What's up with my son?
August 17, 2010 1:42 AM   Subscribe

My three-year old son has suddenly started behaving very unusually. Any advice?

My three-and-a-half year old is normally outgoing, engaging, funny, active. Like most kids his age, he has a routine, a range of set behaviours, and he tends not to stray from either. His ups are up, while his downs are very short-lived.

On Monday morning he insisted he didn't want to go to the giant indoor playground. This was odd, but we didn't think much of it. The rest of the day he sat on the couch watching TV, and when asked what was wrong, he simply responded "Just leave me alone." I've never, ever heard him say anything remotely like this.

He isn't playing with his favourite toys. Activities that usually get him very excited leave him cold. There's been more 'just leave me alone'. Occasionally I'll see a spark and try to engage, only to have him withdraw again with an emotionless stare or strange look. He's not eating dinner. This evening he was sitting on the couch and I asked him where his 'can't ever be without this in the evening' blankie was. I got a shrug. My wife just asked him if he'd like to watch something before bed and he's in tears trying to choose. He used to suck his thumb as a comfort thing in the evening, but this has abruptly stopped. When he talks, it's barely above a whisper - a marked contrast to his usual delightfully in-your-face antics.

Anticipating your questions:

- we've all had a rotten cold the last week or so, but nothing he hasn't had before
- he has an 18 mth old brother - they get on pretty well, occasionally fight over toys or Mum's lap, but over the last couple of days this has changed to the older brother simply shoving the younger out of the way for no reason, perhaps with a follow-up blow
- we haven't changed our routine - no visitors, no stress, no fighting between Mum and Dad (we've never fought, in front of them or otherwise)
- he's not in trouble, has never been struck, is rarely the recipient of a raised voice ('one, two...' usually does the trick for whatever minor hijinks he gets up to)
- he's been toilet training the last couple of weeks with the help of a star sticker chart; he really enjoyed this up until a couple of days ago, and while he continues to stay dry he's not interested in any stars or praise

Is it normal for kids this age to have a few (very) off days? At what stage should we seek medical help?
posted by obiwanwasabi to Human Relations (39 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Has he been left alone with anyone recently?
posted by Jacqueline at 2:00 AM on August 17, 2010 [19 favorites]

Jacqueline: Has he been left alone with anyone recently?

Include other children in this.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:08 AM on August 17, 2010 [12 favorites]

When you say Monday, do you mean yesterday? Were there behavioural changes before yesterday? I'm not a parent but I'd be taking him to a Dr if this went on for more than a week.
posted by missmagenta at 2:24 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounds like me with a headache or a touch of flu.
posted by w0mbat at 2:29 AM on August 17, 2010

Maybe his rotten cold was actually the beginning of something like influenza or mono - something that causes a lot of fatigue? There's also a somewhat controversial theory that psycho-social symptoms in children can be triggered after an episode of strep throat. I hope it's nothing serious and that the wee lad makes a full recovery.
posted by embrangled at 2:32 AM on August 17, 2010

It may simply be an ear infection. I've noticed when my son would get ear infections he'd be in a bad mood for days, tired, lacklustre - even before the pain started. If he's had a cold it seems even more possible. Take him to the doctor and get him checked. Hope he feels better soon.
posted by bwonder2 at 3:00 AM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yeah, this sounds just like my daughter when she gets the flu. Normally loud, active, outgoing, then suddenly detatched one morning with no other symptoms.
posted by monkeymadness at 3:32 AM on August 17, 2010

Nthing taking him to the doctor and ruling out a secondary infection.

Once my son (then 9) acted similarly (but had no physical complaints) and a few days later both of his eardrums burst.

But if it turns out nothing's wrong, next step I'd think about is the dentist. Could be some tooth pain.

And if that's fine, I'd consider having plan a special activity (something that's maybe usually a special treat, like the museum and McDonald's) to help him get his mojo back.

Keep us posted; it stinks when kids are off.
posted by dzaz at 3:43 AM on August 17, 2010

- Has this been going on one day or one week? It's difficult to tell from your question.
- Any recent or upcoming changes in or at daycare or childcare arrangements?
- Upcoming stresses he might be getting around to processing now?

