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Aggressive Behavior from 4 Year Old Boy

Hi. So, my son is my only child and he has always been VERY active and fiery. Sometimes this means alot of pushing, hitting, pinching and even talking meanly to other people, mostly other kids. And he usually isnt even being mean spirited about it, it seems more the result of not knowing what else to with all his fiery energy. He has not generally been on the recieving end of this behavior and is not exposed to violence through media. His father and I have always taken a pretty laid-back , though strongly communicative response in trying to curb this behavior. We have also issued plenty of time- outs, and although neither of us are very stong in the discipline dep't, , we have tried to be consistant, and i know that we have been alot more tolerant and patient than most adults we know would be in this situation. I have been so careful to not allow my son to be branded a "problem-child" or "bully" , but to see this as a phase we can gently guide him out of. Well, in the last few months, i am not so sure. This "phase" has lasted a little too long! His dad and I are starting to feel more frustrated and impatient about it . As are the parents of some of his good friends. I see that he IS earning himself a reputation for being mean among his peers and their parents. It is breaking my heart, because he is actually usually a very sweet and loving kid and no matter how much we try to lovingly encourage kinder behavior, he seems at times unable to control himself. He also seems to have no regard for the response he is receiving from those he hurts or annoys. In the last few months, I have taken a "no-tolerance" stance towards this aggressive behavior. If he is making someone uncomfortable, he is removed from the situation immediately to his own space for a several minutes. If it happens repeatedly, we leave parks, parties, play-dates etc. The thing is , i still see no changes!!! Some of our closer friends and family are suggesting that we "nip this in the bud" before it is too late, but have no practical solutions that we are not already applying. What can we do if we are certain that we will never resort to hitting our kid!? (seems especially ludicrous to try to teach him be less aggressive by being aggressive toward him!) I feel desperate to see some changes now! Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

What can I do next?

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Hi A.,
There are behavioralists that you can contact with great information. My guess is he is getting something out of his behavior, otherwise, he wouldn't be doing it. Once you find out what he wants, show him a different way of getting what he wants. Give him praise for using the different way.-for instance, time outs aren't working so his behavior is not attention seeking. Hope this is helpful.

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Hi A.,
I wish I had some advise, but I do not. I have a 2 year old who is also an only child and sometimes he's just mean! I know 2 year olds go through the terrible 2's, but I'm also like you I do not want a "problem child" either. I'm really starting the time outs now and those help a little bit but somedays I feel like I'm going to be on Nanny 911 someday! I just wanted to say good luck and be strong! This is one of the hardest parts about being a parent.

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My sister passed along an awesome discipline tool that has worked wonders in our home.
We have two girls (8 and 6) and the six year old is a spitfire! She is very emotional and very strong willed. When she was younger, if we would try to discipline her, she would just respond more intensely, then we would get more intense and she would respond with even more instensity, etc etc etc! Until everyone was exhausted from crying and getting things taken away!
This tool we now use is the three srikes rule! If you get three strikes, then you have a consuequence (hers is going to bed early). Every Sunday night the slate gets cleared and we start a new week over. And I actually post the strikes (an 'x' on a piece of paper) on the fridge. Any time she needs to be disciplined we just give her a strike. And it keeps us from getting worked up about it! We can just calmly tell her she has earned a strike for having done XYZ. This has been so incredibly effective. She very rarely goes to bed early from too many strikes! I think the key for her is that she feels more in control of the consequence than if we just all of sudden say no more tv or tonight you have to go to bed early. I can threaten giving her a strike and that right there just makes her get control of herself.
It has been a lifesaver for us!
Good luck!

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I know that with my children, they tend to act out more when they are wanting attention. Because they want attention, they do what they can to earn it, even if it is negative attention. If I notice that the behavior has increased or that it is lasting a long time, then I evaluate myself and how I have been treating them. I know you said your son is an only child, but he still might benefit from uninterupted "date" time with you and your hubby at different times. Let him help plan the date. Help him feel that his needs and wants are important too. This has helped a lot, I just wish we could do it more often.

Also, maybe trying to give him some alternative way to act out his feelings instead of with physical means. close your eyes and count to 10. Or sing a song. Or come and ask for a hug. A way to try and change the behavior. Eliminating a behavior is tougher than replacing it with a better one.

I wish you luck and would like to offer you hope!

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Been there. It started in preschool with my now 6.5 yr old. He too is very sweet and loving but could not control himself in certain situations or times.

It really sounds to me that HE CAN'T CONTROL himself because the discipline would have at least helped to curb the behavior. This too was and is the situation with my son. So, the question is, is it something like ADHD or some sensory processing disorder? Maybe a weird allergy (though probably not in my opinion)?

My son has ADHD and meds have helped immensely as well as behavior charts and structure to motivate him to at least be conscious of the unacceptable behavior. We are still trying to improve his ability to attend at school but the early kindergarten labels of "the bad boy" are long gone and his self-esteem is good. Who knows if this is your son's issue too but it is definitely time to chat with your pediatrician about what you are observing/doing as well as what any other caregivers/family members observe as well.

My last thought.... Have you tried or noticed any change in behavior if he has had caffeine? Once I put it together before a real diagnosis because he had a couple great days after first sneaking then me giving him a caffinated pop a couple of mornings. Give it a try and see if there is any difference. Also take this observation to your pediatrician.

Good luck.

