September is a turbulent time of year for young children. Recently, a mother of a preschool boy contacted me to ask me what to do. She asked me about a problem with her son’s sleep and also with an exacerbation of temper tantrums. I will call him Andrew. Three-year old Andrew has always had trouble with sleep, but just before the start of school he began waking up at night and insisting on sleeping in his parents’ room. The temper outbursts seemed random and were shocking to the adults present. For example, recently when his beloved grandmother came for a visit, he ran up to her and punched her. Then he refused to apologize. Andrew’s worried parents were exhausted by his frequent waking during the night and felt helpless to deal with his temper outbursts. Time outs had never really worked for Andrew. His mother asked me for suggestions.
Before giving her mother any suggestions, I visited Andrew at school. This was Andrew’s second year at school, and he was in a different classroom with a larger number of children and more activities. In the classroom, Andrew’s behavior showed that he was excited and proud to be such a big boy. There was a little swagger in his walk as he rushed over to meet his returning classmates with a friendly and confident greeting. However, Andrew’s confident behavior was an over reach. On several occasions his old friends, who were having their own difficulties accommodating to the beginning of school, were unable to reciprocate his exuberant greeting and clung to their parents or held back in preoccupied silence. When this happened, Andrew’s confidence instantly melted. His face fell, his shoulders sagged, and he slouched away from the other child. It was easy to imagine his inner picture of being Big Man on Campus and how catastrophically it collapsed when the reality of his friends being only 3-yo (as of course so was he) interfered with their ability to play their role in his grandiose fantasy.
Andrew had a similar reaction to a mild correction by a teacher. He had readily and apparently magnanimously given up a toy car to another child who requested a turn, but as it turned out, he hadn’t really had a chance to think it through. He had been playing a wonderful game of collecting pebbles and sticks from the playground for one of his new teachers. His enthusiasm had recruited another classmate in the activity, and they had been happily wheeling around the playground. After a while, his attention strayed and he left the car, which was then claimed by the second child. At this point, Andrew looked around at the other child whizzing off in the car, and his disappointment was obvious. “Now what can I do?” he muttered under his breath. After grumpily refusing multiple alternatives from another teacher, he settled on a smaller vehicle and began pushing it across the playground surface. His friend from the previous activity joined him in this fast-paced game, and his good mood seemed recovered. Then, suddenly a third teacher announced – in a perfectly friendly manner – that children must sit on the seat; pushing the vehicle was not allowed. Again, Andrew’s face and body were transformed into a thundercloud. This time he fell to the ground and hid his face in his hands.
You can see how exhausting a morning it was for Andrew, and it was only 9:30! Insight into the mind of a child like Andrew can guide his parents in their decisions about to handle his sleep problems and his tantrums. After considering what is in Andrew’s mind, his parents might tell him, “You are working so hard to be a big boy, and we are so proud of you. But sometimes you get tired out and can’t act like a big boy any more.” They might then comfort him and assure him that they believed he could “be a big boy again tomorrow”.
They decided to let him sleep in their room for a couple of weeks while he managed the transition to school, with a planned, graded, return to his own bed facilitated by rewards. This approach had the advantage of offering him the support he currently needed with an additional built-in transition-practicing exercise. (By this I mean that the planned return to his bed was another chance to practice making transitions.) In addition, a procedure like this reinforces the link between his inner experience (distress about transitions) and his behavior.
With regard to the assault on his grandmother, they concluded that an apology was too much to expect at the moment. If another such incident occurred, they agreed that they would take his hand and apologize to his grandmother for him (after giving him a chance first) and explain to the grandmother that he was having a hard time recently with starting school, and sometimes his body just bursts out with a mad behavior like the punching (another chance to link the inner experience with the behavior, modeling for him self reflection) and you know he is very sorry about it even if he can’t say it right now. Then, later, they would give him the chance to do something nice for her in reparation.