Saturday, December 11

Toddler is Mean, Hits, Bad Temper, Won't Sleep Through the Night, Punishments Don't Work

Question:  I have a 2 year old and he is always hitting his older brother with toys.  He throws them at him and is just mean with him.  He also always thinks of bad things to do like mess things up or make a mess with his drink or food.  He tries to hit me and others.  He has a bad temper when he doesn’t get his way.  He also doesn’t sleep through the night.  He gets up at least 3 times throughout the night and fights in his sleep sometimes.  I get really frustrated because I don't know how to talk to him anymore and punishments don't work on him.  He just doesn’t care.  I would really like some advice because I didn't have this problem with my older child.  Thank You -
Answer:
This sounds like attention-getting behavior.  It sounds like your son does not feel secure and thinks that the best way to get attention is to be mean.  The way we make kids feel secure is to provide them with structure, communication, limits, consistency, and guidance (my Five Basics).  This means a strict daily schedule/routine - the same tasks at the same time everyday - wake up, eat breakfast, daycare/or activity at home, snack, nap, lunch, dinner, bath, bedtime...ALL of it.  He also needs a way to communicate his wants/needs with you NICELY, he needs limits on all activities, actions, choices, etc., he needs you to be CONSISTENT with your follow through, and he needs your nonstop guidance on what you WANT to see...not just what you DON'T.  It's very easy to say 'no, stop that, cut it out', all the time, but what kids need is your guidance on what you DO want to see: 'touch softly, use your words, quiet bottom, quiet feet'.  For example, when eating a meal, instead of saying, "stop squirming" tell him "quiet bottom, quiet feet".
 There are tons of strategies to stop negative behavior and increase good behavior - too much for an email - but if you are a book reader, or can even get through sections here and there, Life with Toddlers can teach you some great strategies to use.  You need to learn how to stop reinforcing bad behavior; if you give him what he wants, he will repeat the behavior because it works.  You also need to learn how to set him up to feel secure.  Toddlers act out when they don't understand their boundaries - they really want and NEED boundaries to feel secure.  And you need to understand the daily things you can do to help him understand what you want to see. 
I am sure you are a busy person - and the more kids we have, the less time we have to deal with it, but they each need the same focus, attention, and guidance.  When my kids were little I was SO tired ALL THE TIME, but each day I had to do my best, not hound myself when I messed up, and promise to do better tomorrow.
 Think about his goal in acting mean, hitting, making a mess, etc.  Is it to get your attention?  Even if it's simply yelling at him, that's attention - and he'll take what he can get.  And if you yell, he gets what he wants, so the behavior works and he'll do it again.  Whatever it is you are doing for punishment - if it is not working, then you need to try a different approach.  Stop doing it because it's only reinforcing his behavior.  When YOU start to approach his behavior differently, HE will stop acting that way.  Change your thinking: think more in terms of 'what can I change/do' instead of 'how can I stop him from hitting, etc.'  Focus more on you - your behavior and reactions to him.  When you change, and he starts to understand what you want to see and how to act, then he will change. 
 Also, remember that our kids pick up our frustration, anger, and resentment and it keeps a negative spin going.  He will act out more because he wants your attention, but you get more and more frustrated with the behavior...and it just keeps spinning.  You have to stop, refocus, rethink, and do things differently.
 Good luck!  You are a great Mommy - I know you can do it!       

