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How to handle a demanding child

I am a mother to three children and my middle child who is four years old is demanding all of my attention. He frustrates his brother and sister by teasing and annoying them and throws temper tantrums when he gets into trouble for it. Nothing I’m doing is working!

I hear you! I'm also a mother of three; my middle child is also four. I try to follow authoritative parenting literature (cf. English, 2014) which suggests parents be open and responsive, interested, involved and active participants (cf. Klein & Ballantine, 2012).

What I find works is ignoring behaviour that is ignorable, using negotiated solutions and giving him as much attention as possible. Some things can be ignored (does the spilled water really matter?), some can be negotiated ("do you want to put your shoes on here, in the car, or on arrival?"), and some things must be held as a limit ("hitting hurts, I won't let you hit your siblings, me, the dog or the cat"). Following this pattern gives the child a goal, negotiated actively with their parent without resorting to punishments, because punishments don’t work (cf. English, 2015).

It's important to remember, this strategy is a long game, and it requires you to listen to feelings and give them names ("I hear you're frustrated you can't play with the neighbour unless you tidy your room, but that is the limit"/"I know you really wanted to get that toy at the store and you're sad you couldn't have it"). Also remember time-outs don't work (cf. Grogan, 2014; Lamia, 2016; Matthews, 2017), tempting as they are to use, they actually make the problem worse. But, you can do a time-in where you sit quietly with your four-year-old while he rages, complains and gets his feelings out. I admit to sometimes having to take the baby in with me. Good luck with this situation, remember this there's plenty of others, including me, in the emotional trenches with you!

Dr Rebecca English

Dr Rebecca English

Lecturer, Faculty of Education (QUT)

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