Please stop the trantrum train, I'd like to get off.
January 1, 2014 8:30 PM   Subscribe

Hello wits's end, I'm looking at you: what in the everloving hell am I going to do with my 3.75 son? We are on Day 12 of him being out of school due to Christmas holidays and I have about had it. I have been riding the trantrum train for several days now and I am out of ideas for how to proceed.

The problem is his not listening to me when I give him directions on what to do - like washing hands after he uses the bathroom or not stepping on his 13 month old sister. His failure to do what I ask usually starts the escalation as I calmly tell him that he needs to do this thing and then he starts lashing out (literally and figuratively) by hitting me which leads to greater problems because now I have him not listening AND hitting me resulting taking away of privileges (like TV, etc). None of these things are working, however, and he is literally laughing in my face while hitting me, head butting me or just running away. We do not believe in corporal punishment and I have not and will not hit him. But, obviously, what I'm doing isn't working.

Even more frustrating is that my husband swears the child does not do this with him and therefore, cannot begin to figure out how to help me with this problem. He wants to help, but so far he hasn't really witnessed one of these outbursts.

Where am I going wrong here? Or are we experiencing the horrific backlash of a month of Christmas anticipation over, grandparents gone home, and boredom from being at home with mom and not with friends? Even if all of this is the case, how can I effectively handle his wildly inappropriate behavior? HELP.
posted by tafetta, darling! to Human Relations (38 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Kids need structure, and sometimes unstructured times like holiday breaks can result in acting up. Is he still on some kind of a schedule? That is, regular bed and wake-up times? Do you have regular activities planned to wear out his energy?

What kind of procedure do you follow when he misbehaves? Do you have a set group of consequences that escalate as he escalates, and are strictly enforced every time? Do you do time-outs? How do you and your husband define and respond to his misbehavior? Are there differences? It is vitally important you be consistent in structuring consequences for bad behavior, and you and your husband enforce it equally. Sometimes holidays mean the parents become inconsistent in their responses to behavior as there's so much else going on and it's easier to let things go. But if you let something go and then try to make it stop later when you have more energy you'll send different messages to the kid and they'll act up more.
posted by Anonymous at 8:38 PM on January 1, 2014

I'm only going to say that we only ever spanked our kids when they hit. It was the "YOU HAVE CROSSED A MAJOR LINE" shock of it and it worked. I think we only ever did it one time.

I think that age is way too young for "taking away privileges" - it's not immediate enough. I'd lock him in the bathroom for a timeout at the very least.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:39 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

One thing that was seriously life changing with our son when he was age 3 was to use 1,2,3 Magic.

It basically institutes a 'counting' system, and when the child hits "3", they are put in timeout for as many minutes as they are years old.

It takes *serious* commitment to the "time out" thing for the first couple of weeks (like, I pulled off the interstate and got out of the vehicle so he could have a "time out" in the car), but after that, as long as you're consistent (being consistent is super important), it's amazing. (As in, he's age 10 now and still freezes if I say, "That's 1.")

I would recommend that if you do go down the 'timeout' route, that you not lock your child anywhere - simply keep putting him back if he leaves early.
posted by dotgirl at 8:46 PM on January 1, 2014 [35 favorites]

Our daughter has learned that when we start to count to three we mean business. She would rather do something of her own volition than be physically brought to it by a larger person. So she usually gets with the program before we get to three.

(This only works because we act when we get to three. At that point the time for negotiation is over, she's lost her chance, and we do what we said. Utter consistency.)
posted by alms at 8:47 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

1-2-3 Magic works.
posted by flabdablet at 8:48 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also worth noting is that for some kids, time in works better than time out. For these kids, instead of sending them off to be by themselves and thus depriving them of all company, you pick them up and hold them immobilizingly close for the same length of time.

Time out works better on most kids, so that should be the first line you take after getting to 3. But if you're finding that the child doesn't seem to view time out as any kind of negative consequence and is still consistently going past 2 after a few days, try time in.
posted by flabdablet at 8:55 PM on January 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

1-2-3 Magic really does work. And I can say with certainty that the need for it decreases as the child gets older. I was always worried that I would be counting to three until my kids left for college but I can't remember the last time I had to. It's been years. Really, years.