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Hi A.,

My second daughter is a Leo, and in her toddler years up to about this age, she really lived up to it! You know how you can play with a kitten, rub it's tummy, etc, and it will purr and purr but all of a sudden it will just snap and nip at you? My daughter--except more on the level of a lion cub! She was biting and pushing children, without any provocation and without usually seeming to be upset with the child--she would go back to playing happily immediately.

She nearly got kicked out of the most laid back home daycare in town by a woman I've known as a good friend and community member and among the most tolerant humans on earth!

As I studied her behavior, I finally realized she had a "personal space" boundary that seemed to change for reasons that would make sense to a little girl, but that weren't obvious to any other child near her. She was very articulate at speaking, but I realized she wasn't really at the developmental stage to have learned how to TELL someone they were too close, or she wanted to stop what they were doing.

I started focusing intently on coaching her to recognize and speak these kinds of feelings. It started kind of awkwardly at first--she caused a few hurt feelings at first--but she very quickly stopped biting!!!

I think maybe your little boy is experiencing something like this--he is aware of personal boundaries, but maybe he isn't sure what to do when he wants someone to give him more space or even when he wants to play with another child (or another child's toy?).

Without seeing him, it's hard to say, but perhaps it would be helpful to give him words for what he's feeling, while at the same time asking him what he would rather have another child do--hit or ask? He's a bit too young to really understand empathy for another person, but he's not too young to begin to hear the message.


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I've been there too. I'm sure you've heard this before, but consistency really is key. One thing I had to learn w/ my son was to address the heart of the issue; why was he doing these things. Mostly for him it was a matter of needing to enlarge his vocabulary and communication skills. I would get so embarrassed in front of other people, but had to learn to discipline in a way that would address his heart rather than pacify his behavior in front of others. Another thing I had to do (& this is about myself, not my son) was treat each incident as separate incidents, instead of adding to his "rap" sheet. It helped my stay more patient and focused on the lesson he needed to learn. Hope this at least encourages you that you're not alone, and best wishes!

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hi A.,

this may seem very basic, but do you know why your son acts that way with other kids? i mean have you asked him what he is feeling? Frustrated? sad? etc. i understand you have to remove him from situations that are harmful, i'm just curios if you also follow up with what needs he has, that maybe weren't being met. there is some great non violent communication by Marshall B Rosenburg that you might want to check out. i use it with my son and it;s awesome! good luck!

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Local authorities by law have to offer "Child Find" screenings through public education. These screenings are commonly held at your local primary or elementary school. The screenings are free and provided to the public by a team of specialists that usually include school psychologist, speech and language pathologist, occupational therapist, and physical therapist. This screening may provide you with the opportunity to consult with experts, connect with community resources, and intervene on the behalf of your son.

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So, it sounds like you are rethinking your laid back approach to discipline because you have noticed that your son really doesn't behave himself appropriately. Congratulations! That is progress. You said he doesn't seem to be affected by consequences. Before giving up on that notion, make sure that you really are giving him consequences that HE DOESN'T LIKE and that you really are FOLLOWING THROUGH and not giving up or giving in. A lot of parents without even thinking about it "rescue" their children from the very consequence they just imposed. Like, the other day, my neighbor and her son came over. She told her son (age 3), don't take your shoes off, we are going soon." He took his shoes off. "Harry! I told you ... you are putting your shoes on all by yourself! I told you not to take those off!" He whined and pouted because he does not like to put his own shoes on. I was very curious to see if she would bail him out. She said, "either you are putting your own shoes on or you are walking home barefoot." He put them on. I was very proud of her -- this neighbor is the sweetest lady on earth, and I know it used to be hard for her to "be mean" but now she has realized that it really is best for THE CHILD. Keep that in mind, you are "being mean" because you LOVE YOUR CHILD. It is within YOUR POWER, Mom, to determine whether he becomes a PROBLEM CHILD or not. You can do it! I promise you, consequences really do work, but it depends per child on WHAT consequences will work.
Also, here's a tip: it may help to practice things at home BEFORE you go to a social situation. Then go to the social situation (like a park) and do follow through with a consequence IMMEDIATELY at the FIRST SIGN of his disobeying the behavior you JUST PRACTICED at home. That way he has no excuse, you know he is capable, and he will learn that he really does have to listen to you.
As an example, using quiet voices. At home: "we are going over so and so's house and it's important to use quiet voices inside her house. What's a LOUD voice?" (practice yelling) What's a QUIET voice? practice that. Now, when you're at Mrs. So and so's house, and you want to play with their trains? How should you ask? Should you use a loud voice or a quiet voice? Okay let's pretend that I'm Mrs. So and so. Ask me for the trains... Great! That was exactly right. Now, when we're at ... that's how I want you to speak. Do you think you can do that? Good, because if not..." This really shouldn't take very long. Two minutes.
As another example:
My son had a problem of running ahead of me in parking lots. Well, we did not go into the store he was running ahead to go into. We went home and he cried and carried on for quite a while. WHen he calmed down, we went out into the yard and we practiced holding hands and walking and I described to him this is what you need to do ... Then we went back to the same store and he was perfect! Children need boundaries to bring out the best in them. In fact, I never ever had another problem with him running ahead of me in the parking lot. So you see? Think how much SAFER he was as a result of my investing that time. And of course, I was much less stressed knowing he would stay beside me.
I know you can do it! Good luck. You will find your child much more enjoyable and you will love parenting even more. p.s. Have you seen "Raising Helen" starring Kate Hudson? She found it hard to be a meanie, too, but she learned. (And when I say meanie, I do NOT mean that you have to yell or otherwise intimidate! You can use a very calm, pleasant voice, but be firm.)

