Dear Dr. Yael:
My five-year-old son is a very difficult child. Most of the time he will not do what I ask of him, and he has a tantrum when he does not get his way. Interestingly enough, he is much more obedient when it is just the two of us, but if the other children are around he is very hard to manage. I know that as he gets older, things will become more difficult. Thus, I want to help him change his middos now.
For the most part he is well behaved in school, so I know that he is capable of behaving when he wants to. However, dealing with his after-school issues takes up most of my time and energy, leaving little left over for my other children. I often yell at my son, as he knows what buttons to push. And even though I tell myself not to yell, I inevitably end up raising my voice. I hate myself when I become this angry and mean mother, and I wish that I could deal with him more effectively. Please help!
Mother Who Needs Help
Note: Dr. Orit Herman, a child psychologist, has written this response.
Dear Mother Who Needs Help,
The dilemma with your son is, unfortunately, very common. Many parents have at least one child who is difficult to raise. I commend you for your honesty and for your bravery to seek help.
Some tricks may be helpful. It seems as if your son is looking for attention, so instead of waiting for him to act out and get negative attention, try to manipulate the situation so that you can give him positive attention – before he acts out. For example, try to set up a routine that allows you to spend positive time with him.
You did not identify the ages and genders of your other children, but is it possible for you to hire a high school student to help the older children with homework or to play with the younger children? If so, you would be able to carve out some time to read and/or play with your son. Even if it is for only 20 minutes or so, you can start your evening with some special time with your son, hopefully setting him up for a positive night. Let your other children know that they will each spend “special time” with you, however, since your five-year-old son seems to be going through a hard time you will start with him. You can greet all of the children warmly and then remind them, with a secret signal, that you will be reading and/or playing with your five-year-old – then spending time with them.
Of course, you would want to try to wean your five-year-old off of this schedule and enable him to be more flexible. (Maybe you would eventually spend 10 minutes of special time with him at bedtime.) He might need this one-on-one time with you in order to help him build his self-confidence.
In addition to your joint special time, institute some kind of behavioral chart with a prize of 10 stickers. During your special time you can talk to your son about how much you love him and how you want to work on your relationship with him. Explain to him that you do not like to yell and that you will work on trying to stop. Then describe the positive behavior you want him to work on (begin by picking the two most important things) and tell him that you want to start a chart with him, consisting of earned stickers every time he does certain positive things. Make sure you are clear about what he needs to do to earn the stickers, and that he can earn a small prize (mention things he would like) when he receives 10 stickers. It is important for you to keep your word and to try hard to work on yelling less.
When you feel that you are going to lose it, tell your son that you need a timeout in order to calm down because you are feeling so upset and you do not want to yell. This will teach him what to do when he is feeling upset, and it will show him how much you care about him. Even taking some calming breaths and thinking of a way to bring up something positive will likely help you calm down and get your son to listen. Try to always find the positive things your son does and make a big deal about them, while attempting to ignore and redirect the negative behavior as much as possible. Thus, if your son is not listening to you but then does something nice for one of his siblings, tell him how proud you are of him as a result of his positive action. Follow up by conveying to him a second time how proud you are of him. If he doesn’t immediately pay attention to you, say it again – for he may surprise you and follow through on a request you have for him. If necessary, remind him about the stickers he would earn if he listens. But do not use the sticker chart in a negative way (e.g., “If you do not get into your pajamas, you will not get a sticker”). Rather, use it in a positive way (e.g., “It’s pajama time! I really want to give you a sticker, so please get into your pajamas right away and I can give you one”).