My son is going to be four in about a week, but for the last few months his behaviour has changed drastically. He is always doing things he knows aren’t the right things to do. All the discipline I have tried, hasn’t been working. It will work for that moment, but then he is right back to it a few minutes later. He is always hitting, throwing himself to the ground, ripping my blinds apart, throwing his toys all over the room, when he’s mad. Yesterday my husband and I had to run a errand, and my brother in law was watching the kids while we were gone. When we returned, I found out he got into my bleach spray and sprayed his whole room with it. Naturally I freaked out because I thought he may have swallowed some, he didn’t, I didn’t know what kind of discipline would work for that situation. I have tried everything to get him to understand that the choices he makes are not the right choices he should be making, and I have failed. I don’t what else I should do, I’m hopeless.
Dr Justin responds:
We hear a lot about the “terrible two’s”, but experience indicates that children aged 3-5 years cause more difficulties in family life than children at any other age, with the exception of some teenagers.
Frustratingly for parents, there are no quick fixes when it comes to dealing with angry outbursts, temper tantrums, and oppositional behaviour. In fact, the more reliance we place in a quick-fix, the slower our overall progress becomes. Let me explain:
Our typical responses to our children’s challenging behaviours are focused on stopping the ‘problem’ as fast as we can. Think about the usual things most parents do when they’re busy, distracted, or annoyed. Shouting, threatening, removing privileges, and even hitting are the standard responses.
But do they work? That depends on what you mean by ‘work’.
Last year (2014) researchers watched what happened when parents smacked their children. Within 10 minutes those children were back at their challenging behaviour again in close to 75% of cases. Your email indicates that you have experienced similar outcomes with your son. The fast fix usually takes longer and causes more problems. Fast is slow.
This may be because when we go with the quick-fix, we forget that our child is a real person. We simply see them as a problem. Then we get to work on the problem by pushing the problem around and telling it what to do. There is something inside each of us that resists being coerced, pushed, or manipulated.
Think about how you want to be treated when something upsets you. Do you want your husband to yell at you or threaten you? Of course not. Chances are, you want him to recognise how you feel. He might say, “Wow, you’re really upset by this. I can see how hard it is for you.” When you hear his responsiveness and understanding, you would probably respond by reaching out to be close to him, perhaps with a hug. And when you finally feel calm enough, you would not ask him to tell you how to solve your problem. Instead, you would usually say, “Well, I guess I should go and get on with things now.”
Your son needs the same kind of understanding response. Don’t treat him like a problem. Treat him like a person with real feelings and challenges. Get side by side and work on it together. Be on his team, rather than being – in his eyes – the enemy. This is a slower way of discipline, but over time it gets faster results. Slow is fast.
A brief comment here on discipline. People often tell me they’ve disciplined their children when in fact all they’ve done is hurt them, yelled at them, removed privileges, lectured, sent them to time out, or hit them. None of these strategies are typically effective as discipline. They’re punishment tools. But discipline is about teaching and guiding, not punishing. Once again, the fast fix (punishment) is slow, but the slow process of teaching and instructing ends up being faster.
Children of any age, but particularly children aged 5 and below, need one thing more than anything else: our unconditional love. This does not mean our unconditional indulgence. We’re not supposed to spoil them. We are not supposed to let them get away with anything and everything.
But they do need us to turn towards them, see the world through their eyes, and recognise that their challenging behaviour is typically going to be a result of an unmet need. When we do this, we can work as a team to discipline and set limits through solving problems together, rather than getting mad and punishing (which really solves very little at all), and strengthen that critical relationship between parent and child.