Q: My husband and I are not on the same page when it comes to our just-turned four-year-old son. He thinks our son’s behavior is a phase that he will outgrow. To me, his defiance and tantrums are alarming and need to be dealt with now to prevent them from getting worse. Most recently, he has started hitting and kicking us when he doesn’t get his way. My husband responds by talking and compromising. Ugh! What is your take on this?
A: When a young child discovers that his parents are not in agreement concerning his discipline, it’s Katie-bar-the-door, and make no mistake, a child can and will figure this out as early as age two. Furthermore, it is largely myth that children “outgrow” behavior problems. More often than not, they grow into them, meaning the behavior problems in question worsen and proliferate over time.
Quite frankly, your son’s behavior is bad enough as it is. Some lingering stubbornness in response to instructions is to be expected (albeit not tolerated) at this age, but full-blown defiance and tantrums are indication, clearly, that you folks failed to get over the “hump” of toddlerhood. You’re stuck on its upslope and you’re going to remain stuck there until you both come to grips with the potential seriousness of your family situation. This is the sort of scenario that eventually leads to a bogus (i.e. unscientific) psychological diagnosis like attention deficit or oppositional-defiant disorder and a prescription for a medication that can cause more problems than it solves (if it solves any).
Your son’s current penchant for hitting is indication of where things are going; that is, steadily worse. The standard length of a newspaper column requires that I come straight to the point: your husband’s response, as well-intentioned as it may be, is enabling your son’s misbehavior. First, a child this age, especially one who has discovered that he holds the trump card, cannot be reasoned with. Second, if you give a domestic terrorist an inch, as in attempting to compromise with him, he will eventually take the proverbial mile.
Get it together, dad! You are rapidly falling into the trap of valuing your relationship with your son over your relationship with your wife. Job One is to be a good husband which, in this case, means letting your son know that his respect and obedience is not an option. Stop talking and appeasing and act! Wear big-boy pants! Man up, dude! (The preceding message is intended for many contemporary fathers, by the way.)
The good news is that a solution can still be brought about rather simply: On any given day, your son gets three “strikes.” Failure to immediately obey is a strike. The first hint of a tantrum is a strike. Hitting is three strikes. Strike one results in confinement to his room, which you strip of any “entertainment value,” for thirty minutes. Strike two, an hour. Strike three, the rest of the day and early bedtime (as in, immediately after the evening meal).
Enforce the plan without reminders, warnings, or second chances and you should be over the aforementioned “hump” within four to six weeks. At that point, it’s simply a matter of staying the course.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.