Q. We are having problems with our five-year-old son who can be pretty rough and aggressive with other kids. Last week the teacher called us in saying he was fighting with other children in his class.
At home he can be really stubborn and throws tantrums when he does not get his own way and gives my wife a hard time at home especially when I am not there. My wife, who looks after him full-time at home, is really worried about it and thinks that something is wrong and that we should get him assessed professionally. I am not sure about this. I think a lot of his behaviour is him being a bit of a boisterous boy and not knowing his own strength as he is big for his age. He is stubborn though and he does get into real battles with my wife, but I think it is a lot to do with her being always on his case, which makes things worse.
When I come home in the evening, I feel like I am caught in a row trying to defend my son against her complaints about him. Recently, my wife and I seem to row constantly about it. I do my best to help out when home and things are better then, but she says it is not enough. I don’t want to go down a road of getting him assessed when he is so young as I worry he will be singled out. Which one of us is right and what should we do?
A. It isn’t a case that one of you is right and the other is wrong. Rather it seems the two of you have different, valid perspectives on your son’s behaviour and the best way forward. Fathers and mothers frequently have different views on parenting, which is often informed by differences in their own personalities, experiences and upbringing. Though this can lead to conflict and become the focus of rows over “who is right”, it does not have to be this way.
Children can tolerate and even benefit from being parented differently, as it can add a diversity and richness of experience. For this to work, it is important for the parents to avoid unhelpful rows and instead to learn to support and complement one another. When I work with parents in conflict over their parenting, I first invite them to try to understand the positive intentions behind both their positions.
In your situation, it is understandable that you are reluctant to go down a professional route especially if it was to lead to your child being labelled or viewed negatively. You are right to hold to a non-blaming view of his behaviour (eg that he is just boisterous and does not know his own strength). It is indeed true that boys who look big for their age do get into more trouble as adults expect “older” and more social behaviour from them.
Equally, it is understandable that your wife wants to seek help as she is continuing to experience difficult behaviour from her son and is perhaps self-aware enough to know she is caught in a negative cycle of responding. She is right to want to try to take action to change things, and to do this early rather than later so as to stop problems becoming fixed.
So there is value in both your positions. The question is: how can you achieve both your goals? How can your wife get the support and help she needs to address the behaviour? And how can you ensure this is done in a positive way for your son that does not cause him problems? Or, put simply, how can you and your wife achieve a win-win?
This is a much better way to approach conversations with your wife about your son. The aim is to listen and to understand the principles behind both your positions and then to explore different options that benefit your son and that you both think are a good idea.
For example, you could seek a professional assessment but you could both attend this to ensure the best result for your son. Most mental health professionals welcome the involvement of both parents. Or you could talk to the school about what it recommends. Working with his teacher is crucial if problems are being reported there.
Usually, an evidence-based parenting course, which teaches parents positive behaviour management techniques, is the recommended course of treatment for overcoming behaviour problems in young children. The school, your GP or any mental health professional may be able to recommend such a course or you could seek one out yourselves in your local primary care or local family resource service. By attending a parenting course together, you and your wife could use the opportunity to think through different approaches and to work together as a team.
Finally, as your wife is the main carer during the day, it is important that you find an effective way of supporting her in dealing with your son’s behaviour. At the moment, it sounds like she is feeling criticised and blamed by you and this is the probable cause of the rows between you.
It could be that the way she manages your son is not always effective, but pointing this out to her directly is not likely to be helpful. It can be much more helpful to support your wife and to listen empathetically when she describes stressful incidents at important times, such as when you come in from work. Listening to her in this way does not mean you are making a choice not to defend your son. In fact, the best way to help your son is to support his mother as well as supporting him.
You can also help by practically taking over childcare (as you are doing) and sharing the burden with your wife as much as possible, so as to give her a break. Equally, ensuring you have time together as a couple away from the children can make a difference, giving you time to talk and also to attend to your relationship.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, June 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.