Tuesday 12 December 2017

David Coleman: How can I stop my son hitting out at me during his tantrums?

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers his advice to your parenting woes...

Tantrums can be associated with age.
Tantrums can be associated with age.
David Coleman

David Coleman

I am looking for some advice or direction on how to deal with my three-year-old's tantrums.

To give some background, I have a three-year-old boy and a three-month-old baby.

My husband and I were working full-time. However, I have been home since January on maternity leave.

My older son was in creche two days a week and then with grandparents for the other three.

He is now attending playschool three mornings a week and seems very happy going there. But during the last month my son has started to kick or hit me in the heat of a tantrum. He starts to scream and stomp his feet. He seems to get very frustrated if he does not get what he wants. I know that he is probably testing boundaries and I am trying my best to stay calm, but I am finding it very stressful.

His behaviour seems so out of character. Do you have any suggestions on how best to deal with these outbursts?

Tantrums can be associated with age.

David responds:

Your son's tantrums may be just associated with his age. After all, two and three-year-olds are prone to losing the plot! They are easily frustrated by things not going their way, without having the skill to express that frustration in words.

However, I think there may be a little bit more going on for your son, beyond just typical three-year-old tantrums. Most importantly, he has experienced a lot of change in the last few months.

It is easy to discount the impact that change has on small children. Sometimes we may be tempted to think that they just don't notice, or care, about stuff that happens in their world.

In practice, however, any kind of change will lead to a certain level of unpredictability for children. When they don't know what to expect, they will often feel anxious.

As I mentioned, it can be difficult for them to explain these complex, and often sub-conscious, worries about instability in their lives. So, without an easier way to express themselves, they will often, unconsciously, display those strong feelings in their behaviour.

I think that this is what is happening for your son. His world has changed a lot since his baby brother was born.

For a start you are now at home, where he had been used to you just being around in the evenings and at weekends. While this may be a very good thing, it is still different for him and he has to adjust being with you more of the time.

He also now has to share you, and his dad, with his little brother. I could imagine that he was more used to having a lot of lovely attention in the evenings from you and his dad, who were probably excited to see him every day when you got home from work.

He has also left his creche and moved into a new preschool. This requires a lot of emotional energy as he has to make new friends and accommodate to the new routine of the playschool.

So, with all that is going on, it is no surprise that he might be out of sorts.

I think if you bear this in mind, it may help you to find those extra reserves of patience that are required to support him.

You are correct that the calmer you are, in response to him, the easier it will be for him to get over the tantrum.

The more you get cross, generally, the bigger his tantrum will become in response. So, try your best to empathise with your son's position.

Let him know that you recognise that he may feel usurped by his little brother and perhaps jealous.

Let him know that you recognise that he may be exhausted by the new playschool hours.

Let him know that you recognise that he may be missing his special time with you. The more you show him that you understand the stresses he is under, the less, I think, he will act out those stresses in tantrums.

So you may find that, as you keep empathising with him, his tantrums become less frequent or less intense.

Do remain firm with him and don't let him hit you, by moving out of his reach. But balance that firmness with lots of kindness and warmth, as his tantrums are most likely to be borne out of stress at the changes in his life.

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