Jack turns 5 in a few months and is now well and truly a schoolboy. He seems to be really enjoying school – he looks forward to going every day and when he falls into my arms at the end of the school day, he’s always happy. Happy and absolutely KNACKERED. Like so knackered, and so fragile. Which makes sense given that I’m sure he’s on his ‘best’ behaviour at school, which can take effort for a 4 year old. It’s as if as soon as we’re out of those school gates, he relaxes and lets go of all the emotion he’s spent all day keeping locked in.
Over the past few months, however, this ’emotion’ developed into some questionable behaviour: losing his temper, pushing, pinching and even biting. It would only last a short time before he snapped out of it but Sam and I were at times taken aback. We’re not a ‘shoutty’ family at all and maintaining a calm and happy home is something we work hard to do, so this behaviour was shocking for us. There was of course something going down inside him, but his anger, that he was totally unable to control, was really upsetting to see.
I found myself coming up with a name for what felt like a totally distinct, new person we’d never seen before in our lush 4 year old. We called him ‘Rude Jack’. ‘Rude Jack’ would only come out very briefly, and in short periods, and then he’d disappear again but he’d inevitably return in the next few days. I was starting to worry about school pick up and if ‘Rude Jack’ would emerge. It also became really tiring dealing with the rudeness, and whilst I of course explained to him firmly and kindly that this behaviour wasn’t OK, it wasn’t stopping. All too often I’d switch on the radio or TV for him and let it go. Sometimes I’d try exclusion and put him in our little porch, but then the crying, oh the crying! It was horrible and I couldn’t allow that. Certainly, the ways I’d always used to discipline him were having no effect.
We’d spend hours talking – what I deem most important of all – about ‘Rude Jack’ with Jack to try to understand what made him appear, and how to best keep him away. ‘Sensible Jack’ would promise not to “let him out” but sometimes he “couldn’t help it.” “Rude Jack is just so strong, mummy,” he once wailed to me.
I was exhausted and it became easier to let it fall by the wayside and explain it away with tiredness or starting school, and tell myself it was just a phase.
I think the hardest part was that it just became not that much fun to hang out with him: bath and bedtimes were rushed and fraught with emotion, there were no stories, and I lost my temper on the odd occasion. I just wanted some peace.
But then ‘Rude Jack’ started appearing all to often; on the weekends, in the mornings (when tiredness wasn’t an excuse), out and about, and that was when I knew I needed to address this. Flash forward a few weeks, and I *think* we have our kiddo back, and possibly much more. Here’s what I did:
Mainly, I tried to make Jack understand that life was much more fun and straight-forward when he communicated calmly and peacefully and didn’t let his anger take over. I also wanted him to understand that there were boundaries, and that it was not OK to cross them.
And it’s this that I think is key – because it meant he started respecting me and understanding that I was in charge. I want to be liked by my kids, of course, but I want to be respected and treated kindly.
I don’t want to be scared of my 4 year old, which is where I was heading.
If he would get angry and shout and I’d calmly ask him to repeat it again, calmly. I’d say to him again and again “we don’t get anything in our family by shouting.” Jack loves listening to the radio and watching a little TV after school, so I started to remove this at the sight of “Rude Jack.” (For us it’s the radio, but it just needs to be something your little one is attached to that would be fairly simple to take away for a brief period). I always stuck to what I’d said, and he started to gradually equate bad behaviour with rubbish times. Conversely, the really lovely part is ‘rewarding’ him with small things (without him asking) when he’s behaving well – extra tomato ketchup, a cuddle out of nowhere, his favourite TV show.
I know many parents are disapproving of bribery but this this was in the end a key tool for me. I also don’t view it negatively: I think of it more as negotiating scenarios, which actually can be a useful life skill. My eureka moment came when I realised that my four year old actually likes it when I enforce rules and set boundaries (calmly and consistently, of course). To give you an example, when recently I took away his favourite radio show (can you see a theme emerging here?!) for a week after he was consistently behaving badly on leaving friends’ houses, I told him that I needed to see him behave well the next two times, and then he could have it back. During the week, he’d ask for the radio occasionally, and I’d reinforce that he’d have to wait two more times when we were at his friend’s house and I’d have to see him leaving nicely, and then he could have it back. We talked about the second visit to his friend’s house in the run up to the playdate and how this was the ‘test’. When it came to leaving, he gave me a little look, and behaved so beautifully, and we left – with no drama! We got out the house, gave each other a massive high five and went straight home to put on the radio. He was so happy and proud with himself and told me he “really loved the challenge!”