Toddler Hitting, Pushing Baby Brother, Only Sees Traveling Dad Once a Month

Question:  My wife and I are having trouble with our 2 1/2 year old hitting, pushing his 10 month old brother, and acting out. I think the activator is that I am working out of state and only see them once a month. This occurs at various times of the day, and my wife does do time outs with him and tries to explain what he's doing isn't nice. Our daycare provider also is having difficulty. I talk to them almost every day by webcam so he knows I am still around. Any advice? Thanks -
Answer:
The first thing he needs is structure, consistency, and limits (these are part of my Five Basics found in the book).  Toddlers LOVE a set routine and get loads of security from knowing what comes next and what to expect.  Your schedule is upsetting to him, as toddlers need consistency to keep them balanced.  Plus, my guess is that baby brother is getting more of the attention - just by sheer necessity, and he's only showing you he's off balance and feeling insecure.  BUT, your schedule is what it is and we need to get a mutual respect going.  He has to respect that you have a job to do, that you don't love him any less, and you are doing your best.  And you have to respect that he needs a little different approach from you and your wife to decrease the unwanted behaviors.  Often our guilt overrides what is best for our kids - thus we give them what they want all the time, thinking it will make them happy - or we overlook hitting or pushing because we know they are tired or upset.  The intention is honorable, but it only serves to make them feel more and more insecure, as they are desperately searching for boundaries.  So the "respect" he needs from you two is firm and loving guidance.  Your wife is most likely completely exhausted, so that doesn't make it any easier, but this is the marathon.  Like you, I've had the two little ones at the same time, and it's a grind, but you have to keep getting up every day, giving them the same routine, and CONSTANT guidance. 
1.  Look on my website (www.lifewithtoddlers.com) and click on the fridge icon for the TAG (Toddler ABC Guide) for a very basic overview of the three steps to decreasing unwanted behavior.  It really needs to be used in conjunction with the book - there is just too much information to put in an email or simple 4 page guide, but it will give you basic picture of how to approach the behavior.  We have to change our reactions and stop reinforcing behaviors we don't want to see.  (If the behaviors are getting worse or staying the same, then you are unknowingly reinforcing it - he will do it again because it works.)  You have to look at why he's doing it (my guess is attention and a bit of anger and imbalance) and customize your response.  He has to know that the behavior is unacceptable, of course, but he also has to have guidance on what you WANT to see for next time.  When you first get home, you may need to pull him aside, give him tons of love, and at the same time, if he is resistive or aggressive (in anger or for attention) do not tolerate it.  I know you are just thrilled to see him after being away, but don't let guilt or sadness get in the way of what he needs, okay?  You are a great father and having to discipline as soon as you step foot in the door only means that you are on the ball and giving him what he needs: consistency, guidance, limits, security, balance.  THAT is love.
 2.  When you first get home, set aside time for him - with just you.  A game, a book, a walk - quality time so he can get adjusted to you being home again and get in a groove.  And remember, kids don't need 'things' - they need time.  They don't care about toys and gifts.  Attention is what they want and need.  
3. Get a schedule going.  Have a set routine that he goes through each and every day with mom - everything at the same time everyday: wake up, breakfast, errands, lunch, nap, snack, play, dinner, bath, bedtime - whatever fits your needs.  Keep it absolutely consistent.  Don't change it just because you're home for two days, either.  He needs it to stay the same so he will feel secure.  Toddlers thrive on a routine - it helps SO much with behavior.
4.  Time outs are tricky.  You have to do them correctly and be absolutely consistent or they are a waste of time.  My book details the how-to's.  You need minimal talking/input, and you have to make sure you are giving them the opposite of what they want.  Time outs aren't always the full answer, or even the answer at all.  I do use them a lot with toddlers, but they need to be customized to each situation depending on WHY the child is acting out.
5.  Your daycare providers should have a procedure in place to deal with behavior.  Most of it is doing your part at home with a strict schedule, consistent consequences, and constant guidance on what you want to see, but the daycare should have a routine and consequences that they put in place as well.  You will need to work together on this. 
6.  My last suggestion - make sure there are no teeth coming in or something physical making him cranky.  Two year molars are a bear.  Also, make sure his diet is good - processed foods and sugars are (in my humble opinion) behavior problems waiting to happen.        
Best of luck!

Toddler Doesn't Listen, Ignores Mom, Thinks Time-Out is Funny

Question:  I have a 23 month old son. For the most part he is a good kid but most of the time he doesn't listen to me.  He will just ignore me.  I have tried time out but he just thinks it's funny. I don't like to spank him so I am trying to find an alternate way of discipline.  What can I do?  Thank you -
Answer:

First of all, I'd make sure he can actually hear you.  Sometimes they have goo in their ears and can't make out what you want/say.  I usually see if they can hear noises first (does he startle, turn, etc.), then give him a direction when his back is turned...something he loves to do.  For instance, if he loves fish crackers, when his back is turned, ask him (in a normal voice) if he'd like some.  See if he turns around and comes to you.  But don't hold the food up or give him any visual cues...otherwise he will still piece it together from the visual. 

