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Bad Behaviour

by Louise
(East Sussex, England)

Hi, I need some advice on my sons behaviour.
He is 6 years old, and I feel like I am constantly nagging at him and don't get to enjoy any time I spend with him. I am either repeating myself to him trying to get him to eat or basically to do anything he should be doing or I am telling him off for being naughty and doing things I have asked him not to a million times already.

I have tried reward charts, I have tried a reward system where he earns coins for doing certain things in the day properly, and to punish I have tried the naughty step etc and I just feel nothing works.

It really upsets me that I don't enjoy spending time with him because I actually dread what he is going to be like.

Meal times are a nightmare if they are a proper meal, he can spend almost an hour emptying his plate, as I won't let him leave the table until it has all gone. Is this OK or should I just take it away? But then I feel I will face the consequences later when he starts playing me up because he's hungry or because I won't let him have the pudding he has been waiting for all day.

I suffer from depression and I find it hard to cope. I find it hard after he has been naughty and the moment has passed, to just get over what it is he has done/ how he has acted and get on with the rest of the day and act normal.

I am also separated from his dad, I have been since he was just under 2. I have a new partner and we live together. Every time my son goes to stay with his dad when he returns I have almost a week of hell with him playing up and not listening. I don't know what to do about it, he tells me his behaviour has been fine whilst he was with his Father, why does it feel like hes punishing me because he has had to comes back to my house?

My son has also been wetting the bed for about 3 years, it's not every night now but it worries me a lot, nothing specific happened at that time he had been dry for about 6 months and then it just started happening again. At the moment he uses the toilet before bed at about 7.30 and then I get him up to use it when I go to bed between 9.30-11pm. When my partner gets up for work at 4.30 am he is getting him up again then but sometimes he is wet already.

Can you help?

Comments for Bad Behaviour

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Help With A Difficult Six Year Old - Part One
by: Annie Desantis

Hi Louise,
I'm sorry to hear you are having such a hard time with your son, to the point that you are not enjoying your time with him.

Firstly, it sounds to me like you are really focusing a lot on what he does wrong, even reward charts can be a huge emphasis on a child having to change their behaviour - which is the aim - but if there is a huge pressure on changing the things he does wrong, then there may not be much attention paid on all the things he does right. You may well be focusing way too much on his bad behaviour.

He is only six, and yes you can expect him to be able to comply with many requests and be self directed on many tasks. But when you have got locked into a battle of constant nagging, punishment, and a huge amount of family stress, something has got out of balance.

Coping with depression is not easy, but it also sounds like you are making some things harder for yourself. When we get stuck in a cycle of negative interaction with our kids it is up to us to change it. He won't change his behaviour until you change yours. We set up the dynamic with our kids by the way we talk to them, and the way we react.

Kids will always test a bit, they will have days when they seem to be out of sorts (don't we all?) and they will have days when they seem to argue back about everything. But when kids are misbehaving a lot, then it is telling us we are not meeting their needs, and we have set up a negative pattern of interacting with them.

Could Be Medical or Emotional Issues

You mentioned he has started wetting the bed in the last three years and he was able to go through the night dry prior to this as a pre-schooler. Sometimes boys in particular can take a long time (even almost until teenage years) for the pathways in the brain to be formed for them to wake in the night to pee - or be able to maintain muscle control NOT to pee. But if he had already been able to have dry nights, then there could be a medical issue. The fact that you are waking him to pee twice during the night and he still often wets the bed, might mean he has a problem with his bladder, so I would check that out with your doctor. The other thing is, bed-wettng can be a sign of emotional stress. And it does sound as if you are both very stressed and unhappy at present, and it may well be this is an indication that all is not well.

Part Two Follows . . .

Help With A Difficult Six Year Old - Part Two
by: Annie Desantis

I'll tackle the mealtime issue - I would advise you to drop the whole idea he has to finish his entire meal. We have this expectation that kids should want and need to eat a full meal three times a day, when we say it is ready, with maybe a snack in between. Many children simply cannot cope with a big meal, and are not hungry at the times we think they have to eat. This doesn't suit a lot of adults either!

Of course we don't want our children to eat treats and deserts instead of good quality food. But to force a child to eat everything on their plate before allowing a desert is setting yourself up for endless struggles and mealtimes are now unpleasant. You want mealtimes to be a family time, where we share and talk and spend nice time together. If you are in a battle to force him to eat, that is no fun.

Involve Kids In Cooking

So how can you turn this around? Involve him in cooking and preparing food. Kids that have planned a meal, chopped a salad or made the meatballs, are much more likely to eat it. It also creates a fun activity you can do together, and is an opportunity for him to learn about healthy eating, measuring and learning food preparation skills.

I would also let him serve his own food so he can learn how much he wants to eat. You can have some guidelines like he has to at least try a little of everything, but don't get into a battle over it. At this stage you want to be offering lots of healthy choices but you also want him to learn to listen to his body and recognize when he is hungry, when he is full, what his body needs.

There was an interesting study done, where for about three weeks children were offered a wide range of foods, including cakes and sweets. Over the course of the three weeks, they got a balanced diet. In one sitting, they may have had mostly cake, but then the next time they ate they may choose fruit or yoghurt. It seemed that most of the children, when allowed to listen to their bodies and choose from a wide range of food, did actually make good choices.

