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My son (4 years and 3 months) is generally well-behaved. There is no trouble in kindergarten, no trouble at grandma's place and not even much trouble at home with his dad. He knows the rules and follows them - as long as I (his mom) are not around.

I am the most important person to him by far. He likes kindergarten, he likes grandma and dad, but he still would rather stay with me all the time if he was allowed to (he told me that directly). When I am not around, he calls for me every now and then, e.g. when he stayed overnight at grandma's place for the first time and it was time to sleep (although he had a great day and she did all she could to make him comfortable), or when he is alone at home with dad and bumps his head during play.

We often have the following scenario: He is in some situation (e.g. kindergarten, home with dad), immersed in some activity or doing what the adults tell him to (like washing hands after eating). Then I show up. The he notices me. Then tears build up in his eyes, he cries, he stops doing what he was doing or about to do. Then he complains about me showing up too early (or sometimes too late, but it is never right). And from this moment on, he does not listen anymore. It does not matter if I gently ask him why he cries, or if he is sad to see me, or happy to see me, or tell him that he can cry and it is ok, or if I tell him there is no need to cry, or say nothing at all. If I ask, he does not answer. If I try to touch him, he runs away. Only if I threaten him with punishment or removal of something nice (like: "no ice cream for crying children"), he even attempts to stop crying*. Every command I give him is either ignored, answered with "no"/"I don't want to", more crying, debating or lying about it ("in kindergarten we can play after lunch, we don't have to go sleep" - although I know it is not true). It does not help to go through the course of the day together before I go - even if we do that and he agrees that he will do X when Y, he just refuses to do X after Y when I am there.

*When I threaten him with punishment or removal of something nice, he not only attempts to behave but often succeeds quickly: He stops crying in less than a minute and is even responsive as he was with the other adults before me showing up. So I learned: Being nice does not help at all (seems to make it worse!), being strict often makes him snap out of it. But if it does not succeed, I'd say this is around 30% of the time, he goes on misbehaving with the added "bonus" of screaming annoyingly (this is no sad crying, this is angry screaming).

I feel that we have gotten ourselves in a vicious cycle: The only way (that I found) to get him back to behaving at least a bit is to threaten him with some punishment, or to give him a timeout (alone in his room). But this is hard on him psychologically, I assume this gives him rejection feelings and cements his misbehaviour.

What can I do to get out of that vicious cycle?

And why does he behave that way?

Note that I do not have much time at the kindergarten - I pick him up shortly before kindergarten closes (no, I can't come earlier, I have to earn money to pay the bills), so I NEED him to behave then. Picking him up from grandma or coming back home when he is already there is a different story; here I can take time.

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In my opinion this "behaviour" is totally natural. If you think about it he needs to behave at kindergarten and needs to behave with his grandma. When is the only time that he can "blow steam" from all the negative encounters that he could not (or was not allowed) to react as he wanted? It is with you, his mother, the person he trusts most. Because only to those people we open up completely and pour onto them all our anger, grief, but also joy. Yet, at this young age he is not able to properly communicate this and it is often a storm of emotions.

I think you should be there for him, hold him while he is crying and if he runs away, sit next to him and listen. Acknowledge his feelings. But don't let him hit you if he gets too angry. Expressing emotions is ok, but not every action that follows out of them. This is definitely not a quick fix, it will take time!

For more tips I can advise the podcast of Janet Lansbury (https://www.janetlansbury.com/podcast-audio/) that helped us a lot with our parenting.

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  • This would explain why threatening him with punishment sometimes make him "snap out of it" - this threat makes him see me not as the person where he can "blow steam" but like any other person where he has to behave.
    – Kjara
    Aug 29, 2023 at 19:55
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It sounds like you're pooping on his party whenever you come around and he's made that association. He sees you and that means he has to stop having fun, and by your description, he probably already thinks he's in trouble for it.

First of all, he's 4. Obedience is good and something he should be learning, but he's 4 and that's still a work in progress. Punishing him so often will only engender more fear. Threatening punishment is no different... he will still associate you being mad at him all the time.

Stop rushing around and punishing him because you don't have time for him. Its not his fault. You say you cant pick him up earlier from kindergarten, and that's ok... lots of parents work and pick kids up at the last minute. But, what are you doing after that? Are you taking time after he's picked up to spend quality time with him? Maybe go to a park or playground where he can have fun with you? Or, are you rushing on to something else you want to do?

Honestly, it sounds like you're overbearing and demanding. He's 4. His life is all about having fun, exploring and learning new things. Stop nagging him.

As for punishment... it has it's place. Punishment is appropriate when he does something wrong... really wrong. Not nitpicking his every move and punishing him or threatening punishment every time he makes a little mistake.

Timeout, spanking, and taking away toys or privileges are all appropriate, but they also have their time-and-place. Use them only when justified and never... NEVER... NEVER... when you are angry. Always remain calm and if punishment is truly warranted, calmly explain why he's being punished so he can directly associate the punishment with an action.

Say "yes" as often as you can for whatever he asks to do. If it won't hurt him or set up future bad behavior, let him do it. There will be plenty of times when you'll have to say "no", but let your default be yes while he's young and truly innocent.

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    After kindergarden we almost always have quality time (once a week we buy a sweet bread roll, most days we go to the playground). I do not punish him for every little mistake; I have no idea where you read that.
    – Kjara
    Aug 21, 2023 at 11:48
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What can I do to get out of that vicious cycle?

You need to get to the bottom of his 'behavior'.

And why does he behave that way?

It seems that he has associated your appearance with having to stop, at the threat of punishment, whatever he is doing at that moment. Put yourself in his shoes, doing your favorite activity, and you should see how distressing that can be. I certainly wouldn't like having to drop everything at a moment's notice, at any age.

Punishment may seem to work in the moment, but all it does mid to long term is ingrain in him the notion that you cannot be trusted and that your purpose is to thwart his goals. In fact, that has already started: you say he runs away from you. I'm sure that's not the kind of relationship you want to have with your son.

You say you don't have time when you pick him up from kindergarten, but you do have time when picking him up from his grandmother's – I suggest taking your time then and genuinely seeing whether and when he is ready to leave.

On a more general note, consider that his grievances may be legitimate, no matter how small/insignificant/'cute' they may seem to you, and that your job as a parent is not to get your son to 'behave', but to help him achieve his goals. Seriously pursuing this job should eventually remove friction between you two because he will come to learn that you're his ally, not an enforcer.

Consider also that good 'behavior' – in other words, deference to authority – is not a good character trait, whereas resistance to ideas one does not share, and not doing what one does not want to do, are healthy and natural traits.

Please don't snuff those healthy traits out. And please stop putting him in timeouts. That's psychological abuse.

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