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We are a family of four, my wife currently attends teacher education which in relatively time consuming. Our two sons of 6 and 4-1/2 years are at the kindergarten in the morning and I care for them about two thirds of the rest of the time. My older son is quite normal-behaved for his age. This question is about the 4-1/2-year old:

In short: He cries loudly and tauntingly for minutes several times a day at every possible occasion. This is most likely at times when he claims not to be able to do something (that he is able to do).

For example: This morning I brought my sons to the kindergarten. My older son went in and I stood there with my younger one. He cried that his hands were cold. I told him to go inside (what he is able to do) as I was just locking their bikes. He claimed he was not able to go alone. When I was ready we both went in, him holding my hands and constantly (and loudly) complaining that he could not walk as fast (while he could).

Inside I took his bag, undid his helmet and pulled his gloves and cap off and then told him to undo his shoes and to take off his jacket. As he did not comply he repeated my request calmly two or three times. He replied (loudly again) that he would do that only if I had only said it once. (We play that game often, it typically results in him screaming.) I told him, I would start counting till 10 and then go in without him. He screamed that he wasn't able to undo his shoes and that it was my fault and that I should also do something that he requests. When I reached 10 I walked in, followed by a crying 4-1/2-year-old.

Later that day I collected the both of them. The older one usually gets picked p first and rides up home (that's about half a mile). When I collected the younger one everything seemed calm. He got dressed with minor discussions. (He wanted the other gloves than those he had brought and when presented with the alternative of taking the available ones or none he screamed he wanted the other ones. Eventually he got none.) Outside, when I had unlocked his bike, he would not ride it home. He simply didn't seem to hear it when I told him to get on his bicycle. After several attempts at higher volume I told him that I now would ride home without him. He followed me, screaming again.

When we got home (2mins later) he rode his bike straight into the wall of our house, at a speed slightly too slow to make it painful. (He tried that stunt some days ago but hit the wall too fast and it hurt. This time the show was more on point.) Then he put his feet on the ground, tilting the bike in slow motion until he and his bike fell over. (He did not hurt himself as he learned from last time ...) He then claimed not to be able to stand up. (That is a classic, he is not able to stand up around once or twice a day.) Nevertheless he managed to crawl two floors up, screaming high pitched, then kicking in the apartment door (still lying on the ground), declared to my wife that he was not able to stand up and that it was all my fault. He than crawled into the living room, kicked some piece of furniture which almost fell on him, all the time still screaming he was not able to stand up and that it was all my fault.

What I tried

Leaving: He comes after me and screams directly at me.

Putting him into his room: He shares a room with his older brother who is, let's say, annoyed. This is recipe for drama and I do not want to punish my older son for his younger brother's screaming.

Staying: He screams until my nerves wreck. Once or twice he had me sobbing on the floor. I just cannot take his screaming any more.

Talk to him: He claims that it is all my fault. That I was the first who screamed, or that I never do what he wants.

Give him to others: He is by far more bearable with others. His grandparents always tell us how nice boys we have. As soon as they are out of sight, everything starts anew. Additionally, when I let my wife care for the boys she has to postpone her work to the evening and night when I would otherwise need her to comfort me.

Taking treats away: He screams even louder until everything I could take from him is gone. He then claims that I am bound to give it back to him because it was all my fault in the first place.

My Question: How can I handle this situation. (1) How do I make him calm down and to tell him that he is in fact able to stand up or take his shoes off. (2) How do I keep myself from getting insane? His screaming has until now degraded me from a happy, intelligent, creative thinker to a part-time depressive part-time aggressive person.

UPDATE: About 2 weeks ago I got two answers that could be condensed into: He needs attention, give it to him when times are good. (With slightly varying details). We did that extensively over the past 2 weeks. I helped my son putting on his shoes when he could not, took time to read to him and play games, lend him a hand when he could not walk and so on. These are the results:

1) The screaming got worse. Last week there was no single day that did not end in someone being angry at either him for screaming or me for being unable to cope any more.

2) Our older son acted out more as well. The pedagogues at the kindergarten said he needed more attention.

Any suggestions?

