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Child Caring

This little boy sounds troubled

My 5- year- old son recently came home from school with a note saying he pushed another student in the stomach, when I asked him about it he completely lied to me. I had to get the real story from his teacher. The next day he came home with something that looked like red marks and dot around his neck and shoulders. He said some story about a chair causing it, then he told my family that my fiancÚ did it.... I know this cannot be true, I see how they interact and how this upsets my fiancÚ.

What is the deal? How can I deal with this? I'm afraid of him being taken from us!

From: Brooke, Atlanta


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Hi Brooke,

My best guess is that he's acting out to get attention. Your attention. Maybe he doesn't feel like he has enough of your attention -- that you're giving too much attention (in his mind) to your finance. Or maybe he doesn't feel secure about your love for him. How stable is his life? Is his birth dad at all in the picture? Is your fiance living with the two of you? Have there been previous men in your life who perhaps have not lasted? Here's what I'm getting at: "If mom stopped loving X, Y and Z, maybe she'll stop loving me." Maybe he's testing you: Will mom still love me if I'm this bad? What about this bad? With this in mind, I have three suggestions:

1. Don't include your fiance in every activity you do with your son. Do some things every weekend (more often, if possible) with just the two of you, you and your son and make a point of saying, "You know what? Let's just you and me today." That will help him feel more secure about you.

2. Every day, spend some alone time with your son. Five minutes, 10, whatever you can manage. Call it, "Mom and me" time and make a point to shut off all your devices, to give him your total attention. When sees that he can have your undivided attention guaranteed, he may feel less need to act out to get it.

3. You are his parent, not your fiance. Your fiance should not be the boss of your son. He should not discipline him. That's your job. Are your son's aggressive behaviors new since your fiance came on the scene, or at least since he became your fiance? Aggression can be a learned behavior. How do you know what goes on when the two of them are alone, and that your son might not be imitating something he's seen your fiance do?

In the meantime, in school, your son is involved in aggressive behavior. Whether he's the instigator or the victim, he needs coping skills, so I'm glad you've been in touch with the teachers. Don't drop the ball on this; stay in contact with them so you can work together to figure out what's going on with him in his interactions with other kids. Hopefully, that will enable all of you to guide him to socially acceptable behaviors. He may need professional intervention.

Now about the lying. The best way to address this is to let him know how much you value truthfulness: "In our family, we really value telling the truth." At this age, he can understanding that lying is unfair, a kind of cheating.

1. Don't accuse him of doing lying; that will only make him more entrenched. When you think he's lying, tell him, "I'm not sure if you are telling the truth. Let's not talk about this any more right now. That will give you a few minutes to think again about what happened." In other words: give him the benefit of the doubt and the chance to regroup.

2. Don't try to trap him into a lie. If you found evidence he lied, for instance, the teacher gives you a different version, present the facts as you know them: "Mrs. X said she saw you hit Brian. Is it possible you aren't remembering this right? I'm not happy when someone hits another person, but I'm even less happy if someone lies about. Do you want to think about this again?"

3. Don't punish him for lying. All that does is fuel him to become a more clever liar. Instead, he needs to see you as understanding and approachable so he can conclude: "Even if I do something really stupid, my mom might understand. I can tell her the truth." If he starts out with a lie and then recants, reward his courage: "I'm proud of you for telling me the truth. That was a brave thing to do." If the transgression is so severe, or this happens repeatedly, I'm not suggesting you simply let him off the hook, but that you acknowledge the truth-telling.

What behaviors do you model to him? If you lie, even a little, ("No officer, I wasn't speeding....."), change your ways; the role model we present as parents is the single biggest factor in why kids lie.

For you to worry that social services might intervene, makes me wonder if there's more going on here than you've conveyed. If that's so, you need to do more than write in to an advice column. There are places to turn to for help. The school system has psychologists who are good listeners and will guide you if they think your son needs an evaluation. I bet your pediatrician or clergy could also steer you in the right direction. You've taken a first step.