Thursday 14 December 2017

David Coleman answers: How do I deal with my son's outbursts of anger?

Angry little boy glaring and fighting with his brother
Angry little boy glaring and fighting with his brother
David Coleman

David Coleman

I am contacting you about my four-year-old son, who has been having serious anger-management issues for the past few months. He attends the same creche as he has been in since he was nine months old.

 We also have an older boy who just started school in September. The creche is trying to work with us and we are keeping regular two-way communication about how we are both dealing with his tantrums and outbursts. We have tried rewarding good behaviour, distraction techniques, ignoring naughty behaviour, removing him from the situation, denying treats etc, all to no avail. We are very concerned about this as he is due to start primary school next September and his behaviour will no doubt be unacceptable there. The situation has become so stressful and I am not only at my wits end but also I'm so scared this is going to have a negative affect on my son (not to mention the rest of our family) in the future.


A It can be very stressful any time our children's behaviour changes negatively. It is invariably a cause of worry. Even deciding how to respond to it can be a source of conflict for parents.

One of the most useful things to do, when the behaviour is new, is to try to work out what, if anything, changed in your child's life around the time that the behaviour changed.

This is because children will often show us, by acting things out with misbehaviour, that something is distressing, worrying or upsetting in their world. Sometimes, by resolving the source of the distress or worry, we find that the behaviour then fades away too.

From what you describe with your four-year-old, the behaviour may have coincided with his older brother starting school. So, for the first time, he was attending the crèche on his own. Even though he was very familiar with the creche itself, it may have been a big change for him to be there without his brother.

He may also feel, at age four, that he too was ready to start school. He may feel he has outgrown the creche or he may be a little jealous of his brother getting to go to 'big' school while he has, as he may see it, been left behind.

There may be other significant changes in staff in the creche since September. Perhaps other children that he has grown up with in the creche, as well as his brother, have moved on into primary education.

Any or all of these experiences could be enough to provoke some angry outbursts. Depending on how those outbursts were initially dealt with, he could have just slipped into a negative cycle of behaviour where the more he acted out and misbehaved, the more 'trouble' he felt he was in.

It is great to hear about all of the positive approaches that you have tried to deal with the behaviour. I would be encouraging you to continue with some of those. However, I would also suggest that you do some detective work with the creche staff to find out what, if anything, has changed there.

Knowing the source of any disruption for him will allow you to try to help him make some sense of his feelings about whatever has changed.

So, for example, it may just be about his brother being in primary school while he continues in the creche. If so, then this is the issue you talk to him about on different occasions. He may find it very difficult to both understand his feelings and articulate those feelings. You may be best to guess at the likely feelings you think he might have.

So, make some empathetic comments to him about what it might be like in the creche now. Examples could include: "I wonder if the creche seems really boring without your big brother there", or "I'd say you must really miss your friends who've gone off to 'big' school", or "I'd guess that you'd love to be in 'big' school with your brother".

When you are talking with him, try to avoid asking questions or making definitive statements. Do always keep a note of inquisitiveness in your tone but make sure to keep your phrasing along the lines of "I'd guess ... ", "I wonder if ... " and so on.

Alongside this empathetic approach, you could continue to try to catch him being good, so that he will know that he gets more notice for his good behaviour than his misbehaviour.

Try to minimise the need for punishments by, as you have done, reverting to distraction and trying to manage his environment so he has less opportunity to misbehave. That might just mean keeping a closer eye on him to intervene before he gets cross.

I do think his behaviour will improve as you show him you understand that he may be finding it hard with changes in his creche. Similarly, it will be easier as long as he is engaged and challenged enough by the interactions there during the day.


Cuddles and snuggles can put jealousy to bed

Q Our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter has become very jealous of our fourteen-month-old daughter over the previous month. Before now, she didn't seem to have any major issues with having a younger sibling. However, she has recently become very aggressive towards her and resents any attention the younger child gets. It has also caused a regression in potty training. We are uncertain about how to approach this behaviour. We are scolding her firmly (not for the toilet accidents) as her actions can be dangerous and hurtful, however, I am afraid that she will feel that we are constantly giving out, which will increase her resentment. We are also very conscious to praise good behaviour and give her lots of individual attention. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.


A I am a strong believer that children's behaviour rarely changes dramatically unless there are some significant external changes in their lives.

You point out that your daughter never seemed to have any "major issues" with her younger baby sister up until the last month or so. That suggests to me that something significant may have changed in her world in the last four to six weeks.

Two possible events come to my mind. Firstly, I wonder when your younger child started to walk?

It can sometimes be the case that older children seem to happily accept a younger sibling until the point at which that younger sibling becomes fully mobile.

Suddenly a smaller sibling can be "into" everything in a new way. Where before an older child might have been able to retreat to find their own space to play, they now discover that an ambulant sibling can follow them. For the first time they may be frustrated with the adoration and desire to 'hang out' that their baby sister or brother displays.

A second possible source of change (and consequently a possible source of upset) is the toilet-training. Toilet-training is a very significant developmental step for any child. The mastery and control they can gain over their bowel and bladder can help them move into a greater sense of independence.

While that is all very positive, it can also signify a loss of babyhood for them. They can feel this loss internally. More often, however, their parents and the other adults express it to them. We make references, for example, to how big and grown up they are now that they are weeing and pooing in the toilet.

We may talk about how "nappies are for babies" and that they are so big that they don't need the nappies anymore.

While this may be true, and indeed a good thing, it also does mark a real end to babyhood for many parents. So, during the toilet-training process your older daughter may have picked up this expectation that she is growing up. She may also have picked up that the expectations are different for her now that she is older. Again this is a good thing, but it does have its downsides too. She may wish she was still a younger baby (like her sister!) who doesn't have to carry any responsibility.

She on the other hand now has to be responsible for all this toileting 'stuff'. This may be the reason that she is regressing in the toilet-training and also taking out her frustrations on her little sister.

She may be trying to explain to you that she doesn't want to have to grow up, nor be a 'big' sister.

So, rather than relying on scolding her for hurting her sister, perhaps it may be timely to talk, empathetically, with her about what it is like to have to be a big sister and to have to grow up and take more responsibility for herself.

I think you may find that she doesn't see this all positively!

Make comments to her that will show her that you can understand that growing up has its benefits but also has its downsides. I'd guess that if you said things to her like "I wonder if you sometimes wish you were the little sister that everyone wants to mind" or "it can be very annoying, sometimes, having a little sister" you may find that she will agree with you!

So do stay aware of the transitions that are happening for her and be patient with her. Try to balance any scolding with lots of opportunities to catch her being good and to praise her good behaviour. Do stay patient with her as you continue with the toilet-training.

Try to create opportunities, too, for warm, nurturing one-to-one time with your older daughter. Perhaps use bath-times where you can play with her while she is in the water and then snuggle her up in a warm towel for a cuddle.

Perhaps bedtimes may be good times for that cuddle with a story and some 'mam or dad time' without her little sister there too.

Irish Independent

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