If you think there's an issue, you can have his ears checked at the doctor's office.  They can do a screen and at least see if there is wax or if his eardrum isn't moving as it should (an indication of fluid in the ear).  They can also check adenoids and tonsils and make further recommendations. 

After you determine that he can, in fact, hear you, you just have to be firm with your time outs.  At that age they haven't quite connected crime and punishment, so you are training him (so to speak) on what time outs are for.  He will think it's funny, but if you do not give him attention when he laughs about it or monkeys around, he will eventually realize that it's not so groovy.  My book covers it, but remember, no eye contact, talking, or attention during time out.  Stay with him so he stays put, but he needs his back to you, and he gets the opposite of what he is demanding.  Do not reinforce what you don't want to see - that means no attention for the behavior and no caving to demands.  You don't want to ignore the behavior, so the time-out serves to address it by telling him, "when you do this, you have to sit here and get no attention".  And make sure and tell him what you DO want and when you like what you see.  That reinforces the good.

Normally Sweet 2 Year Old Suddenly Very Aggressive with No Eye Contact, Won't Pay Attention

Question:  My normally sweet, well behaved 2 yr old (only child) has suddenly become very aggressive towards the other children in his preschool (toy swiping, pushing, etc.) He will not make eye contact with teachers when reprimanded.  How can we get him to pay attention when we are talking to him? This type of behavior continues at home. He throws a fit when he does get what he wants.
Answer:
If this is sudden and out of the norm, I would first rule out teeth or some other physical pain.  Those two-year molars can be a bear and can make them VERY cranky.  Also look at life changing stressors - a move, a new baby, etc.  You might also have his ears checked.  Not looking you in the eye makes me curious if he actually hears what you're saying - or if it makes sense to him.  Fluid or infections can make comprehension take a dive. 
Once you rule out anything physical or an obvious stress, the first rule of thumb is that you do NOT reward behavior you don't want to see.  If he throws a fit, be darned sure he doesn't get what he wants.  Sometimes it's difficult to figure out what they DO want - but take a step back and try to look at it with fresh eyes.  Go to www.lifewithtoddlers.com and click on the fridge icon - it will give you a basic overview of the ABC guide and how to address behavior.  It's really meant to be used in conjunction with the book - there is just too much information and training to stuff into a simple guide - but it does get you to start thinking differently. 
Most toddlers will start in with the fits and tantrums at around 2 - we just have to let them know that it is not okay and guide them on what we DO want to see.  Many times, in our effort to do the best for our child, we give in to demands thinking it will make them happy - but it does the opposite and makes them very insecure - then they throw more and more fits in an effort to find some boundaries, and you've got yourself a giant pickle! 
As far as school goes, they should have some sort of method or system they use to address aggressive behavior.  Make sure they are consistent with whatever is actually working.  If it's not, they need to try a different approach.  And hey, he doesn't HAVE to look you or a teacher in the eye - he just needs to have a consequence that gives him the opposite of what he wants.  Then he needs constant guidance on what you DO want to see next time.  Model for him, tell him, show him. 
However, if he is going in a completely different direction (ie, tearing away from you) when you try to address the behavior, that tells me something might be off.  If he stands still while being corrected, that is different.  He at least knows he's done something wrong - even if he's not clear what.  But if he is tearing away from you, he needs a time out to cool down and get refocused on you.  Time out how to's are in my book - you need to have minimal talking, minimal attention, and absolute follow through.  Otherwise it's a waste and will not work.  After he is calm, use very simple, concise language to tell him what you want and how to behave.
You also want to make sure he can actually hear what you're saying to him.  To do a quick check of his hearing, pick a time when he is calm - say, eating a meal or playing quietly - and ask a simple one step command.  "Put the block here" or "give me your spoon please" - something completely casual, and see if he follows the command.  That will help you to know if he hears and understands or not.  Check to see if he watches your face closely (an indication that he has to concentrate to hear/understand) or if he doesn't need to look at you at all and can still follow the command.

