Thursday 12 December 2019

How do I cope with my son's aggression and destruction?

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from the clinical psychologist on how to deal with agression in a toddler and how a mother can cope when a newborn needs to be fed to sleep.

Question: My three-year-old son is determined, stubborn, rebellious, independent, loving, funny and very smart. But because of his determination and stubbornness, we have daily clashes. He is aggressive towards me, trashing rooms, refusing to eat his dinner, and going berserk if he is refused anything. I've tried it all; bold step, taking toys, sending him to his room, excluding him from the table etc. But all of our fighting makes me worry about his happiness and our relationship. Please help me to cope with him so we can be happier and calmer.

David replies: You sound worn out, indeed, by your son. The behaviours that you describe are hard to cope with. Your son's behaviour, though, "trashing" rooms and going "berserk" sound particularly extreme and, I think, warrant further assessment with an early childhood specialist or specialist team.

One of the developmental processes that three-year-olds are engaged in is the process of individuation. Individuation is the way in which toddlers become aware of their own separateness from their caregivers.

It is a very natural and instinctive process, but one of the mechanisms that is involved is that toddlers and pre-schoolers have to start trying to act independently of their mums and dads.

Often this process occurs in the form of stubbornness, tantrums and obstinacy as the small child digs their heels in to show to themselves and their caregiver that they have their own mind and can make their own decisions.

But, the process of individuation rarely occurs as dramatically, and forcefully, as you describe. It may be that simply tweaking your responses as a parent will be enough, but it may also be that your son has particular delays, or issues with, his impulse control or dealing with his frustrations.

Until such time as you can get an assessment to determine if there is any specific issue you need to address with your son, you can try to adjust your parenting style to see if that makes a difference.

In most situations, the key to responding to toddlers and pre-schoolers is to be very firm, but very kind in your firmness.

Three-year-olds do still need to know that you are the boss. A parent who is easily recognisable as the boss, though, will appear to be very calm, very clear and very determined.

In sharp contrast, when parents lose their own cool and become upset and angry in their behaviour it can appear to a small child that nobody is in charge. This can be highly anxiety-provoking for a child.

When their anxiety peaks it too can add to the adrenalin levels, such that a toddler can seem more angry, more intense in their tantrum and out of control.

Small children need to know that we have certain expectations of what they will do and what they won't do. If we are consistent in these expectations and in the limits we set it gives them a blueprint for how to behave.

When we impose our limits and expectations, however, we need to acknowledge that it can sometimes discommode our small child.

They may not like the limits. Their oppositional behaviour is often their way of demonstrating their disagreement.

If they could explain their frustrations, in words, they probably would. Since they can't express the complexity of their feelings, they show it in their behaviour. So, warmth and understanding, of their frustration, will often reduce the intensity of the tantrum and lead to a speedier resolution of the problem.

So, with your son, work towards showing him that you understand that he gets frustrated and upset, but then gently and firmly insist that he still needs to stick with the plan you have set. Adding in the warmth and understanding will help to improve the quality of your relationship with him.

Spending time "catching him being good" will also lead to more positivity in your relationship and might balance out the times when you have to put your foot down and be firm with him.

Hopefully, the outcome of an assessment may give you further, child-specific, ideas for responding to your son.

I have been feeding my baby to sleep and now feel so trapped because I can't get any break from her

Question: I have a six-month-old daughter, after five rounds of IVF and two miscarriages. So, there has never been a more wanted child. She is exclusively breastfed and she won't sleep unless she is feeding. I'm feeling really trapped, as I can't get away even for a few hours. I'm so, so tired. I'm cross with my daughter and cross with my husband, even though all of this is my fault. It was so easy to feed her to sleep, and now it has seriously backfired on me. How can I get my daughter to take a bottle or get her to sleep without my breast?

David replies: You sound very critical of your parenting, but you have little to blame yourself for, because it sounds like you are doing a great job in caring for your baby and meeting her needs.

It is easy to overdo our parenting! We can be so intent on getting it "right" that we place enormous pressure on ourselves and on our babies. I think that many mothers hit a "wall" when their babies reach six months of age.

The relentless nature of parenting, while babies are continuing to grow rapidly, often teething, with a high need for their mothers, can take its toll. I doubt you are alone in your feelings of exhaustion.

Do make sure that your own vitamin and mineral levels are okay; sometimes supplements, like iron, can really help reduce tiredness.

Many parents will also share your experience of feeding their children to sleep. Most babies, whether bottle or breast-fed will associate the sucking action of feeding with comfort and security and take advantage of that to fall asleep.

There is nothing wrong with feeding babies to sleep. It can be a real benefit to know that snuggling your baby up to feed will assist them to nod off. Helping babies to settle to sleep can sometimes be a challenge otherwise.

It is very difficult, however, when feeding becomes the only way that they can fall asleep. That does place a lot of pressure on you to be there every time your baby wants and needs comfort.

If you want to change your baby's sleeping habit, then I suggest that you do it slowly and gently. This means weaning her gradually away from feeding to sleep.

I am not clear, from your email, if you'd like to wean her entirely from the breast, or if you intend to keep breastfeeding her after you have broken the association between feeding and sleeping.

I know you mention that you are exclusively breastfeeding her, but, as an aside, I wonder have you begun to introduce some solids? If not, then six months can be a good age to do so.

But, before you begin to change anything about her feeding routine you do need to be clear about whether you are just planning to break the association between feeding and falling asleep or if you are starting on a broader weaning process.

If you plan to wean her entirely, you are best to start by dropping one feed a day, during the daytime, as you have the best chance of distracting her or being able to offer her something else to eat or drink as an alternative.

Naturally this is a gradual process that will eventually arrive at the night feeds and similarly, you start by dropping one feed at night (usually the last feed before she wakes in the morning). When she seems to be settled and accepting of that you move to drop the next feed and so on.

If you are only trying to get her used to sleeping without being fed to sleep then you can start with the night feeds. You may find it is easiest if your husband takes her and settles and soothes her back to sleep, since the association of the smell of you and your breasts may be very powerful for her.

The key to any kind of weaning, or new sleeping habit is to go slowly and patiently. There is no need to give your daughter sharp or traumatic shocks to her emotional system by withdrawing the feeding to sleep all in one go.

She may protest at the shift and so you need to stay determined, warm and caring during these times, knowing that she can cope with the change staying reassured that it is a natural thing for her to learn to soothe herself to sleep in due course.

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