Think of parenting on a pendulum. As it swings one way, a parents parenting style may be inadvertently ineffective. There may be multiple warnings; a meek tone of voice; too many options; too much praise; asking versus telling; bargaining; rewards greater than appropriate. In this scenario, the preschooler learns that s/he doesn’t need to really listen to the parent. The child winds up getting their own way. The child may learn to pitch a tantrum and the parent gives in. The child hurts another or oneself and the parent gives in.

Not uncommon to these parenting practices is a past where the parent as a child may have felt scared and intimidated. They may have felt like they were walking on eggshells around one or both of their own parents.

Parental behavior from one’s past that gives rise to those feelings include, abuse, violence and drug or alcohol abuse. With that past a parent may have felt ineffective as a child, that they had no voice, that to raise issues created chaos. Those feelings of helplessness and/or not wanting to rock the boat can carry into adulthood and effect present day parenting. It can be difficult for the parent to hold their child accountable. The parent may fear being seen as overly harsh themselves. This parent may feel scared or overwhelmed when their child acts out.

When the pendulum swings the other way, a parent may be overly harsh to abusive. There may be yelling, screaming, hitting, threatening, breaking of toys, extended time outs and loss of privileges, all in an effort to outright control the child. In this scenario, the preschooler actually learns to use the strategies they are exposed to to control others. Thus they may hit, yell and scream too.

Exposure to those coercive behavior management strategies can also create resentment and anger in the child causing the child to act out more. If the child is afraid, yet resentful, the child may seek to break thing, sneak and lie, all to avoid detection yet discharge their resentment.

Parents who engage in these behaviors may have had a similar experience as a child. The parent as a child may also have been exposed to abusive or violence in the home. Now as an adult and when their child acts out, they resort to the behavior management strategies that were familiar from their own childhood. This parent may also feel challenged by the acting out of the child and hence seeks to regain control through coercive means while also discharge their own anger at the child.

It is not uncommon to see families where one parent is ineffective and the other coercive. When thinking about those styles as on a swinging pendulum, as the pendulum swings one way, the other parent applies more of their style to balance things out. However, this causes the parenting pendulum to only swing further and more widely in each direction. As you might imagine, things can get out of control. Parents are eventually pitted against each other. Both get angry for the others style, whether seen as ineffective or abusive. Unchecked, this can destabilize the parental relationship and create the conditions for one partner to be seen as abusive. This can break up parental relationships.

The swinging pendulum can happen even with one parent. As the preschooler escalates their behavior in the face of ineffective behavior management strategies, a parent can lose their temper and swing the pendulum quickly and sharply to the other side. The same ineffective parent next becomes harsh and coercive to hopefully reign in the child’s behavior.

All of the above create the conditions for child behavior problems. Those problems can surface in many ways including: non-compliance, hitting, food refusal, sleep difficulties, trouble with toileting, constipation, bullying, sibling rivalry and even self harm.

Typically parents have no realization that their own past is contributing to these present day issues. Their focus is on the here and now and the immediate problem behavior. The problem behavior will often be described in tremendous detail. The parent will advise of all the strategies used to manage the behavior, but missed will be the parenting pendulum.

Just like in the nursery rhyme, All the Kings horses and all the King’s men, so too with all the behavioral interventions and child therapy. Unless the contributions from one’s past is addressed and the pendulum brought under control, progress may be slow and those interventions may not resolve the concern.

In the end, for preschooler behavior to be reasonable, the parental pendulum must hang as true and still as possible. No wild swings. No ineffective or coercive parenting.

Reasonable preschool behavior is best achieved with parents who learn to remain calm, yet forthright in terms of their expectations. They are patient and can outwait the child who pitches a fit. They learn not to bargain because they have clear and reasonable and developmentally appropriate standards and expectations in mind.

These parents have examined some issues from their own past and their impact on present day parenting. They can now make choices in terms of how to respond versus react. They can control their own anger and fears and parent from a place of competency. These parents can collaborate in their parenting. They support each other towards the common goal of a pendulum that hangs true with minimal deviation from side to side. This applies to parents who live together or those who live separately.

If you or someone you know is having trouble with a preschooler’s behavior look deeper than the child’s behavior. Seek a counselor or therapist who not only focuses on the present behavior and management strategies, but one who will also explore your own background to uncover and contribution from your past that may inadvertently be adding to present day issues.

The goal is not to shame, blame or embarrass, but simply uncover those issues so they can be addressed and dealt with. It is amazing how once uncovered and understood, a parent can alter their style and behavior can improve. This is not to say that there may not be other biologically determined issues within the preschooler, but getting that pendulum under control will ease any other problem that may also be at play. Address the parenting pendulum.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Please check out my services and then call me if you need help with a child behavior or relationship issue.

Author's Bio: 

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.