We have now lived through four separate family situations where children between the ages of two to five have displayed behaviors that were both self-destructive and outwardly violent.
The behaviors that eventually surfaced at daycare were:
1. Throwing furniture.
2. Not only nail-biting, but biting all the skin around the nails, initially on their fingers and then on their toes. In one case, we observed the child’s toes were covered in band aids, obviously the child revealed this purposely by removing his shoes.
3. Running across the street unattended with the parent left behind at the daycare entrance.
4. Locking himself in the bathroom when the parent arrived to pick him up.
5. Kicking and communicating with the parent using foul language.
6. Biting the sibling.
7. Physically kicking and hitting the parent.
8. One of the children responding to a playmate who was concerned that biting the skin on her hand “must really hurt” and the child responding “It doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as I hurt inside”
Behaviors revealed by the parent:
1. Inflicting harm on family animals.
2. Threatening the sibling with physical harm.
3. Afraid of being alone in a room.
4. One parent’s fear that they were raising a serial killer.
In trying to understand what family conditions could have caused such behavior, we compiled a profile of each of these families. I was surprised and really shocked to realize that three of these families fell into the same profile in most of the major categories.
A profile of outward symptoms for these three was:
1. Each family consisted of two parents and two children living in the same home.
2. In each case, the mother was the primary income provider. Both parents worked long hours, with most of these hours outside the home. They often brought work home to complete in the evening. They were also committed to on demand travel which could accumulate to 10% to 15% of their total hours.
3. In each case, the father was self employed in a creative field which resulted in an unpredictable schedule and income. It also created a situation where this parent was not only the sole caregiver, but he was preoccupied with searching for employment or preparing for a secured assignment. Since this situation was so unpredictable, the dad often found himself as the caregiver and worker at the same time. In these circumstances he shared that he expected the children to entertain themselves. He shared that this demand often triggered an angry outburst.
The profile for the fourth family:
1. Both parents worked outside the home with long working hours and frequent travel for both of them. Back up care when both were traveling is unpredictable and could involve family members or any caregiver that was available.
2. There was very little family time on any given day. Most frequently, the dad would drop off and pick up the children.
3. The mom was less likely to be home before the children went to bed. In this case, one child went to bed completely silent and the other child constantly screamed when the mom picked them up.
4. These children usually teamed up when it came to destructive behavior.
We obviously were unaware of the depth and severity until each of the children demonstrated an aspect of it during regular care or when the parent came to pick them up.
We were surprised and alarmed that none of the parents had considered therapy, or as often happens, shared these details with us. They obviously needed help to understand and correct these behaviors.
In every case, we were able to recommend an expert who visited the home, as well as observed the child’s behavior at the daycare. They all committed to family therapy. This has to be the approach as it is not just an issue for the child but for every member.
Everyone in the family had to make changes. A common recommendation that was made in each case was the importance during the first five years of quality and quantity time with the mother who plays the major nurturing role at the beginning, and in each case had to increase their direct presence with the child.
I realize parents are committed to providing their children with the best physical environment as possible, however their emotions and psychological well being is even more important!
The more I think about these families, I am surprised that they did not ask for our advice or seek outside help when the behaviors first started.
Each family though the situation would improve over time. That typically does not occur without a planned strategy.
Each child finds ways to express their feelings. When their actions become so destructive and abusive and harm is self inflicted: get help immediately!!!
The behaviors noted in these cases is not normal. Fortunately children in our care who experience any sort of conflict and display aggressive behavior at home will eventually bring them to daycare as a cry for help!
Do not ignore them!
If we encourage even one family to get help before a serious problem escalates, it will be worth having shared these very disturbing family relationships!
Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness!