Q&A: Disciplining a Challenging Preschool Child
Q: My son is four years old and he rules the house. His first response to everything is “No!” Getting him dressed, getting him to eat breakfast, getting him off to nursery school or day care is a daily struggle. He throws tantrums whenever he isn’t getting what he wants – and sometimes even when he does. He’s very jealous of his 2-year-old sister and constantly goes after her. He wears me down. I know I’m losing it too much and screaming at him, of course, to no avail.
My husband and I try to discipline him but he won’t stay in time out – he keeps walking out of his room. And trying to get him to stay in his bed at night is another constant challenge along with attempting to have a peaceful dinner. Yet he can be a warm, affectionate child and, at times, is a delight to play with or read to. At school, they tell me he’s terrific! That makes me feel that I’m doing something wrong. I know we’re not being very consistent with our discipline. My husband and I often end up yelling at each other for not following through. Any suggestions?
A: Whenever parents are struggling with a very difficult-to-manage child, the first step is to consult with your physician, including an allergist, to make sure there is nothing medical affecting your child’s behavior. As a mental health professional, I take a careful early history to ascertain if this is primarily an issue of temperament, i.e., is there clear evidence of challenges right from the beginning? Another related avenue to explore is the more recently identified concept of sensory integration problems, often suggested by a history of not being calmed by touch, fear reactions to loud noises or frequently pulling off clothing (possibly caused by certain materials being irritating).
Whatever the cause, it is important to begin by recognizing that you cannot control your child’s behavior. It is a false expectation that contributes to a parent’s notion of being a failure or results in sometimes very harmful efforts to become even more authoritarian and angry. The only things you can control are your behavior and the consequences of your child’s behavior, which you must learn to actively and consistently manage so that your child learns to make improved choices. For many children this is an easy process because they are naturally eager to please or are very even-tempered. But some children are impulsive, moody, deficient in the ability to calm themselves and very needy of attention. These children with difficult temperaments may always struggle in that they tend to persist in a higher rate of making unacceptable choices. They present special challenges to all parents.
It’s important to realize that parenting is not a one-way process. Children influence parents as least as much as the reverse. So when you have a child who is difficult from an early age, you begin to have doubts about yourself as a parent and begin to have feelings of resentment toward this child. The latter is typically admitted with significant feelings of guilt. These doubts and negative emotions make it even more difficult to parent effectively.
It is very common for the parents of a challenging child to think of themselves as being bad parents, especially mothers, whom our society burdens with a sense of responsibility for the behavior of their children. Yet these same parents typically have one or more additional children who are doing very well but the parents don’t take any credit for that!
It is typically a relief just to help parents understand that they are not the cause of this child’s difficulties and that they cannot do anything to change the child’s core makeup. What is most likely happening by the time they reach my office is that they have been worn out by the process and are now doing things that are probably increasing the challenging behaviors.
Let’s get to some guidelines about what to do. Mornings are a challenge. It helps to remember that a central issue for this child is probably an exaggerated need for attention, a combination of problems with soothing himself and being able to stay focused on activities when alone. These children often do better in a school setting because it is typically highly structured and they are influenced to follow the rules by the rest of the children. When they do have a problem in preschool, it is usually when the program is less structured, the environment is too noisy, or their need for attention results in conflict with other children.
The extra need for structure is very important to these children. They are less able to create their own. So borrow from your preschool, which usually has the daily schedule on a big poster with pictures, and the children review it routinely. Thus, parents should create, with the child’s assistance, a large poster that outlines the morning routine. Include times, a brief statement of the task to be completed, and a picture or drawing of the task. Place a large, analog clock next to the poster. Then, throughout the morning, keep referring to the poster: “It’s 7:20 and the poster says you are supposed to have brushed your teeth already. Oh-oh, you better hurry up or you won’t be done getting dressed by 7:35.” It’s as if the poster is in charge, not the parent — you can’t argue with a poster!