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Oh A., I feel your pain. My sister just went through this with her 5 year old daughter, same thing, firey, energetic personality, but could lash out verbally and physically and thus ostracized herself from peers and even family. I didn't know how to deal with her when she told me point blank out of the blue that she hated me, in the calmest most unemotional voice. She was testing so many boundaries and trying in her way to give the adults around her a message. Sometimes I think that message is very hard to decipher. My sister actually decided to move her from the public school (they just moved to this area) to a smaller private school, and this change has made a world of difference. She is still sassy, but some need she had has been soothed. When my sister visited the public school she realized that her 5 year old was going to lunch with all the elementary school kids, with out her classroom teacher, and really with no support around all of these big and sometimes aggressive kids. It sounded like a very stressful environment for my niece. I guess I would recommend that you look at all the situations he is in and try and assess if there are situations that are too stressful for him on a consistent basis. May be his preschool? A babysitter? Being at home with mom too much with out the stimulation and release of group interactions? I wish you luck and I hope it helps to know that you are not alone, and you are not a bad mom because your child is so spirited. I often have to remind myself when things get really tough with my toddler that it is a privledge to have the job of raising a child. I will be thinking good thoughts for you and your family.

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Hey, A.! Maybe you are already doing this, but I'm a strong believer in positive reinforcement more than negative (consequences). When my oldest was that age, we started an ongoing 'game'. Together, we came up with about 15 or so positive behaviors, and about 10 that were not allowed (we focused on safety & not hurting others physically or emotionally for the 'not allowed' section). I got one of those packages of lacing frogs, since that was his favorite animal, and every time he did something positive (cleaning room, helping out a friend / teacher, etc) I gave him a frog, but every time he did something not allowed, he gave me a frog. In addition, there were a few 'big problems' like stealing, or fighting physically with somebody where he would get ALL of his frogs taken away, and be grounded from everything for the week. At the end of each week, we would count out his frogs and if he had over 10 he would get to pick a small prize (stickers, small toys, balloons, etc.) from a prize bowl. If he had 15 or more frogs, he would also get a star on the calendar; 4 stars in a row and he earned himself an outing to someplace he really loved, like OMSI, Bullwinkles etc. It really worked well, and he loved the game because it made sure that he was recognized for what he did right, not just what he did wrong. I am now doing a similar thing with my younger 2 (now 3 & 4) using stickers & no negative reinforcement; the one who has trouble going to bed gets a point if she goes nicely instead of taking something away if she cries & fights. It is working well this time, also. I hope this helps!

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First I would like to say if your friends and family have made mention to your son's behavior you are definetly doing the right thing by asking for suggestions to put an end to it once and for all. As parents we tend to make excuses for our kids and over look the bad behavior because we know how sweet and well behaved they can be.
As a mom to 4 boys and an Auntie who has helped raise 2 nephews I would like to say Consistancy is the key. You will be surprised how quickly your son shapes up. You will only be doing your son a disservice in the long run if you and your husband do not set boundries and guidlines and stick to them. Your son needs that stuff to feel safe and secure in his environment. I am a firm believer in structure and am thankful I can be strong enough to provide that for all my kids, and I am not saying that means you have to be "mean", please dont look at it that way. You will do fine. Believe in yourself and that you know your kid best, find some consequences that work and stick to your guns woman!!
FYI: my youngest, Wyatt is 2 and I see a lot more aggressive behavior in him than in any of my other 5 put together, some kids are just this way, it doesn't necessarily mean there is something wrong with him!

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In the many books that I have read about discipline for my son, I have seen the suggestion of role playing over and over. We used it for my son, he says the word"No" to everything and everyone, and it is starting to work. By making it fun, and showing what behaviors are appropriate and not a child may become more accepting of acting the way that you want them too. And they will see that the positive response that they get from exhibiting the 'right' behaviors is much better than the negative response they have been receiving. I do give you props on trying to solve the problem. We have a close friend who is no longer allowed to come to our house because his 4 year old hurt my son every time that they came over and the parents were unwilling to do anything about it or even tell the child that what he was doing was wrong. Good Luck.

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Hi A., I also have a 4 year old boy who will be 5 in may and a younger son who will be 3 in May. Have you heard about "love and logic"? I learned about it through my sons pre-school and then got a book about it. It really makes a lot of sense. I'm not saying I have it mastered. I definately still have issues with my son. But when I am following the love and logic principals,it does seem to work. In fact, I'm looking for a love and logic lecture that my husband and I can attend. Both parents really need to be on board, which isn't always easy.

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Bravo for you mom, for sticking with your convictions to not use physical punishment. Sounds like you're doing lots of right things. I'm wondering what kind of body build he has, is he small or big for his age? Also i'm wondering if their are any changes going on in his life that he may be feeling frustrated or out of control of. Boys often use aggression to express underlying feelings. Try to tune into what he might be feeling at the time, and try to name it for him. ie Are you feeling impatient? Are you feeling frustrated? Are you feeling jealous? Try to empathize with the feeling, "It's hard to wait your turn isn't it." This will also increase his emotion vocabulary, which is really important for boys, because this society doesn't really allow boys to express feelings , other than anger.