Best of luck - it sounds like you are on top of it and you're a great Mommy!

Toddler with Worst Temper Grandma Has Ever Seen

Question:  I have a 2yr old grandson that has the worst temper I have ever seen.  He hits, bites, yells, and my daughter has tried everything that she knows what to do or what I TELL her to do but it’s not working.  We need help!  Does he need to see a doctor?  He is a very busy child, always on the go.  He is a sweetheart and I love him but we can’t take him out to eat or anything...HELP!  We tried to talk to a doctor about it and he said he is just a strong will child, but I have never seen a child like this.  I raised three kids and I’ve been around kids...he is the worst.  What can she do or what should she do? Should he be tested?  Thanks - please get back with me....
Answer:
Well, two is tough, and yes, some kids are simply strong willed, but I will tell you right now, a general pediatrician will not be of any help.  They just don't have the training with behavior.  It is possible (if this behavior is new and not normal for him) that it could be his teeth or something physical, but if this is normal for him - I hate to say it, but it is probably how he has learned to get his way.  As far as testing him...I would say 'no' at the moment, because this all sounds behavior related (as opposed to a disorder).  Most of the time (although there are exceptions) when the caregiver changes how THEY deal with the behavior, and stop reinforcing the bad/negative, the behavior calms down significantly.  My guess is that whatever it is that your daughter is doing to "deal" with it is only telling/training the child that "you get what you want when you act this way, so keep doing it".  Our intentions are usually honorable - we only want the best for our children, but many times we end up reinforcing the exact behavior we do NOT want to see!  It is frustrating, but true.   
You must learn how to turn around your entire approach to behavior.  My ABC method teaches you how to look at each behavior, figure out what he wants, then give him the opposite so that he will stop using that behavior (for example, biting) to get what he wants.  When it stops working, he will try something else.  Then we have to constantly SHOW toddlers how we WANT them to behave to get what they want in a positive way.  And we must never, ever, give them what they want when they throw a fit, bite, hit, yell, etc.  It is easy to give in when you are worn flat, but when you do, it only gets worse.  And if he is truly strong willed, you have to put in more effort. 
You are a wonderful Grandma, caring so much for him and looking out for the future, but this is first and foremost your daughter's task.  If she is the main caregiver, she must turn around her approach to EVERYTHING.  And that is not easy.  Most of the time, behaviors like these are related to attention-seeking or simple demands.  They demand and demand - and we give them what they want, thinking it will make them happy.  The problem is that toddlers don't know what they NEED - which is my Five Basics of Structure, Communication, Limits, Consistency, and Guidance.  If these are in place, and your daughter changes her approach/reactions to his behavior, he will feel much more secure and will not need to use negative behavior to get what he wants.
Go to www.LifewithToddlers.com and click on the picture of the fridge for a quick look at my ABC method.  It is a very, very basic overview - you really need to read the book for training on how to change your thinking, but it will give you an idea of the approach to that 3 step method.  My book also goes in-depth into many, many other ways to change behavior and train our kids how we want them to behave. 
For now, think about what you and your daughter are doing in response to the behavior.  Step back and really think about what he wants.  And does he end up getting what he wants?  If so, that has to stop!  Look at that ABC guide and see if you can figure out a different approach. 
Raising toddlers is so difficult - it is nonstop guidance and redirection.  But when you put in the time up front, the end result is fantastic - they grow up into these sweet, smart, secure little people - makes you want to cry!! 
Good luck!  You can do it!!  You just have to be firm and consistent.  

Two Year Old is SO Busy...Is it ADD or is this Normal?

Questions:  My two year old is VERY busy.  Everyone assures me that this is normal, but I see other 2yr olds and they can at least sit and listen to a story.  He is different when he is out.  He has to look at everything and WILL NOT listen most of the time.  How do you know if your child is ADD at 2yrs old when everyone tells me this is normal?
Answer:
Don't rush onto the ADD bandwagon...your friends are probably right!  Boys, especially, tend to be active and two is a crazy year.

