Hi Dr Justin
We are at the end of our tether with our nearly five-year-old son. He has an older brother (eight) – and has just started school. His behaviour at the moment is so defiant. He always has to have the last word, and we’ve noticed that a lot of his behaviour is deflection, i.e. my brain told me to be naughty – so never takes responsibility for his actions or words, he always has an out.
It came to a head this morning when he’d thrown a drink bottle in the car and cracked the windscreen so it now has to be replaced. I wasn’t in the car at the time, I’m assuming his brother said something to him and he’s thrown it. Consequences will be discussed with his father when he gets home, no TV today though and possibly for a week?
We tried a sticker chart last week and after a good first day the next five days were awful with I think only two stickers given and about three taken away for him not talking or behaving nicely. i.e. ‘Can we have an ice cream?’ ‘No.’ ‘You’re the meanest mummy in the world’.
There are no toys that he absolutely loves for us to take away, except a stuffed toy which is like his comforter so not sure that’s the right thing to take?
In a nutshell – he is really defiant, rude, you can never call his bluff as he doesn’t care (‘If you do X there will be no ice block.’ ‘I don’t want an ice block’). Our only saving grace is that he doesn’t know how to flip the bird at you, as I think he’d do that too!
Thanks in advance
Dr Justin responds:
The first thing I want to ask you to do is repeat the following: calm and kind. Say it about 500 times a day if you need to. It is not possible to be an effective parent if you are stressed and angry. And regardless of the justification for being stressed and angry (and you seem to have some reasonable justifications) it won’t improve things. Calm and kind, not stressed and angry.
OK, with that out of the way, let’s look at what you can do to help your four year old improve his behaviour.
One of the most important things to remember is that many four year olds are defiant. And deflective. And even aggressive. It’s just how they are. They need to push past developmental milestones to overcome these challenges. The fact that it’s how they are doesn’t make it right, but knowing it is somewhat normal can be helpful. Most researchers agree that children won’t learn to really understand another person’s point of view until they’re at least five. Your son isn’t quite there yet (almost five), and it’s worth mentioning that sometimes kids can be as old as six before they actually develop the ability to understand that you and Dad see the world differently, and want something different than what he wants. (Incidentally, while the ability is usually developed by six, I know far too many who struggle with this even as adults.)
Furthermore, it is reasonably well-established that children struggle to regulate their emotions and behaviour up until the age of seven or eight. When they get mad, they lash out. When they’re upset, they cry. When they’re embarrassed or in trouble, they get defensive or deflect responsibility. There are some gender differences in development across the early part of the lifespan (until mid-20s), with boys generally dragging the chain just a bit.
All of this means that we need to be patient with them as they develop, and improve in the way we guide them in understanding and regulating their emotions and behaviours. But how?
Punishment or discipline?
First, we need to differentiate between punishment and discipline. From your email, you are big on punishment. But punishment is not discipline. Punishment means we hurt someone or take something away from them when they act in ways we don’t like. Punishment requires a power difference, with the powerful person hurting the less powerful person. Punishment is all about control. And punishment is a poor teacher. It harms relationships, promotes distrust, builds resentment, and pushes unwanted behaviour underground – so kids simply get sneakier. All their behaviour regulation comes from us, and when we’re gone, they do what they want.
Two other points on punishment: first, it wears off. Eventually our threats don’t scare our kids, and why would we want to scare them anyway? Second, punishment makes them only think about themselves. They worry about how they can get out of trouble; how they can be sneaky,
Discipline means we teach, or instruct and guide, so that our children learn good ways to act. Discipline is about helping children to learn, think for themselves, and – with our guidance – create their own internal sense of what is right and wrong. Thus discipline helps children to regulate their behaviour regardless of whether we are there or not, because it is internally regulated. But discipline takes longer than punishment.
You can’t effectively discipline someone who doesn’t feel your love and warmth. You may be able to make them do what you want but for a child to be influenced by us, they must trust us. For them to trust us (or believe we will act in their best interests), they need to feel understood. And threatening, bribing (with stickers), or removing privileges (like TV or devices) only leaves kids feeling misunderstood.
Your son is acting in these challenging ways because he feels misunderstood. He has unmet needs (some which should be met, others which probably can’t be), and he is crying out to be heard. But in spite of your best efforts to help him behave the right way, he is hearing your interactions with him as threats, and as signals that there is something wrong with him and his emotions. He feels bad about himself, he feels misunderstood and he is lashing out as a result.
How to guide him
My first suggestion for what to do instead is this: stay calm and kind. Phew. This is tough, particularly when his behaviour is deeply challenging. Second, spend time with him talking when he is NOT in trouble, and when he is not being told what to do.
Next, when he is emotional, calmly help him get his emotions under control. Offer him reassurance, hugs and love. Then – and only when he is calm – ask him questions to understand why he was so upset. When you understand, then it’s time to start teaching. You might ask, “Next time that happens, what is a better thing to do?” Ask him, “When you feel like you’re going to burst inside, how can you tell me without throwing things or fighting with your brother, or saying no?”
The purpose of this is to help him develop answers himself. Rather than punishing him, you will be teaching him. Remember, it won’t work while he’s emotional, so it’s your job to reassure him he’s not in trouble, but that you want to help him.
This process is slow and requires ongoing effort. But research shows it brings much more powerful results than the obvious ‘quick-fix’ strategies we traditionally look to.
Lastly, remember that you get more of what you focus on. If you continually focus on and emphasise his challenging behaviour, he’ll believe he’s a challenge and give that to you more. If you gently and softly focus on and appreciate his positive and pro-social wonderful behaviour (without overdoing it on the praise), you’ll likely see his better nature more.
Warmth and love, limits set collaboratively, and gentle guidance as you work with your son will bring the best results over time, and help him to grow resilient, loved and responsible.