Saturday 18 January 2020

Dear David Coleman: Everything is a battle with my four-year-old son. How can I stop him whinging all the time?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. Since September of last year, my four-year-old spends all his time whinging, crying, moaning and refusing - everything can be a battle with him. I do discipline him and don't give in to the whinging. He did start in Montessori in September, but it is based in the same crèche he has been in since he was 15/16 months old. We work full time so he's there from 7.30am to 5.30pm. There is a boy in his class I think he finds intimidating and we have spoken to the crèche about it. Is his whinging normal for this age and how do we manage it?

A. Yes, whinging is normal enough for a four-year-old. In fact, whinging can be 'normal'  for a child at any age.

In some ways, it might be more helpful to try to work out what the whinging represents for your son, rather than focusing on the fact that he whinges.

Your son, for example, is whinging for a reason. It's possible he might be whinging because he doesn't feel heard. I know he is only four, but you must bear in mind that even four-year-olds like to determine what they will or won't do.

In practice, we parents do most of the choosing on behalf of our four-year-olds, because many of the choices they would otherwise make might turn out badly for them. Naturally, this causes conflict between us and them. They have one idea, we have another, and invariably we 'win' because we have more power to insist on our view being the deciding one.

Lots of whinging, then, might be just the complaint that our children are not getting what they want, but instead have to succumb to our will and whatever it is that we want for them.

It is relevant, I think, that your son's behaviour has only changed since last September, when he started in Montessori. I think it is fair to conclude that a lot of the upset you have been seeing at home may be related to his experience of this transition.

I am not suggesting that the Montessori is necessarily bad for him, but it may simply have been challenging for him over the last six months or so.

While it is nice that he is still in, essentially, the same environment of the crèche, he has also had a big change in that he now spends three to four hours each day in a differently structured setting. He may find that unsettling.

He will also, presumably, have different carers too. For a start, he has a new teacher for those mornings, and he possibly has also moved to a new room in the crèche too that caters for the 'post-Montessori' hours.

I know you say that you don't give in to the whinging and oppositional behaviour. That is good in terms of being consistent and firm, but it may be that your son doesn't experience this firmness as being very responsive to, and understanding of, him.

Perhaps your son may need much greater emotional support about the changes inherent in being in the Montessori class. He may need you and his dad to realise that it has been hard and that he is tired because of the extra work, or more stretched academically than ever before.

Bear in mind, too, that your son has a very long day in the crèche. Even without the pressure of Montessori, he may be just exhausted at the end of the day when you bring him home.

He might be met with your own tiredness, since you too will have had a long day, and it may be that you are all just stressed in the evenings. I don't know how you might display that stress, but perhaps your son is just displaying it through his behaviour and the whinginess you describe.

So, rather than suggesting any kind of behavioural or disciplinary approach, I think it would be helpful to be much more empathetic, warm, kind and understanding towards him.

If this is how you currently deal with him, it might be just a question of doing more of it, rather than changing your approach.

I think that if you can show your son that you can understand that he might feel challenged by Montessori, or stretched by the work, or stressed by the changes, you will find that his whinging reduces over time.


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