The key is consistency.
posted by cooker girl at 9:00 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My daughter was exceptionally difficult at this age. I instituted a policy of "instant emotionless consequences," wherein if she crossed a major boundary (hitting, screeching, running away and laughing, all the truly horribles) she would get an _instant_ timeout. Counting didn't help, it just gave her more time to run. As I carried her to timeout, I would say calmly "Timeout for hitting" or "timeout for running away" or whatever, put her in her room, and close and lock the door. When timeout was up, she came out, and was offered the opportunity to cuddle on the couch or in my bed, totally optional. If she repeated the behavior, she went back into timeout, again immediately. It was the only thing that really affected her behavior at all -- any sort of giving her a chance to self-correct resulted in a horrible flameout spiral.
posted by KathrynT at 9:03 PM on January 1, 2014 [18 favorites]

Best answer: If you'd like to try modifying his behavior through rewards (as opposed to punishments), you might try a token system. I've used that kind of system with many, many kids from K-12 (as a substitute teacher), and it has worked well for me -- at nearly four years old, I think your son might be ready for it as well, up to your discretion, of course.

A really simple way to do it is to give him one (or two or three) bead(s) at the beginning of the day -- if he acts up, he loses his bead(s), and if he behaves well, he keeps/earns back his bead(s). If he has his bead(s) at the end of the day, he gets to trade his bead(s) in for a reward. The reward can be pretty much anything, the big deal to kids seems to be the idea of earning/losing the reward, more than than the actual reward itself.

I'm only going to say that we only ever spanked our kids when they hit. It was the "YOU HAVE CROSSED A MAJOR LINE" shock of it and it worked. I think we only ever did it one time.

YMMV -- with a willful or emotionally overwhelmed kid, this can escalate the tantrum as easily as it stops it.
posted by rue72 at 9:09 PM on January 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

How does your husband ask him to do something?
How do you ask him to do something?
If they're different, can you adopt some of your husband's behaviours?
Does he understand why he shouldn't be doing/should be doing the things he's doing? Boredom can create acting out. So a simple instruction is met with a tantrum because the tantrum is more complex and entertaining. Some children require extra information about why you want them to do something in order to get them to behave appropriately because it makes them work harder/think more.
posted by heyjude at 9:11 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

So are all of these tantrums happening just after and because you have given him directions?

What happens if you say something like, "You just went to the bathroom. What do we do after we go to the bathroom?" When I have students who are being willful and obstinate, it helps to let them feel like they have some agency in a world that they feel is largely out of their control. It may seem counterproductive to give control to a child that isn't able to maintain their own sense of decorum or calm, but it can help in certain cases.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:27 PM on January 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Nthing 1-2-3 Magic, consistency, and staying unemotional during counting and time outs, etc.
posted by whoiam at 9:54 PM on January 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Wow. I think you must be the MeFi account I didn't know my wife had. Our demon child is now 4.5 and things have improved from 3.75 yrs old, but we are still seeing this behavior during school free periods. We have seen a parent coach, a child psychologist, and our kid is currently in occupational therapy to work on some specific deficits that were uncovered during psych testing. We have read books. My book suggestion is The Incredible Years by Carol Webster Stratton.

The behaviors are more common with my wife who struggles with asserting control over him. The Demon Child has sent her to the ER with stitches, has punched holes in walls throwing heavy objects. I also think as a father I am the more permissive parent. What I have observed about the situation is that if I feel like he is in a fighty, oppositional mood, I will tend to back off while my wife tends to escalate. My feeling is that it is really not so *critical* that he brush his teeth tonight if the argument is clearly going to lead to broken objects and possible injury. The immediate problem of the rift in the family is much more acutely harmful than the tooth decay, the not eating dinner, the not cleaning up or whatever. I will come back to those things when he is in a state where he is able to listen. My wife on the other hand sees these behaviors as a direct challenge to her authority (he does the smirking thing while being yelled at) and then she gets dragged down to his level. "If you don't put on a coat right now, I'm taking away your new Lego set" -- as if Lego has anything to do with wearing a coat. These kind of punishments absolutely do not work at this age and what it really comes down to is "if you are going to hurt me by not following my instructions, I'm going to hurt you by taking away something that I *can* control" which is juvenile and reinforces the kind of tit for tat that goes on in our house. Some of this is probably gender specific as well. My son, like probably most kids, is much more emotionally attached to my wife and discipline from her misread as emotional detachment is probably much more upsetting for the boy coming from her rather than me.

