Q. I’m a single mum to a three-year-old boy. I’m also a mature student in college and lately I have noticed my son’s behaviour has changed and I’m wondering what the problem may be and what I can do to try to alleviate it. He is very outgoing and socially able but lately he is acting like a teenager and gets very cross and upset if he doesn’t get his own way. While I’m sure this is normal to some degree and he is only asserting himself, I feel his behaviour goes beyond this and I’m wondering is this something he is learning from me.
He has a great relationship with his dad who he stays over with two nights a week and his dad adores him but does not discipline him. He often calls in and, when both of us are there, he condones bad behaviour while I’m trying to correct it. I think our son sees this and perhaps both of us are wrong. I don’t know how to communicate with our three year old that he cannot scream and get cross constantly. I’m under pressure in final year of college and perhaps he is picking up on this.
He goes to a creche for half the week and the staff say he is getting on great there and they have not noticed any changes. I suppose my real worry is that I’m somehow causing all this. I try not to show my stress in front of him but perhaps I’m not doing a great job. We spend lots of quality time together and do lots of activities. However, recently he has stopped wanting to do these things. Is this telling me something?
A. Whatever the specific causes, screaming when angry and displaying tantrums are relatively normal behaviours for three-year- old children. When faced with this behaviour, it is easy as a parent to react by correcting, criticising and battling with children to behave, especially when you feel stressed or under pressure. However, such reactions can inadvertently reinforce your child’s misbehaviour and all too easily become a habit between the two of you that can wear both of you out and damage your relationship.
If you find yourself constantly correcting your son, or always on his case to get him to behave, or if you feel you are regularly in a battle with him, then it is important to take a step back and to try to find more positive ways to manage.
In dealing with his tantrums, the key is to make sure you are able to pause and to not get hooked in to reacting emotionally to his negative feelings. Then it is important to respond thoughtfully and calmly with a range of strategies that can include asking him to express himself rather than screaming (“use your words to talk to Mum”) or by soothing him (“oh, I know you are upset, let’s calm down now”) or by distracting him (“let’s go and play with the cars”) or giving him a choice (“you can have the toys when you ask politely”) etc.
Occasionally, you may have to take some action such as putting him somewhere safe to calm down for a moment or physically taking a step back yourself to do something else and put space between you.
Responding positively and thoughtfully as a parent is hard work, particularly if you are stressed and managing without support.
In addition, feeling guilty or blaming yourself does not help you or your child and can increase the pressure on you unnecessarily. The most important thing is to be compassionate towards yourself as a parent and to take practical steps to reduce the stress in your life.
Simple changes like reorganising routines, prioritising relaxing time by yourself and learning positive discipline techniques can make a big difference.
It is important to spend relaxing time with your son as you currently do when you do activities, etc but the challenge is to integrate this into the everyday activities.
It can be more valuable if you can incorporate fun and time for chatting into everyday chores such as getting dressed in the morning, or having breakfast or even tidying up in the evening. This would really reduce the stress within the day and help him co-operate more.
The fact that his father and you manage his behaviour differently may not necessarily be a significant factor. In my experience, children can tolerate a great degree of difference between parenting styles when their parents are separated once the two parents support one another and it is clear which parent is in charge at a given time.
Also, when visiting your home, it is possible that his father defers to you to manage your son’s behaviour and this is not an indication as to how he might discipline his son in his own home when he is in charge.
However, as co-parents it is a good idea that you work together to support one another and, if possible, you should sit down with his father and talk through the issues and come up with a shared plan.
Most importantly, your focus should be on establishing your own confidence as a parent in your home, and achieving a balance between supporting and enjoying your son as well as correcting and disciplining. If you are interested in finding out more, consider attending a parenting course where you can learn more positive discipline ideas in a supportive group atmosphere. See www.parentsplus.ie for some ideas.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, December 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.