Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Handling a 2 yr old's anger


My son is 2 years old.  In my situation, I must be both parental figures for him the majority of the time.  He sees his Dad every other weekend and my son seems to have worse behavior on Mondays after coming back home.  My son has typical "the Twos" behavior when he doesn’t mind me and throws fits.  Friends and family tell me that I need to spank him or punish him and get a handle on him now or it will just get worse when he gets older.  I notice though that punishment seems to upset him instead of correct him.  He can have meltdowns where he screams and cries for long periods of time to the point of making himself so upset that he starts shaking.  Usually it follows a situation where I am making him do something that he doesn’t want to do, like take a bath or get ready for bed, or even something as simple as coming inside from playing.  He will get mad and bite himself or pull his own hair.  He will fight with other kids, take toys or bite other kids.  Yet he can be a very lovable, happy little boy and laughs.

He does not handle his anger very well and he does not handle punishments or authority well.  He uses the word “NO” despite efforts to teach him to say yes or consequences.  If he has a meltdown, I get better results from distracting him or just giving him love and attention when he starts, but then I don’t want him to grow up thinking that he “gets his way” when he has fits.  His meltdowns come on quick and it is very hard to get him calmed down.  It can happen in public, which is more than frustrating and embarrassing. He is very energetic and constantly getting into things, climbing, jumping, running, he just goes all the time.  He has no fear.  He can't sit still unless I put him in the crib for naps or bed time, or car seat.  He is very smart for his age.

His father has anger problems which led to our divorce and his Dad used to physically abuse his mother which led to their divorce.  I see that it could be something in the family line.  I am just to the point where I don’t know what to do for him as I am very easy going by nature.  How do I choose a counselor that is right for him, and is Anger Overload his problem?  Is moving him from our home to see his Dad every other weekend adding to his emotional problems and how do I handle it?

Thank you.

Hi, First, let me say that I agree with your use of distraction.  When children are having a meltdown, consequences are not usually helpful.  When a child is in overload, he or she is not thinking rationally and is not thinking about avoiding punishment.  I've had other parents use hugs with young children, and this is okay to help him soothe, but I would then once he is calm still insist that he do what you asked.  If you feel he is melting down in order to get hugs, then you could rely more on distraction techniques.  I write about distraction techniques in the blog and in my parent's manual.

Another idea I have is to use an incentive after he completes a required task.  For example, you mention he gets angry when you have him take a bath or get ready for bed.  I would let him know that you will play a short game or read a favorite story once the bath is over or once he is in bed. If there is something fun that comes after a chore, then children are more willing to complete the chore.  If baths continue to be problematic, try moving the bath time earlier in the evening, so that there are natural incentives, such as television or other evening activity, that start once he finishes the bath.  Some parents also make baths into a game by getting water toys or soap crayons that children can use in the bath.

Regarding your questions about a counselor, I would show the counselor this blog or my parent's manual and see if they have experience with young children and with anger issues.  You want a counselor who meets with you, or with you and your child together, in order to strategize.  You don't want a counselor in this situation who is going to spend a lot of time with your child alone in therapy.

As for your question about whether seeing his Dad every other weekend is adding to the problem, I'd want to know to what extent your son is less likely to follow your rules after a visit with his Dad.  A little regression is not abnormal after a visit away from home and his home routine; however, if there is increased anger that lasts more than a few hours, I would try to meet with his Dad and discuss your concerns.  It would be important that neither parent bad mouth the other in front of the child, and that you have some overlap in your approach to anger and discipline.  You do not have to be in lock step, but if one parent has no rules, then it is sometimes hard for a child to adapt back to the rules once he is home.  Sometimes then a counselor can help divorced parents work better together as parents.

Hope this helps.  Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb