Thursday, March 29, 2012

4 year old's defiant outbursts

My girlfriend has a 4 year old son. He will be 5 in August. He is an intelligent boy. His name is Larry.. He is outgoing and social with everyone he meets. His father just had a new baby. He didn't inform Larry of the baby until the end of the second trimester. His mother and I have helped to excite Larry about being a big brother. I also have a 4 year old son. I work offshore and only get to see my son every 4 weeks. He and Larry play well together. I'm not a professional, but Larry has been a typical preschooler, until now. The baby was born last week. I have had no problem getting Larry to obey and follow direction. His mother is the disciplinarian and his father is very passive of Larry's behavior. I was home from work and witnessed the most obscene behavior that I have ever seen from Larry.

1) His mother and I took Larry and my son to a parade in town. Larry was very defiant and did not want to listen to either one of us. I usually let his mother control him, but I stepped in to help. It seemed to have worked.

2) We were at Larry's grandmother's home. He was rude to his uncle and began screaming and slapping at him. His mother stepped in and could not control him. He screamed at her and would not cooperate with her. I intervened and helped him to obey his mother.

3) Yesterday, his mother was called from his daycare. Larry has been in attendance of the center since the age of 6 weeks. He began yelling at the teacher and slapped at her when she asked him to get out of a chair. It became so violent that the male owner had to physically remove him from the chair. He continued to scream and his mother was called to intervene.

4) Today the daycare called and said that his actions from yesterday have begun, but have worsened. He was suspended from daycare for the remainder of the day and tomorrow. They are contemplating removing him from the center as a result of his behavior.

Sir, what can we do? His mother cannot afford counseling and we have tried to read articles to better help us. We both are in desperate need of help.

Hi, It sounds like there has been a dramatic change in Larry's behavior recently.  In my book "Your child is defiant" one important diagnostic issue I write about is whether the defiant behavior has been going on a for a long time or is of recent origin.  If recent, I label the problem "situational," and I suggest parents look for what has changed recently in the child's life.  You point to the birth of the new baby.  Some questions to consider are:  how has the baby's birth changed Larry's schedule and his relationship with key adults in his life?  Is the time with the father different, or has the father's emotional availability to the son changed?  Is there anything else that has changed in Larry's life recently that could account for his angry, defiant behavior?  For example, you mention you are away offshore for several weeks at a time.  Is Larry attached to you, and does he miss you?

Another thing to observe:  what is going on when Larry erupts?  What was happening at the parade, with the uncle, and at day care when he got angry?  What was going on right before he got angry?  Can you see any patterns?  If you can narrow down the triggers, you can then try to anticipate his rage and alter the situation ahead of time. 

If the child is being disobedient, but not in an out-of-control rage, then be firm about what is expected of him.  Have a short term consequence (like a time out)  ready if he does not comply.  If the child is in anger overload (out of control and not rational) then you can try to distract him, but you will probably need to ignore him.  Talking about what you expect of the child at these times is ineffective.  However, when he is physically violent, (when he is striking someone), then you will need to yell stop and/or restrain him.  You can also use incentives and consequences, but these do not usually help in the middle of an out-of-control tantrum because the child is not thinking rationally at that time.  You can impose a consequence later after the child calms down. You can read more about behavior modification strategies in my book, or other books about discipline.

Another thing to consider:  what was your approach that seemed to work to settle Larry down?  Is it something that the other adults can do too?  Also, it is important for the parenting figures in Larry's life to try to be a united front.  If he feels one adult does not support what the other is doing, then Larry will be less likely to listen.

My last suggestion gets back to the first thing you noted in your e-mail:  the birth of the baby.  If you all think this is what might be causing the outbursts, then it would be important to talk more with Larry about the baby, find a role for him when he visits the baby, and help him with his worries or anger about how the baby has affected him.

If you do not have success, try talking to Larry's doctor.  Also most states have community mental health centers with sliding fee scales, and someone there may be able to help further to figure out what to do.  Take care, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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