"How to talk so Kids will Listen" is an excellent book for that skill of identifying feelings.
Also giving an alternative to a behavior you're trying to extinquish is a good idea. "People are not for pushing, wagons are for pushing. If you feel frustrated you can use your words and you can push this wagon." or get him a little trampoline that he can jump on to use his energy. Boys seem to have a lot of energy to burn.
Good luck and maintain your patience.

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Let me preface this with I am in no way trying to diagnos your son, or say he has these problems.

My now 6 yo was as you described. A very "active" child, from very start. At 9 months old, he was 'talking back' to me. He was always very mean to other children, and our family pets. He would also hit anything within range, which included me. We also tried everything. He acted like he was driven by a motor.
It took a long time for me to finally get the referral to have him evaluated... after all he was "only 4 and it's just a stage" Well that stage lasted toooo long.
It ended up he was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder). After 6 month of therapy and a daily ADHD med, I have a very loving, caring (although busy) 6yo who rarely has problems in school (whereas in pre-school, I was always getting calls for him biting, hitting, etc and it was to the point that he wouldn't be allowed to come back)
Anyway, some of the things I learned was... consistance. Adopting your -0- tollerance is a right step.
A thing I learned about time out from the therapist is... time out time doesn't start until they are quiet. If they get up or talk, time out time starts over. Use a timer so they can hear the timer go off, however, they are not allowed out of the timeout chair until after the timer goes off, and you go over, ask if they are ready to (stop the behavior, appologise, etc). If your child says no, they stay in time out again, until they are ready to comply. It sounds harsh, but it does work! It took less than a week for this sort of time out to be extrememly effective!
My son is still agressive at times, but his anger is channelled thru "growling" if i make him mad, or stomping off to his room. He no longer hits me or our pets.
I guess, after this ramble, what I'm saying is, there is hope!! And never be afraid to ask for help, even if it's professional help. It's not a bad thing, and it doesn't mean your child will have to be medicated. Good luck!!

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one thing I don't see in the responses thus far, that I just learned--but it kind of so obvious once you think about it ;) ...

Have you involved him in deciding how he can/should/will deal with the behavior(s)? I don't mean guiding him to your conclusion/lesson, but actually asking him and finding out what he thinks. He probably has some underlying reason he does those things (when he is angry his fists clench and then he wants to hit things ... or he really wants a big huge reaction out of such-and-so and this is the easiest reaction to get ... or ...). And then, if he understands, by his _own_ thinking, even a little of what he is doing, what are his ideas for how to stop himself or redirect the situation?

The trick is to make the child responsible for his behavior. As long as you are controlling (ot trying to!) his behavior, he won't control it, and probably can't really understand it is his job! Especially if he knows other kids and parents are talking to _you_ to get it fixed.

(This is all WAY easier said than done, LOL.)

Oh, and the last part is that you need to work out _together_--a satisfactory answer for parent(s) and child!--what happens if he doesn't live up to his chosen plan: removal from situation? loss of desert? the toy he is fighting about is removed for the rest of the day? And once you have decided that together, THEN you have a job: guilt-free, firm+kind follow through.

(Book out of which this is based: Positive Discipline. The book also has sections on making amends and other great stuff.)

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You need to remember that your response shouldn't be aggressive, but you absolutely have to be dominant. Either he is reading you both as softies or he believes that his behavior is an acceptable form of play.

My oldest, who will be 10 this year, was recently diagnosed with Asperger's. When he was 4, I remember well hearing that he was "mean" and wouldn't have any friends. We made it clear to him that Daddy and I were the bosses. However, it took his first grade teacher to convince us that there was more to his behavior than just anger and wanting to control.
Our second son mimicked his older brother's behaviors, but grew out of it as long as we were consistent in our discipline.

Look at the situations that really fire up his behavior. With ours, it is caused by an underlying anxiety (among other things). Don't give up! He'll be okay, but it will take some time.
Good luck and God bless.

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Hi A.,
There are behavioralists that you can contact with great information. My guess is he is getting something out of his behavior, otherwise, he wouldn't be doing it. Once you find out what he wants, show him a different way of getting what he wants. Give him praise for using the different way.-for instance, time outs aren't working so his behavior is not attention seeking. Hope this is helpful.