That's not to say that I won't be the enforcer -- I just pick and choose my battles wisely. Hitting and name calling elicit a emotional moral condemnation from dad, not leaving your toys out. I think this gives my son a much clearer picture of the relative severity of the infractions than trying to stand your ground on everything.

We do time out, but time out is not really meant to be a punishment, rather it is a tool to immediately interrupt a problematic behavior, to create a physical break and an immediate change in environment when something is out of hand. We had to use a room of the house where we could lock the door. Holding him in a chair would not work. We tried to make the room as safe as possible and any damage done by throwing, kicking, etc -- he would have to be involved in the repair of it later. He would have to stay in the room until calm, and once calm it would a minute for every year old. We were instructed by someone,( either our doctor or parent coach?), to not discuss the whole thing afterward, but to just return to whatever activity we were doing. It was scary at first to hear the flinging of objects and the screaming, but things got better in a few weeks and now it is rare that something is thrown or damaged.

Punishment doesn't seem to work at this point for us, it never has. Maybe it's just a matter of it needing to be swift and tied to the consequences of his actions and applied universally 100% of the time but we just aren't able to do this in our daily life. So, understandably, when we do apply a punishment it is at best arbitrary and at worst very confusing and anxiety provoking for our son.

Reward systems on the other hand, *do* seem to work well for us. My whole theory is that at this age, my son thinks that he *can* be in control of his decisions and he wants that control and what's pissing him off so bad is when he is denied that control. So we'll come up with a mutually agreed upon problem behavior, for instance getting ready to go out the door in the morning, having him identify the problems with dawdling and refusing to cooperate (you won't have time to play Legos before school, or you'll go in your pajamas, or mommy won't have time to do her whole goodbye routine at drop off). Then we'll decide on how many times do you think you should do desired behavior X before you've earned a prize ("5 times? No, the Lego Police Station is a pretty big prize, how about 25 times? No? Ok 15 times sounds good to me.") Then we'll go and make a sticker chart that he gets to decorate and every day we'll make a big deal of sticker time. I don't like having to bribe him to do things that it feels like he should just be doing, but he does take ownership, gets a sense of accomplishment out of it, and typically the targeted behavior tends to "stick" when the prize has been acheived.

TV is a double edged sword. We deploy it when we need to, just to get things done when we can't entertain him directly anymore, but the behaviors after turning off the TV are way, way worse. On school days, he gets 0-30 minutes of something completely non violent and story-based. On days off, he gets 1-2 hours and I really wish we could get by with none.

Finally, on school breaks, it is absolutely essential for us to have planned social activities. The problem behaviors are absolutely worse when it is just the family and we are amazed at how much more mature he can be in front of others. Other parents in his school and day care have the same issues with their kids and before every break, we exchange phone numbers with whoever seems to be his best friend of the month. We are finally at the age of drop off play dates which can buy us 2 hours or more of glorious freedom. Also, find a good calendar of kid activities to keep him occupied. In Seattle, this would be and we went to an amazing model train show yesterday that we'd never have known about otherwise.

And just so it is crystal clear to him, I tell my boy often how much I love him, how proud I am of him and how literally the most important things in the world to me are his happiness and well being and I work extremely hard to not say a damn thing at all when I want to strangle him.

Hang in there, this is age related, it will get better.
posted by Random Person at 10:45 PM on January 1, 2014 [15 favorites]

time out is not really meant to be a punishment, rather it is a tool to immediately interrupt a problematic behavior, to create a physical break and an immediate change in environment when something is out of hand.

Absolutely right.
posted by flabdablet at 11:47 PM on January 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: time out is not really meant to be a punishment, rather it is a tool to immediately interrupt a problematic behavior, to create a physical break and an immediate change in environment when something is out of hand.

Yes, seconding flabdablet, exactly this. The worst times I had with my kid was when I saw her behavior as a challenge to my authority. The best times I had -- am having -- with her is when I see her as a person who is doing the best she can and needs extra tools to make that happen. You can't negotiate with a three year old, you can't make them see reason, it doesn't work that way. Sometimes all you can do is nope the kid right out of whatever situation is making them freak out.
posted by KathrynT at 12:00 AM on January 2, 2014 [13 favorites]

Reason. You seem to be fighting a lot today, and I think you're tired. Time for a nap.
You act like an angry person. What's going on?

