Saturday 18 November 2017

Dear David Coleman: My five-year-old lashes out at home but is good as gold in school. What's going on?

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

Q. My five-year-old son's behaviour is causing a lot of frustration and unhappiness in our household. Our son is a very bright, loud and forceful young boy. He shouts, screams, hits and scratches if he doesn't get his own way. He is as good as gold in school and there are no problems there. His brother (aged just five weeks) died 10 months before he was born. We were very stressed during his pregnancy and early years and we've been hyper-vigilant in case anything happens to him, like his brother. He is competitive with his younger sister, aged four, too.

David replies: It sounds like there is a lot going on in your family. I imagine you have been dealing with your own grief regarding your first son, who died so young, and then trying to manage two young children who have come in relatively quick succession.

The good news about your five-year-old is that he seems to be doing very well in school and shows none of the same behaviour problems there. This positive experience he is having in school is good for him. School seems to offer him lots of opportunity to feel good about himself.

The fact that he is doing well, there, is also good in that it shows you that he is highly unlikely to have any kind of intrinsic, neurological, or developmental, issues that are leading to his misbehaviour.

Rather, it is much more likely that his really challenging behaviour at home is related, in some way, to the dynamic that has developed between you both and him. Perhaps, as you mention, the stress and grief that you were experiencing during the pregnancy and his early years, affected how you initially "connected" with him.

You may find that your grief either tinged or continues to tinge how you experience your five-year-old. Coming to understand this, and respond to this, may be quite a complex and significant piece of work for your family. Therapy for you, as parents, might help you with processing all that has gone on.

If you were hyper-vigilant and stressed, as you suggest, it probably led you to be quite anxious, possibly quite fussy and over-protective with him as a baby and younger child.

Babies, in such an environment, will be attuned to their parents' moods and the tone of their parents' interactions with them. They will, quite possibly, pick up on the anxieties and stress and that could leave them a bit "on edge" themselves, making them appear fussy, unsettled, cranky and "difficult".

Naturally, that could contribute to quite a difficult start between parents, who are stressed, and a baby that seems stressed.

I think your son needs for you to adopt a new way of interacting with him. I think it will really help him if you can try to see past his behaviour, to understand the feelings that might be driving that behaviour.

In essence, I am asking you both to become more empathetic. I'd like you to be able to see the world from his perspective and that might help you to become more attuned and more responsive to him. For example, the competitiveness between him and his sister may be exacerbated because he sees that she doesn't get into trouble as much as he does (because her behaviour may be a lot less challenging). Rather than giving out to him for being competitive, tell him how you can see how he might be frustrated when he compares himself to her.

Similarly, when he is frustrated that he can't get his own way, be warm and understanding about the fact that the limits you are setting might be annoying for him to have to comply with. You don't "give in" to him, but being warm and kind about applying limits makes it much easier for children to accept them.

Allied to this warm and empathetic approach, it will help him if you become really consistent and reliable in your actions and reactions towards him. I'd suggest that you and his mum try to find a parenting style that you both like and then work really hard to be consistent with it. My own book Parenting is Child's Play might be a useful starting point.

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