Anxiety, obstinacy and aggression in children

When a pre-nursery-school child becomes anxious or nervous, it is often because he is under pressure to grow up too fast. He may be walking and talking well and apparently able to understand much of the world the foot.

Around him, and he is also asserting his independence. All this can mislead his parents into overestimating his maturity. The emotions of a baby lie closely beneath the surface. The child is often still frightened of new and unfamiliar situations. Although separation anxiety usually occurs only with babies, it still tends to recur when the child gets older. An anxious child needs sympathy and understanding. He should not be pushed to be braver than he feels; he will never overcome his fears by being forced to face them alone. In this context it is good to keep in mind that a child seldom has fears of his own. In most cases it is a fear held by the father or by the mother that is reflected in the child. For instance, it is almost certain that at least one of the parents is afraid of thunder or lightning if a child has a fear of storms. Three-year-olds are mature enough to be reasoned with. Parents of such children should talk to them about fears of being separated, and explain that although they do not share these feelings, they do understand them. They should stress that their child will never be left alone when he is frightened. This gives the child security: he will be more ready to face his anxieties if he knows he can turn to his parents as soon as he begins to panic. A child whose parents are unsympathetic may, lacking the sense of basic trust, become even more fearful.

Many parents say their one-, two- or three-year-old is ‘obstinate’. This obstinacy is more apparent than real and results from parents expecting their child to think in the same logical way as an adult. To a child, however, adult requests often make little sense; a little boy or girl does not see the need to clear up toys, have a wash or sit down for a meal at a fixed time. The solution for the parents is to turn their requests into a game, or into a co-operative activity, which the child wants to join in. Instead of telling him to come to the table for a meal, for instance, he can be asked to help lay the table or to fetch his own plate. Instead of quarrelling about him putting on a coat before going out, it is an elegant solution to ask him whether he wants to put on his old or his new coat. In this way the child can keep his independence and the parent is confident too.

When one is rather familiar with the child’s character, with some imagination one may succeed in ‘manipulating’ the child by means of diversionary tactics or clever tricks to induce the wanted behaviour. However, this requires much patience on the part of the parents.

Jealousy and aggression often occur together. A toddler who is jealous of his new baby brother or sister knows he is not allowed to hit him or her, but his feelings must have some expression. If he is not handled sympathetically he may become aggressive towards other children or pets. Parents should explain to such a child that he is loved just as much as the baby, and encourage him to help look after the newcomer to the family. The older child should not be punished or belittled if he sometimes reverts to babyish behaviour himself. In some circumstances this may be quite normal conduct. A child may become aggressive if physical violence – excessive smacking for minor misdemeanours, for example – is the norm in his home. He will then come to regard attack as the best form of defence. Parents should try to discipline their children with love and explanations, rather than by corporal punishment. A child who is regularly given a beating ultimately endures the beating without being impressed by it. Consequently, the child becomes aggressive and a serious gap between parent and child may develop, which actually impedes the upbringing. Beating remains a personal humiliation and an expression of incompetence, so it is effective only if used sparingly.

The only child

An only child is no more likely to have emotional or behavioural problems than a child with brothers and sisters. Only children often grow up to be self-reliant and well motivated. Their parents have more time to spend with them and help them learn. There is always the risk that too much emotional energy may be invested in an only child, and that he may be pushed too hard; or, conversely, treated as a baby for far too long. Hopefully most parents are aware of these pitfalls and are usually able to avoid them. The eldest child in a family, who has been an only child briefly, may feel he has to fight to retain his special position when younger siblings are born. Consequently, eldest children are often very independent and ambitious.

The youngest child is often the ‘clown’ of the family -a charming show-off always sure of an audience, despite having to compete with more competent brothers and sisters. He, too, has a special position. It is usually the middle one of three children who faces the problems. He is neither the ‘important’ eldest nor the adored baby. With no obvious role, he may feel left out unless his parents convince him that they value him for his own sake.

Teaching good behaviour

Teaching a child to be well behaved is more a matter of loving guidance than of discipline. The best-behaved children are often those whose parents show their love, even after a child has been naughty, for which behaviour it had to be frowned upon. A child brought up to respect other people’s feelings and property, and who is himself treated with consideration, is unlikely to become ‘spoilt’ or aggressive. As soon as he is old enough to understand which behaviours are acceptable and which unacceptable – not until he is at least two-and-a-half – he can be praised when he sticks to the rules and gently scolded when he breaks them.

Smacking is seldom – if ever – necessary. A light smack, given too often, soon loses its disciplinary effect. Parents may find themselves in danger of having to smack harder and harder before the child takes any notice. Besides, smacking can be regarded as a sign of disability: the child will not be able to hit you back. Similarly, bribing a child into good behaviour by offering a reward if he complies may create more problems than it solves. The child may then use disobedience to blackmail his parents into rewarding him.