Q. My 5-year-old started preschool this year, and he has become very aggressive. For example, when he has a time out, he storms out of the room and hits things or screams that he hates everyone. We've tried to ignore it, but that only seems to make it worse. I've taught my children that they can talk to God about what's bothering them. I've told them that they can ask God to help them when they feel angry. His angry outbursts are happening more often and in public. I could really use your help.
A. It is completely understandable for you to be concerned and frustrated over this change in your son. Your effort to redirect him to God is a caring and compassionate response.
Since it sounds like your son has not been this aggressive in the past, the sudden intense change seems to be linked with school, which is significant. Talk with his teachers and see if they have noticed any particular academic or peer situations that are causing your son stress. If the problem is social, ask the teachers how they are handling the situation, then ask for their input on ways you can support the classroom policy at home. This will give him a consistent set of expected behaviors he can start to understand and practice.
Take your son for a walk, just the two of you, and ask him what he likes and dislikes about school. Tell him about a challenging peer situation you experienced and how you handled it.
You might also try role-playing difficult social situations with your son. I find that this is an effective way to give children the words they need to handle the situation with a peer. For example, let him be the bully while you role play ways to be assertive. Then let him practice being assertive. Close your time in prayer, asking God to protect and empower your son to handle situations as they arise. Offer lots of encouragement and follow up as your son works through these situations.
Continue to tell your son that hurting other people when he's angry or upset is never acceptable. Set clear consequences for his misbehavior and follow through. Model appropriate emotional behavior, and keep praying for and with your son.
Q. My daughter's fifth-grade teacher had the class watch some of the news coverage of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Since then, she has been preoccuppied with concerns about safety and wants to watch the news with us every night. How should we handle this?
A. We have all been shocked and emotionally overstimulated by the events of September 11 and their aftermath. Not only do we need to regulate the emotional impact of these events on our children, but we need to be careful not to let ourselves become obsessed about current events. Here are some other ways to help children cope with these uncertain times:
Regulate the level of incoming media according to age. Think through your child's temperament. If your child is sensitive or easily frightened, limit the images she sees. Avoid listening to news radio while in the car with young children, and refrain from conversation about traumatic news events at the dinner table unless your child initiates it. For children ages 10 and older, reading a newspaper or a magazine is a better choice for information than television. Reading is less stimulating and allows a child to process the information at a slower rate, which will have less of a negative impact. Read (or watch) the news with your child so that you can explain and comfort when you need to. Discuss events calmly and factually, and assure your child that our leaders are doing their best to protect us and work for justice.
Give them something to do. Your child can pray for families affected by these events and for our leaders. 1 Timothy 2: 1-2 says, "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." Perform some activity that will help those in need (check with your school or local government for programs in which kids can get involved).
Answer only the questions they ask. Explaining every little detail about terrorist attacks, other traumatic events, and military activity may evoke feelings of fear that were not there to begin with. Simply tell your child what he wants to know and leave it at that. If you don't know the answer to a question, say so, but promise to find out the answer so you can respond.
Answer honestly and refer to Scripture when appropriate. For example, a child might ask, "Why does God allow terrorist attacks?" A good reply may be, "I don't know, but I do know that our country prays more after such events and God likes our prayers. He knows people are sad. Remember Deuteronomy 31:6: 'Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.'"
Reassure children that they are safe. Spend extra time together and express more physical affection than usual—hugs, cuddle time, movie nights, and walks outside can help your child feel safe and secure. Keep your routine as normal as possible. Children need the familiarity of their schedules.
Seize the moment. When your children bring up the issue, process their worries, listen carefully, and respond. Pray together about any concerns. If you are fearful and anxious, take time to calm yourself before talking to your child about these issues. Your role is to model what a mature response looks like—even if you're feeling anxious and scared.
Q. My 8-year-old son has ADHD. I'm at a loss about what kinds of discipline to use. What methods work best on ADHD kids?
A. The main principle in working with ADHD kids is the break-it-down and follow-it-up techniques. For example, time-out procedures can be effective with your son if you walk him through the time-out process.
Show him the time-out room; usually a quiet room away from the action, such as the laundry room or a bathroom. (A child's bedroom, the family room, or kitchen have too much activity and too many fun distractions to be effective.) Explain how long the time-out will be if your child goes to the time-out room when you tell him to (one minute per year of your child's age is standard), and that the time will be doubled if you have to escort your child. Then, let your child know that a time-out is meant to give him a quiet place to slow down and think about his behavior and to decide how to apologize or accept responsibility when he's finished.
Next, ask your son to name a problem behavior. Tell him, "That is a hard thing to control! Let me be you and you be me and we'll see if we can figure out a way to handle that problem." The activity level of this exercise helps make practicing fun. You can role play both appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. Then reverse roles.
When he has a problem and needs a time-out, follow up by reminding him of your earlier conversation and review what's going to happen. In time, he'll see that there is a consistent negative consequence for his inappropriate behavior and will begin to find a better way to handle problems.
You can also use the break-it-down technique to help prevent some behavior problems. With ADD/ADHD kids, keeping track of several verbal instructions is difficult. Give one direction at a time. Walk over to your son, put your hands on his shoulders, get down to his level, and look him in the eyes. Then say, "I need you to make your bed now." Calling multiple commands across the room is especially difficult with these kids.
Teaching the Truth
Q. We're having a hard time getting our 4-year-old to tell the truth. We've told her that it's always better to tell the truth, but she still lies. How can we get her to start telling the truth?
A. Telling a "white lie" is a common occurrence for preschoolers for a variety of reasons. Kids lie out of fear of discipline, disappointing parents, feeling embarrassed, mixing up the facts, and replacing wishful thinking for the truth. To help your daughter understand the importance of telling the truth, follow these suggestions:
Track the pattern. Are there certain situations where your daughter lies? For instance, does she exaggerate the truth when meeting new people or tell made-up stories to get your attention? Look for connections, and you can step in before a situation arises with a timely reminder to be honest.
Model truthful behavior. Kids model their parents, so your ability to be truthful is extremely important. Be sure you aren't telling "white lies."
Notice honest behavior. Praise your child each time you observe her telling the truth. When you can, mention her honesty to others to help her recognize that telling the truth will get her positive attention.
Discipline lying differently. Double the consequences for misbehavior that involves lying. Say something like "Susie, you lose this toy for one day for not sharing it with Tommy and a second day for lying to me about it." This clearly communicates the seriousness of lying.
Read a book. Find a storybook in which a fictional character struggles with lying and the impact of dishonesty on other people. Using a book also allows you and your child to talk about lying without her feeling like she's done something wrong.
Memorize a verse. Let your child know that being honest is one way we can show love to others. Have her learn all or part of Ephesians 4:25: "Therefore laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another."
— Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is the mother of two and a licensed
clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy.
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