Question: I’m a recent widow and have recently changed jobs and my son three-year-old son and I moved. My son has turned into a monster. He has never misbehaved…but all of a sudden, if I have to tell him “no” or regular disciplinary things…he calls me a “bitch” kicks me, hits me, screams. What can I do? I’ve tried time out: it is not effective because he refuses to go, I’ve tried re-directing: this only works if I re-direct him to something he wants (materialistic), etc. Nothing is working, and when he’s finally exhausted (and I am too) he is in tears crying saying he’s sorry. Trouble is, he’ll act up again in no time. HELP! – Jami

Answer: First, please accept my sympathy for the loss of your husband. These could not have been easy years for you. You will want to continue to get the support you need to express your grief and to create a strong parenting support network for yourself. It isn’t easy to juggle the demands of being a single parent.

As you mentioned, however, your son has a very different experience of these events than you. Please keep in mind the following points: 1. He is at an age notorious for pushing limits. 2. Discipline is currently a source of frustration and confusion. 3. He has experienced numerous changes that undermine his safe, predictable world. You will want to concentrate on a specific behavior plan to help him get back to more positive behavior.

Here’s what to do:

  • Confidently set the “rules” for what is important to you. There will be times when you must tell him “no” and set boundaries on his actions.
  • Name calling, kicking, hitting and screaming must never be rewarded with attention, bribes or rewards, or emotional escalation. Stay calm. Repeat your expectation clearly and succinctly. Do not fuel the conflict.
  • Remove yourself from physical outbursts. Tell him matter-of-factly that you do NOT respond to hitting, screaming or to name-calling. (Watch out for where he is learning words like “bitch” – he should not be hearing it.)
  • If necessary, give him space for tantrums. He may be angry and frustrated with your demands. Until he learns more emotional control, he will fall apart before he can regroup and act more appropriately.
  • Help him to meet your expectations if possible. Tell him if he stays calm, you will help him do the right thing. For example, you can help him with clean-up or he will have 5 extra minutes of snuggle time before bed.
  • Offer only choices that get you what YOU want. For example, he can sit on a chair or in his highchair but he must be sitting for mealtime. He can hop to bed or he tiptoe to bed but bedtime is still 8:30 (if he can’t choose, you WILL carry him).
  • Explain the consequence of non-compliance. For every rule, be ready to act. If he throws his food, mealtime is over until the next regular mealtime. If he hits the dog, he cannot play with the dog (he and the dog are separated into different rooms). If you ask him to stop something, be prepared to get up and enforce it.

Everything you do now requires energy and attentiveness on your part. Use loving, creative routines that build a sense of order and predictability in your son’s day. Stay focused on your goal of consistently enforcing predictable rules – change does not happen over night. If you stick to your plan, you will see positive changes in a month. Try to keep your frustration to a manageable level. Find time to reconnect with all of the things you enjoy about him. There is light at the end of the tunnel!

Good Luck,
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

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