Life Parenting

Monday 23 July 2018

Ask the expert: My five-year-old is demanding and always wants his own way

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

The clinical psychologist and parenting expert advises on the best approach to deal with a demanding five-year-old and coping with a new partner's adult children who won't acknowledge you.

Question: My five-year-old boy has, in recent times, become very demanding. He wants to get his own way and get everything first, such as treats or use of the iPad.

He is also competitive and always wants to win at board games or football and gets angry when he loses.

When he wins, he shouts "I won, I am the winner".

When he is corrected, or does not get his own way, he gets angry and could grab things and throw them. Or he might hit and kick those near him.

We are at our wits' end with him. Have you any ideas about how to deal with all of this?

David replies: Your son sounds like he needs a firm hand to guide him, and lots of understanding about the fact that he gets frustrated and cross when things don't go his way. There are lots of things about his behaviour that are very normal for a five-year-old.

Out of interest, I wonder if your son started school this year? The wider social mix of school can often be the prompt for children to increase their competitiveness, boastfulness and challenging of rules. Maybe other children have influenced some of the behaviour you now see.

I often think that one of the most important lessons that children have to learn is that they are not the centre of the known universe and that they don't wield all of the power in their family.

The key to teaching children that you have the power and the authority, and that they must accommodate to your desires more than you will accommodate to theirs, lies in being firm, really consistent, and kind about imposing your will. I am not surprised to hear that your son is demanding, or that he insists on coming first, or winning any game that he is part of. Small children can't bear losing, because they can't cope with the disappointment that follows.

Learning to lose graciously is a real skill. It is also a lesson that needs lots of repetition. We come to learn it by losing to people who win graciously.

Unlike your son, who lords it over everyone when he does win, gracious winners are delighted with their own victory but compassionate to those that they have beaten.

Your son requires lots of correction when he is involved in games. He needs to be coached in the social etiquette of enjoying his win, but realising that others might be sad about their loss.

Similarly, he needs to play games where he loses, and where his loss is greeted with understanding about the great disappointment or feelings of dejection, disillusionment or frustration that things didn't go the way he wanted.

In order to learn to win and lose graciously, children need experience of both. They need adults around them who can help them to soothe and regulate the strong feelings of elation and upset that might come depending on the outcome.

Your approach to all the other disappointments or frustrations that he experiences, when he is told "no", or is told he "must" do something, needs to be similar. You need to be firm in insisting that the particular limit or rule is upheld and consistent in enforcing the limit.

Dealing with his aggression requires equal consistency and firmness. He needs to realise that you won't let him hit or kick you. That means moving out of his range, or moving him to a place where he can't actually get at anyone.

As you move him, you can be understanding about his frustration, but definitive about the fact that even though he is upset, he may not hurt anyone else.

All too often, we tell small children to stop hitting us, saying things like, "Stop! That hurts mammy, you are making me sad". But equally often, we then don't prevent our child (who is still small enough to lift out of harm's way) from hitting.

As well as the verbal command to "Stop!" we need to use a bit of physical intervention to ensure they are not in a position to continue to hit us, by, for example, moving them out of the way or to a safer place out of reach.

Firmness, kindness, understanding and consistency are the best ways to deal with frustrated five-year-olds.

My new partner's adult children won't acknowledge me. It is awkward and upsetting for everyone

Question: I have just begun a relationship with a new partner. He has been married and recently separated, while my husband died two years ago. I've no children of my own. My new partner has three grown-up kids, aged 18, 21 and 22. It's like I don't exist for them. They refuse to acknowledge me. His youngest daughter comes to visit occasionally, but she actually looks through me and will leave a room if I enter. He has asked her what the problem is and she won't tell him. It makes family gatherings very awkward. Have you any ideas?

David replies: Despite the joy of finding love again, after separation or bereavement, it can often be very difficult when people enter into new relationships where there are children from a previous relationship.

It does help when you don't take those children's feelings towards you, or their behaviour towards you, personally. It might help you to understand things from their perspective. When we do, their apparent rejection of us - the 'new' partner - may make more sense. Lots of children worry about the impact a new relationship will have on their own relationship with their parent. Many fear a dilution of the love from their father or mother.

Your partner's youngest daughter may have been the 'apple of his eye'. While he was still with his wife, she had a particular relationship with him in the context of his relationship with his ex being difficult.

Having found love again, with you, her dad may now appear all-consumed in this new relationship. His daughter may feel that he is distracted from her and her needs. Worse, from her perspective, she may even feel that he has chosen you over her.

Another difficulty for children (even adult children) when their parent begins a new relationship is that it underlines the ending of the old relationship.

So in your case, your partner's children may in fact have suddenly been hit by the reality of their own parents' separation and the fact that their dad and mum are no longer together.

The pain that then comes with the realisation of the loss can be massive and deeply felt. Alongside the despair and sadness that it can bring comes, often, anger.

If children want an outlet to express that anger then who better to direct it towards than the person who they may perceive 'stole' their father from their mother?

It makes sense, too, that your partner's daughter would be reluctant to talk to him about whatever her reasons are for her dislike of, or distrust in, you.

If she is openly critical of you in any way, then he may argue with, withdraw from, or punish her in some way for this. She risks jeopardising her relationship with her dad further by complaining or expressing dissatisfaction with his life-choices.

She may feel it is easier to be passively aggressive by ignoring you, because it is very hard to challenge her in a concrete manner when she is disengaged like this. There may come a time to challenge this kind of behaviour, but that time has not yet arrived.

For now, because your relationship with your partner is relatively new, the most important thing you can do is to be patient and understanding with all of his children. Even though they are adults, they still need time to adjust to the new situation.

Maybe this means giving them space and time with their dad during these early stages of your relationship with him, when you are not around.

They need time to realise that you are not a threat to them, that you are not the cause of their parents' break-up and that their parents are indeed now separated for good.

You may also need to be patient with their dad too. He, like them, needs to process the complex mix of emotions that comes with his new circumstances. He may want to please everyone, which is rarely possible!

He may be delighted to have found love, with you, but may be confused, or upset, by the complexities it has created in his relationships with his children. Time and understanding will, hopefully, make everything easier.

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