Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

My son is a bully

So yesterday I get home from work and the nanny tells me that my son is throwing things at, kicking and biting other children (not all on the same day thank G-d). We discussed an action plan and have a good strategy outlined, but I am disappointed. Am I a bad parent? Am I not spending enough time with my children? All these thoughts are running through my mind.

As background, my son, who is 3, has always been difficult. He doesn't really listen and typical punishments (time outs, loss of privileges) don't seem to alter his behavior. Positive reinforcement works, but only when an immediate reward is possible. He doesn't have a long enough attention span to remember that a reward will come at the end of the day or even the end of the morning. I am very frustrated with him, as he is in stark contrast to my angelic daughter who pretty much listens and does whatever she is told.

In diagnosing this specific problem, we realized that he has also been having potty training issues (see last post) where there were none before and taken together the acting out and potty training could be signaling a traumatic change in his little life. We realized that he recently started preschool, and although he went last year, he was only 3 days/wk and now he is 5. Also, because my daughter started kindergarten, we had to move his nap time so that she can be picked up from school. This is bad because if my son has a rough day, there is no opportunity for additional sleeping because we have to pick up my daughter. Nap time can't be adjusted because it is sandwiched between preschool dismissal and picking up my daughter. So the first step of the plan is to move his bed time earlier.

The next step is to identify methods of feedback from the teacher and a positive/negative reinforcement system to go with that. My mom suggested having the teacher right a quick good or bad behavior note that my son would have to share with myself and husband every day. If he was good then institute positive reinforcement (i.e., extra book with mom or dad); if he is bad institute negative reinforcement (i.e., time out in room, no TV).

We think this is a good strategy, but my son has been so difficult I am asking you guys if you have any suggestions. Also has this happened to any of you? Am I a bad parent, or is this sort of normal to happen once in a while? I feel terrible.


At 4:32 PM , Anonymous Patricia said...

Sounds like your son is having problems adjusting to the new schedule. You never can compare two children even from the same family - each is unique. I'd disagree with the positive/negative reward stuff after school - he is too young to get the connection. My sister gave me the best advice when I became a mom - kids don't get the concept of "time" till they are 5 or 6 so delayed consequences are irrelevant. Better option may be getting the teacher to give him a smiley sticker at school immediately when he is good so he can visually see progress and strive towards getting more!
Earlier bedtimes might help too...

Active boys and girls tend to act out their frustration instead of bottling it up as do more quiet obedient children.
As an assurance, I am sure it is not you - it's him!! lol

Patricia, mom to a now 6 year old VERY active boy!

At 7:01 AM , Blogger Ladybird said...

My son who is 3 and half bites at school too.

At 2:14 PM , Blogger MommyProf said...

You can try a bridging reward. He gets a sticker or you write a checkmark on his hand or whatever when you catch him being good and those bridges get traded for the real reward at the end of the day.

At 10:24 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Mom-- your son is three years old!! This is normal behavior--he is most definitely not a bully. And this is definitely *not* about you as a parent. So keep up the postive reinforcement, and talk about it with your son--even at three, they can get it. Here are some of the things that worked with my *very active boy*, now an awesome, and still active, eight year old:

1. I would find out what happened in daycare, and retell the events as bedtime stories changing names in obvious ways (i.e. "Tim" became "Pim"). My kid *loved* those stories. Of course, there were always morals to these stories! But not too heavy handed.

2. Positive reinforcement works best for my kid. Starting at about 3 or 4, I would ask him: What works better--a treat for when you behave well? Or not getting a treat when you don't behave well? He always opted for the + reinforcement.

3. More stories--which I found very effective for a bright three-yr-old boy: SInce I grew up with dogs, I have many stories of dog obedience training. I told these explicitly to my son. Sometimes we acted them out, trading parts. I also invented stories. There are lots of parallels with dogs & kids.

4. Please keep your sense of humor, Dr. Mom, and do not fall into the trap of blaming yourself for any kid stuff. (playing the part of the dog while your kid plays the dog owner can definitely help with that)

Good luck with your fabulous kids!!
Another Dr. Mom

At 3:26 PM , Blogger knezmom said...

My daughter was a biter at 3. Now 10 she no longer bites (hasn't in a while...grin). It definitely is a phase and has nothing to do with your parenting. Not getting enough sleep might do it (especially if he loves his naptime)...that earlier bedtime will help.

As far as potty-training, once I decided to give up and let my girls follow their bodies - usually "training" lasted a weekend. I just had to be ok with them still wearing diapers until they were 3 1/2.

Good luck!
knezmom, PhD student and mom to 6 and 10 year old daughters

At 3:42 AM , Anonymous far away said...