Consequences / rewards Kiddo, I am angry at your behavior. Since you will not cooperate, you have to go to your room. When you are cooperative for 15 minutes, you can earn some TV / privileged toy/ favorite activity time.
Hitting is totally not okay. Time to take a break. 3 minutes. In your room. Now.

Come at things sideways - Instead of Wash your hands, try As soon as your hands are washed, you can have your lunch or Do you want liquid soap or bar soap?

Activity. Abandon all other priorities and go to a park. Exercise and being outdoors can really help.

Reduce attention for tantrums. You're having a tantrum. I'm going to the Baby's room. You can come join us when you're ready, and walk away, read to the Baby. If you can ignore tantrums, it's effective. Especially if you look for ways to lavish positive attention. Three, it's so much fun to play couch fort when you're cooperative. Let's get another quilt.
posted by theora55 at 12:23 AM on January 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

For me, hitting is way way worse than refusing to brush your teeth or anything else. So I would immediately focus on that when he hits you. I hold my daughter'd hands and if necessary pin down her feet as well and say "no hitting".

When she stops struggling (in her case she's never completely losing it; she's got a grin on her face.) I let go and we try again with the brushing of teeth or whatever.

When she's merely screaming and rolling on the floor I pretty much ignore it. Talking about it with words just seems to escalate things. If I notice her looking at me miserably I'll open my arms and she'll come for a hug, still sobbing.

Often it helps for me to preface requests with "when you're finished with that book, you can wash your hands." A lot of the time she just hates interruptions, so this helps.

Bottom line is, though, I'll physically carry her to the sink and make her wash her hands, even if she screams. But if she hits we do the "no hitting!" thing.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:24 AM on January 2, 2014

Best answer: Mom of 3 and special educator here...completely agreeing with 1, 2, 3, Magic.

But to address something not noted upthread that you mention, of course this is related to the lack of structure and added excitement of a school break. Kidz be nuts when their schedules change. And with holidays, family and presents added into the mix? Yikes.

So to address that to some extent, you could consider sitting down with said demon child and creating a schedule for school breaks (and even weekends if those are times his bad behaviors increase). Write up the schedule, post it on the fridge and you may see less acting out. And even if you prefer to have a less structured, more loose type of day, your schedule can reflect that. It's the idea that your kid can have a sense of what the day will look like that can help with unstructured insanity.

Two last things: first, it may be that your husband backs off and you don't and it's fine that you don't. You're allowed to have rules and standards and hold your kid accountable, but I think it would help your family dynamic if the two of you were more on the same page of handling the kid. I work with a lot of families where both parents are well-intentioned but one parent enforces expectations and the other just kind of shrugs. That's rough on the kid so I'd sort that out.

The last thing I'd say is you need to get some non-kid time. Go for a walk, a movie, manicure, library, anything. During school breaks it's really important to just get the hell away from your kids for a bit and have a chance to breathe and become a non-mommy creature.

Good luck; this really does get better.

**One last thing: always offer a direction with the illusion of choice. So it's not, "Wash your hands," it's "Do you want to use the peppermint soap or the SpongeBob soap when you're done?" That way, he thinks he has a say in matters but in the end, those dirty little hands get clean. As long as he thinks he has some control (and he should have some control), you will probably see less of the STOPSTEPPINGONYOURSISTER stuff.
posted by kinetic at 3:07 AM on January 2, 2014 [11 favorites]

I frequently recommend "The Explosive Child" by Dr. Ross Greene, it's geared towards kids a bit older but the technique works well.

(also, search youtube for his name, he has a number of videos out about this process.)
posted by HuronBob at 3:11 AM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

You've gotten lots of excellent advice above and it may very well work for you -- but if it doesn't, I would just add that you shouldn't beat yourself up over it. No two children are exactly alike, and what works for one child (or even for most children) may not work for yours.

We found that with one of our children, immediate time outs were most effective. With the other, it was the threat of "losing a story at bedtime" -- if there was a day of perfect behavior, we would read four bedtime stories. Bad behavior would lose one or more stories; good behavior would earn them back. Really serious things (like hitting or playing with an electrical socket!) lost a story with no possibility of return. In both cases, it took us a lot of experimentation and failures before we found something that got the kid's attention.

