Hi Dr Justin,
My son, Josh, is six. We are clashing a LOT. Tonight it was brushing his teeth which ended up with Josh completely exhausted and worn out by screaming and crying for about 30mins.
After episodes like tonight I’m emotionally exhausted but also feeling like a terrible mother. I feel at a loss as to how to help him, and also feel disappointed as I have done things that I never wanted to do when I became a mother, one of those things is smacking.
Josh is defiant and is getting worse with age. He says no, comes up with excuses ranging all the way to ‘my legs hurt, so I just can’t do it’ said almost crying, through to screaming at me. He ends up being put in a time out, which I’ve now had to stop because he defiantly just walks away and screams at me ‘NO, I’m not sitting here!’
After his crazy outburst tonight we talked. He told me that he has a missing key to his brain (pointing to his right temple) and told me 2-3 times “the key that makes me happy and listen is missing!” I asked Josh if he felt unhappy and he said yes and I asked where and he point to his chest and said the key is missing there too!!
I gave him a big long hug while I tried to figure out how to help him. When we finished our hug Josh told me ‘I found my key!’ I asked him what he meant and he said, pointing to his chest, my key is back. I asked him ‘was that because mum gave you a hug’ and he nodded his head.
Josh was a lovely happy little baby but seems to be growing into a sad, frustrated and angry little boy and its heart breaking to see especially as I am struggling to help him.
Dr Justin responds:
Almost all children experience meltdowns. Almost all families experience power struggles. And the majority of parents question whether they are doing a good enough job raising their children – particularly after those nights like the one you have described where it all goes pear-shaped.
There are some recurring themes in your email that demand attention and that can instruct us better as to how you might work with Josh.
Think about the times when your child is most likely to be oppositional or defiant. While the behaviour may occur at any time, many children around age 5-6 years will be challenging at the times you have identified already: when they are tired or hungry. Consider the acronym “HALTSS”. Our children act out most when they are Hungry, Angry (or frustrated), Lonely (and wanting attention), Tired, Stressed, or Sick. It seems that Josh struggles when he is tired (or aching), and when he feels isolated and away from you (such as when he is in time out). Some children also become oppositional when they feel we are taking away their choices and forcing them to behave a certain way.
Remember, too, that emotions are contagious. When you are stressed, anxious, or mad, your child will sense that and lift his emotional intensity to match yours. Similarly, when he gets irate it becomes all too easy for you to get similarly emotional when what he needs most in both instances is for you to stay calm and measured.
It seems that the more controlling we are when our children challenge us, the more they resist us and resent us. Our children don’t need reprimanding, they need understanding. Research tells us quite clearly that punitive approaches to discipline – such as yelling, hitting, and yes, even time-out – do not work. While they may give us a short-term reprieve (and some studies on time-out suggest it can be effective in the long-term), there are better strategies that teach children to behave well for the right reasons, and not just because they might get into trouble from us if they misbehave.
The typical discipline most Australian parents use is really punishment, and punishment makes children more likely – not less likely – to act in challenging ways. Our children feel stressed, angry, and alone when we ‘discipline’ the traditional, punitive way. That’s three out of six triggers right there. Of course, if they are hungry and tired when they challenge us, we’ve suddenly got 5 out of 6 which means things are not looking good for a harmonious home and family.
So what will work?
Once your challenging incident was over and things were calm, you did three things that hit the bullseye for getting parenting right.
First, you spent time with him without an agenda, listening and asking compassionate, understanding questions. While this will not work when your child is highly emotional, it is exactly what is needed when things go awry. The quicker we can calm emotions by inviting our children close to us, the better the outcomes. Spending time together is central to getting our relationships right, building trust, and having a positive influence, regardless of the age of our child.
Second, you created a physical connection. Both you and he identified that this worked. Research shows that kind, gentle touch strengthens relationships and can increase wellbeing. Perhaps there are other times during your day you can invite him close.
Third, you really understood him. You tapped in to the emotions he was feeling. You labelled them. You showed you were willing to be patient with him as he explored those emotions.
While you did all of these things after the blow-up, you still did them. You made things right. Endings matter, and you made a pleasant ending to a challenging night.
Every parent makes mistakes. And it is good that we feel bad about that, so long as our sadness helps us to improve our behaviour next time. Our emotions should help us become more functional, not less.
To defuse the oppositional behaviour, try making behavioural requests when your son is not so tired or hungry. Offer assistance. Give him choices. When he refuses, restate your request and let him know he can decide for himself, and leave him alone. But most of all, build a strong relationship with him by spending time listening, touching, and understanding.