Last updated on Jun 21st, 2021 at 10:49 am

What to do when your tot acts out

Q: My two-year, four-month-old son has had a sudden change of behaviour. When I’m not at home, he’s fine – he plays and communicates well with everyone, and can ask for help when he needs to go to the loo. But when I get home, his tone of voice changes, he speaks like a smaller child, cries for petty things, accuses everyone of hitting him, and demands things from people. And if he does not get it, he makes a sound and face as if he’s going to cry. He also has loo accidents. What could be the problem?

A: This is called ‘acting out behaviour’ and he does it to get certain responses, especially from you. Children communicate through their behaviour, and he’s communicating that he’s unhappy, uncertain, and maybe even angry. What changed for him in his life? Did you perhaps start working, or are you busier, making him perceive that you’re unavailable for him?

Here are some useful suggestions:

  • He wants your attention and one-on-one time with you, so spend time with him in a way that makes him feel that you are focussing on him.
  • When he acts like a baby, be more nurturing towards him, give him a hug, and tell him you love him.
  • The more you fulfil his needs to the best of your ability and the time you have, the less he’ll have to act out. Be patient with his toilet training. As he feels more emotionally fulfilled, the toilet training will sort itself out.

Ilze Alberts, Psychologist and Founder of the Bella Vida Centre

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Toddler tantrums

Q: My three-year-old is always hitting his big sister; and then bursts into tears. I don’t understand why he does it. Also, I’m worried that she might retaliate. Please help.

A: It’s possible that your son is feeling frustrated and doesn’t know how else to express his frustration. He might burst into tears because he doesn’t want to hit his sister, especially if he thinks he’ll get into trouble. His sister will start to retaliate and the fact that she has not, shows her care for him. However, he might push her over the limit at some point.
The way to handle this is to firmly communicate to him the following: “I know you’re feeling upset/angry/mad, but you cannot hit your sister. If you choose to hit her, you choose to go for time-out to your room. Sisters are not for hitting.” If he experiences far more pain than pleasure with his behaviour, he will change it. Also, suggest to him that he should say that he’s upset/angry/mad, but that hitting is not allowed. With perseverance, this too will pass.

– Ilze Alberts, psychologist and Founder of the Bella Vida Centre

Dealing with aggressive behaviour

Q: My four-year-old son screams, shouts, and fights to get his point across. When he doesn’t get his way, he says he’s going to tell his dad and his dad will hit me, shoot me, or call the police. His dad and I are no longer together. Is this just a phase he’s going through?
When I ask his teachers at crèche about his behaviour, they tell me it’s fine. He tells me I don’t love him, that he’s not my friend and that I shouldn’t talk to him. I am guilty of shouting back; I don’t know what else to do. Hidings and time-outs don’t seem to work. Please help!

A: It sounds as if your son is angry and upset and this is his way of showing it. Children of this age don’t have the skills to express their anger and frustration in many other ways than he’s doing now. He seems to be feeling overwhelmed by his life and I wonder if the separation between his dad and you is not causing his aggression. Children often take their feelings out on their mothers, because mothers are in many cases the primary caregivers. How have you explained the separation to him? Does he know that you and his dad did not leave him, you left each other, and that you’ll always be his parents? Help him to feel safe with you by maintaining a routine with him, keep his life as predictable as possible, and letting him know when he’ll see his dad. I understand that you feel overwhelmed yourself, but shouting at him does not help him or you. Acknowledge his feelings by saying “I know you are angry/upset/mad, but you cannot scratch me or tell me you don’t love me anymore, or that I’m not your friend. I am your mom, not your friend, and it is time to get dressed now (or whatever he is resisting). Let him feel that you are strong and in control. His life changed and he needs to know that it’s still in order and not chaotic. Last suggestion: be cautious not to over compensate, as he, like most kids will manipulate it to get his way.

– Ilze Alberts, Founder of Bella Vida Centre and Psychologist