Saturday 20 January 2018

Family life: How can I get my four-year-old son to stop cursing?

David Coleman

David Coleman

We are the parents of three children -- two girls age 17 and 14 and a boy of four. He attends playschool and really enjoys it. Our son has recently developed quite a temper and has also been experiencing some night terrors, although not every night. I would appreciate any advice you could give us on the following.

When our son is in a rage he uses the most awful language directed at whoever is unfortunate enough to be in the room. At the moment we are trying to ignore it, but our girls, in particular, find it very upsetting, as they adore him.

His most recent outburst was because both his dad and I were invited to a wedding and our daughters were due to be minding him for part of that day. While he was with us at the wedding ceremony for the earlier part of the day he was well behaved but as soon as he came home to his sisters to be minded, he really lost it.

I am terrified that if anyone outside the family heard his outbursts, they would think he was an awful little boy. In fact he is a very placid, easygoing chap 99pc of the time. These outbursts are totally out of character for him. What should we do?

The good news is that any other parent who hears him having a tantrum would probably simply be grateful that it wasn't their own child having the tantrum, and would fully understand what you are experiencing.

I doubt that too many other people would be critical of you or your son for what is comparatively normal behaviour for four-year-olds.

That said, the intensity of his tantrums seems to be the issue for you, rather than the fact that he has them. It may be that his tantrums are such a counterpoint to his normally "placid, easygoing" nature that they seem more shocking and more intense. I wonder how they might compare to the tantrums of other children? You may find that they aren't actually that bad!

I notice you describe that your daughters "adore" him; that might be part of the reason why he acts up especially badly when they are minding him. He may have an inflated sense of his own importance because his sisters have placed him on somewhat of a pedestal.

If they love him so much they may find it hard to discipline him or to set limits on him. It sounds like they can't bear to see him upset and so they may try lots of things (including giving him what he wants) in order to stop him being so frustrated.

Unfortunately, giving in to small children in this way means that they learn that tantrums can be an effective way to get their demands met.

In this way, then, he has probably noticed that his sisters are less able to cope with his outbursts and so, either consciously or unconsciously, he may have sensed that his tantrums get him a desired response of lots of attention, or the power to get his sisters to cave in to his demands in order to calm him down.

Regarding the cursing, your son seems to know that it is the most shocking thing that he can do and so, accordingly, it is the most likely way to get a reaction from you or his sisters.

Planned ignoring of his cursing is probably the best approach as, I believe, if he gets no reaction to his bad language, he won't bother using it.

The central tenet of a planned ignoring approach is that the function of the behaviour you are ignoring is to get attention. If it no longer serves the function of getting attention (because it is being ignored) then it should diminish in frequency and intensity, but only after a brief period where it will increase in frequency and intensity (because initially your son seems to try harder to get the attention he expects from the cursing, for example).

Your son, however, will need to know what kinds of behaviour will get him his desired attention and so you need to demonstrate that talking calmly (not screaming), asking (not demanding), talking politely (not cursing) and such will get him much more notice and attention from you.

However, I also think that you need to take into account your family dynamic when you try to address his tantrums in this way. It seems to me that you and his dad are not the only responsible adults in the family that need to take on this approach.

With such a large age gap between him and his sisters it changes the dynamic of their relationship with him. So, rather than being simply siblings with roughly equivalent amounts of power and influence on each other, they do in fact have a much more responsible role with him, where they must also set limits on him and help him to regulate his feelings (especially his frustration and anger).

In many ways they will, therefore, have a more parental role with him, rather than simply a sibling role. This is neither a particularly good, nor a particularly bad thing. It must, however, be acknowledged for what it is.

In practical terms then, you need to help your two daughters to understand the basics of childcare; you need to teach them how to be firm, but understanding, in the face of his tantrums. You need to support them to ignore any outrageous behaviour and be ready to give lots of notice and attention to his calm and normal behaviour.

I think if you all react to him in a largely similar way you will find that his tantrums reduce markedly in both their frequency and intensity and he will continue to be a very normal four-year-old who occasionally (rather than regularly) loses the plot!

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