Dear Dr. Mary and Lynn,

Help!  My four-year-old son starts screaming the minute something doesn’t go his way. There is no “wind-up” he just lets loose and within seconds he’s screaming and flailing, trying to kick and hit me.  Yesterday I told him he couldn’t have chips and he totally lost it.  I feel so helpless.  Nothing seems to work.  He screams so loudly that I usually end up giving him what he wants just to stop him. But then I feel awful for “giving in.”  Rachel

Dear Rachel:

You can trust your gut.  You feel awful afterward because you know your son is not treating you respectfully.  You can expect respect, but in order to teach him how to ask for what he needs appropriately you have to calm him down first.  

  • Instead of giving him what he wants, draw him to you by saying, “I’m listening.  I will help you.”  
  • Describe what you think he wants or needs.  “You really want chips.”  Or, “You are really hungry.”  

You’re not giving in you are just empathizing.  You can continue by saying,

  • “I will help you, but we can’t do anything until your body is calm.  I will know you are calm when your voice is soft and your body is still.”  
  • If needed, hold his arm so he can’t hit you, or hold him with his back against your chest so he cannot kick or bite you.  
  • If he screams, “let go” tell him you will as soon as his body is calm.  
  • When you feel his body quiet teach him the words you want him to use.  “You can say, ‘Mom, may I please have some chips?’”  Then ask him, “Do you want to say it, or do you want to listen while I say it?” 
  • If he wants to listen while you say it, let him know that next time you will expect him to use those words.  
  • Once he repeats the question politely, or listens while you say it, go ahead and give him some chips– the lesson today is about working together.  

On another day we’ll work on more nutritious snacks.  

Question:  Do you think this is how children learn, or do they need to “suffer” some consequence? 

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