David Coleman: Our five-year-old son torments his little sister and refuses to take correction from us. Please help!
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. Our five-year-old is ruling the roost and spoiling most days for the whole family. He is extremely impatient and aggressive. His younger sister is close in age and he torments her. He ignores us while we tell him not to do something, and if he is told "no" we can be met with cheek, spitting, hitting or smirking. If we try and talk to him about his behaviour he covers his ears. It's hard, some days, to see any good in him; therefore it can be hard to praise him. It feels like our house is a constant battleground and that we are failing him. Please help.
David replies: It sounds like it is very challenging living with your older boy. His behaviour appears to be really difficult. Impatience and aggression are never nice to experience.
It is rare, though, for challenging behaviour to occur in a vacuum. Most children develop aggressive tendencies as a response to distress, upset, change, trauma, jealousy or other difficult circumstances.
In many ways we can think of their difficult or challenging behaviour as their way of trying to show us that something is not right in their world. Particularly when they are young, like your son, and they may not have learned more effective ways of communicating their distress.
While he may have a temperament that is quick to anger, there may also be something about the way your family system operates that maintains this negative dynamic. For example, I wonder how he sees his place in your family?
When his little sister was born, I wonder if he felt very displaced? He didn't have his position as an only child for long before his sister arrived and diluted the time and attention that he could receive. It is very possible that he resents having a little sister and perhaps this is the reason whey he targets her so much by "tormenting" her.
It is interesting that he ignores you, or covers his ears, when you try to discuss his behaviour with him. It is as if he can't bear to be given out to. Even though he may target his sister to get more attention, he may be distressed if that attention is negative.
We also have to bear in mind that he is just five, and while that is certainly old enough to be able to feel jealousy and rage, he probably can't describe such feelings to you.
However, feelings such as these probably underlie his behaviour. In my experience, we often see children reacting to their emotions and displaying them in their behaviour. It's like young children have no filter, between feeling an emotion and displaying it in some kind of action.
As children get older, we like to think they may be able to regulate their emotions, such that they can calm themselves down, for example, and then behave in that calmer fashion. But this is what we need to teach them. So, rather than focusing on your son's behaviour, I think you should focus on his feelings. You and his dad know him best, so try to come up with a list of feelings that you think he might have.
That list might include jealousy, frustration, envy and rejection (if he feels everyone is cross with him all the time). It might include feeling on the edge of things, like he is a bad child, or like nobody likes him.
Any or all of these feelings may be relevant. You may come up with more feelings that you know probably apply to him. Then using empathy statements, name the different feelings, every so often, that you think he might experience.
Talking with him about what you guess he might feel, will give him the chance to connect into his own feelings and to feel like you might just understand him enough that he doesn't have to keep showing you his distress with the challenging behaviour.
If he is like most five-year-olds, he will want to bask in your approval. When you empathise with how you think he feels, you may find that you have lots more opportunity to catch him being good and to praise him.
The combination of empathy and more opportunities for positive attention will hopefully transform your family system into a more positive environment all round.
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