3 1/2 year old with recent divorce and aggressive behavior

Hi Dr. Corwin:

I’ve been practicing catching Noah making the right choices and exhibiting good behavior, reinforcing it by talking, touching and making eye contact for almost a week now, but especially the last four days (since we’ve been together on vacation). It seemed like gradually he was getting better and things were> improving, but the last day and a half have been extremely difficult.

In fact, new and destructive behaviors are emerging (including calling me “stupid,” pushing, and throwing items during time-out). His behavior was so completely out of control tonight that he ruined the evening for himself, me, my parents, my brother and his family.

It started when he pushed his cousin so hard she fell backwards, as Noah was trying to take a toy from her. I took him, put his back to me, and placed him in the time-out spot we’ve used many times since we got to Hawaii on Sunday. I gave him his “crying blankie.” He threw a cup at the window and then his shoes at my head.

Assuming that time-outs have not been working the last few days and with his defiant behavior escalating, I gave him two swats on the butt. He screamed hysterically and starting throwing pillows wildly and kicked a lamp over. Not knowing what to do next, I walked out of the room in an attempt to get him to calm down.

My brother suggested that I not spank him with my hand, but with a spoon or ping pong paddle. I grabbed a plastic spatula and when he calmed down a little, went in and explained that we were all going to dinner and if he started to act up I’d need to spank him with the spatula. He said, “okay mommy.”

The drive to the restaurant was filled with, “I want my window down,” “I want to go to that restaurant,” “I want my music” and someone saying “no” for one reason or another and him whimpering or screaming for the whole ride. We finally reached our destination, everyone’s nerves frayed for the previous few hours of tantrums. Noah refused to get out of the car. Then I got him out of the car and he refused to walk, insisting that his “legs were broken.” I did not want to carry him, so I put him in the car for a time out. He screamed and screamed. He refused to get out of the car, so I was forced to take him home for the evening.

I am scheduled to come home from Hawaii a week from Wednesday. At this rate, I think I’ll be coming home in a few hours. Noah has exhausted all of us with his whining and tantrums. I do not feel that our plan (positive reinforcement for good and time out for bad) is working. I

s there anything else you can recommend or can you show me where I’ve been going wrong? I am so totally sad, frustrated and tired. Any insight or help you can lend would be appreciated. P.S. My mom thinks that there is something really, really wrong with Noah and that I need to take him to get blood work because his fits remind her of the kids on Super Nanny.

Dear Kimberly,

So sorry for your challenges and especially on vacation! I always do advocate parents check first and foremost with their trusted physician about any changes in behavior of their children to rule out any physical reason for the change. If you have not done that, then I encourage you to do that!

But, you are still describing to me a very scared and fearful young child, who has just too much on his plate to handle right now. The fact that he did respond to the interventions we discussed even for a little while is a good sign. Every time any person and especially children are learning new things or way to behave they will “regress” to see if the “new” way is really how they get their needs met or the “old” way. And in Noah’s case not only is he “re-checking” but he is still in horrible pain. Your mom is right, there is “something really wrong”!

Noah is in psychological pain that he cannot describe! You and I are adults, so we look at Hawaii as heaven and a much needed break…Noah on the other hand is looking at it as just another “change”, “new place” and lack of routine that gives him comfort in his uncertain world right now.

Since I am not there I cannot “observe” what is happening, but upon your return I probably should do that! In the meantime, if you continue to use corporal punishment (hitting with an object or spanking) you will only scare him more and have him learn that when I am in pain (as his behavior shows) then I get pain from my mom.

For the time being just try to continue NOT to pay attention to the “bad” behavior and keep him as much of a calm routine as possible…I know that means maybe you cannot participate with the whole family and I am sorry for that, but what we see as fun in Hawaii, could be total choas to Noah. He probably needed a night with quiet…E-mail me back if you’d like and when I have more time tomorrow I would be happy to give you specific techniques for behaviors you are seeing! Hang in there, Ann