By: Rebecah Freeling/ Parenting Coach and Behavior Specialist
My parents are acting as the surrogate grandparents of a very “spirited,” strong-willed, 6-year-old boy. The boy doesn’t get a lot of structure at home and he’s easily frustrated, and he’s been acting up more and more lately – not just yelling, but also hitting and swearing. How do we get him to calm down when he’s in one of his fits – and how can we get the fits to happen less frequently? When he’s having a tantrum he hardly ever listens to reason, and the situation is made even more challenging when he tells us that we’re “not his real family.” How do we, as non-family members, be positive and supportive while still being authoritative?
First, I want to thank you for sharing your lives with this young boy! Many people find it difficult to work with spirited, easily-frustrated kids. But you’re making an important difference in his life, and your guidance not only affects him, but also the others with whom he will interact.
You raise two really good questions in your post, and I’ll address them one at a time:
1. What do we do when the boy we’re caring for says “I don’t have to listen; you’re not my family”?
When you think about it, children are faced with non-family authorities almost every day. Teachers are in charge at school, for example. Bottom line, if you’re assuming responsibility for and caring for a child, acting in his best interests, you have the right and the duty to “be in charge.” Does this mean you get to make unreasonable demands, or override his mother when she’s around? Of course not, and I know that’s not where you’re coming from. But I think it’s important to back up and be clear with yourself, if you’re not already, that because this boy is in your care it’s perfectly reasonable and appropriate that you be the authority figure whenever the situation calls for it.
So when this boy’s with you, you set the tone. And one key piece that will make discipline much easier is a highly predictable schedule, or rhythm. Make sure that when the boy’s with your family, he knows just what to expect. First we drive home. Then we put our shoes on the shelf. Then we have a snack. Then we play. As much as you can, keep the activities happening in the same order every time. Regularity is a soothing balm to kids in this boy’s situation; it takes the mystery and insecurity out of a little piece of their life.
Along similar lines, for all or most of the time he’s with you, engage only in activities that are calm and productive. You may consider making the time screen-free so he can have the real-world experiences of interacting with you, reading, playing in the yard, drawing, making music (and being bored is just fine, too). Like the predictable rhythm I’m recommending, these kinds of real-world, active-yet-peaceful activities are soothing and healing for kids whose home lives are unstructured – and, more to the point of your question – ultimately this kind of quality time makes discipline easier, because it helps to create calm and connection.
And what happens when you need to set limits and your boy tells you that you’re not his family? Remember, the fact that you’re not a blood relative is irrelevant. Space doesn’t permit me to go into effective boundary-setting in detail, but for the short answer, don’t argue or explain; instead, simply enforce the limit you’ve set, without responding to his challenge. Note that this kind of response is appropriate no matter how your requests are contested: “You’re not my family.” “I don’t want to do that.” “It’s not fair that you’re asking me to do that.” “I can’t do that because I’m busy doing something else.” Kids push back in many different ways, but if you don’t want an argument, don’t engage in one. Simply expect compliance, and give a consequence when you don’t get it. (I talk about more about getting kids to listen in my blog post, http://www.rfreeling.com/blog/take-it-away-parents/)
Finally, remember, you are in an immensely significant position in this child’s life. Understand this. The time this boy spends with you can serve as an important window of sanity and peace for him. And research shows that even very small “nurturing windows” can determine the course of a child’s life. Many, many people have come out of chaotic childhoods with their sense of self intact because one person outside the family valued who they really were and showed them who they could really be. Let that person be you, and don’t allow this child slide away from his true nature: strong, smart, and loving.
2. How do we calm our boy when he’s crazy – and how can we stop these fits?
Fits and tantrums – even severe fits and tantrums – are normal. And it’s also normal for tantrums to occur frequently in some kids. Fits and tantrums happen more often in high-energy, highly sensitive children who do not have 1) a regular routine and/or 2) consistent discipline.
As you already know, structure, or predictability, is really important to kids, especially young kids. They get stressed out when they don’t have it, and they often react to stress by having severe meltdowns when faced with something they don’t like. So one way to decrease the tantrums is to increase structure – and another way to decrease the tantrums is to ensure that your discipline is consistent. Why? Because consistent boundary-setting is a key ingredient in structure. (And it also shows your boy that tantrums won’t cause you to back down.) So set boundaries like you mean it. This means you’ll provide a consequence every time your boy chooses not to comply with your directives. (Of course, saying what you mean and meaning what you say requires you to be clear about both your requests and your consequences. Don’t ask a child to do something if you’re too tired to follow through when he doesn’t do it. And don’t threaten consequences you won’t or can’t deliver.)
Something else that will help is to identify the boy’s sensitivities or challenges, so you can help him manage them – this is another way to reduce his stress. “We’re going to the store and it’s bright and noisy in there. What can we do to make it feel better for you?” Ear muffs…sun glasses…an eye patch (Arrrr… a pirate!)…cotton in the ears… Sometimes just acknowledging the overwhelm helps them cope with it. And if it’s a particular transition (say, bedtime) that’s challenging, increase structure (first we take toys to room; then we brush teeth; then we get pajamas on…). You can also give a heads-up: “Five minutes ‘til you need to get ready for bed. When this timer goes off, you’ll have to stop playing and get ready.”
When your boy does have a fit, allow it. Don’t try to reason with him, don’t try to get him to stop melting down. You can set things up so that he can express himself in a way that doesn’t harm you: Have him tantrum in his room, and give him things he can hit, kick, and bite. It’s great when you can plan this “tantrum management” with him. When he’s in a calm place, address it: “Sometimes you get really upset and angry, and I want to make a plan with you for the next time that happens. What can we do when you want to hit? You may not hit people or animals, but I want you to be able to hit. How can you do that?” Later, when the next meltdown begins, remind him of the plan, and enforce it. (Don’t expect him to remember it; that’s your job!)
Of course, allowing the tantrums doesn’t mean that you allow him to ignore your directives. If your setting a boundary leads to a tantrum, allow the tantrum, but enforce the boundary. And again, be sure that his expression is appropriate. Don’t allow him to assault you or speak disrespectfully to you; show him how to ask for something, how to object to something, how to suggest something, in a respectful, nonaggressive way. Finally, it will come as no surprise to you that consistent boundary-setting may well increase the tantrums in the short run. But be strong; hold fast for a few weeks. Your boy will begin to feel more secure and less stressed; he’ll be a happier person, and his behavior will improve. Thank you again for providing leadership and care for this boy. Keep up the good work!
Rebecah Freeling has worked with kids and their families for over 20 years and specializes in children with impulsivity, difficulty “listening,” ADHD, aggression and bullying, social anxiety, and sensory sensitivity. Rebecah’s work is strongly influenced by her training in Waldorf education, which places a priority on helping children of all temperaments develop self-management, social skills, and social responsibility. If you’re interested in learning more about Rebecah you can refer to her site.
Photo Credit: Niklas Hellerstedt