Follow four steps to restore sanity with argumentative teen

John Rosemond

Q: I have 6-month-old and 32-month-old boys. The older one — well-mannered, easygoing, very affectionate — attends a preschool program three mornings a week. This is his second year there.

Last year, he cried every time I walked him in but stopped within minutes. This year, I have to use the carpool line. When a teacher tries to get him out of the car, he screams like he’s being tortured and physically fights her

I’m now getting reports that he has become defiant in class. Yesterday, he began throwing things when his teacher reprimanded him for something. She thinks he’s insecure because of the second child, but he acts anything but insecure at home. She’s talked about using a special reward system for him, which I think is a bad idea. Do you have any suggestions?

A: I agree that this behavior has nothing to do with the arrival of a younger sibling. As are all psychological explanations for human behavior, this one amounts to an unprovable proposition. I can posit that your older son is trying to work through issues having to do with having been toilet-trained before he was emotionally ready. What does that mean? How can it be verified?

As the present example exemplifies, when a problem is explained in psychological terms, it almost always becomes unsolvable, only “treatable.” How do you disappear the younger child or wipe the toilet-training slate clean and start over?

First, you don’t need to understand the supposed “cause” of a behavior problem to correct it, so let’s do our best to think forwardly instead of backwardly. Your son has been having these emotional spikes on school days for more than a year now. In other words, the problem started before his brother was born and has simply escalated.

Second, I agree that a special reward system is a bad idea. When a child behaves badly, punishment is the answer. Unfortunately, preschools cannot receive certain accreditations if they punish their young charges for antisocial behavior.

Instead, they do ineffectual but psychologically correct things, as in trying to reason or reward good behavior when bad behavior is the issue. (This, I’m convinced, is one reason why researchers have found that children in day care are more impulsive, aggressive and disobedient on average than children who are cared for at home.)

Having said all that, that this program is optional overrides all other considerations. When a 2-year-old gets into a snit of this sort over attending an optional program and the resistant behavior is spiraling downward and has been for months (much less more than a year), I recommend simply taking him out.

It’s not worth the battle, and besides, this is a battle you may not be able to win. Let several weeks go by and then find another program or a smaller, cooperative play group. A change of venue may make all the difference.

Rosemond is a family psychologist in North Carolina. Readers may send him email at questions@rosemond.com.

TNS