Of course we can't always run our lives that way, and mealtimes are an important part of family life. But food battles are a very common problem for parents and we can actually relax a lot on how we think our children need to eat. It is actually a lot more important for him to be at the table sharing and talking than it is eating. If he has had a snack of apples and cheese or carrot sticks at 4pm, he may well not need a big meal at 6pm. Smaller snacks more frequently is much better for our digestion - and many leading nutritionists are now saying 6 small meals a day is far better for us than 3 large.

Part Three Follows . . .

Help With A Difficult Six Year Old - Part Three
by: Annie Desantis

Picky Eaters?
Healthy Snacking Is Fine

If he is not hungry at 6pm and only picks at his dinner, then yes, he may well need a snack at 7.30 before bed. That is fine, so long as he is not having junk food. But a bowl of low sugar cereal, a yoghurt, cold sausage or an apple is not a problem before bed.

So where does pudding come in? Why do we have these rules that you can't have pudding if you don't eat all your dinner? In actual fact we are teaching our kids to overeat so they can get the treats. When we bribe our kids to eat their greens so they can have an ice-cream we really are not doing them any favors.

How about having a desert night? Where you have pudding instead of dinner? He can help make a fruit salad or mix a chocolate pudding. My kids first learned to cook by experimenting with puddings when they were preschoolers. I would give them a range of ingredients and they would mix and and combine and cook them up. Some were a little strange, but they were always edible. You just need to limit things like the amounts of sugar available, and when using things like baking powder, explain why we only use one teaspoon.

Meals Should Be Fun

Turn mealtimes into fun times and drop the fight of making him eat what you think he should. So long as you limit treats or make a special event out of them, and offer lots of healthy options, he will get a good range of nutrients.

You also mentioned he plays up heaps after staying with his father. Unfortunately this is often the case - Dad gets the fun visits and Mum gets all the hard work and the ongoing problems! Going to Dad is a novelty, he is not there long enough to for boring routine, and likely Dad is giving him quite a bit of positive attention since he is only there for a short time.

Also, there may well be some tension between you and your ex, and he is acting that out when he gets home. Don't take it personally, he is not so much punishing you, as trying to get your attention or trying to adjust to switching households. His time with his Dad is important, and his relationship with him will be and should be, different to his relationship with you.

Part Four Follows . . .

Help With A Difficult Six Year Old - Part Four
by: Annie Desantis

Self Care For Parents

It sounds like you are often exhausted and the fact that you say you can't let it go when he has misbehaved, tells me you are running on empty. Depression is exhausting, raising a child and running a household is exhausting! You need to find some ways so you are not taking all his behaviour as a personal attack on you, or feeling like it is all too hard. Are you seeing a counselor to help you with managing your depression? Learning ways to take care of yourself, learning what your triggers are and better ways to react, having a good support system is really important.

Your years as a parent are going to go by pretty quickly, and it is sad if you can't enjoy it. Your son needs his Mom to enjoy him and love him and if you are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated and not coping, then you need more help and support to turn it around.

Creative Parenting:
Work Together

When you notice you are having a constant battle about an issue (like the mealtimes) - then instead of staying stuck in reacting and trying to force his compliance, turn it around. Pick the things that are most important that you don't want to compromise on (like perhaps leaving on time for school) and work WITH your son to figure out TOGETHER ways to stop the battle. Maybe he needs more time in the morning to get ready, maybe he needs a timer he can set to help him plan the morning. Maybe he can pack his bag the night before. There are lots of ways you can creatively problem solve together to break the cycle of "Do as you are told NOW"

The more we can let go of parenting being I'm the boss and you should jump when I say jump - to more of a joint effort, where sure, as the parent you hold the bigger picture in mind, but our kids have to learn to manage their time, to contribute to the family, and to be valued.

I would also really encourage you to really look and list all the things he does well. If you start to switch focus on looking for the things you love about him, the times he does cooperate, and make more time to have some fun with him, then it will start to shift the dynamic.

If you wait for him to behave well before you can enjoy him and have fun, then you are both missing out on a lot. I suspect a lot of his misbehaving is because he wants your attention. He will know you are struggling, and your energy levels are low and you will most likely be putting out fairly negative vibes around him a lot of the time. He needs some good stuff with you. And you need more joy in your life too. So make it a family mission to find ways to have fun and enjoy being together. That is so important - the washing can pile up, the dust does not matter, but quality time with your son is really important.

Part Five Follows . . .

Help With A Difficult Six Year Old - Part Five
by: Annie Desantis

If you are running on empty and don't have the energy to to do things with him and are just getting through the chores in the day and feel like you are barely coping, then you need some extra help to fill you up. Parenting is not always easy and parents need to feel good about themselves to have enough energy to interact positively with our kids.

You have clearly tried various techniques and have done really well to try different ideas. What works with one child, does not always work for another, and as parents we do have to be flexible and adapt to the needs of our children.

Hang in there, find the things you do love about your little boy, and ease up on the battles. Find fun ways to bet him involved - little boys love humour, love physical games and love Mum being silly sometimes. We don't have to be a heavy parent for our kids to end up happy healthy well adjusted children.

More Help With Misbehaving Children

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Misbehaving Children

This article explores why children misbehave.

Good luck Louise, and take very good care of you,

Feel free to comment back if you wish.

Annie D :)

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