In my book I go over numerous strategies to get your child to listen - and figure out why he's not.  Make sure you are not reinforcing behavior you don't want to see.  Does he get away with not listening?  Do you sometimes just give up because you are tired of asking eight million times?  (Believe me, I understand!)  Toddlers need CONSTANT hands-on guidance and nonstop direction and redirection on what you want to see and how you want them to behave.  And they absolutely cannot get away with behavior you don't want to see.  If you let it slide once, they will try it again because it works.  This is tricky, however, as we do not want to focus on the negative part (what we don't want to see).  We do this with lectures, yelling, 'stop that', 'no!', 'don't do that!'  This type of negative attention only reinforces the behavior and doesn't tell our child what we DO want to see.  My book details a ton of strategies to decrease unwanted behavior and how to focus on what we WANT to see.

Also, in ruling out ADD/ADHD, take a look at his diet.  (Again, my book goes into this).  Processed foods, sugar, fast food...it's all just ICK that we give to our kids.  I always advise feeding kids food that is as close to its natural state as possible.  Get a book by Dr. Andrew Weil or Dr. Oz - or even just go online to find some free advice on healthy foods.  Food allergies and reactions to icky food are, in my humble opinion, a big cause of behavior problems. 

Army Mom Travels: Toddler Hits, Bites, Kicks when Mom Returns Home

Question:  My 24 month old is having issues with biting, hitting and kicking. I am in the Army and I am gone a few weeks here and there and every time I return from military duty or training my daughter’s biting, hitting, two-finger scratching (two fingers like a claw) and now kicking, seems to get worse. She does attend daycare, however, none of these issues seem to be a problem at daycare. They are only directed at me and her father.  How do I control or even help stop these behaviors from carrying on in to the 2's and 3's?
Answer:

Bless you for serving this country.  Your dedication is deeply appreciated - don't ever forget that!

Okay, now that I've wiped my tears...on to biting and hitting - my thing!

If your daughter is doing well at daycare, it sounds to me like what she needs at home is more of what she gets at daycare: structure, consistency, limits (these are part of my Five Basics found in the book).  Toddlers LOVE a set routine and get loads of security from knowing what comes next and what to expect.  Your schedule is upsetting to her, as toddlers need consistency to keep them balanced.  She's only showing you she's off balance and feeling insecure.  BUT, your schedule is what it is and we need to get a mutual respect going.  She has to respect that you have a job to do, that you don't love her any less, and you are doing your best.  And you have to respect that she needs a little different approach from you to decrease the unwanted behaviors.  Often our guilt overrides what is best for our kids - thus we give them what they want all the time, thinking it will make them happy - or we overlook hitting because we know they are tired or upset.  The intention is honorable, but it only serves to make them feel more and more insecure, as they are desperately searching for boundaries.  So the "respect" she needs from you is firm and loving guidance. 

So. 

1.  Look on my website for the TAG (Toddler ABC Guide) for a very basic overview of the three steps to decreasing unwanted behavior.  It really needs to be used in conjunction with the book - there is just too much information to put in an email or simple 4 page guide, but it will give you a basic picture of how to approach the behavior.  We have to change our reactions and stop reinforcing behaviors we don't want to see.  (If the hitting and biting gets worse or stays the same, then you are unknowingly reinforcing it - she will do it again because it works.)  You have to look at why she's doing it (my guess is attention and a bit of anger that you are gone) and customize your response.  She has to know that the behavior is unacceptable, of course, but she also has to have guidance on what you WANT to see for next time.  When you first get home, you may need to pull her aside, give her tons of love, and at the same time, if she is resistive or aggressive (in anger or for attention) do not tolerate it.  Give her an outlet for it - stomping her foot, hitting a big ball - whatever you think is appropriate, but do not let aggressive behavior (toward you or your husband) slide.  I know you are just thrilled to see her after being away, but don't let guilt or sadness get in the way of what she needs, okay?  You are a great mom and having to discipline as soon as you step foot in the door only means that you are on the ball and giving her what she needs: consistency, guidance, limits, security, balance.  THAT is love.

