Question: My 5-year-old continues to throw tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. His father and I are divorced. I have primary custody. He is with his dad every other weekend, basically. My ex has very poor emotional control, and I’m concerned that our son inherited that from him.
When he throws a tantrum, I make him sit in a “tantrum chair” in the living room, something I read about in one of your books. It sometimes takes him nearly an hour to fully calm down. Is there anything else I can do to help him get control of himself, or should I just stay the course?
I’m thinking 5 years old is too old for tantrums and that there may be more going on with him than I’m aware of.
Answer: Sixty-plus years ago, it was “unheard of” for a child older than 36 months to still be throwing tantrums; today, it isn’t the norm, but it’s not unusual either. The difference is due to sea changes in child-rearing practices that have taken place since the 1960s, the two most significant of which have been a shift from adult- to child-centeredness in the family and a change in focus from instilling citizenship values to making children happy.
As the result of demonizing (by the media and mental health professional community) and all but abandoning traditional child-rearing attitudes and practices, behaviors associated with the so-called terrible twos — tantrums, defiance, impulsivity, separation anxiety — continue to occur past toddlerhood and sometimes well past.
In other words, I doubt there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
A tendency toward emotionality may be inheritable to some extent, but even if that is the case, emotional control can be taught. Behavioral predispositions are exactly that: predispositions. Unlike physical characteristics, they aren’t written in stone. So, for example, you can’t change a child’s eye color, but a tendency toward shyness can be overcome.
For whatever reasons, your son is having great difficulty accepting what I call the Mick Jagger Principle: You can’t always get what you want. (For those readers who suffer from deficiencies in rock ’n’ roll knowledge, that is the title of a well-known song by the Rolling Stones, Jagger’s band.)
A “tantrum chair” (or some variation upon it) is my standard recommendation concerning ongoing emotional meltdowns in a child your son’s age. The most important element in the equation is that you enforce in keeping with the “Referee’s Rule”: no warnings, no threats, no second chances, no deals.
As soon as a tantrum begins, assign him to the chair. In hesitation, all is not lost, but hesitation when it comes to enforcing rules is almost as counterproductive as not enforcing them at all. This going to be an uphill battle. Stay the course. Your resolve will eventually pay off.
Question: My 3-year-old is prone to ear infections. When he has one, his behavior deteriorates considerably. He becomes disobedient and prone to angry outbursts. When his ears are clear, he’s generally delightful to be around. I’m reluctant to discipline him when his ears are hurting him, but I’d like your advice on this.
Answer: Obviously, your son doesn’t have a behavior problem per se; he has an ear infection problem that adversely affects his behavior. Given that when his ears are clear, he’s a delightful little fellow, I’d be reluctant to recommend any form of punitive discipline.
The best approach to a problem of this “on-again, off-again” sort is to strike while the iron is cold — be proactive, in other words. When he’s infection-free and in a good mood, tell him that when he has an ear infection, he needs to spend most of his time playing by himself in his room so that if he needs to lie down, he’ll be close to his bed. I’m not recommending that you confine him, only that you set the stage for telling him, when he’s not feeling well, that he needs to go to his room.
Your follow-up question then becomes: What if he doesn’t want to go to his room? That is a possibility, especially given that he’s already in an oppositional mood, in which case you’re just going to have to muddle and keep reminding yourself that his Mr. Hyde phase will pass in due time.
Question: Our 3-year-old is well behaved at home, but his preschool teachers are having problems with him. Specifically, he has what they call “boundary issues” — he can’t seem to keep his hands off other children and what they are doing.
They’ve tried all they know to do but have accomplished nothing. They are now recommending that he attend a special preschool in the mornings where the staff will work with him on his problems. He’ll come back to his regular preschool in the afternoon, after lunch.
We aren’t thrilled with this prospect. Do you have any advice for us?
Answer: Sounds like they’re recommending a morning therapeutic preschool, in which case he’s going to be “identified” as a problem at age 3, in which case I recommend that you get him out of there.
In all likelihood, his so-called boundary issues are due to a combination of factors including that he’s a boy, impulsive (he’s a boy) and wanting other children to pay attention to him (he’s a boy).
In order to receive accreditation, preschools must adhere to certain disciplinary policies that are ineffective and often counterproductive. A “therapeutic” environment may well lead to a bogus diagnosis, bogus therapy and medication. Furthermore, a label that becomes attached at this tender age could follow your son into elementary school. You don’t want that.
I strongly advise you find a preschool setting where the teachers are more experienced and skilled at dealing with excitable boys. The first thing that comes to mind is a traditional Montessori setting.