I have an emotionally rangy 5yo but the abrupt nature and wide scope of changes you describe would concern me if it continued more than 1-3 days. I'd call the ped to schedule an appointment. If he's much improved by the time the appointment rolls around, no harm done. If it's still going on, the ped can help diagnose or rule out anything physiological. If s/he does rule out physical causes, I'd brainstorm with her about a few people to involve next to try to understand what's going on. The ped will look to you for lead on how "abnormal" this is for your son, so don't be afraid to be clear about that and the level of your concern.
posted by cocoagirl at 3:44 AM on August 17, 2010

As a mother of a three year old, I would agree that you should consult a doctor if this doesn't go away by Day 3 or 4. If he is not normally very articulate, then the "Just leave me alone" would worry me enough on Day 1.

My best wishes for all of you. Nothing bad should ever happen to kids.
posted by bardophile at 4:13 AM on August 17, 2010

This is probably less likely than the reasons suggested above, but is it possible he saw something upsetting on TV? There's been a lot of suffering in the news lately - maybe he saw pictures of flooding and crying kids in Pakistan, and it's been worrying him since? Some kids are particularly sensitive to that kind of thing.

(For those confused about the timing, the OP is in Australia, where it's Tuesday evening. That would make it two days and one night since the unusual behaviour started).
posted by embrangled at 4:26 AM on August 17, 2010

I'm reading your post for the second time and it seems like this started when you asked about the giant indoor playground.

Maybe something happened there on his last visit?

Not wanting his blankie, not sucking his thumb, acting emotionless and from the rest of your description makes me think maybe he's not sick, but he's upset (or scared or worried) and if this started with the mention of that playground, I'd very carefully try to discover what's going on.

But maybe another kid shoved him or he saw a parent yell at their kid...at that age, any number of even minor things could have scared him.

Good luck.
posted by dzaz at 4:29 AM on August 17, 2010

I have a very articulate three and a half year old, with what sounds like your child's same overall temperament. She's always been relatively physically healthy, too. So the other day when she woke up SUPER grumpy, wan, and seemingly sad, and stayed that way all morning, I was kinda freaked. Then she vomited on my shoes and shit her pants.

A few days later, after she got over her stomach flu, I asked her why she hadn't mentioned that she felt bad, and she said, "I don't have all those words." Which I think may sum up your child's problem, too - my guess is, he is sick, doesn't know how to articulate it, or most likely what is happening to him, and is doing what he can to make himself feel better. Take him to the doctor.
posted by pomegranate at 4:30 AM on August 17, 2010 [9 favorites]

Since bwonder2 mentions ear infections - I had chronic ear infections at this age and I have my whole life. As a kid I went to the doctor and got antibiotics which might treat the infection eventually but never did anything about the pain. I tried all kinds of remedies and pain meds for decades until I found a few years ago that simple aspirin is amazingly efficacious, getting rid of most of the pain and a fair amount of the swelling.
posted by XMLicious at 4:42 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm 35 and sometimes I don't have the words to say anything but "just leave me alone". I definitely can be in a grumpy mood before an illness rears up.

My uneducated, informed opinion is to give him a week or so to get sorted out.

He might also be testing the "how shitty can I act when I'm feeling bad" waters. Or is just becoming self-aware enough to realize he feels physically "off" and doesn't quite have a handle on bad moods.
posted by gjc at 4:47 AM on August 17, 2010

He may be sick, but my gut feeling is that something happened to him. If this is not his usual behavior when not feeling well, then I'm with dzaz: I think you should start with the playground. Playgrounds can get kinda crazy, and some little kids can be really pushy and mean. The fact that he's started physically pushing his little brother around makes me suspect he was either trampled or bullied.
posted by cottonswab at 5:23 AM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oops, hit post too soon: I also wanted to add that I was trampled by some big boys on a playground when I was 5, and I had a severe emotional reaction to it. Suddenly I started clinging to the teacher at recess, not wanting to go to school, and was unable to cross the playground, even when it was empty. I had to go around the edge. I was also completely unable to explain to my mom or the teacher what the reason was. I was terrified of those big boys, even though it's highly likely they knocked me over by accident.
posted by cottonswab at 5:28 AM on August 17, 2010

Take him to the doctor in the morning. You've had two days of off behavior from him. If he's sick, he may need to be treated. If he's not physically ill, you need to start getting a handle of what happened to cause this change in behavior.