It might help to make a list of everything you give your child, and to divide it into rights and privileges. Kids have a right to certain things (adequate healthy food, love, safety) no matter how badly they behave. But every thing else is a privilege, and can be taken away. You mentioned that losing TV privileges doesn't work; you may have to experiment to find a threat that really registers. (And if you do find one, it will probably stop working after a while, since kids change as they grow.)

I would also advise that, whatever you do, you make it very formalized. EG, "Every time you refuse to wash your hands, I will count to 10. If you haven't washed by 10, you {LOSE A STORY/GET A TIME OUT/ETC}." If you have a specific unvarying process, not only does it help the kid see the pattern -- it helps you stay calm, because you are just implementing an external rule instead of acting on your own (totally understandable) frustration.

Bottom line: I hope this thread helps you solve this problem, but if it doesn't, you have my complete sympathy, and I promise it will get better!
posted by yankeefog at 3:36 AM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are you time outing the hell out of him? Maybe it's time to take away toys and/or treats and/or privileges. In similarish situations, we've used consistent time outs. Sometimes the offending kid spends quite a lot of time there.
posted by jpe at 4:09 AM on January 2, 2014

Best answer: The MOST important "parenting a difficult child" thing I have learned from 3+ years of therapy with my kid: when they start flipping out/shrieking/hitting/being irrational, they are OUT OF THEIR GODDAMNED TINY MINDS, and you can't parent them "normally" (i.e. with the counting and time-outs, which are usually a great idea). Any normal parenting you do will escalate things, and you need to DE-escalate.

What I do with Wee Thumbscrew when he's flipping out is to physically transport him to a safe place (his bedroom, the car's backseat if we're out and about) and tell him, "Dude, you can rage here for a bit; we can talk when you calm down." Then I go breathe deeply somewhere nearby for a few minutes. This works so, so, SO much better than trying to address things while someone is [screaming/biting/telling you they hate you/etc].
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:21 AM on January 2, 2014 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Our now 4.5 year old daughter is occasionally a wreck like this, and was more so at 3.75. It was maddening, because she would be a complete doll for each parent individually, but if we were both home, there was constant whining and tantruming and holy crap some days I wanted to smack her.

Finally, after much trial and error and many discussions, we determined that (duh) the behavior was an attempt to get attention from us. When we were one-on-one with her, she could get that by asking, but if my husband and i were paying attention to each other, she felt like she needed to have fits to get us to deal with her. So we started making a concerted effort to spend time - maybe 20 minutes - giving her our individual, full attention. It worked wonders.

I wonder if the reason he does it with you and not your husband is that you're often doing other things while asking him to do stuff? I'm that way; I think a lot of moms are - we're sort of half dealing with the kid while also working/cooking/cleaning/doing laundry/being a wife/being a friend/making christmas happen/whatever. My husband is incapable of multitasking so he doesn't operate that way.

We also use time outs. We tried 123 magic, but that just escalate things while we counted. Now we tend to do a warning of "do you want to make a different choice here?" or "do you want to try this again?" before time outs.

Hang in there!
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:58 AM on January 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

My 3 year old does many more things voluntarily if he is given a choice that emphasizes his autonomy. If we say, "It's dinner time, time to wash your hands" he simply does not give a shit. He'll just keep playing with his toys or whatever. But if you say "Let's wash hands- should you get the footstool [that he needs to reach the sink] or should I?" he will RUN to get the stool himself. There is a similar difference between "time for bed; time to turn off the light" and "Should you turn off the light, or should I?" This format of question is like magic for him.

Regarding hitting- my family hasn't completely solved this, but we have noticed a few patterns:

1. My son is much better behaved when he gets enough playing-with-the-parents-on-the-floor time.
2. My son treats hitting like E. Honda, tending towards continuous flurries of punches. But the moment I say "do you need a break?" he will stop and become much more compliant. Time outs work (for us, at least).
posted by Jpfed at 7:16 AM on January 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

My daughter was exceptionally difficult at this age. I instituted a policy of "instant emotionless consequences," wherein if she crossed a major boundary (hitting, screeching, running away and laughing, all the truly horribles) she would get an _instant_ timeout. Counting didn't help, it just gave her more time to run. As I carried her to timeout, I would say calmly "Timeout for hitting" or "timeout for running away" or whatever, put her in her room, and close and lock the door.

