Monday 23 October 2017

Dear David Coleman: My young son gets so angry and hits out at me. How can I help him to deal with these feelings?

Photo posed by model
Photo posed by model

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

Q: My 3-year-old boy gets so angry when I don't let him have everything his way. He has hit me and thrown things at me. I generally try remaining really calm and neutral, letting him calm down and then chat about his behaviour but I have also responded really angrily. I was raised with slapping and shouting as the main discipline and it did me no good whatsoever. I want something different for my son. I want him to know that it's ok to be angry but I don't want him hitting me! How can I help him deal with his feelings?

A: It is great that you have decided to try something different in parenting your son than you experienced yourself growing up. In my experience slapping and shouting rarely make for very happy homes.

My young son gets so angry and hits out at me.  How can I help him to deal with these feelings?

It is great that you have decided to try something different in parenting your son than you experienced yourself growing up. In my experience slapping and shouting rarely make for very happy homes.

Children who experience a lot of shouting or slapping will experience their carers as a frightening presence. They will often grow up believing that you have to subjugate others by being louder and more forceful than them. They may internalise a belief that overpowering someone else is the only way to get what you want or need.

Slapping can normalise violence and hitting as a way to demonstrate power. Slapping a child is never good, or never right. It is an abuse of adult power.

The fact that your son is hitting out when he doesn't get his own way is ironic, if you have striven to avoid slapping him. There must, however, be something in your response that leads him to think that you accept this kind of behaviour, or that you won't prevent it.

Toddlers and very young children might bite, or strike out or kick in the heat of their anger. In some ways it is a very instinctive, or, impulsive, thing to do. But the response they get from the adult that they strike is critical.

We have to react by preventing them from hitting or kicking again. We must do more than simply tell them that hitting is not okay, or that it isn't nice to kick. Saying "stop" without physically ensuring that the child does stop is ineffective.

Most children, at the point that they hit, will be full of adrenaline from anger, or even over-excitement. That adrenaline will mean that they are not thinking very rationally. So the mix of being so young and being filled with adrenaline, will mean that they won't necessarily take on board what we are saying to them. They either won't be able to attend to what we say, or won't be able to process it, and so won't comply.

That doesn't mean that we don't tell them to stop - we do. But, as well as telling them to stop we must make them stop, by holding their hands, moving out of range, lifting them away from us or taking some action that actually stops them from hitting.

Naturally, we must be careful that we don't use force to stop them, or that we don't strike back, or in some way hurt our child. The aim is simply to ensure that their hitting stops. Alongside whatever physical action we take, we must back it up with stern words like "No hitting" or "You may not slap," while also looking sternly at them.

It is the consistent repetition of this sternness and a clear physical reaction that prevents our children striking us that gives them the message that we will not tolerate their hitting.

For sure, we can also use empathy and understanding to try to help our children work out why they are so cross, or to show that we do 'get' that they may be frustrated when they can't have their own way.

Like with many aspects of parenting, discipline of young children is all about balance. We must balance the rigidity of our rules and the limits we set for them with kindness, warmth and responsiveness.

Your son needs to learn that when you say no you mean no, but that you are always aware that it might be hard or upsetting for him to comply with whatever behaviour the 'no' requires of him.

Kindness and firmness are a good balance for dealing with toddlers. You may need to be a bit firmer with your son when he hits out, so that he learns that you simply won't allow it.

** If you have any parenting queries for David Coleman, please email dcoleman@independent.ie. Please note that David cannot enter into individual correspondence   

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