Question: My 4-year-old (who will be 5 next month) constantly hits, scratches and behaves aggressively with his siblings. He sits in timeout, goes to his room and has consequences, with no change in behavior. I’m thinking about taking away all of his “violent” toys (play swords, Nerf guns, etc.) and suspending all cartoons with fighting, but I’m not sure that will help, either. I’m out of ideas. Any suggestions?
Answer: I know how difficult it can be to watch a child be aggressive. It’s even more difficult to watch as your punishments and consequences don’t work.
There are so many experts and studies saying that sibling squabbles are normal (check out “Nurtureshock” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman). Physical, aggressive play and fighting also are normal.
Because I don’t know the dynamics (how old the siblings are, the pattern and frequency of the aggression or how long it has been happening), I want to highlight something that you said: “He sits in timeout, goes to his room and has consequences, with no change in behavior.”
This is what we are going to address.
I am not a proponent of timeouts or room-sending. Timeouts don’t work, and neither does shouting, “Go to your room!” That leaves parents feeling out of control and fearful. Here are the fears I hear most often:
“If I don’t timeout my child, he will not learn that hitting is wrong.”
“If I don’t put my child on the naughty-step, he will keep hitting his sister.”
“If I don’t send my son to his room, he will stay out of control. He cannot control himself!”
“My child needs to learn to be sorry!”
I get it.
Historically, fathers could hit and punish their wives, children and dogs without retribution.. Mothers could hit and punish the children. In a few short decades, our culture has changed drastically.
Many parents have recognized that, although those tactics made it seem like everything was under control, punishment (especially corporal) has serious and long-lasting emotional repercussions. Timeouts were introduced as a “kinder, gentler” form of punishment. They were a way for parents to “control” their children without spanking and hitting them.
Yes, timeouts are better than corporal punishment; there is no doubt about that. But they miss the mark on a couple of key points:
• Expecting a child to sit on a step and learn a lesson is not developmentally or neurologically appropriate. Young children, in the heat of the moment, do not have the emotional maturity to reflect upon their actions and learn from them. Often, young children don’t even know why they hit someone, let alone that they should be sorry for it. This leaves the child feeling zero remorse. Instead, he directs his ire at you.
So, while parents think they are controlling the situation and teaching lessons, they are usually aggravating an already out-of-control child. This leads to more anger, frustration and aggressive outbursts.
• Timeouts and sending kids to their rooms also deniy children what matters most to them (being close to you) as punishment. When you lock a young child in a room or force him onto a step, his brain goes into high alarm. He will cry, beg, apologize, hit the bedroom door, throw a huge fit or have an epic meltdown.
It is our responsibility to not use what our children need most against them. Punishing young children for their big emotions doesn’t work. It just makes them scared, angry and insecure.
• Punishment rarely gets to the bottom of what is really going on with the child.
For instance, why is this almost-5-year-old hitting? The answer is more important than the hitting itself. We could be putting a child into a timeout for a problem that he should not own.
Questions to ponder toward this end:
Do you know that the attacks are one-sided? Although sometimes sibling squabbles can be one-sided, more often everyone is involved in the drama. Why? Fighting is often fun for kids, especially if they are bored or unsupervised.
Is the child especially sensitive? Was he born prematurely? Children who are more sensitive can tend to take longer to mature and show greater amounts of frustration more quickly. Your son’s ability to have empathy and slow down his impulses is already hampered by his age. It may also be impacted by his genetic makeup.
Is the child being supervised enough? I know parents are tired and annoyed, but so many issues could be avoided if we saw the trouble coming and acted then, instead of after the violence. If we can catch the dynamic early, we can either help him verbalize his emotions or lead him away from the trouble-causing scenario. Parents must stop pushing the responsibility of control onto the child’s shoulders. He is demonstrating that he cannot control himself; let’s believe that.
• Finally, as your son gets older, timeouts become even less effective. You will no longer be able to physically control your child. The tools of anger, shame and fear will take their toll on your relationship. Finding more peaceful ways to communicate now is difficult and time-consuming, but the rewards will come. We all want children who seek to be good for us, who want to be heard by us and who can trust that we will listen and guide them. We cannot have that relationship if we are threatening and banishing our children.
So, what do you do when you take away punishment?
Look at the pattern and see where you can intervene, allow him to express his feelings and help him find peaceful ways to let out his aggression. Keep the Nerf guns and swords! Find a way for him to punch out his aggression and frustration in ways that keep people and items safe.
Above all, stop the punishments.
I think the deepest fear for many parents is that we can’t have a beautiful, imperfect and easier relationship with our children, free of coercion, threats and bribes.
But we can.