Jeffrey consulted with me because his three-year old son, Jason, was hitting and having temper tantrums. Jeffrey was mystified because he and his wife, Collette, had never hit or yelled at Jason. Jeffrey and Collette were very careful to respect Jasons feelings and needs and could not understand where he could have learned his disrespectful behavior.
Nothing they did stopped Jason from hitting and screaming when he didnt get his way. He was immune to the time-outs they continually gave him. He would apologize each time and say he would not do it again, but next time he didnt get his way, he would again hit and scream.
We worked on the problem on two different levels. First, I suggested that Jeffrey and Collette start to think in terms of negative consequences. Jason needed to know what the negative consequences were for his acting out. What privilege would he lose? What event would he be unable to attend?
That weekend, Jason was greatly looking forward to attending a birthday party for one of his cousins. But the morning of the birthday party, Jason hit Collette when she was trying to get him dressed. Collette firmly informed Jason that if he hit or screamed again, he would not get to go to the birthday party. As they were getting into the car to go to the party, Jason tested out his parents by again hitting Collette. Fortunately, Jeffrey and Collette followed through. They took Jason out of the car, gave him a time-out, and Collette went to the party without him.
Jason acted as if he didnt care about the party, but he hasnt hit either of his parents since that incident. They are gratified to see that he does have the impulse control to stop himself from hitting.
Next we worked on why Jason was behaving like a brat and where he could have learned this behavior.
There are many places a child can learn to hit and scream: pre-school, TV, neighbor children, parks, or other public places where kids might be hitting each other or parents might be hitting kids. There is probably no way in our society for children not to see this behavior. The real question was not where he learned it, but why was he doing it as a way of dealing with his frustration.
How do you and Collette deal with your frustration? I asked Jeffrey.
Collette often yells and I generally shut down, replied Jeffrey.
So neither of you is offering Jason role modeling regarding healthy ways of managing frustration?
I guess not. I guess we dont know how to do it either.
It is unrealistic for you to expect Jason to know respectful ways of managing frustration when you dont know how to do it. Part of your job as parents is to learn healthy ways of dealing with your own feelings so that Jason can naturally learn from you. What you are currently teaching Jason is to control with anger or withdrawal. He has learned from you and Collette that it is okay to try to get your way in ways that disrespect the other person. You, being his male role model, have the responsibility to learn to respond to Collettes anger in a way that takes loving care of yourself without disrespecting her. You ask Jason to use his words rather than hitting and screaming, but you are not using your words. Jason has learned to respond to Collettes controlling behavior with his own controlling behavior because you are not showing him a better way. If he does not want to give himself up or meekly withdraw, he has no other choice but to act like Collette and try to get his way. By allowing Collette to treat you disrespectfully, you are teaching Jason to do the same. By withdrawing, you are allowing both of them to be brats!
Jeffrey could clearly see that he needed to step up to the plate and learn to speak up for himself with Collette, and that both he and Collette needed to learn healthy ways of dealing with their frustration. In addition, they needed to be consistent regarding following through on the negative consequences that they stated would occur should Jason act out.
Both Jason and Collette worked hard on learning to manage their difficult feelings in healthy and respectful ways, and were very gratified to see Jason gradually becoming more respectful as well.