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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?


Angry boy with fists raised

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 over upheaval in the family structure. However, while your son’s behavior may in part be attributed to a lack of time with his father, this 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 the child is looking for a closer relationship with a male role model.

It sounds like your son is the only male in the family structure. This could be difficult for him to understand. So the first thing to do is to find out exactly what 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 well he used to behave and how things have changed. Explain to him in age-appropriate language that you’d like him to tell you what is wrong so you both can work together on changing things for the better. Second, as he begins to tell you his feelings, let him know that it is okay to have these feelings. But also say that responding with negative behaviors is not acceptable and there are better ways to handle confusing or upsetting feelings.

In regard to his father, ask your son about his feelings about him and what 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 your son’s feelings. This does not mean you will give him anything he wants or that you accept his negative behaviors. You are just trying to find out 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 will provide 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 the father-son bond can be strengthened.

Children often become defiant as a way to express their frustration and seek attention. This could certainly change once your son feels that he matters to his father and that there is interest and commitment in the relationship. Children 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 doing so will result in a happier child and parent.

While father and son are working on their relationship, you must address your son’s negative behavior head-on. He needs to earn consequences for his actions, both positive and negative. Involve your son by having him come up with possible (and appropriate) consequences. This way when he uses a negative behavior and loses a privilege that he agreed on, he will understand you are not punishing him without a reason.

A chart system might be a good visual reminder of his positive and negative consequences. By using stickers, stars, or some other token, he will be able to see how positive behavior benefits him and how inappropriate negatively ​impacts his daily life. Above all, it is important to BE CONSISTENT so that ​over time, he will better understand the connection between his behaviors and what happens to him.