Current Issue of BDINews
I worked full-time until my son (our first child) was four years old...
Temperament and Parenting
A Newsletter About Caring for the High Maintenance Child by Kate Andersen, M.Ed.
Theme: Children who are easily bored.
Volume 24, Issue 1, August,2021.
Letter to Kate
I worked full-time until my son (our first child) was four years old. Upon staying home, I had a greater opportunity to research the behavioral problems we were having with him (being near the verge of a nervous breakdown at the time) and also to watch other children his age.
I looked over a few books on temperament, but fully read Stanley Turecki's book, The Difficult Child. (I hope to soon read the book, The Spirited Child.) After reading Turecki's book, I felt that I could now handle my son's temperament traits. I had long talks with my husband about dealing with his temperament traits and adjusting our expectations. My son has never had any academic problems, but his behavioral problems have been pointed out to me by his Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers. I have worked hard to deal with his high activity (he acts up when he is bored), adaptability (making calendars and explaining plans), extreme intensity (having him take deep breaths), and irregularity (make dinners in ten minutes), etc.
After all my hard work in dealing with this child, two years later I still have listening and other behavioral problems with this child. Please advise on the situations below:
One situation is that my son tells adults what they "should" and "shouldn't do". The other day when I was walking around with the baby (our second child) and holding the baby in one arm and using my free arm to do something else, my son said that I shouldn't hold the baby while I do other things. This comment came from a six-year old! I told him that if he says things like that to me or another adult that I will punish him. My husband did not agree that I should punish him for saying things like that. How can I handle this? Is this negative mood from temperament? He always seems to comment negatively on everything and appears so ungrateful at times that it hurts people. I can't have him telling his first grade teachers this September what they should and shouldn't do!
He still doesn't listen the first time an adult tells him to do something - unless he likes what they ask him to do. (He is the most persistent person I know!) In the last six months, he is less defiant and has a better respect for adults. He even rolls his eyes in a defiant way and looks away as if to "tune you out". He does something you tell him not to do right after you told him not to do it. I feel that he'd like the world to have his set of rules (wouldn't we all!). He has to be told almost every night at the dinner table to sit up properly (only one example). He was punished four days (no computer) for dangerously tipping a chair after repeated warnings. Only once in a "blue moon" do we catch him doing this! I have tried listening pennies and listening stickers for bakery cookies, but it only works for a short time. Listening is such an important component in school that I am very concerned. (I had told his kindergarten teacher to get his eye contact, but she still had further listening problems with him) Do you have any further ideas.
I don't know how to deal with an extremely persistent child with listening/authority problems. Do you have any advice?
Whatever advice you can give me would be most appreciated. Also, when does one see a pediatric behavioral doctor? I feel that if he has further problems in the Fall then I should go to one.
Hope to hear from you soon. I enjoy reading your newsletter.
Since your son is six years old, some time in the next year or so it would be a good idea to have a psychoeducational assessment performed, just in case he has any learning differences or learning disabilities. (This would be a good reason to see a developmental pediatrician. You need to rule out medical problems and perhaps to obtain some support for having this psychoeducational testing done.) If a learning difference shows up, it may be something that is making it difficult for him to process language and follow directions. On the other hand, he may not have any such problems. You have identified some extreme temperament traits that can make a child very difficult to understand and to handle, and the poorness-of-fit of these traits with the expectations and management methods at home and school could be the main contributors to the problems you describe. The good news is that you have mentioned a trend towards becoming less defiant. That is good news. I wonder why this is happening. Could it be that home and school are working more cooperatively with similar expectations?
I was interested to hear about your use of calendars and delayed rewards. These are wonderful methods with school-age children. I do have concerns when they are used with children under six or so. The children appear to comprehend these devices and often like to have them. I suspect that many don't really have the ability to use these methods to track and adjust their behavior at this age. The result can be a sense of failure - on the part of both the child and the parents. This sense of failure can then feed into more behavioral problems. Since your son is only six, go easy on these methods. Only use what really works.
I have just a few other suggestions based on your comments. The first (related to the comment above) is that both rewards and negative consequences (at home and at school) should not be delayed over a long period of time. Dr. Sean C. McDevitt, Editorial Consultant, states: "Using daily rewards for younger children is a good alternative when the calendar is too far to stretch. Rewards should be given at the same time of day, and as you mention, something that is tangible and impacts the child's senses-such as a sticker or poker chip or even a treat."
