Q. Our son, 4½, is a handsome, engaging child with a smile that lights up a room. That boy can charm the pants off just about anybody.
He’s cheerful, social, popular at school, quick to laugh, intensely curious and he adores books, too, but he’s not as verbal as his 9-year-old sister. Instead he is a physical learner: strong, well-coordinated, big for his age, good with his hands — a child who likes to build and construct and to draw elaborate pictures. Although he sees about an hour of TV on the weekend, as a treat, he is happiest when he’s outside and free; when he can explore the world with his sister and hike, bike, ride his scooter and take evening walks with us.
We have some worries, however. Our son is one of the most high-energy children I’ve ever seen — he never stops moving — and he also has a quick temper. He used to bite his sister and his friends when he didn’t get what he wanted, and this year he scratched two children hard enough to make them bleed. Now we keep his nails very short and we tell him that scratching is NOT acceptable; we intervene when he seems frustrated and we ask him to walk away or count to 10 when he’s upset, but we can’t watch him every second.
He also seems almost incapable of following simple and direct orders, even though I only give one or two at a time, and he is distracted easily. We wonder if he just is a busy little boy who doesn’t pay attention or if he might have an attention problem, like ADD, even though he can look at a book for half an hour and draw for an hour at a time.
How can we manage our son’s endless energy and get him to focus on simple tasks? We expect another baby in two months, and I want to encourage “big boy” behavior while acknowledging that he won’t be “the baby” anymore.
And one more question: Am I helping him to mature and to grow as well as I should?
A. You must be doing a good job because your son is a great little guy. A 4-year-old shouldn’t explode so often when he can’t get his way, however, nor should he find it so hard to follow a couple of simple directions.
It’s time to ask yourself: Could you or his dad be catering to your son too much? Children have the right to try and the right to fail, and if they don’t get the chance to exercise those rights, they often regress and act younger than they really are. If you think that could be the problem, you might look around for a good parenting class.
Your little boy also may be acting up because he needs more sleep at night or less stress in his day. Experts say that a 4-year-old should get 11-13 hours of sleep every night and a few quiet times during the day so he can pull his thoughts together and dream about tomorrow.
And of course, you have to consider his diet. Some children get angry, anxious, impulsive, hyperactive or have trouble paying attention because they’re allergic to a particular food or smell or because they can’t tolerate gluten, casein, dyes or preservatives.
According to pediatric allergist Richard Layton, a child who is only inattentive, impulsive and hyperactive in the spring and fall usually has a seasonal allergy, but if it comes and goes all year long, his problems probably are caused by the foods he eats — or doesn’t eat — as the Raines study in Australia proved so well.
When its researchers looked at the diets of nearly 1,800 children, they found those who ate a lot of carry-out food, red meat, refined foods, high-fat dairy products and confectionary treats were more than twice as likely to have ADHD as those who ate fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fish. The researchers don’t know if too many dyes and preservatives caused the ADHD or too few micronutrients and omega-3 oils, but it really doesn’t matter. If a different diet can straighten out your son’s behavior, you really ought to try it.
To learn more, read “What’s Eating Your Child?” by nutritionist KellyDorfman, M. S., L. N. D., (Workman; $14). Her research is solid, her insights are excellent and her advice is just what you need.
Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.