Dear David Coleman: My grandson's behaviour is very hostile towards my daughter and I'm worried about her health
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
My six-year-old grandson is very hostile to his parents, particularly his mother. He refuses, point blank, to take any correction and will kick out at her or call her names. He throws objects during tantrums. Both his parents work, and yet when he is with his childminder, she appears to have no problem with him. Our daughter's job is very stressful and facing home to the additional pressure of this child's behavioural problems is, in my opinion, too much for her to carry and I am worried about her own health.
David replies: It does sound like your daughter is under a lot of pressure. It must be difficult for her to be carrying the burden of a stressful job, and then feeling the added strain of her son's behaviour. I do hear your concern for her health. You may be right to target your concern for her, since, unless we mind ourselves, as parents, we won't be fit to mind our children. It is possible that your daughter is already so under pressure from work that she doesn't feel able to parent effectively when she gets home.
However, I think it is important to realise that your grandson does not have a behavioural problem. If he had some intrinsic behavioural issue, it would be apparent in all environments and with everyone. Your grandson may behave badly when his mother is there, but he behaves well with his childminder. That suggests that your grandson is simply responding to, or reacting to, the different ways in which he is cared for.
In my view, there are probably two different dynamics at play that may be exacerbating the problems at home. One dynamic may, as I have suggested, be originating from your daughter. She may come home from work, exhausted and stressed, anticipating further hassle and stress from her son. She may carry a really negative frame of mind into the house every evening, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy, whereby she expects bad behaviour and so receives bad behaviour. If she is tired and grumpy, for example, her son may react to that with his own negativity.
Because your daughter may feel so badly treated by her son, she may also adopt a very defensive and antagonistic attitude towards him. This too will sour their relationship and add to, or even create, the negativity that may be present between them.
The second dynamic may be coming from your grandson. He may desperately miss his parents if they are both working long hours in stressful jobs. He may want to connect in with them when they return, and yet find it so very difficult if they are emotionally unavailable to him because of the pressure they are under. At age six he is unlikely to be able to explain what this feels like (he just experiences it as unpleasant or distressing) and these strong negative feelings may get acted out in misbehaviour.
Resolving the problems at home rests entirely with your daughter and her husband. If they are both very stressed then they need to address this and look to see how they can reduce their stresses, such that they can be more emotionally available to their son.
As adults they can gain insight into what they themselves may be doing that contribute to his behaviour. I also believe that they, then, are in a much more powerful position to change their own behaviour, or their approaches, towards their son. When adults change how they interact with children, it will always lead to change in the children's behaviour. When adults act positively children react positively. When adults act negatively children react negatively.
If their childminder has a much more positive relationship with their son there could be very significant amounts of learning to be gleaned from her. What is it that she does that means she has no problem with him? If your daughter replicated the style of interaction that the childminder uses, then she is likely to see a very significant and positive improvement in her relationship with her son. The more positive our relationship with our children, the more effective our parenting of them is. Creating that positive relationship is your daughter's responsibility.
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