This is exactly what we do as well.

Putting him in his room isn't to punish him, it's to give him a *safe* space where he can be angry. I only lock the door because if I don't, he will immediately start slamming it or simply run out of the room and resume hitting me (or his own head into the wall). The SECOND he has stopped screaming, the door is unlocked and he is the one to choose when he leaves the room after that. If we're out, we simply leave and he goes into his stroller (we live in the middle of a city, rarely in the car).

The point is that he needs to work out his impotent rage before any specific behavior can be addressed. He's younger than your son but the principle is the same - you have to *calm the eff down* before we can talk about this. When we do talk, it's just that - talking. Raising my voice would be counterproductive and fuel his tantrum. I am firm, but speak in a normal voice using language he can understand "This is not ok. You do not do this. It's not a safe thing to do." Should he hurt someone, he is made to apologize. Often this leads to some cuddles where he needs reassurance and I always! always make it clear that I still love him. I also make an effort to acknowledge his feelings as being valid "I know you're angry. It's ok to be upset that daddy went to work, you miss daddy. It's just not ok to hit people."

I will say that my son is absolutely getting it. He was throwing a horrible fit this morning and I firmly told him that screaming in my face was not how you get mama's attention and he actually spontaneously said "sorry." A small thing, but he really is starting to connect that certain behaviors (ie hitting mama) just are not tolerated.
posted by sonika at 7:18 AM on January 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

You might also try Parenting With Love and Logic. A lot of consequence don't work with kids because the consequence is not logical. When a consequence is not particularly related to the infraction or is overly extreme it will often create confusion or a sort of revenge cycle.

When a child writes on a wall the logical consequence is helping clean the wall not a time out or losing dessert 4 hours later. Make sure your consequences are logical.

I'd also encourage the use of time-in rather than time-out. Whenever a behavior escalates declare a "time in" where he helps you do something or comes to interact with you. This sorta disengages you from a power struggle and instead turns the two of you into a team.

Most children misbehave with one of four goals in mind: power (I need to feel in control), attention (EVERYONE IN THIS BUILDING STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND LOOK AT ME), inadequacy (I can't tie my own shoes and now I'm really pissed and feel dumb so I'm going to lash out or freak) and revenge (you wouldn't let me do what I wanted and I'm mad so now I'm going to try to make YOU mad). If you can ascertain the goal of the tantrum you'll be better able to decide on how to deescalate it.
posted by Saminal at 7:20 AM on January 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

I have not seen what works in our house described as "time in" before, but that's what we do (we also pretty much only use it for hitting).

We also find that phrasing non-optional things as some kind of choice helps. Example : "Now that we've gone to the bathroom, we'll need to wash our hands if we want to play with trains so they don't get dirty. Oh, no handwashing? Ok, you won't be able to touch anything until then, because your hands have germs on them and I don't want to get sick. Let me know when you're ready." (It doesn't always work. He's 3.)

And also: day 12? We definitely get to the "choose which hill to die on" territory. If he has a tantrum that ALWAYS means he doesn't get his way, but we give in on an occasional "I don't wanna" that isn't going to destroy the house.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:45 AM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

One positive reinforcement thing that worked with my now-5-year-old (and I'm still a bit shocked that it did) when he was in a hitting / biting / bad behavior phase at school, was to take a minute at the beginning of the day (for us it was at school drop-off), and ask a set of questions with cheers for the right answers...

"Are you going to hit anyone today?" (And wait till he said No). YAY!!!
"Are you going to bite anyone today?" (Again, wait for the no, asking again if necessary) YAAAYY!!!
"Are you going to _____ (problem behavior X) today?" (No). "YAYYYYYYY!!!"
"Are you going to use gentle hands with people?" (Aha - a trick question! The right answer is yes! If they automatically say no, you get to have a laugh together) (Yes.) "YAAAAAYYYYYYY!!!!! Then today is going to be a great day!!!" (Lots of hugs and high-fives)

I would also do a follow up at bedtime with the same questions ("Did you...?") on days when I knew he hadn't done any of the problem behaviors (or only including the ones I knew he achieved) for extra reinforcement.

