Family Life: How do I cope with my street angel who's also a home devil?
Q I wonder if you can offer some advice about my three-and-a-half-year-old son.
Since he has started play-school this September I feel his temperament, personality and manner has changed a lot. He can be so full of attitude at times. He is now in for three hours every day and has had to mix with new kids and make new friends. The feedback from his teacher is that he is coping very well and mixing great, he is very well behaved and will do all he is asked to do. However, I find when I collect him that he can be so challenging, cheeky and quite bold towards me and his younger brother. He also seems to have discovered his manhood in a very big way. I notice he often pulls his penis until he is hard and knows well what to do in order to achieve this. Maybe this is normal, but I am a bit freaked out by this, as is my husband. Should we talk about it or ignore it or what? It also bothers me that he is a bit fussy about his eating and I often end up feeding him to ensure he has something in him. He is very healthy, I know, but could go without eating any day, yet in play-school he feeds himself all the time. I really want our home to be more harmonised with less arguing over bold behaviour, not eating meals and now this surge of testosterone. Am I asking for too much!
A I don't think you are asking too much to have some harmony in your home. It just seems that nobody has told your three-year-old!
Studies have shown that children starting in crèches or pre-schools experience stress. This stress is often a combination of the change in routine and environment and also the social demands of being with other babies and toddlers.
Normally, children rely upon the adults around them to help them to regulate their feelings. So typically we parents are often responsible for helping children to cope with the stresses and to reduce their anxieties.
I think the reason your son is displaying such 'bold' behaviour at home is that he is trying to show you how tough he is finding the new experience of play-school.
He is also working very hard during the morning to be socially 'good' and so it is not surprising that he balances all this 'good' behaviour with a bit of 'bold' behaviour in the afternoons and evenings.
Because he is working so hard to regulate his feelings during the mornings (and so staying well-behaved) he has little energy left to continue to regulate his feelings and so he is leaving it up to you to cope with the intensity of his feelings.
I would imagine that his increased touching of his penis is also a self-soothing behaviour, designed to relieve his stress. It is also quite common (especially amongst boys of his age).
His fussy eating might be his way of trying to get you to notice and attend to him in the evenings. He is probably aware that you get very concerned about his food intake and that you 'mind' him by making sure he eats. By being fussy, therefore, he may be trying to build up a nurturing aspect to his relationship with you.
To deal with all three of these issues I think you should focus on empathising with how big a deal it is for him to be in play-school every morning and how much positive energy he is using up while there.
Let him know that you can understand that he feels tired and grumpy by the time he comes home and encourage him to have some rest time.
Be understanding too of the fact that he might have missed you a lot during the morning and might even be a bit (unconsciously) cross with you for (as he may see it) abandoning him for those few hours.
If you feel you constantly have to correct or discipline him then try instead to be positive and warm towards him to counter the negativity that can build up. The more you can pull back, stay calm and focus on his positives the less you will see of his more challenging behaviour.
In line with whatever are your own attitudes to sexual behaviour, you might want to acknowledge to him that it can be nice and comforting to touch his penis but suggest that this should be a private-time activity for when he is by himself.
If you know that he is well fed at play-school then don't worry too much about his eating. Think about his fussiness as his way of trying to relate to you, rather than being about the food per se.
If you make sure to offer him food regularly during the day then he can find his own balance in terms of how much of it he eats and he will still feel nurtured and minded by you.