Child’s Defiant Behavior a Normal Bid for “Independence”?

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Reader’s Question

I’m really saddened, frustrated and perplexed about my 3-year-old son’s behavior. He was the most amazing baby — gentle, sweet, affectionate and smart. I carried him everywhere in a front-pack baby carrier. He was exclusively breastfed. We enjoyed a great bond. After my son turned 1 year old, his behavior became more ‘independent’ and I started to see changes in his behavior.

My mom used to babysit him when he was 18 months old until 24 months. He listened to her but not to me. Most of the time, he would purposefully defy me. But he would never defy my mom.

My son had a really hard time transitioning from my mom babysitting him to being in a daycare. At the first daycare he went to, the teachers didn’t like him. They said he didn’t listen and would just cry constantly, refusing to eat and drink. When I saw that the teachers didn’t have a heart for him, I put him in another daycare. That teacher didn’t like him either and would send him home with a note every day with details about how he supposedly hurt another child. This was not conceivable to me because he was not aggressive at home at all. I tried to get him another teacher at the same school, but they kicked my son out of the daycare.

I finally got him into a preschool that is very loving with the children and with a very low teacher to student ratio. He’s excelling in his preschool, and they tell me he behaves so well. When I come by to visit him on my lunch break, he is on such great behavior. But when he comes home, he is extremely loud, unruly, and defiant, and he talks back to me. He won’t give me a hug or kiss when I ask, but when I’m busy he tries to get my attention in negative ways such as ripping up my papers, throwing toys, spitting on his toys, banging toys together, and more. When I cook, he throws himself on the floor and pulls my legs even though I discipline him when he does that. He talks back to me when I scold him. Half of the time he refuses to stand in time out and runs out while crying hysterically.

When I grocery shop with my son in the cart, or go anywhere with him, he yells loudly. He just babbles and says arbitrary things and when I tell him that he must use an indoor voice or we will have to go home and not buy yummy snacks, he defies me and yells more. If he is not in a cart, he will walk away from me on purpose or run away and cause me to run after him (this happens frequently). If I leave and take him to the car after that, he’ll get so mad and will stay mad for a couple of hours. This kind of behavior happens all throughout the day except for when he is at preschool or with another family member. He behaves so well for my family members and for his preschool.

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My son is allergic to many things, such as milk, eggs, wheat and fish, and so his diet is specialized. I worry there might be a physiological connection between his immune response to allergens and his behavior. His arms, legs, back and stomach are covered with eczema rashes on his skin at all times. He definitely has uncontrolled allergies. I cook everything from scratch for my son. He doesn’t eat chemical foods.

I want to give my son the best chance he can have in life. I will go to the moon and back for him. I don’t know what could possibly be wrong. Or, is this typical ‘boy’ behavior? No other boy I see behaves like he does. Yet, my son is very smart. I’ve been teaching him to read, and he can read simple words. I’m a dedicated mom but feel frustrated and like my hands are tied. I really don’t know if there could be something really wrong with my son to explain his behavior. Maybe it has something to do with his body’s response to his allergies? Could such a thing cause behavior issues?

Psychologist’s Reply

It’s not at all uncommon for children in the age range of your son to engage in various attempts to test limits and to assert their “independence” and sense of autonomy through defiance. It’s also not uncommon for them to seek attention “on demand” with disruptive behavior. And because they need to be certain that rules apply reliably across all situations and with all caretakers, it’s not uncommon for them to test some situations and individuals more than others. It’s up to those who love the child to make clear what the limits and boundaries are and to set contingencies in such a way as to provide attention and support on a non-demand schedule.

Certain medical conditions can, however, increase levels of irritability, decrease the stress tolerance threshold, and increase aggressiveness. So it’s important that the situation be examined more thoroughly. Although it’s rare for medical conditions to be the sole cause of circumscribed and episodic behavioral problems, some conditions can definitely exacerbate such problems. Given the possible complications involved, it’s important that you secure a thorough evaluation, ideally from a clinician or team of professionals who can address all of the various developmental, medical, and psychological issues.

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