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    +1 for extensive detail on what you've tried so far. Very helpful. – David Hedlund Nov 25 '19 at 20:05
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    "Once or twice he had me sobbing on the floor. I just cannot take his screaming any more." This child knows your buttons better than you do (not a criticism; it's harder to truly see ourselves than others.) I really feel for you. Please don't think you're a bad parent because your son makes bad choices. Not every child is easy. And some are downright hard work. – anongoodnurse Nov 26 '19 at 20:10
  • Asking for help for something he is capable of: he wants attention, definitely. same thing to a lesser degree from my 3,5 year-old... had me sobbing on the way home from school too. Somehow it got better since the baby arrived, which I didn't expect... – Nimloth Nov 27 '19 at 19:26
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This feels so similar to my recent question about my own son (2 and a half). I got good advice there, and through a combination of the techniques presented, a conscious attempt to change my own behavior/attitude, and the typical toddler "if you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes" passages of stages, it's already resolved significantly.

I think the root causes for your son may be similar: He wants more of your attention and more control over his life and environment. He knows that he can stand up and that he can take off his own shoes. He just wants to be carried or have you do it for him (to be fussed over and given attention), or wants/needs something that he can't put in to words. He may be tired, need connection with you, feel rushed in the daily routine, upset about something else, etc.

Since he's older and more creative, he's staging ever more elaborate premises for a tantrum (the feigned bike crash), and has figured out exactly how to push your buttons for maximum response (everything is your fault, screaming directly at you).

You may find that some of the same things that seem to be reducing my little guy's tantrum issues work for your son as well. Emphasize fun, connection and attention when he's NOT screaming or whining. Give minimum amounts of rewarding response when he is. I empathize with my son's irrational upsets briefly, but then try not to make them a bigger drama than they actually deserve. I may empathize with him, "I see you're really upset that we don't have the gloves you want! It's frustrating when you really, really want something and can't get it." Then I do my best to move on with what needs doing. I have found that forcing him to do the thing he doesn't want to do is counterproductive... missing a bath before bedtime is overall better for everyone than trying to wrestling him in kicking and screaming, and letting him go outside with cold hands (and bring gloves in case he changes his mind) better than a prolonged tantrum over wearing them. Practice extreme battle-picking, let things (that aren't a matter or safety or morality) slide. Sometimes if it doesn't seem like he can get an entertaining/rewarding rise out of me by resisting, that is enough of a reason for my son to choose cooperation.

Giving him some age appropriate challenges also seemed helpful. Let him do for himself some small things you would normally do for him. Find some chore or project he can 'help' you with regularly. The sense of mastery seemed to make my son less frustrated, and reduced both the "I WANT TO DO IT MYSELF" and "I CAN'T DO IT" tantrums.

If I start to get frustrated or visibly upset, I can almost see the gears turning in his little head, "Aha! It's working!" and cue ever more enthusiastic and ear-piercing screams. Try to stay/appear calm even as you're losing your mind, since the tantrum can feed off your negative energy, or lose steam if it's not having the desired effect. As for HOW exactly to do this... I am still working on it, but sometimes it seems the same techniques that I am trying to teach my toddler (deep breaths, count to 10, think of 3 nice things) are at least better than the nothing I had before!

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The message that I am reading very loudly from your post is that you really feel like you are at the end of your rope with the situation. You probably aren't going to want to hear this but, please, consider consulting a professional. I know it's a difficult thing to do. Aside from the cost, there's that self castigation thing; normal/competent people can handle their own lives, only losers/defective people have to see shrinks.

Here's the thing. I don't believe there is anyone in the world who couldn't benefit from professional counseling. There shouldn't be any more stigma attached to it than going to see an MD.

Here's what it would do for you.

  1. Give you access to a person who you can trust to understand what underlying mechanisms are going on on your relationship with your son. It is easier to deal with things if we understand them.

  2. Give you a person who can reassure you that you are a good parent, that you are doing everything that you can for your son. Sometimes we need to hear that, because perceived failures eat away at our self confidence.

  3. Give us techniques to use to fix the problem, and helping to reinforce, both in ourselves and others, that we need to persevere even if it doesn't seem to be working. I've got several friends whose kids had problems even more severe than yours. One boy would throw screaming fits like you describe with everyone, several times a day. It took months of working with a trained professional and some pretty extreme measures, but their son is now really well adjusted and happy kid. I remember that there were days when his son had just relapsed and they had to "start all over again" when he and his wife were in tears on our couch, thinking that it was hopeless.

