Hello, and thank you for your question:
I don’t have to tell you that you have an extremely serious problem here and that you honestly need family therapy. This little boy is very disturbed and his behavior will only get worse over time without some help. There are some things that will help him understand that he cannot manipulate the two of you, but he’s headed for some serious problems if you don’t get help soon.
First of all, you and your husband must present a united front with all of the children. If one parent sets a rule or a consequence, the other parent must not give in, or undermine the first parent. For instance, if this little boy throws a temper tantrum and you try to set a consequence, does Dad take him out for gum anyway?
The daily trips to the store have to stop as well until he can earn them. Remember, adults have to work for rewards, too—we have to go to a job to get the reward of money so we can get gum too.
Never reinforce a behavior that you don’t want. Understand that reinforcement for this child is attention. Any kind of attention. So, he throws a temper tantrum, you either give him a time out or ignore him. Only reinforce behaviors that you wish to see, and let all of your children understand that this may be a change in your behavior.
If you change the rules without telling people, that won’t be fair. Sit down with each person involved. If you can’t do it in a group, do it individually, and tell them what the consequences will be and how they will be reinforced.
Develop a reward system. That is, put a sheet of paper on the refrigerator with names and chores and give a star to each child who has behaved or done his chores. At the end of the week, the stars can be redeemed for something that is reasonable, such as an ice cream cone, etc. At the end of the month, reward the most stars. This works for nearly all children, but unless you have professional help, the 7-year-old won’t believe you, nor will he comply.
Finding a professional in your area is pretty easy; go to Find A Therapist and put in your zip code.
Best of luck with this very difficult problem,
Dr. Diana Walcutt
This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on August 10, 2009.