Hi Dr Justin,
I’m a mother of two. My son is five years old and goes to kindergarten three days a week. My daughter is eight months old.
My son has started throwing tantrums almost all the time. Whenever I ask him to do something like pick up the toys or switch the TV off he gets very angry and bashes whatever he has in his hand. Sometimes he goes to his room and shuts the door.
I haven’t been successful in finding the right punishment for him. My husband and I have tried beating him. But it hasn’t worked. I know it never works. But we get so overwhelmed and lose patience.
We’re constantly yelling at him “don’t do that”, “don’t do this”. It’s unpleasant in the house. I’m clueless of what we should do to discipline him.
He behaves very badly in public places as well. Also, he has started touching his penis all the time, or putting his finger in his nose or mouth. He puts his toys, or whatever he has in his hands, in his mouth, bites his nails and is touching his bum or his body most of the time in an unusual way.
What does this mean and what are we supposed to do?
Dr Justin responds:
At the heart of your question is the issue of discipline. You son is acting in ways that are challenging. You want him to stop it and do the right thing. Because he is not responding to you, your instinctive response is to get mad at him, threaten him, and eventually hurt him or punish him in some other way.
What you are describing is very common. It is, as you have discovered, also ineffective. I’m going to share seven brief evidence-based reasons that beating your child, yelling, and other punishments do not work, and then suggest five things you can do to improve your relationship with your son, and his behaviour.
Hitting your child is bad for your relationship. It undermines trust. It makes children afraid of us. Hitting (and punishing) leaves children feeling that we don’t care about them.
Hitting models power and coercion. When we hit (and punish) we teach children that if you are bigger and stronger, you can make anyone do anything. Research links hitting (and punishing) with children who become bullies to children smaller than themselves.
Hitting your child reduces influence. We don’t like to take instructions from people who we do not trust. Hitting (and punishing) leaves children feeling that we don’t understand them.
Hitting your children ignores the reason for their behaviour. There is always a reason for our children’s challenging behaviour. Is your child hungry, angry, lonely, tired, stressed, sick? Hitting (and punishing) ignores those reasons and places our demands as the only thing that matters.
Hitting your children impacts their comprehension of good and bad. Children who are hit often don’t know ‘why’ something is wrong. They just learn that we don’t like it. Hitting (and punishing) stop the problem (short term) but don’t teach the reasons why it matters. Oh… and hitting is a ‘bad’ thing, but it’s ok for you to do it which makes it good? Kinda confusing for the little tackers isn’t it.
Hitting only gives a quick-fix. It is true that hitting (and punishments) can give us a reprieve (briefly) from challenging behaviour. However, research shows that in 74% of cases it lasts less than 10 minutes. It’s not a lasting change.
Hitting makes kids sneakier. Rather than teaching children to stop doing the wrong thing, hitting (and punishing) simply teaches them to not get caught next time. We might have influence over them while we are present, but when we are not around, the children have no discipline.
This summary is based on decades of scientific evidence, which collectively says that hitting (and punishing) our children when they behave in challenging ways usually doesn’t lead to good outcomes – except for the very brief quick-fix we might get sometimes. (Of course, then we have to deal with the crying and the bad feelings we get from hitting.)
There are five simple suggestions I will make to help make your family happier and improve your son’s behaviour.
Firstly, be in one another’s worlds more. The more available you are, the happier he will be. Invite him to help you cook, vacuum, or hang washing. Read books together. Play simple games like tip/tag/tigi or kicking a ball or bouncing on the trampoline. Listen to him. Ask him questions.
Secondly, understand things from his perspective. Why might he feel the way he does? Is he jealous of his new sister? Does he feel lonely? Is he anxious or worried that he’s always in trouble or not good enough? He will struggle to tell you. Be patient. Listen. Observe.
Thirdly, don’t punish. Teach. When a child can’t read, we teach. When a child can’t swim, we teach. When a child can’t tie his laces, we teach. When a child can’t behave in ways we approve of we… punish. But what we need to do is teach. With love. Discipline means teaching, guiding, and instructing. We don’t do that by hitting (or punishing). We do that by talking and problem-solving.
Fourthly, problem-solve. Scholars have discovered that one of the best ways to discipline effectively is to wait until children are calm, and then to invite them to problem-solve around the issue. Ask your son, “Because of this problem, what do you think we should do?” Get his ideas on how he can stop hurting, being angry, or whatever the issue is.
Fifthly, remember he’s just a child. Once children get to around four or five, we start to expect big things of them. Unfortunately, we forget that they’re still so little. While they can be capable of awesomeness, they’re still learning the ropes. Give him time. He’ll grow up great if he receives kindness, compassion, understanding, and love.
I suspect (although I can’t be sure) that his challenging behaviour, his penis touching and his finger biting is related to his feelings of hurt. Making these five changes will not make him a perfect child, and it will not make you a perfect parent. But it can and will make him feel more loved, increase his feelings of worth, improve his behaviour, and make your family happier.