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Six-Year-Old Son Acting Out


My 6-year-old son has recently been exhibiting negative behaviors such as throwing things, being mean to his sisters and ignoring my instructions. I have tried behavior modification techniques that have been successful in my work as a mental health specialist with other children, but they are ineffective with my own son. He only sees his father once a week, and I am wondering if this may be at the root of these behavioral concerns. What can I do to help him?


You have cause to be concerned about your son’s recent decline in behavior. When a normally well-behaved child begins to have behavioral problems, it can be an indication of deeper-rooted issues such as unresolved feelings regarding upheaval in the family structure. However, while your son’s behavior may in part be attributed to a lack of time with his father, it is most likely not the sole cause of this turnaround.

There comes a time in a child’s development when it becomes important for him or her to identify with the parent of the same sex. This does not mean that the time and care the parent of the opposite sex offers is unimportant. It just means that he is looking to relate to someone like him such as his father.

It sounds like your son is the only male in the family structure. This could be difficult for him to understand. But instead of guessing what he is feeling, you have to first find out what exactly he is feeling and then begin the necessary steps to help get things back to normal.

First, sit down with him and ask him to put into his own words what is going on. Guide the conversation by noting how he used to behave well and how things have changed. Explain that he needs to tell you what is wrong before you can help him change things for the better. Second, as he begins to tell you his feelings, let him know that it is OK to have these feelings; however, responding with negative behaviors is not acceptable. There are better ways to handle confusing or upsetting feelings.

In regard to his father, ask him about his feelings and what in particular he would like to happen in his relationship with his father. How are things when he is with his dad? What do they do together? Keep in mind that you are listening to his feelings. This does not mean that you will grant all that he wants or that you are accepting his behaviors that have resulted. You are merely asking him to put into his own words what he thinks and how he feels. Don’t make empty promises. Reassure him that you will do what you can to make things better as long as he is willing to try.

Next, talk to his father and come up with a parenting plan. Whatever you decide must be reasonable and consistent. Consistency is vital, as it provides stability for your son. Once you understand what occurs while he is visiting his father, you will have an idea of what needs to change so that the connection with his son can be strengthened.

Children often become defiant as a way of expressing their frustration and to seek attention. This could certainly change once your son feels that he matters to his father – that there is interest there and commitment in the relationship. Children Kids value time and attention most when it comes to interacting with a parent they don’t see that often.

Your son should not feel like he has to fix the relationship. His dad has to make an effort to improve the relationship, realizing that in doing so the result will be a happier child and parent.

Your son throwing things when he does not get his own way could be a result of a challenging father-son relationship. But it could be for other reasons as well. Sometimes children act out because they want what they want when they want it. They think that negative attention is better than no attention.

Try talking to your son about why he chooses to respond this way. Explain that doing so will only result in the opposite of what he wants – that he will not get his way when he acts inappropriately. The same principle holds true for being mean to his sisters and not listening to you. Ask him how he would feel if someone treated him the way he treats his sisters or if someone would not listen to him when he was telling her something important.

Try some role-playing. Ask him to put into words how he feels when he is treated unkindly or is ignored. This will show him that his actions affect others and have consequences.

While your son is working on his relationship with his father, you must address his negative behavior head-on. There needs to be consequences for his actions. Involve your son by having him contribute possible consequences. If they are appropriate, enforce them. This way when he loses a privilege (consequence) that he agreed upon, he will understand that you are not punishing him without a reason.

Perhaps a chart system would be a good visual reminder of rewards and consequences. He will be able to see, with either stickers or stars, when his behavior is appropriate and benefits him and when it is inappropriate and negatively impacts his daily life. It is important to BE CONSISTENT. His antics cannot pay off.

Helpline Support

Nebraska Family Helpline: The Helpline is a free resource for parents who have concerns and questions about their child's behavior. Call 888-866-8660. Bilingual counselors are available.

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