Family Life: My five-year-old son's anger and aggression is scaring me
Published 16/08/2010 | 05:00
I have three children -- a five-year-old, a two-and-a-half-year-old and a one-year-old. The issue is with the eldest, who is aggressive and answers me back.
My husband and I do not know how to deal with it. He has finished his first year in school and has done well but each day is just misery with him. He demands we all stop and just let him talk or get what he needs at that particular time and is so full of anger and aggression it is scary. He grinds his teeth when he speaks to me sometimes. He is ruling the house and making us all unhappy and nervous wrecks. My two-and-a-half-year-old is looking at this behaviour also and is beginning to follow suit. I have tried time-outs and he will sit there for his five minutes but honestly I do not think it is even registering with him. He speaks to us both as if we are stupid. For example, if I ask him to do something he says "no" and will shout it out spelling 'N-O'. Or else he will say something like "for God's sake -- what are you saying?" I am home full time and am really beginning to lose patience with him. He is completely heedless and unless I shout very loud at him he will not even bother answering me or stop what he is at. Please help us make our house a happier place.
You may have read last week's column in which I responded to a very similar query about a three-year-old.
A key point I was making in that response, and it is relevant here too, is that we parents need to feel confident and competent in our ability to be the ones in charge in the house. But we need to balance this with trying to be in tune with where our children are at emotionally.
For example, one possibility is that your son has found school very stressful. Although he has done well there, it may have taken an emotional and psychological toll on him.
His intolerant, demanding moods at home may have been a reaction to the significant demands placed on him during the school day (rules, relationship with his teacher, workload, social mix of the class and school yard etc). Even some of his phrasing or tone of voice might come from school.
How he has been over the holidays should give you an indication if school was a challenge for him. If he has been calmer over the summer it suggests that school was, in fact, a significant issue.
If this is the case then you need to be ready for the new school year and allow him time to decompress every day after school.
This might involve getting him out and about and physically letting off steam or by having a guaranteed 10 minutes with you every day to talk (without interruption from the other two!).
With regard to how he behaves at home, it is good that children feel a certain degree of power and influence; this is often an indicator of positive self-esteem and a belief in their own capability.
However, if children have too much power or if that power is not constrained in some way then it becomes problematic, much as you have described in your query.
'Bad' behaviour in young children is often a sign of stress and/or anxiety. For example, pressures of school, and even being too powerful for your age, can be stressful.
This feeling of being 'on the edge' all the time can lead young children to appear angry and aggressive.
Whatever the source of his anger, demands and aggression, he needs to know that you are in charge and that you will mind him.
To ensure he gets the message that you are in charge you need to be very consistent and reliable. He needs to see that you always mean what you say and that you always follow through on what you say also.
To help him learn that being angry and demanding doesn't get him what he wants he needs to experience your consistent refusal of his aggressive demands. Instead tell him that when he is calm and polite you will listen to him.
This requires a lot of patience and calmness in the face of potentially escalating tantrums so make sure you take opportunities to mind yourself and also to build back up those reserves of patience!
Another idea might be to surround yourself with supportive adults, like at a parenting course.
Try to avoid shouting at him (or the other children) as this does role-model for children that when you lose your patience, or if you are frustrated, it is okay to shout.
You will be amazed that the more calmly you can speak the more clearly you are heard and the more likely you are to be heeded.
David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence.