Hi Dr Justin,
I am a single mum with a four-year-old boy. Since he was born he has been very trying … all he did as a baby would be cry, he was a terrible sleeper and from the minute he could, he bit, punched, screamed, hit and generally acted obstinate at almost everything. I can’t get my son to sleep at a normal time and nothing I say he takes seriously.
When i was a kid, if it came from an adult that was basically the law!!!
He has always been super clingy but seems okay once he settles … ie. with my mums/school/his dads.
He sees his dad one night a fortnight and has two half sisters (his dad had two girls when we had our son). I am at my wits ends trying to reason with him and understand his emotion.
Children act in the ways that they do for a couple of specific and simple reasons.
First, they have a unique temperament. Some children are easy children. Some are slow to warm up. Others are difficult. There is not a lot that can be done about temperament. Characteristics are often inherited (and if you have a child with a difficult temperament you’ll often say it is due to your child’s other parent).
But the second reason is equally, if not more, important. Environmental influences are a primary factor in children’s behaviour. These influences include our behaviours as parents. Parents who are relaxed and comfortable with themselves are more likely to have children who are easier. Highly-strung parents experience highly-strung children. And unfortunately, the data shows that single mums are understandably among the most highly strung parents we know.
There are three other significant contributors to your current challenges with your little tyke.
First, kids usually do better with two biological parents in a committed relationship living together (in most circumstances so long as safety isn’t a concern).
Second, parents doing it alone have been shown to utilise parenting strategies that aren’t the most positive – often because of all that extra stress due to carrying the parenting burden alone.
Finally, your son is at a challenging developmental stage. He only sees the world one way.
And chances are that he won’t grow out of it for at least another year. (And we probably both know some adults who still haven’t grown out of it!) Yikes.
It sounds pretty tough right now. So what are your options?
I have three basic recommendations, and it seems from your letter that you’re already on the right track.
You probably already spend as much time as you’re able to with him, but consider both spending more time, and changing what you do during that time.
Most of our time with our children is procedural. We do stuff that has to be done. Squeeze in some time that is about nothing other than play, fun, and time together. Perhaps some outdoor play, some basic card games (fish, snap, or even Uno), snakes and ladders, and so on.
Some other tips for spending time the right way:
make mornings easy and calm, and create a consistent evening routine and make the last twenty minutes before bed special, with stories, songs, cuddles, and questions about what he’s grateful for and what he’s looking forward to.
Often we know what our children are feeling. Frustration! Anger! Exhaustion! But understanding that is usually not enough. They need us to really connect them to that emotion and let them know it is a normal part of being human.
We can do this by following these steps:
First, recognise his emotions as a chance to connect rather than reprimand.
Second, understand where the emotion is coming from.
Third, give it a name! When we name our children’s emotions we can put ourselves into their world. Plus we show them we really get what they’re feeling.
Fourth, invite them closer so they feel safe. When they are too worked up this doesn’t work. But if we can nip their big emotions in the bud early, we can connect, teach, and help our children overcome the big challenges in their emotional world.
Every four year-old needs limits. When we enforce them with threats and punishments, we usually get resistance, horrid behaviour, and unhappy families.
When we work with our children to help them to regulate their behaviour in ways they feel good about, we get better results.
When your son is calm, try problem solving together. Ask him how things felt in that challenging situation. Ask how it affected others. Chat about whether he has any better alternatives for next time. See his perspective. Come up with solutions together.
You will find that by simply following the first two strategies I’ve suggested, things will improve. They have to! When children feel loved and valued, validated, and understood, their wellbeing improves. And it will be easier to set limits together too.
Life is complicated. Raising children is challenging. And while the answers I’ve shared seem simple enough, implementing them in a complex context is tough. But these are the basic keys to raising happy families and resilient children.