Children & Discipline

Our son's mood swings and rude behaviours are impossible to deal with

Published: 30 Aug 2016
Our son's mood swings and rude behaviours are impossible to deal with

Hi Dr Justin,

We have been asking friends, family members and even Dr Google (!) for help when it comes to dealing with our 3yr 10month old son. We also have a 1-year-old son, and we sometimes feel like running away screaming from everything!

For approximately 6 months we’ve found our eldest’s behaviour increasingly hard to deal with. We’d be so grateful if you could give us some advice on how to make life a little easier in our house!

The behaviour we are having trouble with is:

  • Not listening/responding when we talk/ ask him questions/ask him to do something
  • Mood swings - he seems to be very hard to cheer up sometimes, the littlest thing can set him off and he can seem really depressed for a lot of the day
  • He acts quite rude to some people.

James can be a very loving boy; he loves cuddles, playing any/all games with someone and he also loves stories. But we have come to a point where we can’t take much more. Sometimes I think I act like more of a child than he does! Please, if you can find some time to give us some tips we would be so grateful! We just want our son to be happy and our home to be calmer.


Dr Justin responds:

James sounds like a normal, happy, 3-year-old. In fact, he is doing all of the frustratingly normal things most typically developing 3-year-old boys do. I don’t think that there is anything at all to be worried about – besides the usual stuff that parents stress about because their kids aren’t perfect yet.

Our children will always provide us with worries and challenges. Their behaviour will be difficult. Parenting is an advanced course in relationship management and personal development and our children are our tutors. They test us in creative ways! Here are some basic tips to help you work through the complexities and adventures of family life.

Kids get upset when they’re HALTSS

Three-year-olds, like most of us, can be particularly difficult when Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Stressed, or Sick. Watch for these signals, and then use them as reconnection opportunities. Don’t try to set limits and discipline when they’re emotional. Instead, keep them calm, and then find ways to teach them to act in wise ways.

Most of the time you can simply remove James from a situation, spend time in with him, and he’ll figure things out. We don’t have to correct and direct everything. And when we do step in, we should do so for safety first, and teaching can come later when our children feel secure.

Look after yourself

Self-care is critical if we want to be at our best, whether as parents, or in paid work. Get enough sleep, have good quality time with your husband or partner, and do what you need to so that you can bring your best game to your interactions with your son.

Understand Development

I increasingly meet parents who basically want their kids to be perfect. But no matter how hard we try, we’re not going to experience that. And three-year-olds are particularly tough. For example, most parents don’t recognise that children at this age haven’t developed enough language to communicate with others effectively, particularly when they’re upset. They don’t know how to regulate their emotions. That won’t come in in a meaningful way until around age 8. And they have no capacity to understand things from your point of view. That won’t arrive until age 5 or 6.

Understanding that development takes time and that raising children through these developmental milestones is a process can relieve some of the stress, and help us to stop expecting perfection. He’s a perfect 3-year-old and doing just what we might expect.

Discipline through teaching

When you must discipline, remember that the best discipline is teaching, not punishment. Punishment merely means hurting someone because we don’t like their actions or attitude. Discipline means teaching good ways to act. They’re very different ways of getting a result. One builds relationships, the other breaks them down. One promotes learning and understanding and empathy. The other increases selfishness. One requires internal self-control. The other requires external parent-control. The best discipline is the patient, educating kind.

Your son needs lots of love, and lots of limits. If you give him both, plus a healthy, safe level of autonomy, he’ll continue to grow up as perfectly as a child his age can be.


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