Try to increase your positives (praise, treats given immediately) so that they are at least three times more frequent than negatives. And the negatives should not be harsh or prolonged. A child who doesn't "remember" to behave will not remember what a punishment spread out over four days is all about. It would be better to have very swift consequences with no emotion shown on your part. "You tipped the chair." [Chair is removed] "You'll have to eat standing up." Now he may very well scream or tell you that he prefers to stand, but the impact of your removal of the chair is likely to be felt. Since your child is persistent, unlearning bad habits (such as tipping chairs) will take longer than with a less persistent child. So don't give up on a management method until you've given it plenty of time.
I would also give your child the benefit of the doubt. He likely DOES forget the rules. Reminders should be given in neutral language and with no nagging. Your assumption should be "he REALLY can't help it". Deliberate defiance or aggression, however, such as hitting the baby or yelling "no" to your face should result in an automatic and immediate removal of a positive.
The problem of not knowing who is boss is a very intriguing issue. I have for a long time suspected that this is a genuine difficulty for some children but I have not seen any research supporting my hunch. I have heard reports and personally seen some children who repeatedly get this wrong and persistently order adults around. Some seem to "echo" what they have heard from adults. It seems that these children learn what they hear stated with intensity and, when at a loss as to how to cope, repeat those words of authority. Hence your son telling you not to hold the baby the way you were. The good news is that he is noticing and beginning to internalize rules of behavior. The problem is that he doesn't see that they apply to him, too, and that he is not entitled to boss you around. I truly believe some children have trouble "getting" this.
Assuming that my theory could be right, I would sit down with your son and talk to him about these issues in terms which make sense to him. Does he use the word "bossy" about some people? Or does he make distinctions between being the "big" brother and being the "baby". Maybe a feltboard or blackboard story would help. Using a friendly and non-critical tone, acknowledge that he sometimes makes mistakes about who is in charge. Reassure him that you realize he WANTS his parents to be in charge - otherwise the world would be a very scary place for a boy of his age. Discuss the matters over which he really is the boss. "You are the boss of the colours you like." "You are the boss of the red pick-up truck - baby's not allowed to play with that." Invite him to suggest a cue that you can secretly use when he is forgetting who are the real bosses of the children in family. Praise every instance you see that he is trying to behave more appropriately. You have to believe that you really ARE in charge and that he REALLY wants you to be. Believe it! You ARE and he DOES.
I would also give your son the benefit of the doubt when he reports being bored or when he sighs or shows you he is struggling. Encourage him to tell you in words when he is "bored", "frustrated", or "getting too many directions at once". Then work with him to find solutions. Solutions should be very immediate, practical and something you can live with. For example, he might need to have a Game-Boy to take on car rides but obviously you can't buy him a new game every week. He will likely need a lot of novelty to stay stimulated, though, so you may need to be creative in using toy libraries or in making things to do. Should these tendencies to get bored persist and interfere with schoolwork as he gets older, a developmental pediatrician may suggest a trial of medication, such as a stimulant. As well, you may learn some useful management ideas from reading some books about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
It is probably important to realize that your son's tendencies to want control, his activity level, persistence, negative mood and low adaptability won't change much right now. However, these traits can be channeled into appropriate behaviors - over the long term. While you come to terms with your child's current temperament and behavior, it is so important that your son not begin to feel like a thoroughly unsatisfactory person. Many high maintenance children get subtle or not-so-subtle messages from the environment that they are 'a pain'. Even hearing their parents sigh, groan or occasionally 'lose it' can contribute to the 'wear-and-tear' (to borrow a term from Dr. Turecki) that leads to low self-esteem. In order for you and your husband to be able to stay positive, you may need to take regular breaks from parenting. Parenting high maintenance children is extraordinarily draining.
Thank you for writing. There are many children like your little boy. These children need the world to understand and to like them a whole lot better. He is a lucky child to have parents who care enough to reach out for help.
Very best wishes,
to some common questions about behavioral style.
Origins, impact on parenting, risk for behavioral issues, relationship to ADHD, and other topics.
Goodness of Fit
How temperament is assessed.
Poor fit can lead to stress and possibly emotional or behavioral problems
When professional help is needed
There are qualified individuals from several disciplines who counsel parents and children.