How much self control can an 8-year-old be expected to show under physical and psychological provocation.

I separated from my ex wife about 4 years ago. My son has been living with her for around the same period. He has developed a very violent reaction towards her, her mother and her new partner. Biting, kicking and hitting.

I've asked him why he does it, he says that they are mean to him all the time and hit him.

He doesn't display any of this behaviour with me. Even when he stays with me for consecutive weeks I never see any behaviour that I would consider abnormal for an 8-year-old. Sometimes he doesn't listen but he is never violent.

He was never violent or angry when I was living with him full time before the separation. However I often had to intervene between him and his mother when we were all living together as they would argue like two children instead of like a parent and a child. This would leave him very wound up and frustrated but I always used to take him out of the situation, now I'm obviously not there to do that.

I worry he is being put in extremely provocative situations and isn't emotionaly mature enough to know how to deal with them. I've tried telling him if he is feeling angry he needs to leave the situation but I don't know what I should expect him to be able to do at his age.

  • 1
    Is there a reason that your son could not stay with you more often (as opposed to the current situation)?
    – elbrant
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 3:53

2 Answers 2


How much self control can an 8-year-old be expected to show under physical and psychological provocation.

I'm going to address this particularly.

To walk away? That's expecting too much. Many if not most adults don't even have the self-discipline and insight to walk away from a painful disagreement.

However, with respect to physical retaliation, you have every reasonable expectation that hitting/kicking/biting never be used unless someone is doing it to him and he's trying to escape.

So, I agree with pojo-guy, and in addition to removing him from that situation, I think it would be best if you could find a child or family therapist you could both visit and have your child discuss what provoked this extreme behavior and how to learn to cope better with frustration and anger. Your role is to listen, learn, and help him to implement the things he learns.

If a mother has made it clear to her child that she "no longer wants him there", he can really use the therapy, now better than after he suffers with this egregious wrong for a couple of decades.

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    Kids often don't have the option to walk away, even if they have the self discipline. Walking away from a parent or teacher is often seen as insubordination and rebellion, which simply escalates the situation.
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Feb 23, 2019 at 0:49
  • @pojo-guy - I agree with you that children usually don't have the option to walk away, or even to verbally disengage. While I wouldn't label it as you have, it is often seen as disrespectful, which sets some people off pretty badly. Commented Feb 23, 2019 at 3:21

Given that the situation has been going on for 4 years, that's a lot for even an adult with the patience of Job.

At 8 years old, and even into their teen years, kids often don't have the ability to leave the situation. If the conflict is with a person in authority, leaving the situation is "disrespectful" or "insubordination". In a school setting, it's "disrupting the class".

If things are as bad as you say, his mother may be amenable to changing the custody arrangement peacefully.

If you decide stronger action is needed, get the facts first, ideally independently from either the boy or his mother.

  • 3
    The custody agreement is being changed. She's made it performs clear to me and him that she doesn't want him there any more. However it's going to take several months for me to rearrange my work patterns and sort out things in court, find a new school, etc Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 14:06
  • 2
    I wish you and your son the best. There will be challenges you haven't anticipated, but I think it will be worth it for both of you.
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 14:11

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