Hi Dr Justin,
I have a four-and-a-half-year-old son. He is normally a very cooperative and well-behaved boy but he sometimes loses his patience and raises his voice like an impatient and angry adult. This happens, for example, if I ask a question for a second time (as in a case as if I had not been listening to him), or tell him something he allegedly knew before. This usually happens after I pick him up from day care in the afternoon. It is absolutely hurtful and strange to me that a child of his age can lose patience and becomes that rude to an adult. Remaining calm is extremely difficult in this situation. Is ignoring an option here?
How do I handle his angry, impatient attitude?
Dr Justin responds:
It sounds like you have a fairly normal (and by that I mean a typically lovable but frustrating) four-year-old. He appears to be intelligent, helpful, and wonderful to be around except during those tough times where he struggles to regulate his behaviour, becomes angry and impatient, and yells at you.
Behind every challenging behaviour is an unmet need. This is the case for adults and for children. The three central needs that drive challenging behaviour are:
- A need for autonomy (being allowed to make self-determined choices),
- A need for mastery (being able to learn and develop enough to be competent in the environment).
- A need for functional, positive, healthy relationships.
But there are also a number of basic needs that can drive challenging behaviour in all of us, such as being hungry, angry, lonely, tired, stressed or sick.
Judging by your email, your son seems to be most irritable after day care. It may be simplistic, but I suspect that his difficult behaviour and challenging responses to you are related to tiredness – and perhaps hunger. He may also be feeling disconnected from you as he has been in care all day missing you.
Your son is also at an age where he cannot yet fully regulate his emotions or his behaviours. In fact, when you think about it, many adults react angrily and with yelling when they are asked a question a second time (such as when we don’t listen to them properly) or when we tell them something they already knew. Such behaviour is not polite, respectful, or appropriate, but my point is that many adults struggle to control themselves in similar circumstances. Your son is only four. He will need several more years before he is capable of showing the level of control and restraint you are hoping to see – and he is most likely to display it if he sees it in your example.
Your son is at an age where capacity for consistent empathy and perspective taking is only just beginning to develop. Most children are about five years old (or even a little older) before they can perceive how things are for another person. (Once again, many adults still struggle with this in spite of the fact that they have the developmental capability.) This will come in time, and he will be more teachable as a result – again most likely through your modelling of it.
What can you do about it all?
I suggest the following four tips:
1. Use gentle reminders
A gentle reminder is a brief, two-to-three word statement that goes like this: “Liam, kind words.” Or “Ashton, speak politely.” It is said kindly and gently, and is meant as a reminder – not a lecture, guilt-trip, or punishment.
One of the most common mistakes we make when disciplining our children is that we confuse discipline with punishment. Punishment is hurting someone. Discipline is teaching them. So take time to teach your son. Do it quietly and calmly. And do it after the emotion of the moment has passed. You might wait until bed time to teach. Or the next day. Just not in the moment.
3. Ask questions
Perhaps the most useful way to help your child develop the capacity to take another person’s perspective (and develop empathy) is to ask him questions about the incident. Wait until your emotions have subsided (and his), and then ask permission to talk about ‘that thing earlier’. Ask, “how were you feeling?” “How was I feeling?” “What are better ways to talk to me?” The more questions you ask, the more he learns, because he is the one talking. Not you.
Rather than reprimanding, be understanding. Then, when things are calm involve him in a conversation where you problem-solve together to avoid such a situation occurring regularly.
Speaking frankly, you may be reacting a little strongly to your son for his outbursts. He is four. He has not developed the psychological capacity to be really thoughtful and empathic. He has limited behavioural and emotional regulation. He is tired. He wants to be independent. And all of these elements combine to ensure that he is not perfect.
Be patient with him. Calmly guide him. Work with him. Problem-solve together. Give him gentle reminders. Ask him questions. As you continue to set a calm, kind, respectful example for him, he will follow you and become a calm, kind and respectful young man you will delight in.
How to you typically respond to your rude and impatient child?