We have received a number of inquiries from parents, asking advice about how to manage the disruptive behaviors of their preschool children. Below is a typical and suggested remedy for the chaos and strife that can sometimes overtake a busy family.
“My four-year-old son has temper tantrums, is aggressive ... and defiant ... and has become so unruly at home and in public that I cannot take him to the store without him causing a scene. How can I make him behave? I am at my wits end!”
(Note: after further discussion and the elimination of certain factors such as childhood illness, a recent divorce, a change in living arrangements, or other variable, it was decided that the issues below seem to be the major factors contributing to the child's distress. They are posted here in the hope that other families experiencing similar circumstances may receive assistance from this publication).
TLL: First of all, it is important to understand that your son does not want to be the “wild child” you describe. He does not want to have temper tantrums, be aggressive toward other children, or be defiant with you. He is a child crying out for security, structure, and order. He is longing for comfort because he cannot control his own behavior. He is, in essence, a voice crying in the night. To restore his sense of self-respect and need for order, you may want to incorporate the following bold steps into your parenting principles. In six months, you will be able to present to the world a mature child filled with self-control and grace.
Be calm: You are a good parent. The fact that you are seeking answers demonstrates that you are concerned about your son's well being. You love your child. Forgive yourself for not being the perfect parent because there is no such thing. Pray. God loves you. Find your own peace. Then begin …
Give him routine: Circle your wagons; it is time to close in - to make your little family the center of your son's universe. Make his world small. Cancel commitments. Resign from volunteer positions. Postpone social events. Why? Because at the moment, your son is most likely overwhelmed by external stimuli, on sensory overload, and longing to feel safe. So, end all un-necessary outings. Aside from preschool, do not take your child on any errands. Do not eat out. Do not hire a babysitter. He is crying out for stability and routine. Establish both. There is security in routine and children feel secure and safe when they know what is coming next. Your son does not want a play date. He does not want more opportunities for conflict when he cannot control his own emotions when he is alone. Give him simplicity. Give him peace. Make the house quiet. Read him books amid snuggles and closeness. Play with him. Talk with him. Build with him. Draw pictures with him. Limit your telephone time and give him your attention. Remember that this is a time of healing. Restoration is a process, and for a few months, as you put your life aside in order to help your son find his, most family members and friends will understand that it is an investment in his future and yours. Remember that these initial steps are both necessary and temporary - family life will return to a more flexible schedule later on. And if this adjustment sounds too difficult for your family to accomplish, commit to a three-month trial. You can do anything for three months!
Give him kindness: If you have been spanking your child, stop immediately. A child who is spanked builds up resentment and hatred toward himself and toward the parent. Think about this: if you were hit by your spouse when you said or did something inappropriate, you would want to separate yourself from that person. In the same way, a child emotionally separates himself from the adult who is inflicting pain and discomfort. Instead of spanking, remember that "a kind word turns away wrath." Fill your son with kind words. When he is angry, calmly tell him that you understand. Then help him give a voice to his emotion. Help him talk about what he is feeling, rather than acting it out. He will appreciate being led into this alternate and healthy form of expression.
Give him consistency: Remembering that your child is in emotional overload, there is little in his life that he can depend on. Certainly, he cannot depend upon his own internal controls. So he depends upon your external ones – the limits you set for him. However, when he misbehaves, you may be responding with a quick and arbitrary punishment. Then after a time, your compassion overrides your initial decision and you may lessen the sentence. Then, you lessen it again. Not only is this confusing and frustrating to the child, but there is nothing to learn from this exercise. All behavior carries natural consequences, so you may want to abandon the “punishment mentality” and teach your son about the consequences of his behavior. Invest much of his day in communicating the consequences of certain acts. If he gently pets the puppy, the puppy will learn to trust him. If he shows his younger sister how to share, they can both enjoy all of the toys. If he talks about his feelings, he will not need to keep the anger inside until it eventually finds escape in a rage of fury. Also remember that accumulated anger about one issue may explode into a tantrum about something totally unrelated. A fight over a toy may really be the release of emotion about something that happened three days earlier.
Give him communication: As you begin these six months of recovery, helping your son establish emotional and social health, talk with him about everything. Remembering that his world is overwhelming and out of control, talk with him about the why and the how of life. Talk with him about how you love him no matter what he does. Unconditional love is not assumed. Children draw a direct correlation between being good and being loved. Help him to understand that you love him the same on his good days and on his not-so-good days. Reassure him often that you will take care of him and love him no matter what.
Give him physical peace: Lastly, we must consider nutritional factors which may be contributing to your son’s emotional roller coaster. For six months, eliminate all artificial coloring in his diet. Many children are so sensitive to yellow #5, red, and blue dyes that they become agitated without ever knowing why. This means that you may have to replace popular drinks with 100% fruit juice or water, establish a new breakfast cereal, and select foods without additives. This minor adjustment – when practiced without exception – will yield peaceful results. And if peace is what you seek, read the labels on everything your child eats. Go to http://www.feingold.org and read some of the research available. Simple modifications in your child’s diet may bring the dramatic changes you seek.
Finally, be patient: Your son’s behavior did not become a problem overnight – it evolved over time. Allow him time to heal and be restored. Anchor your relationship in love and peace. Assure and reassure him that he is unconditionally loved. Invest yourself in his stability. In just a short time, you will be able to present to the world a loving child of grace and understanding.
Children draw a direct correlation between being good and being loved.
Unconditional love is not assumed.
Assure and reassure him that he is loved.