Have you sat down with him and started asking him questions like: Can you show me where it is uncomfortable? When did it start?

Assure him he's not in trouble and that you want to help him feel better.

Hopefully, he's just fighting a bug.
posted by onhazier at 6:26 AM on August 17, 2010

I too flashed Uh-oh on the indoor playground. I think something happened. A bully? A major embarrassment? Have you check in with the supervising grown-ups? I would seriously investigate. And by the way, I think "Just leave me alone" is worrisome coming from such a little person, particularly one who's not used that phrase previously.
posted by thinkpiece at 6:28 AM on August 17, 2010

I want to second ear infections/trouble. I'm 29 and I've gotten exactly like that every time I get ear trouble - when I was at that age, they were close to giving me tubes, it was so bad. There are still days where getting out "just leave me alone" would be a minor miracle. And, in my experience, well-supervised young children who experience sudden, extreme behavior changes are usually sick.

(Not discounting other suggestions - this is just what I usually see, and it takes five minutes for a nurse to check it out.)
posted by SMPA at 6:28 AM on August 17, 2010

As a mom of 3 ( ages 12, 5, & 5), the "just leave me alone" from a 3 yr old is pretty worrying, as is the nonchalance about his comfort item. I would be looking at everything that happened over the prior week to see if anything was out of the norm? Also, might he have overheard an argument between you and your wife; and typically it takes a full 18 months for hormones to regulate again after pregnancy -- how is your wife feeling? Lastly, I read some research once that said that parents who hit their children usually begin to do so around 18 mos of age, which I interpreted to mean that 18 month olds hit an emotional growth spurt that can be difficult to deal with -- has the younger one been up to new antics lately?

Crossing my fingers that it's just an ear infection . . .
posted by MeiraV at 7:02 AM on August 17, 2010

obiwanwasabi wrote: "he's been toilet training the last couple of weeks with the help of a star sticker chart; he really enjoyed this up until a couple of days ago, and while he continues to stay dry he's not interested in any stars or praise"
Other people highlighted the playground; I really was struck by this. I wasn't as young as your son, but I remember a time when I completely freaked out about the notion of growing up and not always being a kid. Maybe since he's toilet training but has a younger sibling who's still a baby, it's dawned on him that he's growing? Try talking to him about this?

This is not at all to discount the other suggestions in the thread.
posted by secretseasons at 7:08 AM on August 17, 2010

Nthing that perhaps he is upset or confused about something that he doesn't understand -- maybe something he heard on TV, or an overheard snippet of conversation between you and your wife, or something some kid on the playground said?
posted by desuetude at 7:15 AM on August 17, 2010

Mom of 3 kids (4YO, 2YO, 1YO) This sounds like a physical illness to me (earache, flu, etc). I'd check that right away, then look at other stuff like a rough social experience.

I like the Louise Bates Ames/Gesell Institute books on your child year by year (like "Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy") -- they've been helpful to see the rhythm and flow of children's emotional and social growth at each point in the year. Each book focuses on that one year's development and is based on thousands of kids' stats and interviews, so maybe you can find some enlightening info there.

Best of luck -- hope he feels better soon!
posted by mdiskin at 7:24 AM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

My articulate, verbal, three-and-a-half year old gets like this when she's constipated, which happened a lot during toilet training. If we continue to press after her "Just leave me alone" we get "Don't TELL me ANYTHING! I want you to GO AWAY!" How long has it been since he pooped?

apart from that, though, I'd definitely rule out a physical ailment before leaping to an emotional trauma. Not that it's impossible, just that I think an illness is more likely.
posted by KathrynT at 9:33 AM on August 17, 2010

I am assuming by Monday you mean yesterday? I think he sounds sick.