Of course I don’t want to push aside what’s going on inside of him. I love how I ask him about his day as we’re walking home to not much avail but then just as he’s getting into the bath later that evening, he’ll all of a sudden share a super sweet anecdote like the little girl Alice who helps him do his trousers up after PE (!) or he’ll bring up something as he’s getting into bed that might be unconsciously bothering him, like why that one boy always chases him around. It’s just he’s realised that life is just better when he remains calm, that he doesn’t need to resort to biting – and that actually, biting gets him absolutely nowhere. In fact the other evening I overheard him say to Sonny – because yes, Sonny was starting to mirror Jack’s behaviour – “Sonny, you don’t get anything by shouting in our family.”
Have you experienced any anger in your little one? What are your coping mechanisms?
P.S 10 Tips for Positive Parenting and How I Discipline my Toddler
Such a wonderful and helpful post. We’re adopting a similar approach with our almost 5 year old (probably after reading your post a while back!) and it works most of the time. We’ll normally say that we’ll count to three and if he doesn’t stop the bad behavior until then there will be consequences (in our case, no screen time which already is a limited but very loved activity) – and he usually stops before we get there. But it’s so interesting what you write about respect and boundaries because he also totally understands and respects no movies for x days if that’s what’s being taken away as a result of his bad behavior.
What we’ve also noticed however is that low blood sugar is our absolute worst enemy so what has helped the most here in terms of preventing these outbursts has actually been to provide regular snacks to prevent his blood sugar from plummeting, eg when picking up from kindergarten (they start school later in Denmark where we live) or from friends etc.
Its so tough when they start behaving out of character with such strong emotions. I try to remind myself that not only are they learning so many new things you are their safe comfortable loving place to let out all those big emotions. They have to hold it is all day so nice to think that I am the loving person they feel comfortable to show their emotions …. although I may need reminding of this when the moment strikes!! 🙂 …and breath 🙂
Also their problems may seem trivial to us as adults but to them they are as big as us worrying about bills, the environment etc. So hard though when you feel you pour yr heart out raising them and they are rude and aggressive. Thank goodness they are so darn cute!!
Exactly what I needed to hear. Brilliant! I’m not alone in my thinking and my panic and freyed edges in know how to deal with it. I’ve started to do the same and I’m hoping it’ll start to work too. We home educate our boys down to it being a lifestyle choice so I think it must just be an age things and navigating their big lives in their small bodies. How overwhelming life can be for adults too…so much to think about in reading this post. Much love x
so true re big lives in small bodies – love that phrase :)) its funny because ive often thought of homeschooling and thought a major advantage to that would be not having to cope with overtiredness at the end of a day but actually not surprised to hear it still happens. thanks for reading and for commenting lydia xxx
We have been going through this too, James (4) does two and half days at preschool. When me and Tobias (20 months) pick him up he is rude, angry, tired and generally not in a good mood, he shouts, pushes and hits at his worst, it only seems to last until dinner time and things start to calm down for the evening. Exclusion and apologies seem to work most of the time but other times I feel like pulling my hair out. I hate being shouty Mum but sometimes she just comes out. Thank you for your words Emma. Putting a few firm rules in place and sticking to them is something that I am going to try. I have definitely been giving in and excusing the behavior with tiredness.
i totally hear you and it’s so not easy. it sounds like he’s exhausted and over emotional. i used to switch on the tv a bit as thought after a long day ‘socialising’, thats all anyone ever feels like but i stopped that because then it was a battle to switch it off. have you tried it? for 2 /3 days a week, it could provide some much needed post school chill time, for everyone? thanks for reading and commenting josie xxx
My 4 year old has been struggling with emotions (particularly anger!) recently too and he responds well when I share stories from my own life, particularly from when I was a kid and remember feeling the same. It really opens up the conversation. We also talk about the Anger character from Disney Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ and how the other emotions try to stop him from blowing up. Quite often this lightens the conversation with laughter, which is such a great way to release tension. This week we also watched ‘The Secret Life of Four Year Olds’ on 4oD – he loves watching it with me and we can chat and laugh about what’s going on together, without it being directly about him. I also found that I could refer back to incidences from the show and relate them to our tantrum and meltdown moments. I could literally see the lightbulb going on in his mind! Thanks for sharing this post Emma – as much as they are gorgeous and the light of our lives, they can be damn challenging and push us beyond our limits. I feel so unsettled after I lose my temper, it’s really no fun!
hey tammy, ah i love talking about behaviour (at calm times!) and yes, reading and watching things about it are things we’e done too. great idea to actually refer back to things you’ve seen too… and yes – re simultaneously being the light of our lives AND challenging! xxx thanks for reading and commenting tammy xxx
Also worth an ask…any advice on 2 year old sleep regression? My ex-wonderful sleeper 21 month old is now such a chore to get down all of a sudden and waking in the middle of the night ?