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I went through this starting when my son was about 2. (My son is almost 5 now.) I'm also a single mother, so this is up to me to try and decide how to deal with. It is so difficult because I can't always focus my full attention.
Consistency is definitely a key part to this whole issue. I've learned that FAST. I had to learn to do what I'm going to say, when I say it and stick with it. I have a thing I use called "Three Strikes Your Out". Basically, first time I point out what my son is doing that is not allowed and give him a quick explanation(easy to understand)as to why we shouldn't do what he's doing and what it does or can do to people/things. I include myself and others so that he understands that what he is doing...no one else should do. It is wrong for EVERYONE. Second time I catch him, I remind him again why it's not allowed and also add a punishment for if it happens again. Third time, I don't go into details...I follow through with the punishment that I intended.
If you place your son in time out, I would recommend a minute for each year he is. If he throws a tantrum in time out...IGNORE HIM. At all costs...unless he's a danger to himself or others. Explain to him that he will be staying in time out longer if he continues to behave that way. Let him know that he's in time out to think about what he has done and to calm down. Ignoring was very hard for me to do at first, mainly because we live in an apartment. I didn't want to upset the neighbors...but then I realized, it would continue if I couldn't teach him to calm down. I would rather the neighbors call the police and my son is just in time out throwing a tantrum. I can't imagine what would happen if I allowed myself to lose my temper and the police arrive. I wouldn't want them thinking I'm abusing my son when I'm just trying to get him to calm down and behave.
You could also try some of these other methods I have. If my son and I are having problems getting him to clean his room...I give him an option. He could clean his room and get a reward...or his room go into time out and him not be allowed in there, except to sleep, until he decides to be responsible. I explain to him that should I have to clean the room, then it will be my room for a short time. It took 3 days the first time I did this, but you should've seen how fast he cleaned his room once he got off his strike. It was like Flash Gordan. We also have a Tomorrow Basket. If he has a toy that he isn't taking care of, throws it, tries to break it...it goes in the Tomorrow Basket. He'll get whatever toy/book he abuses back the following day. I've used this for the past year. This has seemed to work out pretty good.
Also, no matter what? STAY CALM. I've figured out though, even though my son understands most of what I'm saying, he's still...only 4. I've had to stop myself from giving him lengthy explanations to why he shouldn't do something. Because by the time I'm finished...he's forgotten everything i just said. My son has had speech problems for a time, so he gets very frustrated when he can't voice something the way he would like. He thinks like a 4 yr old should, but it doesn't always come out that way. For example, if he hit someone...asking them why he did it doesn't always help. I had to start asking "Did you hit "..." because you were angry/sad?" Once I started doing it this way, it was clearer to him what I was trying to say and he was more understanding of his feelings. This seemed to help with the anger issues more. A lot of the times that he was angry, I realized was because he couldn't voice how he felt properly.
Sorry this was so long. I really hoped this helps. I know that not all children are the same...so not all children will work with the same methods. I've tried these myself and they seem to work with my son well. We get along pretty good now. He's more loving and attentive. Let me know how things go! Don't give up! There is always a loving child under all that anger. :D Good luck! Write me if you want and I could give you some more of my methods. :D ~B.

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Hi A.,
My heart goes out to you, your husband and your little boy. I can see how difficult this feels for all of you and I understand that you don't want him to be isolated by everyone because of his behavior. It sounds like you have tried all the things anyone would tell you to try. Honestly, my advice is that since he is young (and as they say, when they're little the problems are still little but get bigger as they get older) seek the advice of all the professionals you can. See if you can have him evaluated for speech or anything else that he may need help with. There are tons of great child development professionals out there and let them meet your child and recommend solutions. Your pediatrician or teachers can suggest how to start this process. Good luck! It will get better....

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I am a former early childhood teacher, so I have lots of experience with aggressive 4 year olds. First of all, let me just say that aggression in young children is really quite normal and not usually a reflection of parenting or a child's personality. As you said, he likely just does not know what to do when he's faced with a conflict and therefore uses his instincts- hitting, pushing etc. Normal!

Have you taught him what he can do specifically in conflict situations? It is much easier for children to understand what they SHOULD do than what they SHOULDN'T do. (In other words, telling them, "don't hit" is not easy for them to understand- they need an alternative.) You could teach him specific things to say to other children, such as "may I have that toy when you're done?" Or "You can have this in 5 minutes." or "I don;t like it when you _____." You could then role play these ideas with him, acting out different situations that he may encounter. Or you could stage a puppet show with some of his favorite stuffed animals where they get into a conflict- then stop and have your son help the animals solve their problem peacefully. I would do this again and again and again!

Basically, the more practice he gets resolving conflicts, the better he will get at it. You are right to remove him from a situation in which he is being aggressive. The next step would be to discuss with him what would have been a better choice. ("Instead of hitting Johnny when you want that ball, what could you have done?") I think it's also important for children to have to make amends for their aggression if they have hurt someone. You could bring him to the victim and explain that Johnny got hurt, so it is his responsibility to find out if he is okay. (asking someone if they are okay and offering to help them is much more genuine than forcing a child to say sorry- they may not feel sorry and we can't force a child to feel a certain way.)

Point out characters on books or tv shows that solve problems peacefully. Talk, talk, talk about it! Let him know you will help him make better choices. And pour on the praise when he does it right! And of course he is not a bully or a bad person. He is 4! Sounds like you're on the right track- good luck!!

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Hi A.,
I am so sorry that you are going through this. It must be incredibly hard and I hear you when you say it is heart-breaking and frustrating.
My suggestion is that you try to help "quiet" your son. Some children (and adults) have a hard time keeping in control when there is a lot of stimuli in the environment. This makes the mind race and creates a situation where there is rash decision making, irritability, and spontaneous outbursts. Your son is probably suffering and that is why he is lashing out.
I really think you are doing the right things by making sure others are safe by removing him when he is aggressive. Good for you! So many parents let this go and aren't reaching out for help with this problem.
I would like to suggest removing TV, video games, loud toys (or any toy that makes noise). Put order in his home environment and make everything predicable as possible. Lots of routines. Also set aside some time each day to listen to calming music with him.
At five he can understand a lot and you can talk to him about his behavior. Only do this when he is calm and you are not directly in a tense situation. Also, try not to make him feel guilty. He probably doesn't have a clue as to why he is lashing out... just that he is not feeling like his true self.
Good luck to you and your family!