2.  When you first get home, set aside time for her - with just you.  A game, a book, a walk - quality time so she can get adjusted to you being home again and get in a groove.  And remember, kids don't need 'things' - they need time.  They don't care about toys and gifts.  Attention is what they want and need.  

3. Get a schedule going.  Have a set routine that you go through with her each and every day.  Ideally, this is one that is carried over even when you are not home - everything at the same time everyday: wake up, breakfast, errands, lunch, nap, snack, play, dinner, bath, bedtime - whatever fits your needs.  But she will do the best when you keep it consistent.  Think about what she does at daycare...the same schedule every day, right?  I'm telling ya, they love it.

Best of luck - you are awesome and I know you can do it!

Four Year Old Hits and Tantrums When He Doesn't Get His Way

Question:  My 4 year old son hits me when he can't get his own way and very often has a tantrum. This is very embarrassing particularly when we are out in public. What can I do when this kind of behavior is taking place and what can I do to head off this behavior before it starts?
Answer:

If he is already four, we need to fix this quick - the older he gets, the worse it will become!  Generally, by four years old, you should be home free when it comes to tantrums and hitting.  So let's nix this!

1. Look to my website for the TAG (Toddler ABC Guide) - just click on the fridge icon.  It will give you a very basic overview of how to use the three step method and figure out why he's acting that way and how to address it correctly.  It sounds like you are unknowingly reinforcing the behavior you don't want to see - we do it all the time and have no idea!  You have to retrain yourself - step back and be objective about the behavior (I know...very difficult when you are near tears with embarrassment) so that you can stop giving him what he wants.  When he gets his way, it reinforces the behavior; he will do it again because it works.  So we have to stop reacting the same way we always react.  If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get the same results!  So turn things around.  Change your reaction, address the behavior correctly, and it will stop.

2.  My book is written specifically for this very thing - he is a bit old, but the methods will still work wonders if you present it correctly.  It's all about setting up a positive, structured environment, heading off trouble before it starts, and SHOWING your child how you WANT them to act, instead of getting all worked up and focusing on the negative ("stop that!" "cut it out!" "no!").  Yes, they absolutely have to know that the behavior is unacceptable, of course...but how?  And then what?  If we don't address it correctly and provide guidance on what we want to see next time, he simply won't know.  So, A) we have to custom-address (so to speak) the negative behavior - figure out what he wants in that particular situation and make sure he does NOT get it, and B) we have to guide him on how to act appropriately. 

The Toddler ABC Guide on my website really needs to be used in conjunction with the book - taken as a whole, you learn how to figure out their needs, approach problem behavior, and turn it around for good.  There are tons of strategies and examples of how to plug in the TAG and approach different situations. 

Your son is looking for some strict structure and limits - he may pitch a fit when you provide them at first, but it gives him the security he desperately needs to make him balanced and happy.  It is difficult for parents; the intention is honorable - you think you are making him happy by giving him what he wants all the time, but it actually does the opposite and makes him feel more and more insecure...which leads to more negative behavior because he is desperately trying to find out where his boundaries are so he can feel secure.  It's a big, messy circle.  So stay firm and loving, but don't cave in!      

Best of luck!  I know you can do it!       

Toddler Won't go to Bed at Night

Question:  My toddler doesn’t want to go to sleep at bedtime, and when she finally does, it’s 1am.  How can I get her to sleep by 7pm or 8pm?
Answer: 
The main thing you need to do is have a very strict, structured bedtime routine.  For example:
7:00 bath
7:20 out of bath, brush teeth, get P.J.'s on
7:30 two books with Mommy
7:40 lights out

You can change the times as you need, but it needs to be the same activities, every night, at the same time.  You cannot do three books instead of two, you cannot let her play longer in the tub, and you cannot let her get her way when she screams to stay up longer.  She needs serious routine because toddlers thrive on knowing what will come next and what to expect.  She will push and push to make sure you mean what you say, but she WANTS you to stick to the routine because it gives her security. 

