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Very concerned about toddlers regressive behavior
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Very concerned about toddlers regressive behavior

I am very concerned about my (almost) 3 year olds recent behavior.  when he was born, i had full custody until he was 2 years old.  In October 2008, we went to court and the judge compltely reversed the custody arrangements because he said i was trying to "excise," the father out of our son's life.  Although this was not the case, the judge seemed to want to make an example out of me.  I have been without custody of my son since then, and we go back to court at the end of this month for my appeal.  

My sons behavior has changed, for the worst, dramatically.  He is fully potty trained, but lately while he's throwing a temper tantrum and when he’s really upset, he tells me hes going to pee on the floor and he thinks its hilarious.  he has peed on the floor many times, and last weekend he pooped on my floor.  He cusses at me, tells me, “I don’t wanna hear your damn mouth,” and, “Shut your damn mouth,” he calls me an *** and tells me hes going to shoot me and hits me.  I know his father spanks him and I think that’s why he hits me.  he also takes him to the shooting range and he has shot deer on the side of the road with my son in the car and I think this is why he says he’s going to shoot me.  when we see a deer (at the zoo or in our back yard) he calls it a, “Boom Boom,” instead of a deer.  Would it effect a young child in a negative way to witness a deer being shot?  also, when it is time for him to go back to his fathers house, he screams, “I don’t wanna go to my daddys,” over and over and he gets SO upset its hard to even get him dressed.  his behaviors have gotten worse as each month has gone by.  he has gotten more and more upset when its time to go back to his dads house and its really upsetting to see this affecting my young son this way.   Does anyone has any insight into regressive behaviors by children going through a bad custody situation
Would this be considered PTSD ? Please help if you can and let me know if these behaviors can be changed.
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Hello Abby,
   I feel for you in this painful situation. Family law can be capricious and at times do things that make situations worse. I want to encourage you to consult your attorney as well as your son's guardian ad litem (GAL) for legal advice, because I am not a forensic psychologist or a source of legal information. That said, I would encourage you to ask your son's GAL to recommend a custody evaluation that includes an attachment study and evaluation of parental fitness. A custody evaluation will be conducted by a forensic psychologist who specializes in evaluating both parent's skills, the child's bond with both parents, and will consider the impact that various custody arrangements could have on the child.

For a child your son's age to go from full time with one parent to all of a sudden full time with the other would be a major emotional disruption to his life. Young children can be severely impacted by separations from their primary care taker, be it a mother or a father. Such drastic changes are not usually done unless the child is in danger while in one parent's care. Making such a drastic switch in a young child's world is very unlikely to be consistent with acting 'in the best interests of the child,' so it appears that you need the help of the GAL to bring in psychological experts.

Your son would not necessarily meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD, as the diagnostic criteria are written for adults. Trauma in children does happen of course, though it is not generally diagnosed as PTSD because children show different symptoms that adults need to show to make a formal diagnosis. That does not mean that your son has not undergone a severe stressor, and it will be the role of a court appointed psychologist to establish that.

You may be releived to know that It is not clear that many of these behaviors are far outside the realm of normal three year old behavior. They do not necessarily indicate that your son has been permantely damaged. The behaviors you write about are upsetting for a parent, though keep in mind that your 3 year old does not really understand a lot of what he is doing. Three year old's don't understand what curse words mean or the power those words have to hurt others. Little boys may often make pretend shooting sounds to show they are angry with you (easier for them than using words to describe what they feel). Little children do not understand about an animal's suffering or death--most 3 year old boys are excited by pretending to use guns or swords. The potty issues are a very unpleasant regression, though your son is probably both fascinated by what his body can do, as well as craving yoru attention (both positive and negative). I am not saying that these are desirable behaviors that I would want to see a child engage in on a routine basis, only that they are not necessarily indicative of trauma.

That said, your son is using his behavior as communication. Your son may have angry, hurt and bewildered feelings that are well beyond what he can manage without becoming overwhelmed. His little world has been turned upside down, and he is justified in feeling frustrated that the adults could not prevent it. Just because these behaviors might not indicate a major trauma is no reason to accept or ignore them. I would expect that he is imitating lots of what he has been exposed to, and that these may dissipate when he is feeling calm and secure again. I would strongly advise you that in addition to seeking a forensic psychological evaluation, you seek a psychotherapist who can help you and your son. A psychologist can help you and your little one learn to cope with all this stress as well as help you learn to manage your son's behavior.

Best wishes
Rebecca Resnik
Disclaimer: This post was written for information purposes. It is not intended to replace face to face psychological or medical care. This post is not intended to create a patient-clinician relationship, nor to give or rule-out a diagnosis.
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Rebecca Resnik, PsyDBlank
MindWell Clinical Psychology
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