Do it with lot of enthusiasm and eye contact and hugs, so it feels like a game. It didn't work for us overnight, but we definitely saw a huge improvement by about 2 weeks and he stopped the worst behaviors altogether. I wish I could say he is now a perfect angel who never acts out or throws tantrums (hahahahhahahahahaaaaa), but a lot of those behaviors are really normal boundary-pushing experiments which come with the age and no amount of even perfect parenting (whatever that is) can keep it from happening from time to time.

Lastly, if on any level you come out of a miserable exchange feeling like you are a bad parent or you're raising some monster child who has something wrong with them and will grow up to be a sociopath and what the hell did you do to deserve this or is it all because of you (fill in your own worst nightmare) -- RELAX. All young kids do this to some degree, and many do it regularly to a worse degree than you're even seeing. And they grow up into perfectly nice, caring people. This is normal. It might be the worst-end of normal, but it will pass. You are not a bad parent if you lose your temper once in a while because it sometimes gets too much for you, or feel like you're in over your head. We've all been there.
posted by Mchelly at 7:48 AM on January 2, 2014 [10 favorites]

One thing to add to all the discussions of using a time-out system above: I found time-outs worked better in a location that contained few to no distractions.

My son's bedroom is a paradise of Legos, toys, and books, so putting him in there for time-out didn't always calm down his behavior - sometimes he would wind-up further and start throwing things; other times he would immediately get into playing with toys or looking at books. None of which reinforced the concept that the time-out "is a tool to immediately interrupt a problematic behavior, to create a physical break and an immediate change in environment" as so eloquently put above.

So, he would have to sit on the stairway, or if that didn't work (continued screaming and arguing) then he would have to sit on the back porch - both areas that didn't have toys or furniture or books or anything else he could use to distract himself or to further the tantrum. Time-outs were always held in environments lacking in amenities.

Stairs/porches/entryways are great low-distraction time out locations, because it's a "portable" time out location - if you are out & about in the world, almost any place you'll be at has a staircase, porch, entry or foyer you can park your tantruming kid in.

(Also, I did use 1-2-3 Magic on my toddler and it works well - but you do get to 3 a lot when you first start using it.)
posted by Ardea alba at 8:48 AM on January 2, 2014

That's not to say that I won't be the enforcer -- I just pick and choose my battles wisely.

Wow - I just have to say, some of the worst parts of my childhood are directly relatable to my parents not being on the same page with parenting decisions, so not being consistent with their punishments of me (even if I didn't agree with the punishment, I craved consistently, as do basically all kids), disagreeing about how the other one was handling things, and refusing to basically have the same approach to punishing/parenting.

For me, having kids at its most basic involves agreeing with your partner that the two of you will develop a shared style and always back each other the hell up - that the disagreements will be in private, and you'll agree (or compromise) on tactics and punishments.

Lacking that consistency was tough for me throughout my life, I'm betting it was most tough on the little-kid version of me. I don't know if this is an issue for OP, but perhaps one thing to help work on this might be ensuring that you and your co-parent are adopting the same style when it comes to important things - boundaries, punishments and the like.
posted by arnicae at 9:04 AM on January 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

When my kids get like this, it is almost always because they need something to do.

We are on Day 1 of a Nor'easter here with no school again until Monday. I feel you.
posted by zizzle at 9:09 AM on January 2, 2014

That's not to say that I won't be the enforcer -- I just pick and choose my battles wisely.

Wow - I just have to say, some of the worst parts of my childhood are directly relatable to my parents not being on the same page with parenting decisions, so not being consistent with their punishments of me (even if I didn't agree with the punishment, I craved consistently, as do basically all kids), disagreeing about how the other one was handling things, and refusing to basically have the same approach to punishing/parenting.

This is really true and marriages have broken up over stuff like that. The problem is that 2 partners are often products of different parenting styles, they have different levels of tolerance for behaviors, particularly if one of the parents is able to spend more time with the child than the other. Sometimes, people have really strong opinions about what the "right way" to raise your child. It's important to recognize each others' frustration level and respond as much as possible, as well as resolve major differences privately. In my case, it meant taking time off work or taking the kid out of the house, or sending my wife away to do things.

