Friday 9 December 2016

How can I control my boy who is 'a law onto himself'?

Published 07/02/2012 | 06:00

I have a three-and-a-half-year-old boy and 20-month-old girl. I'm a stay-at-home mum and my husband works for himself so is not around that much, which is emotionally draining as I get absolutely no 'me' time!

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My issue is with my boy, who has always thrown things around either out of frustration or just for 'fun' but it's getting beyond a joke now.

He's seriously damaging things and hurting his sister. He's also quite rough with her lately and has started poking, slapping and just annoying her. My heart goes out to her as she's just a wee dote and does nothing to upset him.

He was mad about her initially and this just started lately, so I don't know where it's coming from. I just can't seem to control the throwing thing! He doesn't listen to me and won't do what he's told. I do a lot of yoga and meditation so I am actually quite calm and try to speak calmly to him. I spend a lot of time with him every day so it's not like he's not getting enough attention. He also has a really healthy diet so it can't be that either. It's like he's a law onto himself. What can I do to get him to stop throwing things and hurting us?

It can be really overwhelming when a child's behaviour becomes a constant challenge. It can feel like this is the only thing that is going on in your life, despite the fact you are raising other children and managing all the other tasks of daily living.

I also think it is easier to deal with behaviour in our children which doesn't involve anyone getting hurt. Harmful behaviour will always be more emotive than other challenging behaviour (that might just be annoying or trying).

You mentioned your husband isn't around much because of work and that doing the solo parenting thing is emotionally draining.

I would guess that despite your best intentions your son's behaviour presses all of your emotional buttons. This is definitely an issue that you need to be talking to his dad about because two heads will be better than one in dealing with it.

I also think your husband's involvement gives him a chance to show his son how boys should behave. It shouldn't be left up to you to do everything.

Your last statement describes how many pre-schoolers his age choose to operate: a law onto themselves, who believe they can do what they want. It is no surprise that this is the case since their experiences since birth have typically been that the world does turn around them.

I use the term omnipotent, meaning all-powerful, to describe such children.

Omnipotence usually grows from children getting whatever they want because the adults around them acceded to their whims, often for an easier life. In practice, however, giving in to demands that are backed up by whinging, tantrums or aggression will simply teach children that such behaviour will get them what they want.

Understandably, children then throw more tantrums or get more aggressive to continue to force the adults to acquiesce (for peace or quiet). The peace is always short-lived, however, as the behaviour will be repeated the next time the child wants something.

You don't sound like you give in to your son in this way, yet his behaviour probably gains him something since he keeps repeating it. Could he be trying to tell you something about his inner world?

For example, I can imagine that even if he loves his little sister she can be annoying for him. Having a little sister who "idolises the ground he walks on" means she probably follows him around and wants to be with him all the time.

That can be wearing for pre-schoolers who still struggle to share things and space. Maybe he just hasn't yet learned an effective way of saying, "I'd like some time and space to myself without my sister tagging along."

Perhaps hurting her has become his way of saying "leave me alone for a while". I do wonder how effectively he gets the message that throwing things and hurting people is not okay. You and his dad need to be very firm and completely unyielding about this behaviour needing to stop and then being physically present enough to either distract him or prevent him from hurting his sister (or yourselves).

There is a danger in sounding too calm when talking about hurtful behaviour; children need to know that you mean business when you say 'stop!'

Stress

Even though you need to be firm about not allowing throwing or hitting, you can still be understanding and empathise with him. For example, you may empathise about how it can be hard to be "loved too much" by his sister and that sharing his space, his things and your attention and love with her can be tough too.

The key thing to remember is to show that while you can understand why he may behave this way it doesn't excuse it or make it okay. Children can often be like a barometer for family stress. As stress and pressure (like long working hours, unavailability, lack of time for the parents' own relationship, isolation or resentment about our lot in life) builds, their behaviour worsens. As the stress declines their challenges reduce too.

If you and his dad can start to take a joint approach to being really firm, but also fair and understanding with him, I think you will find he hits out and throws less.

Indeed, if your family gets a bit more equilibrium, with greater involvement from his dad, you may find that everyone deals with situations more effectively.

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

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