“This morning, he really pushed me to my limit when I realized he had peed on his 9 month old brother.
And then when I put him in time-out in his room (instead of spanking
him, which is really what I wanted to do) he peed in his heater vent. I feel like I try to be a good parent, so I don’t know what I’m
doing wrong. How much more love and affection can I give him? We’ll
start a sticker chart today and hope that works. Because once you pee on
your brother, you’ve gone too far, and we have to fix this now.”
I’m so impressed with this mom, who has held her natural outrage in check and is trying to go positive with a sticker chart. And I couldn’t agree more with her: When you pee on your brother,
things have gone too far.
But I’m afraid that a sticker chart isn’t going to work any better than the timeouts are working. Why? They don’t get to the root of the problem, which is the child’s hurt and fear. He thinks his Mom got a replacement for him. As my
three year old son said before our second child “We don’t need another boy. If it’s a boy….we can send him back, right?“
This little guy defines “acting out.” He’s acting out feelings he can’t
express in any other way. He might not even be able to express those
feelings to himself, but they’re bursting out and making themselves
known, as feelings have a way of doing. (Even when they’re repressed. In
fact, especially when they’re repressed.)
Peeing where they know they shouldn’t is a common way for children to express anger that they can’t put into words. Male mammals often pee on things to stake out their territory and warn off intruders. And from the fact that he peed on his brother, we can guess who the intruder is!
What’s a parent to do? Let’s consider our options.
1. Spank him.
We’re angry. We’re shocked. We want to lash out. And he needs to learn a lesson.
Actually, the lesson spanking will teach is that violence is how we
solve problems. Research shows that kids who are spanked are much more
likely to hit others. We can count on spanking to help our toddler
graduate from peeing on his brother to slugging him.
2. Put him in timeout.
Peeing on your brother really is outrageous, and intervention is essential. But will timeout solve the
problem? I doubt it.
Timeout gives a clear message: You have done something that made me very angry. (Good so far.) At
the age of three, you probably don’t understand why you did this or how
to manage your own emotions so you won’t do it again, but I am not
going to help you with those seething emotions. You’re on your own,
Buddy. (Not so good. He’s not capable of working through these
emotions on his own. That’s why he’s peeing on his brother. He’s
showing you he needs your help.) And maybe if I scare you with my
anger and reject you with this symbolic abandonment you’ll get the
message that I might stop loving you, and you’ll be terrified enough to
stop this outrageous behavior. I don’t like scaring you, but things
really have gone too far.”
Well, we all agree that things have gone too far. But he’s already afraid he’s lost your love, and this will just make that fear worse, which means his behavior will get worse.
So even if he does stop peeing on his brother, he may just get more secretive about how he acts out his unhappiness. “Pee in your purse? Of course I didn’t do that, Mom. It must have been the baby.”
Or maybe, the timeout will be terrifying and
therefore effective. Lose Mommy’s love? Nothing is more important than
Mommy’s love. Without her love and protection, he would quite literally die — from not
being touched, as much as from not being fed. NO MORE PEEING ON THE
BABY! He’s got it, loud and clear.
But he’s got another message, too: “I am a bad person. If I were good I would not be on the naughty step… I would not have these angry
feelings…I could stop myself from peeing in bad places. If I were good, Mommy would not be mad at me….she wouldn’t have gotten a replacement. I will pretend to be a good person so Mommy
will love me. I have to hide from her who I really am, how bad I really
am. It’s all the baby’s fault. If it weren’t for that baby, Mom would
still love me like she used to.”
At the end of timeout, he is able to tell Mom exactly why he got put in
timeout. He promises never to pee on the baby or down the heating vent
again. He hugs Mom in relief. He even hugs the baby. Everything is good, right?
Except tomorrow, what about all those angry feelings pushing against his
insides? Magnified now by the shame that he is truly a bad person. His
anger at the baby ripens into bitterness. And Mom expects him to like this
baby, who is now nine months old and crawling and messing with his
things and charming everyone with his smiles…enough to make you want
to slug him! Which is exactly what will happen, since those feelings have been repressed and are no longer under conscious control. They just pop out. Or they come out in defiance against mom, throwing things when he’s
mad…..Which is why kids can end up in timeout over and over, all day long.
Luckily, we’re not out of options yet.
3. Sticker Chart.
We all know that vowing to do the right thing isn’t enough to help us override our “lesser” impulses. If that were sufficient, we’d all have perfectly balanced diets and fit bodies. We need a competing motivator, something we want as much as we want that ice cream. So in this case, Mom is hoping her boy thinks: “I’m feeling sad and mad because Mom is always cooing over that baby… I know! I’ll show him! I’ll pee on him! … but I really want a sticker so I can get that new truck….I guess I’ll swallow those mad, sad feelings and go pee in the toilet.”
But will a delayed reward be enough in the face of these big feelings? Imagine the jealous farmer finding his wife in bed with the tractor salesman. The promise of a new farm implement isn’t going to provide enough motivation to keep him from getting his shotgun.
And yes, peeing on your brother would be classified as a crime of passion: “I really want to show that baby who’s boss…. but Mom would be really mad and then no sticker…but how would she even know? And the way she was cooing over the baby earlier….Heck, who cares about the danged truck?! I’m just too mad!! Watch out, Baby!!”
Competing positive impulses only help us manage our behavior if we’re able to manage the emotions driving the behavior.
Think about our own attempts to control ourselves. A competing impulse (fitting into a new dress) MIGHT work against our urge to eat ice cream, if we’re eating the ice cream out of habit. But if the feelings driving us to eat the ice cream are too big for us manage, we’re going to eat it anyway, dress or no dress.
And ice cream doesn’t really qualify as a crime of passion, the way peeing on the baby does. These are the same big emotions that drove Cain and Abel, remember?
So I’m betting a sticker chart isn’t going to work. If we want to help our child manage his behavior, we’re going to have to help him manage the stormy, tangled-up feelings that are driving that behavior.
Is the answer just more attention? Don’t miss our next post, How much more love and affection can I give him? And then we’ll wrap up this little series with some real solutions. Can’t wait? They’ll be geared toward helping our children manage their emotions, so they can manage their behavior. Stay tuned.