Tuesday 20 March 2018

Ask the expert: my three-year-old just won't listen to me. What can I do?

Showing empathy can help with a difficult child
Showing empathy can help with a difficult child
David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from the clinical psychologist and parenting expert on how to deal with a three-year-old's challenging behaviour and why it is wise to supervise a four-year-old child playing outside in an estate.

Q. Our three-year-old son is causing me some concern. His behaviour has become challenging in recent months. For example, he shouts at us, especially his little sister, won't listen to a word we say to him, is mean towards his friends at the childminder's, and won't follow her direction either. I'm worried that it is my fault that he is like this. I am really trying not to shout and lose my temper with him, as I know that he is enjoying my reaction, but it's easier said than done. I do think that I am not helping the situation, but don't know what to do.

David replies: You mention that the misbehaviour has only become challenging in recent months. Are you aware of any significant changes in his life, or your family circumstances? Has his sister become more mobile, or more demanding of your time, for example? Are there any additional children in the childminder's place, or any that have left?

Sometimes, children's misbehaviour is their sign to us that they are struggling with a change. Once they settle into the new circumstances, their behaviour also settles.

Also, do get his hearing checked. It is sometimes the case that children who don't seem to listen, and seem frustrated in lots of their outbursts, have a practical difficulty with their communication.

Dealing with hearing issues (if they are present) can make a world of difference to a child's communication, which in turn leads to a dramatic improvement in their behaviour as their frustrations are greatly reduced.

But, mostly, I am intrigued that you seem to take full responsibility for your son's behaviour. You assume that you are doing something wrong.

In fact, the way in which children learn to behave is always as a result of the interaction between their temperament and their will, and the responses that they receive from those around them.

So, it is fine for you to take responsibility for your own behaviour. If you know that you regularly get cross and angry, then you can deal with that. Calmly responding to your son will really help the situation.

But, you don't need to take responsibility for the whole dynamic between you. Your son is an active participant in the relationship between you both. Even though he is only three, he does exert his will and his desire.

The fact that he is only three, however, means that his actions and reactions are likely to be driven by instinct and emotion, with little filtering or consideration of the impact of what he says or does on other people.

In other words, you are likely to get a very raw and direct response. To use an expression, he will probably be "wearing his heart on his sleeve". The emotions that he feels will be the ones that you see acted out.

While it would be nice if young children were able to filter their responses to avoid hurting other people's feelings, or upsetting people, it isn't realistic to expect it until they are older. Certainly, at this pre-school age, we need to accept that children will just do stuff, without much thought to anyone else.

The good thing, about children expressing their emotions, directly, in their behaviour, is that it allows us to try to understand what is going on inside their head. If we start to see the behaviour as a form of communication, we may also start to respond to it differently.

For example, if your son misbehaves or acts in an angry or aggressive way, we can guess that he feels angry or upset about something. Before reacting to the aggression, we can spend a bit of time trying to work out what upset him.

We can also empathise with his distress, showing him that we might understand that he may feel cross, or disappointed, or sad (or whatever feeling we guess is most likely).

You may even be able to work out why (like provocation from his sister, tiredness, etc). You will be amazed at the effect of showing empathy to your son.

It will, most likely, lead to a reduction in the frequency and intensity of misbehaviour, since your son no longer needs to show you the extent of his distress.

We supervise our four-year-old son when he plays  in the estate. Are we holding him back socially?

Q. We don't allow our four-year-old son to play in the estate unsupervised. But all the other children (ranging in age from two to 10) do. Could we be isolating our son, as, at times, he does not appear to be integrating with the group? He questions why he is the only one not allowed out, but I can't watch him all the time. Do we give in and let him play unsupervised? We are seriously considering moving house because the other parents just seem to think so differently and we are nervous about the influence of their kids, in time.

David replies: Your decision to supervise your son while he is out playing in the estate sounds wise to me. Four-year-olds are not designed to be independent in the world. They can easily get into trouble and often need adult help to extricate themselves from the situations they find themselves in.

That said, four-year-olds don't necessarily need much intervention in their play. Being too present in their lives could actually impede their development, since they do need to learn about the world they live in and how to be safe and independent in that world.

How much physical distance do you allow between yourself and your son when he is out in the estate? If you are very close by, tempted to intervene and direct him too often, then you might well get in the way of developing friendships and group play.

It is possible to keep an eye on them from a distance, while appearing busy with your own tasks, so that your four-year-old has a sense of greater freedom, with the security of knowing that you are close by.

This is, in fact, how most securely attached children will explore the world, at their age. Starting close to their caregiver, they take increasingly large forays into the nearby environment.

They will rely on their own resources and coping strategies while off exploring, up to a point, before needing a bit of reassuring "top-up" from their parent.

That top-up might only involve a visual connection with their parent (being able to see that you are there), or a shouted "hello", or it might involve a return to the parent for a physical touch, hug or quick chat.

So, it is good for your children to know where you are and that you are available to them if they need you.

But, it isn't necessarily helpful for them to have you too close by, or too visible, as it may stunt their willingness to explore, leaving them feeling like they can't cope without you.

Deciding the most appropriate age at which to pull back from your child can be difficult. There is no rule of thumb that can guide you about the "best" age to let them play independently of you.

You, like the other parents in the estate, must make your own choices about what you feel is a comfortable distance to be away from your child, or a comfortable level of supervision.

It is somewhat alarming that some parents are happy to leave their two and three-year-olds out playing. Perhaps they are relying on the older children to keep an eye on the younger ones? In my view, though, it seems unfair to place that responsibility on the older children.

If they were to properly carry such responsibility, they couldn't play their own games. If they play their own games, they may be distracted or forgetful, and not notice if, for example, a pre-schooler has wandered off.

I can see why the manner in which the other children are left leads you to question the parenting choices made by the other families in the estate.

It does seem very hard, though, to have to contemplate moving because you fear the example that the other children will show to your son over time. But, if you feel that strongly about it, then perhaps you need to follow through and look at other places.

For your own son, in the interim, you might have to find a balance between reassuring yourself that he is safe and can't come to harm, and allowing him some greater freedom to explore and grow in his own confidence in his ability, separate from you.

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