mother to 3 boys

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A., I know that kids are born with a personality which can be difficult to alter or control by parenting. But, I also know that as parents we should do all we can to not only encourage a child to behave, but especially to prevent them from hurting others. I was on the receiving end of an aggressive 4 year old boy just yesterday at a birthday party. I cannot express how I felt when I saw him slap and eventually punch my 4 yr old daughter in the eye, because he wanted something she had first. That upset me, of course, but what infuriated me, was that when I told his mom (who is my friend, which makes it awkward) what had happened, she acted like she was going to discipline him, but instead made him empty threats that he saw right through, and she completely let him off the hook without so much as a "sorry". He obviously does not respect his mother, because she doesn't follow through. I'm glad to read that you are leaving parties and putting him in time out. It is not fun or convenient to be a mother. It's uncomfortable, embarrassing at times, but imperative that we respond every single time, and don't allow our children to learn that we don't mean what we say. I would just encourage you to keep being hard on him for a while. Whenever my kids are in a difficult stage, I hate how often I am punishing them and I'm often tempted to just give up because it doesn't seem to make any immediate difference. Luckily I have a little too much pride to let my kids get the better of me, so I always stick it out and the truth is, within a month, results become apparent. I promise. Just be firm (in a loving way) for a month or two. The person who benefits the most from your determination is your son.
p.s. my van is in the garage, and I sometimes buckle my daughters into their carseats for timeout, when they are deserving of something more than the usual. I just set the timer for ten minutes and let them cry it out where I can't hear them. They're safe, and I'm sane. Also, cold showers were the way I nipped both my daughters "fits" in the bud. I would give them a chance to correct their behavior, by telling them, "if you don't get yourself under control, you're going to get a cold shower to cool you off." fully clothed. I haven't done it very many times. it's pretty awful to do, but it doesn't hurt them, and it's so effective you won't have to do it much. I hope that some of this will be helpful. you know, the very fact that you care enough to ask for help indicates that your a conscientious mother. you're way ahead of the game there. you'll get this under control. good luck. -K.

You are right to want to stop this behavior now. As a teacher, I can tell you that your child will have a very hard time making and keeping friends if he continues to behave this way. Other children will not want to play with him and neither will their parents. Also, once he starts Kindergarten, most schools have a no-tolernace policy on violence, meaning if your child hits another child one too many times, you may have a 5 year old with a disciplinary record. My greatest concern is that you are saying he does not seem to care about the other person's response. This makes your job even harder. I agree that Love and Logic could be a great tool for you. Besides books, there are many classes offered through community centers, hospitals and community colleges. I took a course through Evergreen Hospital last year. It is a helpful way to get specific strategies for your situation. It would be good to know how long he had been behaving this way and how long you have been consistently disciplining for it the first time it happens. If he has been doning this for 2 months, then you may have fairly quick results, but if he has been like this for 2 years, it may take a very long time of you conisitently disciplining him for this behavior the first time he exhibits it before you see any real improvement. Remember, it takes MUCH longer to unlearn a habit than to learn it in the first place. Keep it up! It will be worth it in the end when you habe a happy child with lots of friends!

I encourage you to read the Love and Logic parenting series of books. It is one of the best series around and really teaches parents (and teachers) how to allow kids to take responsibility for their behavior, understand how they can do things differently, think about the effect their behavior has on them and others. It is effective with kids of all ages. It is really important to talk with kids and encourage them to tell you what they were trying to accomplish with their behavior, what their plan is, how they can do it differently next time. Removing the child from the situation is a great beginning, but the next step needs to be encouraging him to change his behavior and letting him know in no uncertain terms what behaviors are unacceptable.
Another good parenting series was written by Stephen Glenn. One of the books is Developing Capable Young People. He talks about the importance of helping kids develop an "internal locus of control". The steps I mentioned above really help with that.
Hope this helps.

Dear A.-
Hang in there. Your situation sounds frustrating. Hopefully it is just a phase...you guys sound like you are doing a great job guiding your son to better behavior. The advice given by the other mamas responding all sound like things to try. I think it's especially important to tell children what TO do instead of what NOT to do. If his behavior continues to concern you, I would suggest going to your local school district for an evaluation. I know the thought is a little scary, but better to figure it out early if he needs some help. I am a teacher and my sisters are Occupational Therapists...they would probably say the same thing. Good luck. A.

What is he watching on TV? Right after Power Rangers came out I had to rescue my son from day care because all of the boys were practicing those moves on him. I never allowed HIM to watch Power Rangers.

Movies nowadays are SO disrespectful of EVERYONE - parents, other humans and SO violent. I'm almost 50 and I've seen a LOT of changes just in the last 20 years. Children are often exposed to violence and stupid movie fare that's PG or G when it shouldn't be appropriate for ANY child, Disney included.

In Northern Quebec they made a study in the 80s. There was NO aggressive violence among boys. Then TV arrived. Within a couple of years, boys were being arrested for being violent.

We are SO used to our society being exposed to more and more violence and crazy behaviour in the movies, that we become acclimated to things were should be outraged at. I've seen parent have parties where music with really bad swearing lyrics while small children are present. Really look at what your son is exposed to. Children are little sponges and will imitate everything they see!

Hi A.,
I wish I had some advise, but I do not. I have a 2 year old who is also an only child and sometimes he's just mean! I know 2 year olds go through the terrible 2's, but I'm also like you I do not want a "problem child" either. I'm really starting the time outs now and those help a little bit but somedays I feel like I'm going to be on Nanny 911 someday! I just wanted to say good luck and be strong! This is one of the hardest parts about being a parent.

