July 02, 2015

Q: When my 4 yr old is told "no" or to do something he doesn't want to he argues & pitches a fit. I discipline him everytime he acts this way but it's almost like he doesn't understand. He acts out how he's feeling and can't seem to grasp the proper way to show frustration. When I discipline him, it's like his world has come crashing down on him & like his heart is just broken, hugging me asking me to forgive him & if I'm happy with him. How do I break him of this?

A: Handling anger and disappointment is difficult for kids, so here are some tips:

Keep in mind a child's levels of development, and have empathy.  The world is a complicated and frustrating place for kids, and they don't have the knowledge or experience that adults do, and as such may only know a limited number of ways of dealing with frustration. So keep in mind that when they don't act right, it is probably just as frustrating to them as it is to us.

Increase positive behaviors he already exhibits  If a child increases behaviors such as sharing and treating others nicely, by default there will be fewer instances of undesired ones.  So, "catch" your child being good and really praise it.  Parents should also make a chart on which a sticker is placed each time he engages in a desired behavior; after a certain number of stickers are earned he gets a reward, such as getting to go to the park.  Behaviors that are rewarded or praised tend to increase.  

Avoid situations, when possible, that lead to bad behavior. Although it may feel that way, your child probably does not have a meltdown every time something doesn't go his way. So look for what situations and factors tend to lead to these difficulties.  If, for example, the tantrums come up because he doesn't want to stop playing a game to take a bath, set a rule that bath always is taken before playing any games; if every time you go to the store he gets upset if you don't buy him something, consider going to the store when he is at school.  If it is when he is tired or hungry, try asking him to clean up, for example, after his nap and his snack.

Teach, praise and practice positive, alternate skills  For example, parents can practice with a child on learning how to ask nicely for something; what to tell himself if they can't get what they want (e.g., "That's o.k.; maybe next time"); and how to wait on things (e.g., finding something else to do to occupy your time).  Then, right before a situation is about to arise, the parent should remind the child of the skills to use and practice them.  Learning to do this is a skill like anything else: the more he practices, the better he should get at it.  But again, keep in mind a child's age, and remember that skills like this will likely be learned over time.

Make sure that you and others model the behaviors that you want your child to exhibit.  You can't expect a kid to do better than the adults in his life, and you're fooling yourself if you think "Do as I say, not as I do" will have any effect at all. Be sure you and other important people in his life treat others with kindness and respect, and that you handle anger well. Also, try to actually out-loud use the same coping phrases that you want him to use, so he can see and hear you model the exact skills that you want him to use. And keep in mind that spanking a child sends the message that sometimes it is alright to hit others!

Answered by Dr. Wayne Fleisig