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An Unruly Four-Year-Old Nephew

Nov 11, 1996
Peter Falkenberg Brown

I have a concern about my 4 year old nephew which also has created problems with my son whenever we all get together as a family. I have a 2 year old, my brother with the 4 year old also has a 2 year old boy and my other brother has a 3 year old girl. Of course I would expect some confusion when you get four little ones together all at the same time but it is really wild when we get together.

My 4 year old nephew is out of control a lot of the time, jumping on furniture, throwing things, screaming at the top of his lungs. My 2 year old will imitate him, at times, and when I discipline my child the 4 year old's mother will make a comment about how unruly my son is. I haven't said anything to her because I don't know what to say. On one hand, yes my son has done something that I don't approve of but on the other hand he is imitating her son who of course was allowed the same behavior. All of this is compounded by my very strong feeling that my nephew has some sort of disability which is being ignored. These are the signs that I have been observing:

1. I can't carry on a conversation with him. I get down to eye level and try to talk to him about something that he is playing with or some interest that one of his parents has mentioned. I can sometimes get him to respond with a comment but he does not converse with me. At times he will frantically rub his face with his hands and just repeat something that I have said over and over.

2. I can't get eye contact with him -- however I'm not sure but I think I see him looking directly in the eyes of his cousins, sometimes.

3. He is very smart, which should not be a concern, but this is a child who can't (or won't?) answer a simple question, but who can spell "xylophone".

I don't know what to do about this, it is getting to the point where I dread getting together with the family and I feel guilty about the fact that I see the problem as being my nephew who I do love very much and am very concerned about. Am I over reacting, do you think that his behaviors are within the range of what is considered normal and things will even out eventually, or what? I haven't said anything to his parents, his mom is always telling everyone how wonderful he is and compares him to the neighbors' children and the children in his nursery school. His dad has been known to get embarrassed about his behavior to the point of losing his cool, I get the feeling he thinks his children should be perfect. I could use some good advise. Thanks!

It seems that you have two issues to contend with: how to help your four year old nephew and how to deal with your nephew's influence on your son.

I'm not a medical professional or a psychiatrist, so I can't give you that level of professional advice about your nephew. If he really does have a serious disability then of course his parents should seek professional help. On the other hand, I tend to react strongly when I hear more and more parents stating that their children's errant behavior is because of a disability or something like Attention Deficit Disorder. I personally believe that parents need to think twice about this, and consider instead that the best medicines for their children are strong doses of unconditional parental love and very clear training about unselfish and loving behavior. I refer you to a movie and book called "Son-Rise", a true story by Barry Kaufman about an autistic boy who was cured by his parents' love.

Giving a child enough love so that he feels secure goes all the way back to fundamental issues such as the mother breastfeeding the child and having the child sleep next to the mother when he's young (NOT in a crib in a dark room down the hall with the door shut.) It also means having both the father and the mother hold and hug the child thousands of times as he's growing up, kissing him on the cheek every day, and looking deep into the child's eyes with warm and steady love emanating from the parents' eyes. It means telling the child, "I love you", and meaning every word of it.

It also means that the husband and wife need to love each other, so that they provide a peaceful and secure home for the child. I know a number of children who's parents don't get along. Those children seem to be more and more erratic and hyper (i.e. "disturbed") the more that their parents fight and squabble.

Other issues that can profoundly influence the child in a detrimental way are whether or not the child spends all his time in day care centers (studies are showing that such children don't grow very well) and whether or not the child's school experience is positive or negative (because of peers or the school system itself.)

Finally, I think parents often don't pay enough attention to a vital ingredient in their child's upbringing. Children need to be taught how to love others and need to be taught about behaving in a kind, honorable, truthful and unselfish manner. If we don't teach them, where will they learn? It gets progressively worse as the years pass, so that finally, we've got an adult who doesn't care about others, and acts as he wishes. Teaching a child to become a loving person requires the elements of experience, example, concept and practice. How well are your nephew's parents doing in that regard? Are they admitting that they may need to improve? Before I took my child to a psychiatrist, I'd do some serious self examination on this point. And frankly, don't we all need to improve? I know that I do.

About your nephew's influence on your son... that's a tough one, because you're dealing with family. Otherwise you might just decide to not have your son play with the other child. Because it's your family, I would consider being honest -- because if families aren't honest, what are we left with? Perhaps you can talk with your nephew's parents about these topics. (Remember that it's extremely important to be very diplomatic.) I wish you all the best in this difficult situation!

Peter Falkenberg Brown is passionate about writing, publishing, public speaking and film. He hopes that someday he can live up to his favorite motto: “Expressing God’s kind and compassionate love in all directions, every second of every day, creates an infinitely expanding sphere of heart.”

~ Deus est auctor amoris et decoris. ~

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