Dear David Coleman: 'My son is a dream child at playschool so I don't understand why he's so bold at home'
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. I have four children, my youngest is a three-year-old boy. He was a very difficult baby, bad sleeper and his behaviour is going from bad to worse as he gets older. He's trouble from the minute he gets up in the morning. He fights with his siblings, hitting, kicking, spitting at them. He's never happy and is always fidgeting and jumping around. His playschool teacher says he's a dream child, so I don't understand why he's so terrible at home. He had an assessment of need done 18 months ago but it came back normal. Any advice?
David replies: The good news is that the assessment of need and the teacher's opinion of your son indicate he is a typical toddler/pre-schooler. That does suggest that there is nothing intrinsically 'wrong' with your son. Nor does he seem to have any developmental delay or neurological or brain dysfunction.
If the difficulties are only happening at home, then it may be that something about the dynamic of your home might be triggering this misbehaviour. I do wonder why he is so unhappy in the way you describe?
The fact that he fights so viciously with his siblings is worth exploring more. Often the youngest in a large family seems to have the easiest time of things. With older brothers and sisters around, they tend to be 'babied' by the whole family and viewed in a very positive way.
This doesn't seem to have happened in your family. You describe your son as being a "very difficult" baby. This may have been because his infant neediness and distress resulted in huge disruption for the whole family. Perhaps, rather than appearing cute and adorable, he was like the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of overloading the stress within the family. Perhaps he was so demanding of you that it totally changed the other children's attitude to him.
I notice you describe him so negatively. If, as his mum, you are struggling to acknowledge his positives, I could imagine his siblings see few, if any positives, about him being part of the family.
It takes two to tango when it comes to conflict. While your youngest boy may seem like the instigator of all of the sibling fighting, and is most noticeable because of his spitting, hitting and kicking, I can't imagine that the fighting is all his fault.
When you are living through a situation, it can be very hard to be objective. There may be several dynamics at play here, which involve your other children. Maybe his siblings are very provocative. Maybe they want to goad or annoy him so he reacts and then his reaction gets him into trouble. Maybe they resent him and his arrival into the family because it has lead to a much more stressful and unhappy environment for everyone.
It is easy to see how he might be blamed. If he senses everyone's negativity towards him then a lot of his challenging behaviour may be a reaction to this.
He seems to be having a very positive experience in pre-school. The positivity there seems to really work well for him and he rises to it, behaving, not just appropriately, but like a "dream child". Changing a whole dynamic in a family is no easy task. We all get into ruts where we can hold quite rigid attitudes, beliefs and expectations about each other. Sometimes we need to have a bit of insight based on someone else's perspective about what is going on.
So I'd recommend that you and your family engage in some family therapy. You might need to see what are the things that his siblings are saying or doing, for example, that might provoke your youngest. Or you may discover that because everyone just expects him to be trouble, "from the moment he wakes up" that he is just living the role that has been assigned to him in the family. In a different environment (like his pre-school), he is capable of taking on a different and much more positive role. Maybe he needs a chance to take on a similar positive role in your family.
Either way, the neutral and objective perspective of a therapist might give you and your family the insight you need to identify the best way to help him and help the family.
Health & Living