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Parenting Advice 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


Jan's reply:

Hi Terri,

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 Rules".

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.


Terri's reply:

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.

Thanks again.


Jan's reply:

Hi again,

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 worse.

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 vicious cycle.

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.


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