Dear Dr Coulson,
Over the last 5 month’s my son who is 3 has been spending time with his father and his partner as part of interim court visitation orders. For the last 2 months my son has become confused, aggressive, and extremely violent. I know my son is being told to address his father’s partner as “mummy”and is being bombarded with word’s and information he doesn’t understand.
My son has separation anxiety and is not coping with the situation very well at all. I have stopped him from his visits to his father and I am taking him to see a child psychologist, as I do not know how to best manage his violent behaviour.
My son does not have a bond with his father and I believe he leaves the parenting of my son to his partner, which my son does not like. He has just recently begun to say he doesn’t want to see daddy and he doesn’t like his partner. I am very worried. Can you give me any advice on how I can help my child?
Dr Justin responds:
Our children have three central needs: even from a young age they need to be given space make their own decisions in age-appropriate ways (autonomy), they need to develop mastery over their environment (competence), and they need to have strong, positive, reciprocal relationships with key people in their lives (affiliation). If any of these needs is thwarted, our children experience internal challenges and difficulty that often lead to sub-optimal outcomes, as well as challenging behaviours.
Your son appears to be challenged right now because his relationships have been turned upside down. He is likely to be struggling with a change in his living arrangements. He has always identified you as his mother, and now he is being asked to call someone new by that same title. These factors are interfering with his ‘affiliation’ need.
Additionally, it is likely that he is feeling helpless as he is shuffled between homes, which could be easily impacting on his sense of choice and autonomy. And because of all of the changes in his environment, he may even be struggling with having a sense of control and mastery, affecting his ‘competence’ need.
In young children, a typical response to these challenges is to lash out with anger and violence. This occurs because he lacks the capacity to effectively regulate his emotions and behaviours. As a three year-old he also lacks sufficient language capability, so describing his feelings to you is beyond him, particularly when he is feeling upset. There may be other issues too, related to his age and developmental progress. After all, he’s three. Understanding what is going on and navigating these challenges is tough for adults, let alone a little boy.
So what can you do?
It is great that you’re seeking help. Hopefully your psychologist is giving you useful strategies to help him learn to manage his anger, or channel it into avenues that do not require violence.
Perhaps the most critical things you can do are as follows:
First, work hard on being available to him emotionally. This means that when he needs you, you stop what you are doing and concentrate on him. Research shows that children who are most resilient and who have the highest wellbeing believe that their parents are always there for them, care about them, and will always stop what they’re doing and listen to them. The children who are least resilient believe precisely the opposite. To help him feel secure, be right there. (This will also help him feel that his relationship needs are being fulfilled.)
Second, focus on understanding him and helping him see that you ‘get it’. I call this seeing the world through your child’s eyes. This will also help with relational need satisfaction. You can do this by seeing his angry, aggressive, violent behaviour as an opportunity to connect with him, understand him, and build intimacy in your relationship. Focus on understanding and responding to the unmet needs that are driving the challenging behaviour. Focus on meeting those needs as best you can.
Third, when your son lashes out, offer him the chance to connect and be close to you. If he remains angry and violent, place him somewhere safe so no one and nothing can be hurt. Let him know that as soon as he can be gentle and kind he can come and get hugs. Offer to stay with him, offer hugs, and try to connect if he allows it. If he doesn’t, move away and wait. If he calms down, invite him to you again and offer your continued connection. If he rebels, give him his space (and autonomy), and keep doing this until he is calm enough to be with you again.
Fourth, when he is calm and willing to talk again, let him know you need to chat about things. Ask him how it felt to be so angry, and if he liked it. (Most kids will say they don’t.) Ask him whether he thinks you like it when he is mad. Talk things through, and use the conversation as a chance to solve problems together. Ask him what he can be angry without being violent. Make a plan for what he can do next time. (For example, you might agree that when he’s mad he can draw his anger. Or perhaps he can run really fast with you somewhere. Or just have a hug… I’m big on hugs.)
The main thing to remember is that your discipline should be focused on problem solving and teaching good ways to act. As you do this, you strengthen your relationship, promote his opportunities to make his own decisions (autonomy), and give him the opportunity to develop solutions he can feel competent about.
It is important to guide your son away from anger and violence. This means being a great example yourself, and being responsive to his emotions to build his emotional intelligence and empathy. It’s neither about rewarding unwanted behaviours, nor is it about ignoring them. Instead, it is about responding to them in ways that connect, teach, and problem solve.