Sunday, April 15, 2012

Out of control 3 year old

My son is 3 and is completely out of control. Everyday is stressful, from eating to playing to bathtime. He freaks out if he doesn't get his way, he hits, kicks, punches, spits, bites, smacks and pulls hair. When I try and discipline him, by putting him in time out, he will hit and scratch and bite and punch until I cuddle him. If I spank his butt for his behavior, he gets worse, like it works for the behavior then, but it won't last. Today alone he's been in and out of time out at least 10 times and it's not even dinner time, If I put him in time out everytime he hit when he didn't get his way it would have been over 20 times. My husband and I are at a loss of what to do. I'm taking him to the doctor for sure to see what suggestions they have and we are starting parenting classes soon and working with his new day care, but do you have any discipline suggestions until then?

It sounds so frustrating.  Yes, I would check with your doctor.  In the meantime if there are certain situations that are more likely to lead to his out-of-control behavior, think about whether you can re-arrange the sequence in any way.  For example, if he loses control when he has to do something, try to arrange a short activity that your son likes to come after the thing he does not like.  Then there is a natural incentive for him to cooperate.  You could remind him ahead of time what comes after his cooperation.  You could also start a "cooperation" or "self-control" chart on the refrigerator, and your son could earn smiley faces each time he cooperates.  At the end of the day if there are enough smiley faces (you would need to determine in advance what number is an improvement, even if not perfect), he could earn a bonus activity (short game or extra story) before bedtime.  In this way you are building in incentives to try to motivate your child.

One problem I see is that you cuddle him when he does not respond to your disciplining.  This is inadvertently rewarding your child for his lack of cooperation.  In other words, in his mind, he sees that his awful behavior leads to cuddling.  So I would recommend you change that pattern.  It is best to totally ignore your child if he is in anger overload, unless he is hurting himself or someone else and then you will need to restrain him. 

When you meet with the doctor, see if he or someone he recommends can rule out any developmental delay that may be intefering with his acceptance of the rules.  Is there any learning delay, or sensory integration problem (he may be on edge a lot of the time if he has trouble with loud noises or tactile stimulation for example), or beginning mood or social interaction problems that could underlie his outbhursts.  I'm not saying that he does, but you would want someone to rule these things out. 

My new book, "Anger overload in children:  A parent's manual" is in press and should be available on in about a week.  It has other helpful suggestions for parents.  Good luck, Dr.Dave Gottlieb

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