Hi A.,

Have you had him checked out by the pediatrician and a naturopath? Tell them exactly what you said in your post and they should be able to point you in the direction of some simple tests that could rule out any number of possible causes. No amount of discipline will curb your boy's behavior if there is a physical reason behind it. A good naturopath is a great place to start. Someone else mentioned Sensory Processing Disorder. Google SPD and see if the description sounds like your son. If you suspect SPD, then contact Early Intervention and he could be screened for free. Sometimes a hearing problem can manifest itself in angry or aggressive behavior. Don't mean to sound alarmist, this just all comes from personal experience. :)

Our "no tolerance" policy with our two boys is to remove them immediately from the enjoyable situation that they disrupted and not look back - no breaks, or time outs - we're just done if they make a bad choice. It stinks to have to enforce and it isn't fair to the other child in a play date situation. But a few times of that response did the trick for us with one of them.

With our other child, we revoke privileges and take away favorite toys until they are earned back again through making better choices (not just time passing - actual display of the expected behavior) - that seems to work better. Find what motivates your child and what he values - then follow through with limiting his access to that until the behavior changes to what you have fully explained as your expectation and what is acceptable. Again, stinks to enforce, but the message got through. Four years is old enough to understand these consequences.

Also, before we go into a playdate, a store, or school, I spend a moment with each of my boys to explain what we are doing, what my expectations are for them and what is acceptable behavior. It helps them to go over those ahead of time so that it is top of mind. When I see them straying from the expectation, I remind them that we discussed what was ok before we walked in and that there are consequences to poor choices.

You could also think about whether there are some other communication tools, methods and skills that you can help him to develop or modify. Our youngest sometimes has a hard time expressing himself verbally so we try to give him the time he needs to form his thoughts - requires lots of patience, but he is less frustrated if he can take his time to express himself.

Hope this helps!

Hi A.,
I feel ya sister! Have you had him checked for allergies? Does he eat sugary foods-candy, cake, ice cream, cookies, donuts, sugary cereal, chocolate milk, jams and jellies, lots of fruit, soda, milk shakes, etc...? I had to list them, because one might overlook some of these as sources of sugar. If he is eating any sugar at all, try removing it completely from his diet. Yes, even fruit at first. Try this for at least a couple of months if you don't see imediate results. If he becomes less aggressive at all, it is probably the sugar. At some point you can try to reintroduce a little bit of fruit, but no processed sugar. We use stevia, a sweet herb, instead of sugar. We add it to water with a little lemon, we put it in our unsweetened Cheerios or unsweetened shreddes wheat. Also avoid fruit juice sweetened products, no sugar, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, etc... This should do the trick. If not, get him tested for allergies. I hope this helps,

This is a tough one. It sounds like you are doing everything right. And you're right, punishing him physically isn't going to help. I think all boys go throught this to a certain extent. My son is exposed to media (I let him watch TV and he plays some computer games). We found/find that when he plays too much computer he gets very physical. We just "nip it in the bud" and cut back or cut him off from computer games. I have found with boys that they need to be physical to let off steam. Boys need to wrestle with their Dads, Grandpa's, Uncles, older cousins, brothers, or even Moms. I would recommed buying a punching bag or make him run around the yard or do something to release that testosterone that's starting to stream through his body. It's probably a good idea for your husband to wrestle with him every day(and also teach him about limits and boundries...i.e., not o.k. to hit Daddy in the ding-ding). I bet you'll find that he's much less aggressive to other kids if he had a chance to release himself physically a bit each day.

Hi A.,

I am sorry that you are having such struggles. I am a mom on the other side of the fence shall we say. My son has a friend who lives two doors down and they are the only little kids in the neighborhood so they of course end up playing together a lot. The neighbor boy is fiery as well and often takes, pushes, shoves, hits, etc. His mom was lucky enough to have found a solution that has helped him tremendously. I don't know if it will apply to you or be useful but just in case. The trick she used was to take away a favorite toy/item (in his case horses, which he is obsessed with and takes with him or finds everywhere he goes). The horse would be taken away and put somewhere that he could not get to it but still see and he then had to earn in back by either playing nice for a period of time or helping around the house, etc. If he fussed over losing horse than another one would be taken away as well. At first it was challenging because he would be so upset about losing the horse that he would hit his mom or person who took away the horse and scream and such. But he got the message that his behavior was not acceptable. He would sometimes still have to be removed from the situation, but it seemed to work for him. The boys are only 2 1/2 now and I think his mom started this before he was 2 but it may have been just when he turned 2.

My biggest concern about this strategy was that I felt that he really needed to have a way to get his emotions out in a constructive manner and the immediate taking away of another horse was a concern for me around that. But he seems to be able to express himself quite well now. I guess I am just saying that emotions need to be recognized first and then expressed in a manner that is not physically harmful to others.

Also, my son would just decide that it was time to leave when the neighbor boy would get upset, so for awhile their play time together was reduced by my son's choice. I don't think it had a large impact on the neighbor boy but maybe that kind of thing would on your son. I don't know.

Another thing that comes to mind, is not give him a time out and then a second chance. This is something else that the neighbors had to do as well. One chance only, you mess up you leave. So if he did something like hit, he had to apologize to the person he hit and then leave no matter what. Most often this is only used when he does something that he has been asked not to do, if he refuses to do something that he was asked to do in a polite way to do or if he does something that he now knows is not appropriate like hitting. It seemed a bit harsh to me at first but again it seems to have worked for him.

Good Luck,

I think Love and Logic has everything your looking for....a calm, loving, effective response to challenging behavior, that gives the child an opportunity to think about his/her actions. www.loveandlogic.com Have fun!


I am a mother, a grandmother, a teacher, and a writer of parenting columns.