I will also mention that psychiatrists and psychologists are usually great at helping you to make sure their services will be covered by your insurance.

Honestly, if I were in your shoes, that is where I would go. Even if you don't want a lot of sessions, in a one hour session you can get a lot of good advice that you can apply to helping improve your relationship with your son.

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After your edit it seems that what you've tried isn't working well, try what I do any time my 4 1/2 yo wants me to do things for him and gets fighty about it. Which is I just do what he asked but wrong.

For example, if he wants me to pick him up, I'll pick him up by the ankles and dangle him upside down and play dumb and say "what do you mean not like this? i'm picking you up. This is how I pick you up."

Or if he wants me to put his shoes on him, I'll put his shoes on his hands or nose or backwards on his feet. And when he starts saying not like that I'll say "you have to show me how its done then, they're your shoes. only you know how you want to put them on."

If he bumps or fake bumps himself and claims injury, I'll say "Ok here, let me cut the hurt part off" and start fake sawing it off with my hand and tickling him well past when its fun until he relents.

Anything to make him associate screaming at you with being uncomfortable and getting something he doesn't want. Almost Classically Condition him to want to do things himself and not ask you. That way you are giving more attention, but not showing him that screaming will get him the type of attention he wants.

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What I hear from your description is an endless stream of fights for connection and closeness. He wants you to be there, he wants you to help. It may not be that he is physically not able to do many of these things, but it appears that he has a really strong need for your physical closeness and attention.

A lot of your attempted remedies is the exact opposite of that. Leaving, putting him into his room, give him to others - that's half of your enumerated efforts - revolves around explicitly you having to spend less time with him during his upset.

Now, I don't have insight into all the things that goes well in your family, you may well have reason to think that your son is asking for too much in this regard, or being unappreciative of all the things you actually do for him, but be that as it may, I can certainly see that these remedies would in fact be escalating the situation, short term and long.

As for taking treats away, I personally think that punishments are both ineffective and cruel, and if I'm reading him correctly, punishing him for wanting to be with you seems extraordinarily out of place, but that's on a very personal note, you'll never see me advocate that particular route.

This leaves staying and talking, that you've mentioned, as possible paths I'd explore further. I'm inclined to believe you are often better off doing less talking and more listening. It's worth a whole lot to just sit down and validate your child's feelings. You don't have to agree, you don't have to come to a resolution. It's OK to just acknowledge him. Saying "I'm going to count to 10, and then we'll do as I have decided" is the opposite of listening. While I think listening without judgment and without jumping to conclusions is a promising route forward for you, it might not appear to be working immediately, as you may have to put down some time just building trust.

A few mantras, that might help you cope through this:

  • Kids do well if they can. If you believe they are not at their best behavior, examine if you are requesting too much from them. It may be something that they can do well under perfect conditions, but not after a taxing day, or while emotionally depleted or upset. The fact that you've seen him do something before doesn't mean he's lying when he says he can't in this instance.

  • If you decide that the root of this behavioral issue is within your child, and that he needs to pull himself together, then that's the end of the line, and you've given yourself no more options than to wait for that to happen. If you decide to always assume that you, as the adult, are responsible for the demands you put on your child, unfair as you may see it, in practice you reclaim the power to solve the solution. If the problem is at leastly partly rooted in your actions, then you have agency over that, and can control the circumstances next time around.

But really it sounds like your kid just needs you to be there. Perhaps you can schedule time to fill his needs for closeness at a different time, when it suits you better, and he'll be better able to manage on his own when you need him to?

  • Your answer is not very helpful to me because (as the other answers have correctly identified) when my son is in this state, his mere presence is damaging to my own psyche to an extend that makes it not possible for me to give him that closeness. – David Woitkowski Nov 26 '19 at 7:59
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    @David: I get that, and I tried to address that towards the end of my answer where I suggest a) some reframing that might facilitate your coping, and b) that you meet his need for closeness in situations that suit you better, so that he won't be depleted and have a meltdown when it doesn't suit you. I think there's a lot in your current approach that exacerbates the situation, and I believe that if you can address that, the problem would diminish. But granted perhaps you can't, in which case I'm glad you've found some other answers helpful. – David Hedlund Nov 26 '19 at 8:29

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