Mommy!!! :D :D *smack*
March 19, 2011 1:04 PM   Subscribe

How can I help my 4-year-old begin developing healthy stress coping mechanisms?

My son has taken to lashing out angrily when he is under stress.

The clearest example I can give of the kind of thing I'm talking about is that, often, when I go to pick him up from pre-school, he'll first run to me quite happily, and then smack me and tell me I wasn't supposed to come yet. It seems fairly obvious to me that he's struggling with the transition between home and school. Also, this is more likely to happen on a day when he is tired or hungry (Yes, we are working on reducing the frequency of those days, but that's not what this question is about.).

I find myself unsure how to react when he does something like this. On the one hand, I know he's tired and stressed out and reprimanding him is not really helpful right then. On the other hand, I'm really not willing to put up with him hitting me. He's not hitting hard enough to really hurt me; it's just the fact of hitting in anger that I find unacceptable.

So, what are some good, age-appropriate ways of dealing with this kind of behaviour? And how can I help him begin a pattern of healthy self-management?
posted by bardophile to Human Relations (20 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
reprimanding him is not really helpful right then.

I disagree. I think the behavior has to be interrupted and addressed right when it occurs -- every time. Even if it makes him more upset. Part of what he needs to learn is that being stressed/cranky/upset does not excuse him from behaving correctly, nor will it exempt him from consequences.

People will probably have all sorts of mixed suggestions for dealing with this. If it was me, I would immediately get down to his level and force eye contact, holding his arms at his sides so he could not hit or pull away, and say firmly, "You do NOT HIT MOMMY. Not even when you are mad at Mommy. Do you understand?" And then ask him to apologize to you. Do not let him go until he has done so.

Naturally his reaction will vary from one occurrence to the other, but consistence on your end is key.
posted by hermitosis at 1:26 PM on March 19, 2011 [20 favorites]

I agree that you actually do need to address hitting right in the moment, and then it would also be helpful to talk about it out of the moment as well--perhaps when you drop him off in the morning, you can say "now remember, when I come to pick you up, you can say how you feel with words but you may not show me with hitting".

Naming feelings in the moment is very helpful: "You aren't ready to go home and it makes you feel angry that I am here to pick you up. School is fun and there's so much to do with your friends. Tomorrow you can build another block tower, but now it's time to go home and have a snack".

I still find naming feelings to be really effective with my kids, who are in first and third grades. Emotions are hard! I wish someone would come name my feelings for me sometimes.
posted by padraigin at 1:35 PM on March 19, 2011 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Talking to him about using "feeling words" could help. Teach him some words to describe feeling frustrated/sad/happy/scared/etc. ("You seem like you feel very angry that I came to pick you up earlier today") and encourage him to talk about what's going on. You can even play feelings games (like charades or making up stories or doing faces and guessing what feeling the face corresponds to) when he's in a good mood, to reinforce.

If he learns to identify some feelings using language, he might get more and more used to it, and find it progressively easier to use words to react, rather than his actions. I feel like it's also helpful to talk about not hitting in general, rather than just "don't hit parents".
posted by so_gracefully at 1:36 PM on March 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'd really appreciate suggestions for what replacement behaviours I could encourage, also, and how to go about doing that.
posted by bardophile at 1:36 PM on March 19, 2011

Best answer: I have a 4-year-old boy! Hi there! I am not mother of the year or anything, but my kid is a poor transitioner (like, to the level that it was something our lactation consultant mentioned barely into his third day of life), and so making happy, welcome transitions is a big focus of our parenting. I think it's the kind of thing that's due to having a great deal of focus for what's at hand--there's a struggle with reapplying that focus to something else, and that is familiar to all of us. As grown-ups, we sort of meta-reflect on the reasons for the change in focus and accept it, you can't do that if you're four. My husband says that he reckons our job is to sort of provide external points of simple mini-focus to guide our kid to the next thing. This is stuff we do a lot:

