When my seven-year-old son started having massive tantrums and generally exhibiting behaviour I didn't expect to witness for at least another six years, I thought it was a parenting fail.
But then I spoke to other parents and found that it's actually a stage most kids go through - and there's a genuine psychological reason. Psychologist Jean Piaget's Four Stages of Development theory suggests that children can't deal with certain tasks until they are psychologically mature enough to do so and it's this maturing that causes the bad behaviour at age 2-3, 6-7 and - I'm sorry to have to tell you - again at 11-12.
But knowing that there's a genuine reason for it doesn't help me when Harry's having one of his, um, turns. It usually starts with him saying no to everything. He won't get dressed or when he finally does deign to take his clothes off, his pyjamas will go on the floor and he won't pick them up. Threats of punishment are met with smirking (I have extremely low tolerance for smirking). He basically claims he doesn't want to do anything at all and so even leaving the house involves bribes (sorry, I mean "incentives"), threats and then tears from both him and, often, me.
My friend Fiona is experiencing exactly the same thing with her son, Ben. "He's always been pretty well-behaved, but over the last couple of months he's started answering back, saying he hasn't done something when he blatantly has, being really rude and cheeky. He's also lying a lot which I really don't like."
"When we talk about it with him he says he doesn't know why he gets angry he just does. I'm hoping it's just a hormonal thing (he does seem completely irrational at times which I can identify with!) and will stop soon, but it is awful."
I've asked Harry why he thinks he's behaving this way too, but he not only doesn't know, once the tantrum's over, he doesn't seem to remember how bad it was (which also means that he doesn't hold any shouting I've done against me, thank goodness).
The other day, we finally made it to the park after about an hour of negotiations and Harry was generally behaving like a stereotypical teenager, dragging his feet, moaning, "WHY are we even IN the park? It's SO RUBBISH!" I'd tried to joke him out of it and when that didn't work I just ignored him. After about half an hour, he was chatting away and then said, "Hey! I've gone suddenly nice now!" I said, "I noticed. What was the problem before, do you think?" and he said, "Hmm. I don't know."
I had actually been aware of this phenomenon before I had children of my own. Years ago, I regularly looked after four children with a couple of years between each of them, and I noticed that they all seemed to go through this unpleasant "Stroppy Sevens" stage. I asked Narrative Psychologist, Jacqueline Christodoulou, to explain it to me. Jacqueline says: "There are various stages of cognitive development and these fit around behaviours at various ages in behavioural development at the ages you mention, moving from one stage to another."
"The 'stages' are times of transition for children – they don't go to sleep one night in the pre-operational stage and wake up in the senoir-motor stage – but there are changes going on in their ability to think – or cognitive development - around this time, which can lead to parents noticing changes in their children as they move from stage to stage."
"My belief is that every child experiences this differently based on lots of things including diet, parenting styles, place in family – the behavioural aspects would depend on a wide range of things, not just the stages, but they do contribute and, some would say, form a base for behavioural changes. It's no coincidence that school transitions are based around Piaget's stages."
But knowing there's a psychological basis is no real help when you're trying to get a flailing and shrieking seven-year-old into a school uniform (or back out of it again). So what's the best way to deal with it?
Parenting expert Liat Hughes Joshi has some excellent advice: "Consistent and firm boundaries are vital here to help nip this in the bud. If you're dealing with a phase of poor behaviour, sit down together at a time when you are all calm and clarify the family's rules, making it crystal clear what is and isn't allowed.
"Provide lots of examples of what is and generally define what will happen if they do or don't stick with the rules. It's even worth mentioning that life is generally more pleasant if they behave nicely – they won't get told off as much and will have more time to play!
"Generally reward charts work well at this age to encourage good behaviour. You can put the 'rules' on the chart – keep them quite well-defined and clear. Unlike younger children who need the reward to be quite immediate, six and seven year olds can be given daily points or tokens which count towards a treat at the end of the week (a new book, a trip to the park). Some parents like to link the reward chart to pocket money.
"With more serious misdemeanours such as hitting a sibling, you do need to go beyond rewarding and have a negative consequence. I don't believe in smacking (it sets a bad example and makes children believe it's okay to lash out when they're annoyed), nor do I think time out is a good idea (it turns into a very stressful battle). Instead I recommend taking away something which matters to your child (never going as far as confiscating a bedtime comfort item such as a favourite teddy though). Banning TV or computer time for the rest of that day is effective for many children at this age.
"It's vital to stick by the rules all the time – never make hollow threats and always follow through. Kids this age will spot inconsistencies a mile away and will start to exploit this!
"Finally, don't under-estimate the ongoing importance of the basics which you probably kept a close eye on when they were younger. Even six and seven-year-olds still need to be – put in simplistic terms – well-fed, well-watered and well-rested. Hunger and tiredness can significantly affect behaviour even at this age, so keep a close eye on whether they are getting enough sleep (most kids need 10 to 11 hours a night at six or seven but it does vary) and whether they still might need (hopefully healthy) snacks between meals to fend off rudeness.
"None of this will necessarily fix this phase over night but it will over time and it should stop this turning into an ingrained pattern of behaviour beyond this phase."
Here's hoping so. Next the Tyrannical Twelves!