Q: How do I get my 3-year-old son to stop hurting his sister, who is only 16 months old? He continually pushes her over, pinches and hits her, and the latest thing is, when she’s lying on the floor, he sits on her. I’ve tried just about everything to get him to stop — usually I put him in time-out, making him stay in his room, where there’s nothing for him to play with, and I also talk to him about being kind and loving to our family, that we don’t hurt people the way he does. I’ve asked him repeatedly why he does this, but he just ignores my questions. I don’t know what else to do to get him to stop this behavior and to make him learn this isn’t the way to treat people. I’m worried he’s going to become a really aggressive child who no one will want to be around. I hope you can help.

A: I appreciate this is frustrating for you, with you assuming your son won’t have friends in the future. Although his behavior is irritating and worrying, he is still too young to fully understand how to curb or redirect his strong emotions. His aggression is partly developmental and likely partly temperamental, as he’s still, at 3, a baby, with little, if any, impulse control. He is feeling jealous of his baby sister, who undoubtedly gets more attention than he does. When he’s punished for tormenting her, he feels bad and unlovable, with his sister being good and lovable, needing her parents’ protection. Children won’t behave any better when we make them feel worse. Punishment makes them angrier, wanting to seek revenge. You may get him to stop what he’s doing temporarily, but he won’t learn what you’re hoping. Asking why seems reasonable; however, “why questions” are not helpful, as children typically don’t know why they behave a certain way, encouraging them to lie, while trying to provide the answer their parents want. It’s clear he’s feeling angry, which is what needs to be addressed, focusing on the emotional root of his behavior. This is what makes “time out” not work, as it’s a reaction to the behavior. When your son’s feelings are heard and acknowledged, helping him to consider other ways to express his anger and jealousy, his behavior will change. Your expectations for him to stop when you tell him to are unrealistic for a child of his age, as he cannot yet control his impulses.

Talking to him about being kind and loving is understandable; however, it is telling him he should only love his sister, that his anger isn’t normal, it’s not OK. Try honoring his jealous and angry feelings without judgment or shaming or asking why, but instead offering him acceptable outlets. Examples: “I bet you’re feeling really mad that you have to share mommy/daddy/your toys/your space, etc., with your sister” or, “When you feel really upset with your sister, you want to hit or push her. It’s not okay to do that, but you can tell me just how mad you are.” Or, “It’s really hard having a baby sister who is often in your way. It’s okay to get mad at the people we love” or, “Tell me about all the mad you have inside you.” Your son may be feeling his sister has replaced him, that there’s not enough love for him, but he doesn’t know how to express that without misbehaving. If he’s expected to be kind and loving, he can’t meet that expectation, which causes him to feel bad about himself. None of this means you’re agreeing with his behavior, but rather accepting his view and respecting his emotions. Once he believes he’s unconditionally accepted, no matter how he feels, he will be more open to exploring other ways to communicate his frustration and jealousy.

“If you are tempted to ‘teach’ your child by guilt, shame, or punishment, you will be creating discouraging beliefs that are difficult to reverse in adulthood.” — Jane Nelson

Q: I have two teenagers, one who keeps his room fairly clean and tidy and the other whose room is always a disaster. No matter how hard I try, I cannot get them to keep the same standards and keep both rooms neat and tidy. I understand their rooms are their own space, but there are limits to how much I can tolerate. I am at my wits end with getting my “messy” son to keep his room in better shape. I’ve threatened him, shamed him, grounded him and, unfortunately, yelled at him pretty often to just clean his disgusting room. Nothing is working, so if you have any suggestions, I’d really like to hear them.

A: Although you’re at your wits end, the condition of your son’s room is your problem, not his. Apparently, he doesn’t care about how messy and/or cluttered it is; however, you can let him know your point of view without shaming or threatening, as that will cause him to resent and resist you even more. Try avoiding talking about this until you feel ready to approach it calmly and respectfully. Trying to manage how he cares for his space will only create distance between you, rather than connection. The goal is to gain his cooperation, by letting him see how it’s your problem, sharing your perspective — what makes cleaning the room a priority for you. When you acknowledge his view, you might say something like: “I respect that your room is your space and you don’t mind the condition. That’s entirely my problem, and I’d like to share why it upsets me. My worry is how the lack of hygiene could attract bugs and possibly mice. I don’t have too much of a problem with the clutter, as that should be your choice how you keep your clothes and other stuff. I’d appreciate us making an agreement with how often you could help keep it clean. That only requires vacuuming and getting the dirt and crumbs cleaned up, perhaps every other week. Would you be willing to do that?” As long as he no longer feels shamed and threatened, with you owning this as your problem, he will more likely be willing to cooperate. The key is respectful communication!

“Your children are not your children, they come through you, but they are life itself, wanting to express itself.” — Wayne Dyer

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