Q If we say no to my five-year-old son, his next immediate reaction is to try to hurt us, especially my wife. Sometimes when I hold him before he hits my wife, he gets more aggressive and asks me to hit her on his behalf. But I always say no, and will hold him until he settles down. My wife is very depressed as she is the victim most of the time. He even says he doesn't care if she dies. However, if my wife steps away, he keeps crying to see her, because he thinks she would go to some other house and says that he wants his mom for himself. We have tried many options and nothing seems to work. Please let us know what it is that we are missing and how we can fix this.
It sounds like your family is in a really distressing situation, so I am glad that you are reaching out for help now. I think that your family could benefit from behavioral parent training, which is a kind of therapy that directly involves parents in treatment. Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, or PCIT, is one example of this type of treatment and your son is in the perfect age range for these services. PCIT coaches parents on how to use evidence-based discipline strategies and respond in a very consistent manner. It also improves the parent-child relationship and teaches parents how to use their new skills with live support and practice.
It may also help you to know that while the intensity and severity of your son’s behaviors are not typical, the behaviors he is displaying are common “tools” that kids his age sometimes use. For example, they might say things that are extremely hurtful because they get a big reaction. Often, because they got a big reaction, they’ll keep doing it. It’s important that we don’t immediately pair big kid emotions with little kid talk. So in this situation, it may help to pay a little less attention to what your child says, like “I don’t care if you die,” and more attention to what your child does, like wanting to be near you or coming to you when they’re hurt or need comforting.
Sometimes families can fall into a trap where everyone, including the child, develops a kind of narrative where the kid is a “bad” kid, and he acts out because that’s what’s expected and that’s how he gets attention. Evidence shows, however, that praise and positive attention are our most powerful tools for changing behavior. While effortful and uncomfortable at first, attempting to provide your child with a 3:1 or even 5:1 ratio of praise to critical statements or demands would be a great goal. To achieve this rate, often parents have to learn to let some minor things go and really amp up the intensity and enthusiasm of praise around expected behaviors. For example, while it is expected that your child not hit, if they get through the morning routine without any aggression, giving praise like, “great job keeping it safe all morning” paired with an enthusiastic high five can go a long way.
Rewards can help here, too. In the beginning it might feel weird to give your son a daily reward for not hitting his mother, but you want to make sure that the intensity of the response that he gets for doing something positive is as strong, if not stronger than the intensity of the response that he gets for doing something negative. Your parent training clinician can help you come up with strategies for praising and giving appropriate motivating rewards and/or restricting access to preferred activities to ensure they remain motivating to your child. In terms of the morale of the family, everyone can benefit from more praise, so encourage each other, too. Parent training is difficult, so if you see your wife taking a break when she needs one or sticking to one of your new parent training strategies, make sure to provide her with genuine praise and encouragement, too.
Another part of shifting the focus away from negative behavior will include picking just a few priorities to focus on at a time — like not hitting or physically hurting others. That’s important because right now it sounds like it’s going to be very difficult to consistently follow through with all the rules you’d want your son to be following. Picking just one or two house rules to enforce as consistently as possible and ignoring (for now) more minor misbehavior decreases the amount of negative feedback your son would otherwise be getting and instead helps everyone in the family stay focused on the specific behaviors you do want to see.
Finally, it sounds like your wife is experiencing a lot of stress and strain right now. Working with a therapist of her own could give her additional support and an important outlet. In parent training we are asking parents to be their best selves and it can be difficult, particularly when you are already struggling. Often parents find it hard to prioritize themselves in these situations, but we know that one of the most important ways parents can help their kids is by taking care of themselves.