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Single mother cannot control four-year-old son

by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1998, 2003 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

See Aletha Solter's books, Helping Young Children Flourish and Tears and Tantrums for more information about anger, tantrums, and aggression in children.

Question:

I am having a very hard time with my son. He's four-and-a-half years old, and sometimes I cannot control him. He is often in a very bad, pouting mood and throws extremely bad tantrums. During these tantrums he will throw things, bang on the walls, scream forever, kick furniture and slam doors. If I yell at him or spank him it only makes him more defiant. I don't know if this is a result of "just being spoiled" or if there is a psychological or medical reason behind this behavior. He has always been a difficult child. Traditional methods of discipline, such as telling him how he makes me feel when he throws these tantrums, and using the time-out method, simply do not work.

As a single, full-time working mother, I find this all very hard to deal with. I feel like when I do spend time with my son, it's always spent punishing or yelling at him for his inappropriate behavior. I work Monday through Friday, and after spending all day Saturday and Sunday with my son and his bad attitude and temper tantrums, I am sorry to say I look forward to work on Monday. I love my son tremendously and really want to be the best mom I can be. Please offer me some advice.

Answer:

Your son is not spoiled. He is simply showing signs of stress. I recommend, first of all, that you look for sources of stress in his daycare situation during the week. Is he in a warm, nurturing environment, or is there harsh discipline or too high a child/adult ratio. You say you are a single mother. I am wondering if your separation or divorce from his father could have contributed to his stress and perhaps anger at you. This does not mean that you need to feel guilty, but it is important to understand that your son is suffering from an overload of stress. I am only guessing at the possible causes. You who know him best can probably figure out what stresses there are in his life. Try to see things from his point of view, do what you can to reduce stress, and recognize his need to express anger.

I strongly urge you to refrain from any form of punishment, including the use of time-out (which you said doesn't work anyway). Yelling, spanking, and withdrawal of attention will only further contribute to his stress and make the situation worse. Your son is trying to be heard and understood. He needs your love and reassurance that his anger will not cause you to reject him. Crying and raging are important healing mechanisms that help children release stress. These behaviors should never be stopped.

You can help your son to feel loved and understood if you stay near him when he has temper tantrums. You can pay attention to him, reflecting back his feelings, for example, "I see that you are very angry right now. You must have had a hard day." Reassure him of your love. Children need to feel loved no matter how they are feeling. This is not going to be easy to do, but he needs your love and compassion more than anything else at those times.

When your son feels that you are really listening to him, and that you understand how he is feeling, I suspect that he will spontaneously stop his aggressive behavior (such as throwing things and banging doors). The goal is NOT to stop him from crying, but to let him feel safe enough so that he can cry without feeling the need to be destructive. He will probably continue to cry angrily for a while, and this is important for him to do. After he has had a good cry with your loving attention, he will become more relaxed, and will be much easier to live with. Hopefully, you will then be able to enjoy the time you spend with him.

Related articles:

Understanding tears and tantrums
What causes violence?
Don't spank your children
The disadvantages of time-out
Temper tantrums in two-year-olds


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Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute (www.awareparenting.com). Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.

Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child-rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.

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This page was last updated on March 11, 2013. Copyright © 1998, 2003 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

Warning/Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. When babies display emotional, behavioral, or medical problems of any kind, parents are strongly advised to seek competent medical advice and treatment. Some of the suggestions in this article may be inappropriate for babies suffering from certain emotional, behavioral, or physical problems. Aletha Solter, The Aware Parenting Institute, and Shining Star Press shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any damage caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly by the information contained in this article.