I’m receiving so many queries from Moms lately about how to stop destructive behaviors in young kids. Here is one of those emails and my answer to the mother. Please know aggression is learned. Don’t think it is a phase! Nip it in the bud so it doesn’t become entrenched. Arnold Goldstein’s work is clear: by age eight if a child continues to display aggressive behavior it is very hard to turn around. Stop it ASAP!
I have a friend who has a three year old, a two year old, and a one year old. The oldest has displayed the typical sibling rivalry traits, not sharing, tantrums etc. The most disturbing behavior is that she causes considerable damage to the house like flooding, ruining wood floors with ink, and a few other things that cost a lot of money to repair. When she is punished, she acts like she doesn’t care by laughing or ignoring you. How can my friend better understand where this behavior is coming from and how can she teach her daughter that these behaviors are wrong? Theses destructive activities are a daily event and she is desperate for help!
Wow, do I wish I could set up a video recorder in the house and watch this. You’re describing very uncommon behaviors of a three year old. Very. And they are disturbing because they are daily, destructive, and the child reaction to punishment. So here are six steps to turn destructive behaviors in young kids around. It will take concerted effort, patience, support, and consistency (which is essential). Here ya go:
Step 1. AIM FOR PREVENTION. This child needs to be monitored much, much closer. How is a three year old able to flood a house? Really! That takes time and effort. The same with damaging wood floors with ink. Mom needs to keep this child in close proximity. There are also younger children involved here and their safety may be at stake. Supervise! Block off some portions of the house. Keep this child in tow (or under toe) at all times!
Step 2. FIND POSITIVE WAYS TO KEEP HER OCCUPIED. Meanwhile I’m assuming this child is also impulsive. She needs things to keep her occupied so she doesn’t get into trouble. Fill a basket of bag with things to do so she doesn’t get into trouble. Keep one in each part of the house–and car. Simple things like erasable crayons and paper. A doll and dresses. Toys that she already owns. (Don’t go buying anything) But keep her busy. Three year olds have very short attention spans. Mom’s goal is to stretch her attention span.
Step 3. USE THE RIGHT DISCIPLINE. Discipline for a three year old is tricky. A possible reason for her laughing after she destroys something or pretending not to care is a response to how she is disciplined. Mom MUST be calm. MUST. No yelling. No spanking. Both will backfire with this child. Seriously backfire. And that’s what may be happening. Instead, she must catch her the moment she is destructive…and on the spot firmly and calmly say, “That’s time out. We don’t (draw on the floor…). Please sit in the thinking chair.” Next — Not too long. Big mistake for an impulsive kid is too long of time out. Two or three minutes. That’s it! As long as she’s sitting. Once she sits the time begins. But Mom has to ignore the child in time out. And the chair must be in a spot where there’s no attention. Suppose she doesn’t go to the chair? Don’t drag. Stay calm. Firmly say, “Please go to the chair.” If she refuses after the second time, then immediately remove a privilege that she likes. No ice cream for dinner. No TV. Something. I’m betting Mom is using the wrong way to do time out. Help her with this. Then she should thank her daughter when she completes the time out. Seriously. “Thank you for going to time out.” Then enough. Alan Kazdin’s book, The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child is a great source and explains the steps thoroughly.
Step 4. FIND RELIEF. Mom needs support! An impulsive three year old who needs constant supervision is taxing. Two more kids in the home! Ahh!! Stress is going to build. Mom has to be calm and cool with this child. A quick temper escalates an impulsive child. So what can anyone do to help out Mom? A playdate once a week? Helping her watch the kids? Making a dinner together and have one frozen to save on the witching hour. She has to carve out at least 15 minutes of down time for herself — at least!!! And take a powernap — or exercise and walk with the kids? Anything.
Step 5. REINFORCE GOOD BEHAVIOR. Mom is discouraged. So too is the child. Really! A three year old really does care. But if she only gets negative reinforcement she learns to “act bad” because she desperately needs attention. Lavish on the love and hugs and strokes when she isn’t into mischief. Rebuild that bond with Mom. Catch her being good. Please! The best way to change behavior is look for those positive moments. You will need to help Mom. Point out positives. Model how to be positive. Mom may be missing those moments because of the STRESS!!!!
Step 6. GET HELP. If Mom doesn’t see change in two weeks or things escalates, it’s time to get help. I hope she already has spoken to the pediatrician to rule out any other causes of this behavior? She also needs to think through if anything could be triggering this behavior (an impending divorce, a financial crisis, an illness). If this is a sudden and new behavior then something else is triggering it. Talking things through with a training specialist could help. Taking a parenting class could also be beneficial.
PLEASE DO NOT GIVE UP!!! Doing so will be disastrous not only to your child’s future but to your family’s harmony. Hang in there!