I am a mother of five - ages 19, 17, 12, seven and four - and I’m struggling with the younger two who are from my second partner. I am a single mum. I don’t get much family help and have to cope with a lot of mental abuse.
My four-year-old is impatient, doesn’t like being told ‘no’, throws things, and hits and kicks if he doesn’t get what he wants. He pulls my hair and laughs when I get angry. His father has anger issues. He throws things and punches his head when angry.
He swears, calls me names, and makes me cry. Afterwards he shows no empathy and the kids have seen this. Unfortunately I’m thinking they think, “If dad does it to Mum it must be OK”.
Any help would be greatly appreciated.
Dr Justin responds:
Little children are supposed to have little kid problems. Unfortunately, because of some decisions that adults in your children’s lives have made, your little children are being forced to deal with big kid, and even adult, problems. So how is a stretched, stressed mum of five supposed to cope with the challenges of an abusive relationship and children who are hurt, angry, afraid, and lashing out in inappropriate ways?
The advice I hate to give
In the last 10-20 years, researchers have discovered something that was previously poorly understood: kids need their dads. Children raised in a home where they experience the regular, consistent, stable caregiving of a dad thrive. Even if Dad doesn’t live with his children, his positive presence in their lives impacts positively and powerfully on their wellbeing.
However, if Dad is not safe then his presence can have a negative - and even devastating - impact on children’s beliefs, behaviours, and wellbeing. It would not be appropriate for me to prescribe what you should do about your previous partner’s presence. Only you know all the details. In abusive or dangerous situations, however, there are times when difficult decisions sometimes need to be made.
Why is your son so tough to deal with?
At least four contributors to your youngest son’s challenging behaviour are immediately obvious.
1. Your son’s understanding of the situation is limited
Put simply, her really does not understand a great deal about why his parents are stressed or angry. While everyone around him seems to get it, he is trying to figure things out. If life is unpredictable, or if he feels insecure or unsafe (emotionally or physically), he is likely to lash out. His anger comes from fear and anxiety which is a result of not knowing what is going on. Or it comes from sadness. He is wired to want to connect to his parents. And he misses his Dad. He is confused by what he has seen in terms of Dad’s behaviour.
2. Development milestones still have to be reached
Until your son is around 5 years of age, he is unlikely to have particularly effective capacity to take the perspective of others. Before the age of about 8, he is going to find it difficult to regulate his behaviour and emotion. This is because the brain develops from the back to the front, and the thinking, planning, and regulating areas of his brain are still very much under development. While he is calm, he can think things through ok. But when he does not get his own way, or when he has unmet needs, he reacts by lashing out. There are strategies for working through these difficulties which we will discuss below.
3. The third significant challenge impeding your son’s ability to behave kindly is the example of the people around him
It is a simple and self-evident truth that our children copy us much more than they listen to us. If your son has models of aggression who teach him to behave with anger and violence when unhappy, that example will be far more salient than all of the “teaching” we provide verbally. Additionally, if he is punished for acting out (either with hitting, yelling, or even time-out), he is learning that power and anger are our best problem-solving tools.
4. Finally, when your son throws, hits, kicks, pulls hair, and acts in challenging ways
I suspect he is getting some kind of feedback or attention that he finds rewarding in some way.
Dealing with the damage
Your son is acting in perfectly understandable ways based on the challenging circumstances he is experiencing. But you want some solutions to help him act in much better ways ‘in spite of’ the circumstances. Here are some suggestions to guide your parenting.
In spite of your son’s limited understanding and his developmental stage, he still needs a parent who will provide limits and boundaries. When he behaves aggressively, stop him. Tell him “no”. And rather than saying “Don’t hit”, focus on what you do what him to do and say, “We keep our hands to ourselves”, or “We only touch each other kindly.” Be simple, clear, and direct.
When he sulks or tantrums, invite him to stay angry as long as he wants, but “if you’re going to be mad, you can either have a hug with me and calm down, or perhaps you can be cranky in the other room.” Offer hugs as much as possible, but if he is upset or fighting, move away, all the while letting him know that you are happy to hug him as soon as he wants a hug or is calm. Moving away from him should not be a ‘punishment’, but a simple explanation that you expect kind behaviour when he is near you. (It is also to keep you and others safe from his anger.)
It may take until the evening, or the next day, but once he is calm, let him know that there is a need for him to chat with you about what went on, how it made everyone feel, how he was feeling, and what can be done to make things better next time. Rather than being about punishment, the best discipline is about problem-solving. And that doesn’t happen very well when kids are being punished. They just get mad and self-focused.
Preparing and pre-arming for the future
The best thing you can do to reduce his challenging behaviour is to remember that what you do today while he is four sets the stage for how you will both interact when he is 14. Prepare for that time by being stable, strong, and secure. Cocoon him and keep him away from things that will harm him or teach him poor ways to act. Focus on teaching him as best you can so that when difficult times come, he knows what your expectations are, and is prepared to act in line with good values.
There are no short-term fixes for these challenges. Your expectations need to be in line with your son’s development. He simply will not act as maturely as your older children when upset. He can’t. Your expectations need to be aligned with his capacity to act.
Stability, safety, limits, and love. These are the central ingredients for raising a resilient, strong, caring, and responsible son. Your environment makes that challenging, but with this focus, you can work through the challenges you’re facing.
What strategies have worked for you in dealing with challenging behaviour?