*The situation you describe is really common--kid is deeply wrapped up, and has been for awhile at some kind social activity that has required his attention to activities AND to others. That's hard. The smacking, I think, is a kind of pressure valve release as he goes through re-entry. You're safe to smack, after all--think of all the kids he had to hold back from smacking all morning to avoid time-out! Whew! Anyway, before he goes to these events, we put a "think of the end of the day" token in his pocket. Like a little matchbox car, or a buckeye or something. We say,"this is my love for you, when I pick you up I'll remind you to make sure you have it in your pocket, and while you hold it, you can tell me about your day." When he gets picked up, I'll say, "hi! I love you! Hold on to your token and come tell me about your day!" He digs in his pocket, and it gives him some mini-focus, and it works. I keep an extra little something in my purse so if he's lost it (only happened once), I can say, "oh! I have mine for you to hold!"

*Learning deep breathe. Count to 1-2-3-4 in and blow 1-2-3-4 out. Ask for a deep breath at the beginning of a tantrum, in the middle of a complaint, when very amped and excited, when frustrated. I promise, if you practice a lot, he'll start to initiate his own deep breath "time-out." Deep breathing is the absolute most awesome sauce for parenting and for life.

*Kid yoga. We learned from books in the library, and you can do a time-out, like in the store, of a simple yoga move. Something about doing a deliberate gross motor move centers everyone right out.

*Timer on the iphone. If he's getting worked up about anything, anywhere, I'll say, "okay, you're upset/freaked out/mad/need me to understand something but it's so important we need a minute to think and then we'll talk about it." Then I let him watch me set the iphone timer for 60 seconds, and we try to stay quiet until it goes off, then we start again.

This is all just re-focus, slow-down, think-a-minute regular stuff. Plus, the deep breathing and yoga you can do when every one is happy for practice.

Four-year-olds are super rad, aren't they?
posted by rumposinc at 1:45 PM on March 19, 2011 [43 favorites]

This is pretty par for the course for a four year old. He is old enough now to start controlling his emotions a wee bit.

I don't necessarily feel like you need to talk him to death about it, four year olds are not that strong on reasoning skills. You simply need to let him know that hitting is unacceptable, and discipline for that however you would discipline for any other negative behavior.

(I am of the opinion that these days parents are socialized to think they have to overconsider the feelings of their small children and in essence treat them as small adults. They aren't. By all means talk to them about emotions and such as you go about your day to day routine, but really, all you have to do in the moment is address the behavior. This is how they learn what is acceptable and unacceptable. )
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:47 PM on March 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have 3 kids, two of whom are older than yours. I mention by way of credentialing.

Sometimes kids get to a point where they really can't control themselves, when they're tired or hungry or stressed. I have one that gets to a certain point where he just can't control himself and no matter what you do or say, he's not going to be able to behave properly. At that point, the only thing to do is get him through the transition as fast as possible (usually it's into bed). Demanding an apology at that point is futile, because you're asking him to do something he simply can't do in that moment. This is a kid who is otherwise very self-aware and able to talk about feelings, but there are times when that part of the brain just shuts down. At that point, discipline-based responses always just feel mean to me, as much as I want to stand up for being respectfully treated.

In our experience, doing all the other things people are mentioning--like talking about feelings, and about appropriate expressions of feelings, and the importance of not hitting people--are good things to do, and as the child gets older and develops more self-control, those messages start to be expressed even under more stress. But not, in our experience, with preschoolers.

