Dear David Coleman: My five-year-old son's behaviour has become very aggressive lately. What should I do?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My stepfather, whom my five-year-old son was very close to, passed away in November and we moved in with my mother as she didn't like being on her own. Since we have moved in, my son has become very angry and aggressive. It is particularly bad when his cousins come to visit my mum and they are playing with his toys.
My mum has become a third parent and makes comments about how well behaved his cousins are. She thinks my son needs counselling about his aggression, that its related to his grandad's death, but I'm not sure?
David replies: I think your son may well be grieving his grandad's death. However, his death is not the only significant life-change that your son has experienced.
I could imagine that the move into his granny's house may also have been very significant and disruptive for him. While in many ways that move may have been a very positive thing for him, it might also have had negative outcomes.
It is certainly the case that the death of someone close can lead to real anger and distress. In the process of grief, we can go through a wide range of very powerful feelings of shock, disbelief, sadness, anger, hopelessness and denial, before hopefully, reaching a point of accommodation and a readiness to move on.
Any, or all, of those feelings may be relevant for your son. If he does seems stuck with his grief, then play therapy might really help him to process the feelings some more.
As importantly, however, I think you might want to look at the dynamic that has been created by your move back into your mother's house.
One of the changes, that you have already become aware of, is that your mum, his granny, now acts like a third parent. If her parenting style is very different to you and your partner's style, then it could be confusing for your son. He just may not know whose direction to follow.
It may even be causing him some stress that his relationship with his granny has changed, from perhaps being slightly indulgent, to being firmer and more directive with him. He might be missing the fact that she no longer acts like a granny, but acts more like a parent.
I could imagine that moving in with your mum has been an adjustment for you and your partner. While, again, there may be many positives associated with it, there may have been difficulties too, like negotiating the space and establishing your independence when you are back "home".
Your decision to move back in with your mum is also significant and you have done it as a favour to her, to reduce her loneliness. Perhaps that decision was easy and positive, but maybe it was a tough decision to make, and some doubts about the wisdom of it may linger for you or your partner.
That issue of your mum's house becoming your home again may also be very relevant for your son. He was probably used to visiting his granny's, like his cousins do, but now he has a different experience of the house as it has become his home too.
So, when his cousins come over to visit their granny, I could see how it might be difficult for him to negotiate his sense of ownership of the space, and their sense of ownership. Establishing that this is his space and his stuff might be really hard for him, and his cousins are likely to oblivious to his internal struggle.
Any or all of these dynamics could also be playing a part in his increased anger and aggression. He may just be 'on edge' due to all the loss and change that has happened in the last six to eight months. It is very common for stress and uncertainty to lead to angry outbursts in children.
Using empathy to help your son make sense of the changes and their possible impact on him will be good. Establishing clear, common rules and clear lines of authority amongst you all will also help. Having a plan for when cousins come to visit, such that special toys are protected for him, will be useful.
Play therapy might also be a real opportunity for him to work through the potential complexity of all that has happened to him.
Health & Living