|Subject: 4-year-old is angry at caregivers
I have a 4-year-old son (almost 4) who is throwing
violent temper tantrums while I am at work. I have done time-outs when I
get home - taken away TV time and took away book time - all things he
loves on the days that he does this. This is #3 tantrum , where he hits
his grandma - throws things at his 1-year-old sister and destroys the
house - I can't believe it - I am sooooo upset and distraught
about it. His elderly grandma and his elderly aunt take turns watching
him and he has done it to both of them this week because they wouldn't
let him have something - more popsicles, cookies, etc..
I only work for 4 hours a day and am at home by
lunch. I have always worked - and I don't see a change at home in
anything major, except the baby is walking but has been for two weeks.
My aunt is actually afraid of him - do you believe it!!! I was thinking
about putting a lock on his door on the outside so she can scoot him in
there until he calms down - it that unreasonable? I don't believe in
spanking - and never have - but yesterday I spanked him (not hard - on
the bottom) - out of pure frustration then apologized later for it and
talked to him - at that point I thought it was worked out! I have been
crying all day at work since I heard that he did it again.
Please help me
Thank you for caring and for asking for advice
about this important matter.
Please don't resort to any threats or force - that
will only give him examples of the very thing you are trying to reduce
in him. Locking him up would make things much worse! To help you
think of better approaches, please read my article on "Golden
Your son obviously has needs that are not being
heard in loving and respectful ways. It's never about whether or not the
child gets the cookie, it's always about how this denial is being
presented to him - is there awareness and validation of his feelings?
Does anyone say "You really wanted that cookie. I wish I could let
you have it, but we're having dinner soon, maybe you'd like some juice
instead?" or something along that line? Or is it always just
"No! Put that down right now!" with no attempt at
understanding or empathy?
My first thought is - could there be someone else
to stay with him while you are gone? Or could you take a week or so off
to be with him for some unbroken period of time? I have an intuitive
hunch here that a healthy and active 4-year-old boy may just too much
for two elderly ladies, no matter how much they might care for him. I
have a feeling that if you were able to watch them together (without
your presence being known) you would understand what is happening.
Boys of this age are, assuming they are in good
health, full of energy and curiosity, and can truly exhaust the most
loving adult. If the aunt and grandmother are elderly (which means not
only that they have less energy but that they were in all likelihood
raised to believe in strictness with children), he may just be too much
for them to handle, even though he is behaving normally for his age!
My heart goes out to you. When you get home, give
him a big hug, and spend some quiet time together (just the two of you!!
Go out to a favorite, quiet place if necessary) doing something you both
enjoy. Then write back.
Thank you so much for your quick reply. As for
having someone else watch him that is financially unfeasible at this
point. When I said to lock him in his room I meant just momentarily
until the "hot" time cooled off - in a safe environment away
from his aunt and baby sister - is that still not a good idea? When I
got home yesterday he was punished by no TV time, no book at bedtime,
and no dessert.
We had a long talk when my daughter was napping -
to no avail - about what was making him angry- just simply that she
wouldn't give him something. I did realize after many hours of
contemplation that indeed, it is not my son's problem but the other
caregivers' problem - but I am a very passive person and was just
dumbfounded by his violence. He has a great respect for me and my
discipline has always been just restricting the things he likes for an
afternoon - and it always works - so that is what made me realize that
it is not necessarily him that is out of control. I had a long talk with
his other caregivers and will keep trying. They are very loving people
and way too permissive in most cases - which is quite possibly the root.
I very much appreciate your quick advice to a temporarily panicked Mom.
If it is not feasible to hire someone else, then
you'll need to help the two women to learn that "children behave as
well as they are treated." Locking up a child is punishment, and
punishment does not really work. The only workable exception would be if
one of his caregivers spends that time with him, for a happy
interaction, such as reading one of his favorite books, while the other
woman watches the baby. But locking him up in a room by himself is a
harsh punishment that will only make him much more frustrated.
Considering all the restrictions he's had
recently, he needs just the opposite to being locked up - he needs
freedom to express his feelings in a safe way, without being given the
message that he is so bad he's being removed from the whole family. For
example, could he be taken outside away from his sister and away from
breakables, and simply be allowed to express his frustration on the lawn
in the back yard (if you have one; this is just an example) while an
adult stays nearby, quietly allowing him to express his anger safely,
reassuring him that everyone gets angry at times, and that they are
there to give him a hug when he's ready for one.
Even better is preventing frustration and anger
from building up in the first place, by having everyone who interacts
with him really listen to what he is saying, and when his requests must
be denied, doing that in a gentle, loving, and understanding way. If his
requests are denied harshly and he responds in the only way a 4-year-old
can respond, and then is punished, that's isn't fair or helpful!
You say that when you got home yesterday he was
punished by no TV time, no book at bedtime and no dessert. Again,
punishment does not work, and it can be especially frustrating for a
child who misses his mother, to have her finally return, and then punish
him. Four hours is much longer to a small child than to an adult.
He needs more good things, more happy
experiences in his life if he is having a hard time. If you'll think
about what sort of things make it possible for you to get through a
rough day, you'll understand what I'm getting at here. If you've had a
frustrating day at work, and have done some things you're maybe not too
proud of (we all do when frustrated), how would you feel if you were
punished for that afterward? Or would it be more helpful for you to have
some good things - a hot bath, a quiet dinner, a good book? There is no
reason to assume that a child will react well to bad experiences when we
ourselves do not! Having bad times follow bad times just makes things
It's good that you took the time to have a
"long talk" about "what was making him angry", but a
4-year-old is simply too young to verbalize what is really happening. If
he were able to express it, it would probably be that he's not being
respected as a person - it really has little to do with not always
getting the things he wants, but everything to do with how his requests
are handled. A four-year-old can understand this is happening, but he
could never put it into words.
You mention that "restrictions have always
worked". While they may appear to work at the time, unfortunately
all types of punishment, including restrictions, allow anger to build up
over time, and erupt later. Punishment doesn't really bring about the
kind of genuine cooperation the parent wants, only a "surface"
cooperation that hides the anger underneath.
Two elderly relatives caring for a baby and an
energetic four-year-old boy may just not be workable. I urge you to put
some thought into any possible alternatives. You mention that you
suspect the two caregivers are "too permissive in most cases."
I'm not sure what you mean by "too permissive", but judging
from his behavior, it sounds like the opposite is happening: he's
being frustrated and angered by all the restrictions, by your absences,
and probably also by his sister's increasing "intrusions" (as
he would see it) into his world, now that she is more active and
independent. One pattern, I expect, is that a request is denied with too
little empathy, or his sister interferes with his play (play is a
child's work, remember), he gets frustrated and when he expresses his
frustration, he's restricted, making him more frustrated, and so on - a
Don't be afraid to love him, to be gentle with
him, to understand him, to look at things from his point of view. You
can't love your child too much! Forget about "spoiling",
forget about "permissiveness", those considerations are not
relevant in a situation where a child's needs have been overlooked for
too long, and where he has been routinely restricted and punished.
Please forget about punishments - they do not work! (I will soon add an
article on alternatives to punishment.) The bottom line: treat him the
way you would like to be treated in every situation.
I hope this makes sense and is helpful. Thank you
for caring enough to write.