If all of the things you're dealing with are as predictable as the hitting after preschool, then you have a lot of options for anticipating and dealing with it. For instance, you might be ready to hand him a snack; ask his preschool teacher to remind him, "There's mom; remember to be gentle saying hello"; greet him in some physically "big" way, like a strong bear hug or an immediate little bout of tickle-wrestling on the sidewalk, or by grabbing his hands and swinging him around, or inviting him to box a little.
posted by not that girl at 1:50 PM on March 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

This doesn't address the smacking issue but when my daughter was in day care I myself was often stressed and I rushed in to pick her up with little consideration for her mood at the moment. I happened to read in a book a passage about how the author had observed Japanese parents picking their kids up at daycare and they would arrive and just observe until their child came to them ready to go. Once I started doing it that way, it usually took less then ten minutes for her to be ready to leave and there were no more scenes or tantrums.
posted by InkaLomax at 2:04 PM on March 19, 2011 [34 favorites]

Best answer: +1 not that girl -- tired and hungry is a lethal combination and he is probably only peripherally aware of the world outside his own headspace then. "Good, age-appropriate ways of dealing with this" are really limited to a cuddle and a hustle into milk/snack and a nap/rest at four.
posted by kmennie at 2:33 PM on March 19, 2011

I agree that yes, you DO need to reprimand at the moment of misbehavior. My personal fave is the "naughty step" method popularized by Supernanny. Yes, it's a TV show. But yes, it really does work.

Essentially, it's a timeout with consistent intro and outro portions.

* Physically lower yourself to his level (e.g. take a knee and look him in the eye). Verbal correction with an authoritative tone. "You DO NOT do XYZ."
* Sit him down.
* Explain the timeout rules. "You are going to sit here for (1 minute * per year of age) because you did XYZ."
* No interaction -- NONE -- during the timeout. If he leaves the area, firmly, physically force him back. Do not speak at all, if possible.
* When time has elapsed, physically lower yourself again, and explain the timeout again. "You were in timeout because you did XYZ. XYZ is bad for ABC reason."
* Demand an apology.
* Hugs and kisses.
* Move on. Do not reference the event again, until it happens again.

Note: You do not threaten this pre-emptively. It's an after-the-fact corrective, not a before-the-fact prophylactic.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:01 PM on March 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

When my son was pre-school age (he's - 18 now) we would give him a five minute warning that we were about to leave school, playground, or anywhere really. It helped him to transition to the next thing.

We are a no hitting home. It's okay to be mad but hitting was for the punchy pillow and if you're sad, you can put some tears in the comfy blankie.

I really miss those days. Good luck and enjoy your sweetie. Time really goes too fast.
posted by dorkydancer at 4:36 PM on March 19, 2011

My belief: hitting has somewhat to do with boundaries. Kids feel safer, happier, and more creative when they know there are boundaries to their acceptable behavior, rules that govern their often-confusing universe. Making it clear that one of the rules is he can't hit his parents, and that will assist with his 4 y/o stress management.
posted by arnicae at 4:43 PM on March 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Dumb question - what specifically is he really upset about? You say the transition between school and home. I ask this with an outsider's perspective:

Maybe it's just that he's being interrupted in what he does. Does he have relatively firm time-period boundaries at home? Maybe a set play time, meal time, nap time (etc) schedule will help him understand that when you show you show up it's time to go home. If his schedule is too free at home he won't understand schedules elsewhere in life.

And good for you on being not accepting of him hitting! Good luck!
posted by carlh at 4:45 PM on March 19, 2011

You have a reasonable facsimile of my boy.

We missed the boat on dealing with this behavior change and tried and failed in many ways to deal with it. We were in a bad place by the end of last summer — he was 4.5 and we were vacationing, &c. All kinds of changes, all the time. Settling into the school routine this year seemed to help but then we realized it was not a change in his behavior that had made life better — the changes were in our behavior.

Long story short: the Mrs. then came upon this book: 4 Weeks to a Better Behaved Child. We're still only half way through those four Weeks (I fully expect it to take more) but the book has changed our lives. (We started with a copy from your local library — it was so right-on we bought it.)

Get it, read it, be rigorous.
posted by Dick Paris at 5:45 PM on March 19, 2011

I don't think you need to get into weird "No interaction -- NONE -- during the timeout. If he leaves the area, firmly, physically force him back. Do not speak at all, if possible" artificial scenarios, and I can only imagine that being bullied about by a parent when you were worn out and upset would be scary.

