Our son is almost five and started school in September. Almost every day now, when he doesn’t get his way, he lashes out at us, growls at us, screams at us, tries to hit us. Minor matters (the bath is over, we are turning off the TV now, you can’t wear that), even when flagged well in advance, can set him off.
We have started trying to restrain him to stop him hitting us, and sending him to his room, but he just plays happily in his room on his own.
How should we deal with this so he learns that this is completely unacceptable? When he was a bit younger, we did stars and treats for doing what he was told, and that seemed to work at the time. Is the “naughty step” or time out alone in his room a good idea?
Young children can feel intense frustration and upset when things don’t go their own way, and many can get into a habit of aggression and lashing out. This is of course very stressful and hurtful as a parent, especially when you directly experience this aggression. However, what is called for is a calm, thoughtful response. Your goal is to show your son how to interrupt this pattern of aggression and to express his emotions in more pro-social ways.
Have a step-by-step plan
It helps to have a well-thought-out plan for how you can respond when your son starts to get aggressive. The key is to get in early to de-escalate where possible and to think through how you will respond calmly no matter how your son reacts. For example, when your son gets angry you might first acknowledge his feelings – “I know you’re frustrated the game is over, but now it is time to finish’. If he then shouts, you might say ‘No shouting; use your polite voice’. If he hits out, you say “No hitting, please use your words to say how you are feeling”. If he continues to hit out, you should pull back for a bit and warn him of a consequence – “If you hit out again you will lose time on your tablet”.
It helps to plan that something rewarding follows flashpoints. For example, if getting dressed in the morning is a problem, you could create a routine of 15 minutes’ playtime afterwards that you can use as a motivator to behave – “When you are dressed, then we can play” or “When you calm down and ask nicely, then you can have your toys”.
[ ‘My 11-year-old son says he has ‘bad thoughts’ in his head that he can’t control’ ]
Using time out
Taking a time-out can be a helpful strategy but it is important that you do it in a non-coercive, respectful way. Rather than calling it the “naughty step”, which is potentially shaming and counterproductive, you can simply see it as taking a break and to interrupt a flashpoint. For example, you might say “Let’s take a break now” or “When you calm down, then you can come back and play”.
In addition, the child does not have to go out of the room for a time-out in the first instance, and you can simply invite them to take a break sitting on the couch. You might only send them out of the room if they can’t settle near you on the couch. It does not matter if they play in their room during time out as the goal is to simply interrupt the negative behaviour. Once again the key is to remain calm yourself throughout the time-out process.
You should be very careful using restraint to manage a child’s anger and aggression, as it can escalate problems, especially if you are angry when you do it. Sometimes children do need physical comfort to calm down when emotionally upset, and this needs to be done supportively with warmth, perhaps rocking or stroking them gently and saying comforting words “It is okay now; let’s calm down”.
When young children are angry and aggressive, usually they need to be taught to take space. While some physical guidance can help, such as gently moving their hand away if they hit out, or taking their hand to gently guide them to a Time Out, you have to be in control of your own emotions. If you find yourself too angry yourself as a parent, take your own Time Out for a minute to pause and gather yourself.
[ ‘My three-year-old’s tantrums are wild. What is the best way to handle him when he gets so angry?’ ]
Teaching your son how to behave
In the long term you want to teach your son how to manage his challenging emotions. This is usually best done away from flashpoints and at another time when everyone is calmer. After a tantrum, you can plan to have a problem-solving conversation where you acknowledge what happened and explore solutions – “How can you stay calm the next time we have to go out?” You can coach your child in identifying feelings and using relaxation strategies using lots of creative child-centred ways.
For example, you could do up a “When I feel frustrated” picture chart, which identifies lots of good strategies such as:
- Saying how I feel
- Taking a deep breath,
- Thinking of something nice or
- Taking a break and so on.
If rewards and star charts have worked in the past, by all means start these again, targeting the new behaviours you want to teach him now. Making these charts child-centred and engaging is the key to making them work. For example, you can set up a “beat the clock” game whereby he gets a star on a chart if he gets dressed in 15 minutes in the morning.
Managing challenging behaviour does require a lot of persistence and patience. Do seek further support as you need it, perhaps attending an evidence-based parenting course such as the Parents Plus Programmes (all the programme information is described in my book Positive Parenting).
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- John Sharry is Clinical Director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books including Positive Parenting and Parenting Teenagers. See solutiontalk.ie for details of online courses.