She needs to feel secure in your love for her, and she needs to learn how to comfort herself to sleep.  If (for example) she only goes to bed cuddled up with mommy, then that is what she has "learned" as the correct way to go to sleep.  You have to teach/show her a different way.  This is all explained in my book and it gives you tons and tons of strategies to create a positive environment and stop reinforcing behavior you don't want to see.

So start with a strict routine and make sure you stick with it every single night.  When bedtime comes, she goes down.  Period.  Don't let her talk you into four more books, or three more glasses of water.  Make sure she has a favorite stuffed animal or blanket, and project your love and security on to her.  Stay firm and loving.  

Toddler Torn Between Two Families: No Support or Consistency

Questions:  My 3 and a half year old grandson has problems with aggressive behavior:  hitting, tantrums, and not wanting to sleep in his bed (he sleeps on the floor in his Dad and step Mom's room).  My son has custody and the child have visitation with his Mother and stepbrother. The family values are different in each household and there is not a good relationship between the mother and father.  How do we deal with these problems knowing that the other household will not help on these issues?  He is constantly telling us that his mother always says bad things about his Dad.  His father and all of us refrain from saying negative things about her and her family.  I feel that he is torn with two ways of living and I do not know how to help him or my son help him.  He is a dear little boy and I just want him to feel loved and confident about himself.  I’m not saying that all of his problems are the other family's fault as my son has had custody for a year.  I just need to know how to help him deal with his feelings in a positive manner.

Answer:  
Oooh - you sound like such a wonderful influence on him - and great balls of fire, the whole situation is just sticky! 
You are absolutely right - his behaviors are due to lack of consistency and positive environment.  And it's SO hard because even if you guys did everything right, as soon as he goes to the other household, it gets unwound and undone and you have to start all over again.  BUT, if that's what you've got, that's what you've got, and let's just deal with it.
1.  When he is  with your son, he needs ABSOLUTE consistency and structure.  He needs to know what to expect, what comes next (during the day), and how to behave.  At nearly four, these behaviors should be fading out, not getting more aggressive - so the caregivers have got to have a shift in their thinking now and STOP reinforcing behavior they do not want to see.  We do it all the time and don't even know it!!  The TAG method (Toddler ABC Guide) explained in my book shows you how to deal with problem behavior effectively.  The TAG method wraps around setting up a positive environment and setting up each situation for success.  Many times with negative behavior, when we discipline, we focus too much on what we DON'T want to see.  We need to shift: he needs to have consequences to his behavior, for sure, but we also have to show him what we DO want for next time.  If you don't show him, he doesn't know.  And at this point, he is bounced back and forth and I'm sure there is tons of guilt flying around...but the caregivers MUST be consistent and give him boundaries so that we can break this cycle and make him feel safe and secure.  The intention of parents is honorable - you think you are making him happy by giving him what he wants all the time, but it actually does the opposite and makes him feel more and more insecure...which leads to more negative behavior because he is desperately trying to find out where his boundaries are so he can feel secure.  It's a big, messy circle.  So.  He needs a daily schedule, a set routine, and an absolute shift in how you deal with his behavior.  He keeps doing it because it works. When YOU stop reacting the same, the behavior will slow down and stop.  Go to my website http://www.lifewithtoddlers.com/ and click on the fridge icon for a very basic overview of TAG.  You have to use it in conjunction with the book, but it will give you an idea of where you need to start.
2.  If there is any way on Earth that you can get your son to read Life with Toddlers - or even just flip through it - he needs to do that.  It is chock-full of ways to reduce problem behavior and set up a positive environment.  Most of the time, especially with kids who consistently tantrum and throw fits, you have to have step back and take a look at the entire environment and make a shift in how he is cared for...THEN the behaviors will slow down dramatically.  Right now, he is not feeling secure so he need loads of structure, limits, consistency, and guidance (all part of my Five Basics) to bring some of that balance back, and he needs caregivers to stop reinforcing behavior they do not want to see.
You are wonderful person, caring so deeply for this child - my deepest good will is sent your way and best wishes for a quick and happy turn around.  Do your best to give him everything he needs while with your son, and that is all you can do.  He will eventually 'get it' and figure out where he feels more secure, safe, and happy.  Hopefully, the love and guidance you two provide will set him on a positive path.