First and foremost, Felix didn’t approve of the plan. “I want to go to the park first!” he demanded. Getting him out of shorts and into pants took about three times as long as it should’ve. Then he had to pee, and wouldn’t you know Grandma went into the bathroom before him? “But I want to pee first!” he whined. Red in the face and with pants around his knees he toddled to the door, ready to bang on it with his fist. Next he had to get socks on, and you know how that can be. “They feel funny in the toe! Now you’re pulling them up too high! I want to wear my boots. I don’t need socks!” And finally, just steps away from the outside world, he had to stop everything to explain what was going to happen at the park. “Mommy will be Emperor Zurg and she’s going to take the ball and then Grandma’s going to chase her to get the ball back, and I’m going to run around with her too. Ok?”
At every step, any frustration was meant with tears, screams, gnashing of teeth, aggressive pointing (jutting his index finger out as if he were shooting a hot laser beam at you), and — worse — hits and punches. Yes, that’s right, we’re in a new, troubling phase with the little guy. He’s always been bossy, but now he’s a downright tyrant, and when things don’t go his way he lets you know. With his fists.
Violence has long been an issue with Felix. As soon as he could walk, he connected to other children on the playground by whacking, scratching, or hair-pulling. We’ve had phases of biting, of hitting people on their butts, of butting people with his head, and of ear-piercing shrieks. Just when we think we’re past it, that we’ve got out of the violent muck, he pulls us right back in.
Living with the constant threat of violence is destabilizing, to say the least. At almost four-years-old, he’s big enough that his assaults hurt. It’s also disheartening. Where did this behavior come from, my wife and I wonder. We don’t hit one another or expose him to violent movies or encourage his aggressive tendencies, at least not in any way that we’re aware of. And that’s the other horrible element of it — extreme behavior like this leaves a parent wondering, what have I done to cause it? Or enable it? He’s our son, and we can’t help but feel implicated by his behavior, even though, as I said, it’s been with him from the start, just a natural part of his personality.
Really, the more important question is: how do we react? In the short run, how do we defuse a violent tantrum? And in the long run, how do we teach him other ways of channeling his emotions, and curb his bossy nature? This will eventually have a big impact on his socialization, especially come September, when he begins preschool. Dealing with authority figures tends to bring out his aggression, and he doesn’t often play well with other kids, unless he’s calling the shots. (An impromptu sidewalk playdate yesterday, for example, ended when Felix scratched his friend’s face.)
Rewards don’t have any leverage when Felix’s emotions get the best of him, and punishments, especially made in the face of a tantrum, only add fire to his fury. When his fists fly, he’s deaf to words, and yet lashing back with an equal show of violence seems like the wrong way to go.
My therapist, who has some experience working with children, suggested a concrete reward whenever he has a positive interaction or controls his temper. Giving him tickets, say, or tokens, that will allow him five minutes of television time. (Watching television is one of the activities that is sure to calm him down, and the programs he enjoys — Curious George or Busy Town Mysteries, say — often teach him things too.) Once given, these tokens can’t be taken away, but they can be held out as carrots to guide his behavior in ways that we see fit.
From a survey of reading online, it seems likely that his bossy behavior stems from anxiety, that he is trying to exert control over a situation in which he feels a lack of control. Going out for the afternoon, for instance, which seems fun to us, might scare him a bit, because it deviates from his norm. So it’s important to communicate clearly what’s going to happen, and what we expect from him, all the while remaining positive and upbeat (not threatening).
It’s also key that all the adults in the situation present a unified front, that the child is not allowed to exert authority unless the adult offers them that option. This means putting up with the tantrum, to some extent, in order to show that the tantrum isn’t going to have any effective outcome.
What I’ll be keeping in mind is how often, and how easily, Felix seeks to take control. Any hesitation or indifference on my part becomes an opportunity for him to exert himself, and as soon as he’s picked his battle, he entrenches himself deep. Stakes are high, it seems, when he decides to take me on, as he often is these days.
Finally, it’s important to remember that my wife and I are not alone in dealing with Felix’s extreme behavior, there is hope. We’ve made an appointment with a developmental specialist, a woman who’ve we seen in the past who has helped with some of Felix’s sleep issues. I’m sure she’ll have good advice for us on how to help change his behavior, which I’ll be sure to share here as soon as I have it.
We’re doing our best to stay positive, though some days — and there’s been a few in the past week— have had a cloud over them. In the past, my wife and I have disagreed or fought about how to deal with these phases, and that’s always an added drag on top of what is a huge bummer. We’ve been through this enough to know that these phases, however intense, always pass. It’s important that my wife and I remain a functioning partnership, and lines of communication stay open between us, so that we can best help our son learn how to better deal with his emotions. We’ll get there, I’m sure of it. Not every afternoon in our life will be as fraught as this one has been!