I applaud you for taking a non violent approach to your son's violent outbursts. Hitting does not stop hitting! However, talking generally does not work either. In fact, I am convinced that stating the rule, "No hitting," is more than enough talking about the behavior. Adding, "You will not be able to play with the children today," is enough talk about consequences. Nothing more is needed. Simply load him into the car, lovingly and silently, and do not mention the event again. Do not waver and give another chance no matter how upset he gets or how many promises he makes. Give him no attention for the violent behavior or the outburst. Just take him away from the children. Screaming and crying should bring no more talk. When he is calm, you can give him your friendly attention, but no more talk about the behavior or event.

Tomorrow give him another chance to play with the kids. If he is violent, repeat the rule, the consequence, and the removal as needed. Do not waver! And, do not gush if he is not violent. His only reward is being able to stay and play with the children.

Believe it or not, the talk, talk, talk reinforces the behavior. Withhold your attention and, more than likely, you will see a change in behavior. And trust me, he is not going to hate you!

Good luck, D.

I recommended getting a professional evaluation. My grandson, who is now 4, has been aggressive and seemingly unaware of how his actions hurt others. Even when he was aware, sometimes he didn't seem to care. He has been in a therapeutic preschool and has in home play therapy and is so much better. He has the added challenge of having difficulty learning to talk.
However he is in this particular preschool because of his anger and need to learn how to get along with other kids. The teachers have skills in teaching children how to deal with anger.

One technique that the social worker has taught his mother which we now use is to physically stop angry or hurtful behavior by putting our arms around him if needed. We say, "that hurts so and so. Would you tell him sorry?" I sometimes include the reason I think he might be angry by saying "I know that you want to play with the toy he has and that makes you angry. You can play with it after so and so is finished with it." Often there is no apparent reason for his anger and hitting. If he doesn't say sorry he goes to his room until he's able to say sorry to both the adult and the child. Frequently he says sorry grudgingly but we accept it and give praise for saying it. I might say,"that was awful hard for you to say and I'm proud that you did." I usually try to get him involved with another activity away from the child with the toy he wants. Sometimes he just wants me to hold him for a bit before he starts to play.

I used to believe that a sorry forced out of a kid was teaching him to lie about his feeling of being sorry. That if he couldn't come out of his room until he said sorry he would learn to say sorry without meaning it. I now believe that this is not so and instead we are teaching him when it's appropriate to say sorry even when he doesn't feel sorry at the moment. Because of the adults acceptance of the word and the positive reinforcement he recieves after saying it this reinforces the lesson that sorry is appropriate and must be done just like obeying or not obeying a rule results in a consequence. The goal of the consequence is to teach and not punish. I see my grandson learning that saying sorry is appropriate and he seems sincere most of the time. If he yells sorry in an angry voice we do not accept that. He goes back to his room to think about what happened and why sorry is appropriate even tho he's still angry.

At the same time my daughter is teaching him appropriate ways to work off the energy that anger causes. She gets him involved in a high energy activity such as doing some jumping jacks or running back and forth down the hall. Because he had difficulty with speech she has only recently added asking him to tell the other child that he is angry instead of being aggressive with his actions. This works once in awhile but not well yet. The sequence may be, "tell him you're angry and then run to the end of the hall." This is tricky because it requires the adult to be right there when it happens.

My daughter also tries to see that he gets lots of physical exercise. When the weather is reasonable she takes the kids to the playground. She also puts music on and they dance.


I am a second grade teacher with a lot of background in dealing with children and I have to say that I feel your pain.

I wrote in a about a month ago about the same concern. As a result, I got a few good ideas that I thought may be worth sharing. We tried them all so I am not sure which one of them worked, but we've had 3 weeks without hitting thus far.

Our son loves to read books with us so we read as many books as he wanted and pointed out that none of the children or characters in the books were hitting each other.

We role played all of the situations that were causing him to hit and talked about them. My husband was the other child who took a toy away from him, or went first when our son wanted to go first etc. I was the mom or the teacher of whom our son could tell the situation or ask for help.

We gave him something else to do with his hands to show his anger rather than hitting. I've actually seen him use this one successfully. Our son folds his arms and pushes them down hard and shows with his face he is angry. This keeps his hands to himself, but shows us and others he is upset.

We have a star chart where he is earning stars for not hitting. He chose the rewards (movie at theater, Chuck E. Cheeses, mini golfing). He gets to chose what we do after earning 10 stars. We even took this a step further and awarded him stars for not hitting back if someone hit him. So we celebrate the times when he keeps his hands to himself. I would encourage you to start with small chunks of time so he feels successful right away.

Last, we told him that any hitting that day would result in no TV or game time for the remainder of that day. We try to limit both of these anyhow, but there are times that our son loves to do them. He loves to watch a show after nap and really loves this time. This was the only thing we could think of that he would care about losing as he isn't really attached to any of his toys. We hesitated to do this because not having the TV on at all would punish the whole family and really sort of focuses on the negative but we were at the point where we would do anyting to stop the embarassment for us and the frustrations for our son.

Our son's preschool teachers assures us that his behavior is normal, but as you know all too well, it is very frustrating for the parent.

About the negative talk toward others. We have a friend who had this problem and decided to use hot sauce. She puts the smallest amount of hot sauce on her finger and then touches her son's tongue. It burns, but seems appropriate to me since he is using his mouth in an inappropriate way. Now I've seen the threat of hot sauce stop the behavior immediately.

I hope even one of these ideas helps you,

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