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Teaching a Preschooler Self-Control

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: My preschooler hits other children, sometimes without provocation. But he's also compassionate and sensitive to others. He is angry about his father's abandonment of him. I tightly control his media exposure to shield him from portrayals of violence. I spank him irregularly and generally do my best to avoid using physical punishment to resolve his behavioral problems. Any strategies on helping him cope with his anger and teaching him self-control?

A: One sentence from your letter shouts out to me: "He is angry about his father's abandonment of him." I believe that you need to begin your search to help him with his occasional anger and impulse control by first addressing his broken heart. There are many ways in which children his age might express their confusion, sadness, and fears about having been abandoned by a parent. They may regress to less mature behaviors, become very clingy with their remaining parent, experience physical discomforts (stomachaches or headaches), become more withdrawn from family and friends, or become more angry and aggressive. These are all unconscious responses and coping mechanisms, brought about by their being emotionally overwhelmed by their parent's abandonment.

Please work on refraining from hitting your son at all. Spanking or any other physically hurtful actions on your part will only deepen his sadness, confusion, and anger, while showing him that physical aggression is indeed a way to deal with his anger and frustration.

I would strongly recommend seeking the help of an experienced therapist who has seen children who have experienced parental abandonment at an early age. In addition to some compassionate counseling for both of you, I would suggest that you and his teachers brainstorm ways to bolster his sense of self-worth. Use encouraging words and role-play to show him how he can handle social situations without resorting to hitting. Learn to spot his "red flags" and redirect his attention before he "breaks out" in anger and physical aggression.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

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