Arashpreet Gill and Agnes Jo
My son is four years old. He recently has started acting in a very violent manner. He throws tantrums and hits the children he plays with when he does not get his way. I have tried everything to explain to him that violence is not the answer, but nothing is working. What should I do?
Dear Exasperated Mom,
Boys can be hard to deal with sometimes- especially when they become what I like to call “angry young men”. There are a number of reasons that can lead to this and a number of solutions that you can try.
The idea of self emerges at about age three. With a development of the idea of self, children who accomplish a task feel proud of themselves. Cognitive skills help children better understand other people’s intentions. Your son may be too young to have developed enough cognitive skills to understand that it is not okay to get angry because the source of anger is misunderstood. This is due to something called hostile attribution bias. It is a method of problem solving in which people think that the intent of someone, even if it was an accident, was to hurt them. Preschoolers or other younger children like your four year old may get angry if he got hurt by someone else, regardless of intent. However, as he gets older, he will understand that having this bias only hurts him.
I have told you why; let me explain what you can do to help your son in fixing this. Some studies have shown that children become less emotionally intense and feel less negative emotions. (Guerin & Gottfried, 1994). However, there are methods of emotional regulation that can help your child better control his emotions. Let me start this off by saying that most children do not reach the ability of self-regulation of emotions until they are about 5 years old, so they rely on their parents’ capability of emotional regulation until then. The three most important things that you can do as a parent are being authoritative, being consistent, and being an open communicator.
An authoritative parent is a form of parenting in which parents are highly demanding and highly responsive. This means that you create clear and strict guidelines but you allow the kids to make their own choices within those boundaries. For example, if your child hits another child, that is the strict guideline of unacceptable, but the wiggle room comes in when you ask your child- is this acceptable behavior? Would you like it if someone did this to you? This helps your child realize what he is doing is wrong rather than you just telling him- a much more effective manner of learning right from wrong. However, do not forget the responsiveness. Try to understand what your son feels or wants to say and act appropriately. When a parent begins threatening with violence or some kind of extreme punishment, they become authoritarian parents. The children of authoritarian parents find it more difficult to establish a sense of independence or to think of violence as a rare or unwanted event.
When I say be consistent, I mean be consistent. Whether it is the rules you set or the form of punishment you give your child, consistency is key. The one time you let something go because he are throwing a tantrum is the one time after which your son will always think because he threw a tantrum and you gave in that one time you will do it again. However, if you never give in, he will understand his limits which are important when parents are regulating.
The concept of being an open communicator goes two ways. The first way is to communicate and pay attention to your child even when he is being good. Too often, we see children craving for attention and as a result they act out to garner that attention. That being said, another important part of punishment is that it should not get more attention than the good deeds themselves. The best way to achieve this is to deny them of attention using something like a time-out. A time-out is a form of punishment in which the child receives isolation and little to no attention. This is particularly effective because children do not like feeling alone.
The second part of being an open communicator is to be clear as to what the child should be feeling- referring back to guilt versus shame. Just to clarify, guilt means to feel bad for the people you have harmed and shame means to feel bad about you have done. If your child only experiences shame at doing the wrong things- he will never learn that his actions hurt others as well, but if he feels guilt, he will have a stronger indication that his actions hurt others and he may stop just by feeling and understanding that. It is important that he understands the essence of guilt more than shame.
More than likely, this just a phase and he will soon grow out of it as he begins to develop his own system of emotional regulation. As long as you help him build it to understand that violence is not the answer, he should be okay.
Guerin DW, Gottfried AW. Developmental stability and change in parent reports of temperament: A ten-year longitudinal investigation from infancy through preadolescence. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly. 1994;40: 334–355.
Siegler, Robert. (2011). “How Children Develop”. Worth Publishers, 392-396.