
The behavior you describe in the classroom is no less serious. Biting teachers? On a daily basis? Stomping on toys and throwing them at classmates? I'm surprised the preschool hasn't dismissed him for disrupting the class and putting other kids in danger.
Although time-out often doesn't work for kids this young, what you're describing sounds like something more than a problem that needs behavioral tweaking. And for the record: The swat on the butt or hand that you wish you could give would not be helpful, either. It is time for the parents to revisit your step-son's original diagnosis with his pediatrician and/or a neuro-psych specialist. The earlier he receives all the intervention he needs, the better his potential outcome. In the meantime, if I were you? I'd be making this consult a contingency for my marriage. Seriously.