this might help? http://www.mamalina.co/the-sleep-thief-is-back/
Yes, Emma! Oh I needed to see this so badly! My daughter is 4 years and 4 months and I couldn’t relate to this more! She is only in preschool 3 mornings a week and gets picked up before lunch. Her behavior is unbearable at times. Same thing happened to us where I noticed it on school days and chalked it up to all the same things, bottled up all negative emotions while at school, tired, etc and then it started happening same as Jack on weekends and morning and we couldn’t excuse it. My husband and I and our almost 2 year old couldn’t enjoy anything bc the 4 yo was so terribly unhappy and dying to show us and get it out. So relieving to read this and the comments from other mamas as well. And I agree a gentle and calm but firm limit is the answer. But I am at a loss for what to be firm on. I know to be firm that the behavior is unacceptable. But not sure on what to do with her right after school. My almost two year old shares the same schedule and she needs to nurse, have lunch and go down for a nap as soon as we get home so I feel like I can’t connect with my 4 yo. If I force her to nap she throws a fit which is awful, and then is an angel late afternoon, but then wakes up in the middle of the night ready to party. So I don’t know after a half day of school to have ready a calming activity after lunch, a physical get your negative energy out activity or encourage a nap. For now I will focus more on positively setting a limit on the actions of her anger and remind her it’s ok to be angry but yelling, being rough not ok. Does Jack nap or have a quiet or rest time? Would love some advice. But mostly, thank you for the post and keep going mama. We are SO there with ya.
hey maureen – ah i feel you… after pre school i used to switch on the tv a bit as thought after time ‘socialising’, thats all anyone ever feels like but i made it clear it was a short time. have you tried it? for 2 /3 days a week, it could provide some much needed chill time and allow you to nurse. re what to be firm on, for us its the radio as he really loves that (!) but it could be a food or something else she likes that you could easily just take away for a brief period. thanks for reading and commenting xxx
This is such a hard stage that not many people talk about. When my son went to school he did exactly the same thing and it was really really hard. When he came home from school it was like we were seeing the worst part of him and his emotions were difficult to deal with. At school he was amazing, following all the rules and thriving. BUT it was hard for him to be doing this, to let others steal toys off of him, push and shove him, bite and pinch him. He told his teacher and it helped but he is not a child to complain if he doesn’t have to – he is a pretty patient and forgiving boy! When I realised that he was giving me all the behaviour that he was having to put up with I felt much better because at least we could talk about it, but it was still hard. He had been going to small nursery and wasn’t used to the busyness of his new school and he had to find his feet. One year on and apart from the Hangry behaviour we sometimes see he is soooo much better and also he really loves school. I think the best thing I do for my son is to always reconnect with him when he gets home from school over food. I also have tried to relax when I see the angry monster and tell myself – he is not angry at me he has just had a bad day. Interestingly this same plan has worked wonders for dealing with my husband also!!!!
love the idea of reconnecting post school and we do this too. we start making dinner together or just have a drink. so tough that you think it was a direct result of bad behaviour towards him.. i did consider this but didnt think that was an issue in the end. so pleased things are so much better these days and lol re your husband too ! thanks for reading and commenting sophie x
My sister is an OT working with children and recommended the book ‘how to talk so little kids will listen’. My boy is still a bit on the young side (but I started reading it as he already gets frustrated & has tantrums when he can’t do things), but it has some great advice on communicating with your child. Treating them like an adult is one element but also being fun/playful can help – but difficult to do in some situations!
ooh i’ll take a look – thanks frankie!
We are going through exactly the same with my 5 year old. He comes in from school and it feels like he is intent on upsetting the whole house. It’s exhausting and I definitely feel like I am shouting too much and not dealing with it very effectively. We are still navigating through it and have chats at bed time about why he is doing this and how we can help him to stop it. He’s good at school and I think he just lets everything out when he gets home. I’m looking forward to some warm weather, then I can let them out into the garden to let it all out. I’ve also tried making a cup of tea and having a little pause when he gets in from school to have a chat about his day, before I start making dinner and getting the evening jobs done. It’s nice to know it’s not just my child. ☺️
definitely not just your kid :/ love the idea of sitting an connecting with him post school over tea. oh and talking is always a good idea. i used to switch on the tv a bit as thought after a long day being on good form at school, thats all he (and anyone!) might feel like but i stopped that because then it was a battle to switch it off. have you tried it? a short amount could provide some much needed post school chill time, for everyone? thanks for reading and commenting laura and yes bring on the summer!!! xxx