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3-Year-Old's Tantrums are Out of Control!
Q: My 3½-year-old son has bad tantrums. He hits, bites, spits, throws things and bangs his head. We stopped using the time-out chair because he threw it. Now we put him in bed; if he climbs out, we explain that he must first apologize. This goes on 20 to 40 times. After the tantrum, he apologizes. We tell him his behavior is unacceptable and that it makes us sad, and we kiss him. My husband has a shorter fuse and has used mild punishment, like slapping his hand or biting him back. I worry that my son sees him as the bad guy, so I have tried becoming the disciplinarian. Since my husband is with my son more due to my job, I compensate on weekends. He plays well with other kids. What should we do about his problems at home?
Sandy Halifax, Nova Scotia
A: I agree with you that you have reason to be concerned. Throwing the time-out chair, kicking the wall, banging his head and destroying things are the behaviors of a very frustrated, angry child. This is more than you would expect at your son's age.

Since there's a lot of information I don't have about your situation, I will take some educated guesses so you can try to understand what's going on with your son.

First, you need to explore how your husband relates to your son while you're at work. You noted that your husband has a shorter fuse and has also bitten his son on at least one occasion. Since he's spending the most time with your child during the week, you must encourage him to be open with you about how's handling him.

Is he nurturing him? Finding time to play with him? Yelling and scolding a lot? Being physical with him? Does he take the time to hug and kiss his son, and tell him that he loves him? Is he being overly critical? Is he expecting too much from a 3-year-old?

I don't want to sound like I'm blaming your husband, but Dad seems stressed out and impatient. He may be overreacting to his son and inadvertently modeling some of the troubling behavior that you see in your son these days. Kids this age can be very challenging, and a stressed parent can contribute to the problem.

You should also look at the time you spend together as a family. When children misbehave repeatedly, I wonder what reward sustains that behavior. In your situation, the reward is that you all come together as a family for hugs and kisses. So your son's misbehavior brings the family together. My guess is that the association between misbehaving and family time is partly inspiring your little boy to act up. If this is the case, the solution is to find more time to spend together as a family, apart from these post-tantrum gatherings.

Speaking of time, one of the main sources of frustration and anger in a young child is feeling deprived of a parent. Your work schedule sounds very demanding. It appears to me that most of your quality time with your son is limited to the weekends. That could be contributing to the problem as well.

Since your son is doing well with other children, I suggest you enroll him in a nursery school for a few hours each day during the week. In this way your son will have the opportunity to have fun with other kids and will be disciplined by other adults if he acts up. Dad, in turn, will have some free time, so he'll be less stressed when he's with your son.

Since your husband seems to have the lion's share of the parenting, he might also benefit from a parenting course. This would equip him with a variety of strategies to better discipline and manage your son.

Another sensitive area I need to bring up is your marriage. How do you and your husband getting along? Do you have time for romance, fun and dates? How do you solve problems that occur in your marriage? Is there a lot of conflict? Remember, children are like barometers: If the home environment is unpleasant, they respond by acting out.

I hope these suggestions help you solve your problem. You're wise to be concerned. If you're still stuck after a couple of months, consider seeking professional help. A couple of hours with a child psychologist could help you zero in on issues that you may not even be aware of. Good Luck!

Kenneth N. Condrell Ph.D Child Psychologist