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Acting Out

My 7-year-old son has started lying to me about little things, and he's begun to hit me in anger. His father and I were divorced three years ago because my ex-husband became violent. After we left, my son and I moved and I married again. We have recently moved once again, which may be part of his problem, but he's too young to acknowledge that something is bothering him. How can we help him when we don't know what's wrong? And how should I handle his behavior?

A. It's not surprising that your son is showing signs that he's struggling to adjust to the major changes that have taken place in his life. To truly recover from all that has happened, you both need stability and counseling.

Start by telling your son that you understand how difficult all the changes have been for him and that you want to help him start feeling better about his life. Then, seek out a Christian family counselor who can spend some time with you and your son individually and together. The counselor can also advise you on when your new husband should become involved in the counseling.

In the meantime, it's important that you develop the ability to recognize, label, and work with your son's feelings about the moves, the divorce, the remarriage, and any visitation arrangements he has with your ex-husband. If your ex-husband is still in the picture and is willing to work with you, it would be extremely powerful for your son if you and your ex-husband sat down with him to explain that violence toward family members is wrong and for your ex-husband to ask your son's forgiveness for the violence that hurt the family.

If that's not possible, make it clear to your son that violence is unacceptable and that you felt you needed to leave his father to keep both of you safe. Your son may feel that he caused the divorce in some way and it's essential that he understand the marriage ended because of his father's violence.

Together with your son, pray for your ex-husband and ask that God heal him from his violent behavior. If you are still harboring a great deal of anger toward your ex-husband, work with your counselor to move toward forgiveness and help your son do the same. Releasing this anger will help both of you begin a healthier stage.

On a more practical level, your son also needs some understanding and instruction about respect and how to express anger appropriately. Be clear with him about the kinds of behavior you want to see in him and the behaviors that are unacceptable. Set up concrete consequences for misbehavior and follow through consistently. Give him ideas for alternatives to hitting you, such as punching his pillow or taking a walk with you to burn off some steam.

But keep in mind that at the heart of this misbehavior is a hurting child. As you've said, he isn't able to acknowledge that something is bothering him. But he knows he doesn't feel right. He needs to trust that you will help him take care of these feelings. Take him out for pizza or ice cream and offer him a sincere apology for the upheaval that your choices have caused in his life. This apology will show him that you see that he's hurting and can help him work through all the feelings he can't understand.

In addition, you need to set aside time and energy to keep this new situation stable and to help him settle in with his new friends, school, and stepfather. I would caution you against having your new husband discipline your son until a good level of trust has been built between them. I would also suggest you avoid using any physical discipline with your son. For a child who has experienced domestic violence, it's difficult to distinguish the difference between a hit meant to discipline and a hit meant to scare.

Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is the mother of two and a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is the author of Sticks and Stones (W).

Winter 2002, Vol. 15, No. 2, Page 26

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