Maybe check that out, but also just give him a little space to feel better, and don't stress him out by demanding he be the cheerful kid you are used to.
posted by RajahKing at 10:11 AM on August 17, 2010

One other thing: is he anticipating starting something new? I know that when I was nervous at that age I would often get very grumpy and take it out on others as a result.
posted by codacorolla at 2:45 PM on August 17, 2010

I found a few years ago that simple aspirin is amazingly efficacious

Please don't give aspirin to kids under age 19. It has been linked to Reye's Syndrome, a potentially deadly problem that can be difficult to diagnose. Still, I think the ear infection idea could be valid.

In general I'm with the posters who would guess something physical is going on before jumping to the idea of something traumatic having happened. Sometimes when kids don't have the words to explain what's going on, you can ask them very specific questions to help get the information. Maybe you could try "Does anything hurt right now?" and if yes, "Can you point to where it hurts?" Open-ended questions like "What's wrong?" are pretty overwhelming to a kid that age.
posted by vytae at 3:14 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The rest of the day he sat on the couch watching TV

Please don't take this the wrong way; I'm offering this observation as a, well, observation, not a criticism: on TV, a lot of surprisingly age-inappropriate dialogue gets spoken over the course of an afternoon/day, as well as a lot of potentially very upsetting (to 3-year-olds) scenarios. Did you get a chance to fully monitor what your son was watching? Is it possible that he may have witnessed something upsetting? I bring this up because my son has surprised me on more than one occasion with verbal oddballs that traced back to "kid's" shows. Such as "just leave me alone," for potential instance.
posted by YamwotIam at 5:52 PM on August 17, 2010

Hopefully he's just not feeling well - new tooth coming in, ear ache, maybe a growth spurt (our kids got very tired - but also started eating like race horses...) All of these things might be fatiguing, but not necessarily painful in a way he can easily vocalize.

It's not clear from your question, have you tried to approach him not to ask "what's wrong" but to try to start a related conversation?

"Sometimes when mommy feels sick, or [Sometimes when mommy had a bad day], she likes to talk about how she feels."

Or maybe to use the younger brother as a opening. "XX seems a little sad lately, do you know why he might be sad".

He may find it much easier to talk about someone else - but his assessment of others will surely be guided by what he is currently feeling.
posted by NoDef at 8:39 PM on August 17, 2010

Response by poster: Hi all

Well, it seems as though it was a combination of a mild ear infection and constipation, the former a carry-over from the cold, the latter probably caused by anxiety about the whole toilet training thing. So most of you were right about something ;)

Other stuff:

- 'Just leave me alone' seems to have come from his older sulky cousin, though we think we may ahve heard Ben 10 say it as well, so there could be something to the TV theory (for those who asked, he doesn't watch free-to-air TV; if it's not in the unlocked 'kids' folder on the media box (ie vetted by us), he doesn't see it)

- he hasn't been left alone with anybody or had any bullying experiences (one advantage of a stay-at-home mum, a doting aunt and a dad who loves playgrounds as much as he does). I considered mentioning this in the post as considered but ruled out, but felt a bit stupid that 'OMG WHO TOUCHED HIS SPECIAL AREA' was the first thing that popped into my head. Glad to see it's not just me.

He still wasn't on top of his game this morning, but finally went potty big time after lunch and is now happily playing with his grandfather. I think he'll be back to normal by tomorrow.

Thank you so much for your advice and support.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:58 PM on August 17, 2010

Thanks for the update.
posted by dzaz at 4:17 AM on August 18, 2010

posted by MeiraV at 7:16 AM on August 18, 2010

Thanks for the update. I was worrying about him.
posted by anastasiav at 8:15 AM on August 18, 2010

Yes, thanks for letting us know what was going on. I didn't have any useful advice to contribute, but I was worrying about him as well.
posted by Janta at 8:31 AM on August 18, 2010

Good to hear! Go, jr.!
posted by carter at 8:48 AM on August 18, 2010

Now I'm starting to wonder if the reason my little brother was such a moody toddler is that he never pooped on a regular schedule. Fascinating.

I'm glad your kid is ok. :)
posted by phunniemee at 9:38 AM on August 18, 2010

Response by poster: Me too :)

He's back to his old self - looking forward to ignoring my uni assignment due next Friday and spending all weekend playing...well, whatever he wants!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:58 AM on August 20, 2010

Glad to head he's doing well again.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:39 AM on August 20, 2010

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