Ask Dr. Susan Bartell: My Child’s Acting Out!

By Dr. Susan Bartell

Boy making an angry face Question: My second child is nearly 4 years old and has been acting out in an aggressive manner for the past several months. My husband and I recently separated and when we are together, it is often times explosive. While we try to keep our tempers in check around the kids (older son 10), there have been many instances where our kids were present when we’ve been fighting. I’m concerned that my boys (in particular my youngest son) is mimicking our bad behavior. If I can’t get his temper under control, he will not be admitted to preschool next month. What should I do? I’m afraid the damage has been done.

 Answer: First, it is important for you to know that it is never too late to help a child, and certainly not when he is still only four-years old.It sounds like you’re right that your son is copying the angry behaviors of you and his father—kids almost always use their parents as their primary role models. In addition, I’m sure that the separation is causing emotional stress for your kids right now (even if it’s the right thing in the long run) and his acting-out behavior may also be his way of expressing his worry, anger and disappointment that his family is no longer together. I’d also like to add, that although you’re concerned about your younger child not getting into preschool, you should be just as concerned about your ten-year old. His observations of fighting and his concerns about your separation will take a significant emotional toll on him as well, even though you may not be facing an immediate crisis with him at this moment.

For all of the above reasons, it is important that you take immediate actions to make changes that will help your children.

1. It is critical that you and your husband stop fighting in front of them, including on the phone—even when they are asleep. The rule must be, if they are in the house, you need to be civil to each other. It is your and their father’s responsibility to control this behavior and keep your children’s best interests always at the top of your mind.

2. Don’t EVER bad mouth your child’s other parent. This can also lead to confusion, stress and an expression of angry, hostile behavior.

3. Talk openly to your child about the separation at an age-appropriate level, explaining what is happening, so that he doesn’t feel out of control. Assure him that you both love him.

4. Tell him that no matter what is going on, it is not okay to take out his angry feelings on other people. Explain that you and his dad are working on controlling your anger and that he needs to do so as well.

5. No matter what you’re going through, anger and tempers should not be tolerated. Consequences should be enforced so that your child understands that his behavior needs to change.

6. I’d strongly recommend that you seek professional support at this point. If his temper is bad enough that he is in jeopardy of not being admitted to preschool, you will benefit from seeing a child psychologist who will give you specific suggestions for how to effectively get his temper under control. Furthermore, I’m sure the school will be more likely to admit him if they know you’re seeking help.


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Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally recognized child, teen and parenting psychologist and award-winning author. Her latest book is Dr. Susan’s Girls-Only Weight Loss Guide. You can learn more about Dr. Bartell at Have  a question for Dr. Susan Bartell? Post it in the comments box below.