Yeah, communicate with any other parental units involved and call for reinforcements when you aren't able to think calmly and rationally about the little monster.
posted by Random Person at 10:05 AM on January 2, 2014

This format of question is like magic for him

One of the things I had to overcome after finding each such formula (and you'll find quite a few) was the feeling that using it was some kind of low trick. It seems somehow unsporting for a great big adult with a fully developed strategic brain to out-strategy a tiny child who can really only do tactics. It feels like not letting them win at Monopoly, and the fact that they don't even notice I'm doing it the same way every time made me feel like a big old bully.

I just had to grit my teeth and remind myself that this was war.
posted by flabdablet at 10:10 AM on January 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

The choices thing can backfire, though -- I remember cheerily asking my daughter "So! Do you want the BLUE pajamas, or the RED pajamas?!" and having her look at me through slitted eyes and hiss "I want NONE pajamas." So, you know, have a backup plan.
posted by KathrynT at 10:55 AM on January 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Most of us are spending a lot more time with our kids during holiday break than we normally do, and everyone's routines have been thrown off. So of course there's way more chaos and acting out and tempers flaring. You're having to share space and time you aren't normally used to sharing. There's even a Christmas song lyric about this, written back in 1951: "And mom and dad can hardly wait for school to start again!" (True dat.) So you are not alone in these struggles. In fact, we have a date night babysitter coming early today to care for our 4 and 6-year-olds just so we can have some room to breathe. Our kids are looking even more forward to it than we are, but I digress.

@dpx.mfx has it: "the behavior was an attempt to get attention from us... So we started making a concerted effort to spend time - maybe 20 minutes - giving her our individual, full attention. It worked wonders." Truly.

Your child will do anything to get your attention. If we're not giving enough positive, FULL attention (which BTW is 100% understandable because life, other kids, etc), that's when we see all of the negative attention-seeking behaviors spiraling out of control. Hitting immediately gets our attention and often provokes a strong reaction. So you need to make special efforts to "catch them being good." Take 15 minutes and play a silly game on the floor with them. "Hey kiddo, I noticed how you were really patient with baby sister when she grabbed your toy. I felt really proud of you for not yelling." "Thank you for putting your plate in the sink." "I can't wait to see what your hands smell like after you've washed them."

@Mchelly's right that talking it out helps set expectations for the positive behaviors you want to see, and it's a great idea to have these mini-talks during calm times of the day (such as bedtime) when you are not in the middle of a power struggle.

Also seconding @Saminal's suggestion for reading up on "logical consequences" per Parenting With Love & Logic: "When a consequence is not particularly related to the infraction or is overly extreme it will often create confusion or a sort of revenge cycle… When a child writes on a wall the logical consequence is helping clean the wall not a time out or losing dessert 4 hours later. Make sure your consequences are logical." Spot on.
posted by hush at 11:54 AM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Two things:
There is a reason my childcare provider calls it the "F You Fours". Kids are total turds at this age. You are not alone. In addition, my four year old boy only likes boys right now-daddy is much more awesome than mommy.

-another book I loved with my very intense oldest child was Raising Your Spirited Child. Great strategies, and also gave me a lot of empathy for what it might feel like to be this kid.
posted by purenitrous at 3:54 PM on January 2, 2014

All this insane behavior in little ones is training for the parents for when the whole thing happens all over again ten years from now. Write down what works, folks, and don't lose the journal. Learn and learn well.
posted by aryma at 5:09 PM on January 2, 2014

Just thought of something that might help with the tantrums. My granddaughter is now 25, working on her Master's, smart, talented, focused, etc. - and a really NICE person - not inclined to be crabby. When she was a toddler, she was also sweet-natured, but every now and then she'd get oooooooooooh SO cranky - it was impossible to do anything that she didn't react to with a bloomin' fit.

Somehow we figured it out. Her mother and would look at each other and one of us would say, "when was the last time she had something to eat?" And that was the problem. As soon as she got some food in her, she sweetened right up. She had to eat more frequently than we did and usually she didn't even know she was hungry when she started acting up, but a little bit of food put the whole train back on track.

Even at 25, she's still this way, though now she knows when she needs to get something to eat, whether she feels hungry or not. She's not diabetic and has never had a sweaty, shaky hypoglycemic episode as far as I know, but she must get something in between meal times in order to keep feeling well. It hasn't done her any harm - her weight is right where it belongs.

It's something to consider in your little ones: When was the last time Little One had something to eat?

Good luck to you - nerves of steel, folks - nerves of steel.
posted by aryma at 6:06 PM on January 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

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