Sometimes kids at this age don't think before they act. So punishment and reward doesn't work, because they don't directly think of the outcome beforehand. I found out that talking to my boy, and imagining the situation, can help. for instance - "when another kid annoys you, by saying (whatever was said/done in preschool today at that situation) what should you do?". Since preschool situations tend to repeat themselves, this kind of learning helps on the long run, and makes him aware of his actions.
Anyway,you are not a bad mother, look around at other parents, you will probably be reassured. You are actively trying to find best solutions, and creative ones, for your kids. That is the most anyone can do.

At 1:15 AM , Anonymous Flicka Mawa said...

I don't have parenting advice, since I haven't been there, but I DO want to say that what I do know is that our society tends to ignore the effects of biology and genetics on how children behave and blame everything on parenting. You have a huge, huge impact on your children, but you do NOT have blank slates to mold. Being a great parent is all about being able to adapt to your own child's natural abilities, and you can't beat yourself up for not adapting to his before they play themselves out some. It sounds like your son and daughter are just different adorable little people, and you are about to make the changes to be the best parent to him. (This all ties in to one of the most enlightening books I've ever read - The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker).

At 2:20 PM , Blogger Anfa said...

Preface by stating I am mom of four (adults now), and worked with small children for many years befoe going back to science.
Developmentally, your son is doing exactly as expected- demonstrating frustration by backsliding his toilet behaviours and being more physical. Good catch with the sleep issues- moving the bedtime is very good, especially since changing naptime is not an option. Perhaps 5 days of school is too much for him and cutting back to 3 is more realistic?
If he cannot nap when tired, can a routine of quiet and comfort, such as a cuddle with a book, be inserted to give at least a short time for him to switch gears? Sitting and rocking is very soothing, and boys seem to respond best to physical touch. He needs to learn how to calm himself down.
Boys are by nature more apt to express themselves with physical action. Don't compare him with angelic daughter child- it's a legitimate sex difference at age 3.
Reinforcing the right and wrong ways to behave work- indoor voices and gentle hands are good buzzwords. But 3-year olds are immediate- punishing him in the evening for something he did at 10 am is NOT going to stick with him. Let the trachers deal with school behaviour and TALK about it at night to reinforce it is much more fair to him. Tell him how happy you feel that he played nicely, and how sad you are, and how sad Jimmy is when he used his teeth and not his words. Practice using words. Show him that you get upset too, and then point out how you deal with it. When you are in the grocery store, point out the chils who is pitching a fit and say "Look how all the people are frowning- they don't like loud voices. That's not a nice way to act, is it! I am so glad you are sitting nicely with me, and I am proud of what good manners you have!" I always did this with my kids and they soon learned how they were expected to behave in church, in stores, when visiting.
Most 3-year olds act out of physical need- hungry, tired, unwell, so act on eliminating his trigger before addressing the better behaviour to express it. Bear in mind changes take weeks.
You are on the right track, and I admire what you are able to accomplish.

At 7:00 PM , Blogger drdrA said...

I came across this post while looking at your site, and it seems our families are very similar. My older daughter is an angel- my younger daughter is... lets say... more challenging. I had a heart to heart with the pediatrician- not feeling like I could admit this to my mother or any friends. He recommended the following:

1. Transforming the Difficult Child by Glasser/Easley

2. Visiting a child psychologist if #1 failed.

I am happy to say that the book did the trick- perhaps this will help you and your son if you are still having issues.

Also, I have to say, I am also a female junior faculty member nearly 3 years into my first position, and I feel like our experiences are so similar...

At 7:01 PM , Blogger drdrA said...

I was reading your site when I came across this post- it seems like my family is very similar to yours- with an angelic older child, and a much more challenging younger child. I felt a complete failure as a parent- and considered quitting my academic science career job (ok, so I was being a bit rash)... I had a long talk with the pediatrician, and he recommended the following book:
'Transforming the Difficult Child' by Glasser and Easley.

This has made a huge difference with my younger child (who is 5 and a girl... and we were having issues with kindergarten)...

Perhaps some of the techniques can help you and your son! If the techniques in the book had failed, I was prepared to have her evaluated by a child psychologist and have that person teach her dad and me a few techniques for dealing with her that are effective... its always a good idea to enlist someone with more experience!

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At 4:44 PM , Blogger Anderson said...

Me and my friend were arguing about an issue similar to this! Now I know that I was right. lol! Thanks for the information you post.
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At 3:35 PM , Anonymous college board said...

Interesting article. Well when there is so much a new. Thanks, simply class

At 9:56 AM , Anonymous write me a essay said...

I think the effects of bullying can be serious and even fatal. Unfortunately, it is still a greatly unresearched area.

At 2:25 AM , Blogger Love Kpop said...

It seems I'm on the right track, I hope I can do well. The result was something I did and was doing to implement it.


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