But -- I came back because I forgot to link to these wonderful monographs

Something Better Than Punishment
Building a Positive Relationship with Your Child
Am I Spoiling My Child?
Helping Young Children Behave

which I re-read from time to time, as a sort of reminder of how easy it usually is to sort these things out.
posted by kmennie at 7:23 PM on March 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

a fun way to practice the deep breaths that result in relaxation are bubble blowing contests. A good deep relaxing breath will get you a bigger bubble, and a relaxed kiddo.

e minutes in time out, it
posted by gilsonal at 9:48 PM on March 19, 2011

yikes, forget that last line.
posted by gilsonal at 9:48 PM on March 19, 2011

Best answer: I'm a preschool teacher and I see this happen every single day. So first off, don't berate yourself for any reason. You are not the only one, and the people who may give you judgy looks are just desperately relieved that it isn't happening to them at that moment.

1. I agree, get down to the kid's level. Grown-ups are HUGE. I say this as a woman who is 6'3" and spends 45+ hours a week with kids, they respond much better when you don't tower over them.

2. Respond immediately but unemotionally. "That is not ok. You may not hit me, ever." will work fine. But if you put big feelings in your voice, kiddo will pick up on it and repeat the behavior to get more attention. Kids are like publicists: all press is good press, all attention is good attention.

3. I also agree with the warnings. Give several of them - five minutes, three minutes, one more minute. And it doesn't have to actually be that amount of time. "Teacher time" is the concept of arbitrary timekeeping - five minutes may actually be ten, or two minutes, but accomplishes the same purpose. Unless your kid can read a clock, which some four-year-olds I know can.

4. Ask the preschool teacher for suggestions or help. That's what we're there for. We know kids, we love kids, and in all likelihood we know and like you pretty well too, and teachers are full of ideas. One family in my program calls the classroom daily to say they'll pick up in five, and could we please get kiddo ready for the transition? No problem! Easy as pie! I want you to have a nice evening with your kid, promise!

5. Also try a hard-and-fast routine that you work out beforehand with your child. "I am going to pick you up, you will have five minutes to finish your play, and then we will get your things and go home for a snack." Do this every day. Kids love consistency, and they also love being part of the planning process, not least of all because they know what they need if you just ask them.

6. Finally, yes, yes yes absolutely reflect back to your child what he is feeling. Kids need to know that they are seen and understood, and the best way to do that is directly. "I see that you're really upset, do you want to talk about it or should we take a little break from all the people first?"

You'll be fine. He'll be fine. Good luck.
posted by brittafilter at 10:30 AM on March 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for the suggestions.

Just to clarify a little, when I say reprimanding him at the time is unhelpful, I don't mean that I don't make it clear that hitting is unacceptable, right at that moment. I just mean that telling him that doesn't help him deal with his stress, which is the problem I'm trying to solve. Like not that girl says, he just doesn't have the emotional resources to process things right then.

The reason I was fairly certain that in this case the stress is about transition is that he literally runs to me with a grin on his face, gives me a big hug, and then suddenly seems to realize that my presence means it's time to go home. Then we get the angry words and the smack. rumposinc's description of it as releasing a lot of pent up stress from the day also seems like a good explanation.

The advice here seems really useful for the specific example that I gave. I'll have a follow up question about situations where it isn't as straightforward as reducing the stress by rearranging external circumstances. In the meantime, we've already had a chat during cuddle time about how he'll have a few minutes of play time even after I arrive. I'll post an update in a couple of weeks.
posted by bardophile at 12:36 PM on March 22, 2011

Response by poster: The suggestions here have really helped. Most of the time, a heads up that he has a few minutes to play and then it's time to go seems to do the trick. When it doesn't, it's a pretty good sign that he's too hungry and/or tired to have his head on straight. We seem to have gotten past the smacking, though.

Many thanks!
posted by bardophile at 1:28 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

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