Monday, July 23, 2012

3 year old screams and kicks when told "No"

I have a son who is 3.5 yrs old. He is an extremely angry young man and has been since birth. The word "no" normally sets him off into fits of rage. he frequently screams, kicks and tells me he hates me, or is going to punch me when  he doesn't get his way. I am not sure what to do anymore. I saw your book and wondered if he was too young for me to start blaming this on anything other than "being a toddler". Some days I feel like there is something very wrong with him, and other days he is an angel.   He is smart, has a great vocabulary, and at times can be just perfect, unless I say NO. He usually takes 20min to an hour to calm down after raging. Please help.

Hi, It is not unusual for 3 year olds to be egocentric and have tantrums when they do not get their way.  You write that he has been "extremely angry" since birth, and that comment makes me wonder whether your child is exhibiting anger overload, and not just age related tantrums.  In either case, you would use the same strategies I outline in my anger overload manual.  You would concentrate on the strategies in the first half of the book:  strategies you can employ that do not require your child's direct participation.

You first record the situations where he has outbursts over a two week period.  Is there some theme for some of the outbursts, and can you re-arrange certain situations to avoid the tantrums?  Or if your child expects something and often tantrums when he does not get it, can you lower his expectations ahead of time?  This could be key with your son:  you said he rages when you say "no."  So, in essence, you want to warn him before you say "no."  If you have to go somewhere soon, for example, you could say something like "we are going to have fun today but there is not a  lot of time before we have to go somewhere.  Let's play this quick card game before we go."  (You are offering something fun but not letting him get started on a longer game that you would have to interrupt.)  Or if you are going to say no to some dessert or say no to playing outside, you could say well in advance we are not going to do this today but we are going to do it tomorrow (or in the next couple of days).  Let's do this now.  (You get him busy so he does not obsess about what he cannot do.) You won't be able to use these strategies all the time, because children will sometimes explode when we don't expect it.

The next set of strategies has to do with the early phase of anger.  If your child has already begun to get angry but is not in full overload yet, then you would try emotional distraction or calming techniques.  I describe a number of these strategies in previous posts online and in my book.

Once in the overload phase, it is better not to say or do anything, unless your child is hurting someone or damaging something of value.  When he screams and says I hate you, think to yourself that this is "verbal diarrhea."  Your child is angry and does not mean what he says when he is angry.   If he is physically hurting someone, then you could bear hug him, or in some way prevent him from harming others or himself. 

You may also want to check with your family doctor to rule out other possible causes, like a mood disorder or social/personality disorders such as Asperger's.  You can read about these diagnoses in my book "Your Child is Defiant:  Why Is Nothing Working?"  While these diagnoses are not likely, if you are not able to lessen the frequency of outbursts over the next few months, then check with a professional to make sure nothing else is underlying your child's tantrums.

All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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