Monday, June 11, 2018

Learning issues and anger overload

Dear Dr Dave,

We are writing to summarize some of the difficulties we are facing as a family in the hope that you can assist us, or direct us to the help we need.

Our daughter is in year 3 at school and is the elder of our 2 children.

She has presented some behavioural difficulties in the home for years (we would probably say she was “born like this”). Recently we have reached an impasse as a family and we fear what will develop in the future if we don’t tackle it now.

80-90% of the time she is a happy loving child, but intermittently she is very unhappy, dissatisfied with our parenting, angry and abnormally egotistical. Asking her to “do” anything can involve extensive negotiation and bribery. She can occasionally extract a high price for co-operation and pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable. She finds it hard to “empathize” and consider the feelings of others. She states that she is not given enough freedom or choice, that we are “mean” and that we constantly criticize her or tell her “no” all the time. Her relationship with us often feels “transactional”. She states that other families are “nicer” and that her friends “get what they want” whereas we are too strict. We are trying to give her more responsibility in life (which she enjoys) but continues to push the boundaries on what’s acceptable.

In opposition to us, she occasionally flies into uncontrollable rages lasting about 30 minutes to an hour. She shouts (loudly) and can be rude during these outbursts. Often the rages are preceded by a discussion about doing written homework (which is a major flash point), or more commonly by some perceived “unfairness” in relation to her sister. Often the issues that “set her off” seem quite trivial from the outside.

The rages are most common at bedtime when she is tired but finds it very very difficult to get to sleep. (She goes to bed at 8pm but is rarely asleep before 9.30/10pm.)

We find that in these rages she spirals out of control, unable to self-regulate her behaviour or return to a balanced emotional state. We have always tried “reasoning” and discussion, but with age she has only used this time to create narrative explanations that justify her point of view, rather than accepting any wrong-doing or the need to calm-down / apologise. We end up in lengthy conversations where she challenges us. This pattern seems unproductive.

Recently we have smacked her to bring an end to tantrums. We have then apologized to her but it is clear that she is upset and that it has caused more harm than good. This is not how we intended to parent and we are both mortified it has come to this.

We are working within fairly fixed routines at home to avoid these escalating confrontations. She has always responded best to routines and to discussing (often at length) what is involved with any trip or activity. However, slight changes to plan can be met with outbursts and angry talk. We are unable to confidently leave her in the care of others, including most of the grand-parents, who cannot “cope” with her over night.

We are particularly concerned about the impact of food on her behaviour. She has a limited diet and has never taken to eating much hot food. To avoid confrontation we have accepted that she will only eat familiar foods and only eat sandwiches after school. She prefers packaged foods, hates nearly all fruit and vegetables, is upset by “texture” and is obsessed with sugar. We try to restrict this because we see a strong link between it and her more challenging behaviour. This is now another flash-point because she “hates” us for limiting her access to sweets. This is especially difficult because many of her friends are now given more control over their food (and larger treats). Her best friend has very relaxed permissive parents who rarely discipline or limit sugar and this is an increasingly difficult situation.

She is particularly critical of our parenting in relation to school-work, claiming that we “push her” and try to make her “better than other children.” If we ever did imagine that we would invest / contribute to her learning, then we have long since dropped this view in favor of modest objectives such as completing home-\work. We also know that we are doing much less with her than many of our friends do with their (very happy) children, so it is hard to understand why she hates us and feels so inadequate.

In reality we are worried about her reading (phonics has been a disaster), hand-writing (messy, not joined) and spelling (dreadful and random), and no doubt we have been mistaken in allowing her to know we are concerned. However, the school assures us she will “get there in the end” and we have decided to trust in their judgement.

Indeed the school reports that she does “meet expectations.” She has mild dyslexia, which seems to be enough to make her dislike written work, but not enough to merit any extra help or interventions within the school budget.

She is on the national average for most subjects. She is certainly well behaved in class and liked by teachers but has needed “pushing” to get her started on tasks which she tends to procrastinate.  She is naturally “efficient,” putting in the least amount of work to answer the question. She is also a funny mixture of “relentlessly logical” and intense, whilst also being very messy / disordered / forgetful.

We observe that she is mostly on-track and very ordinary in all her development. She has a few personal “quirks” that include vocalizing (loudly) by talking to herself, singing, clicking and whistling at home. That has been difficult to live with and sometimes causes tension. She likes to hang off furniture, is quite clumsy with herself and her toys and finds it a challenge to do things that require a good understanding of “left and right” or any dexterity (such as cutlery.) She finds it hard to copy from the board or follow straight lines while reading. At one point we wondered if there might be something else wrong but have dismissed the thought because the extent of it is all quite mild and is improving.

However, the rages are an ongoing issue and because of them we are not enjoying the parenting experience. We feel our relationship with her is slightly broken. The whole environment is placing enormous stress on an otherwise happy marriage.

Our younger daughter has an entirely different character and is very upset by the negative environment that can develop at home. At the moment she is coping but shows signs of stress. She hides from her sister, takes the brunt of the anger (verbally) and tells us that she does like the “shouting.” A sad state.

We might need to speak to someone.

Any advice you can give much appreciated.


Hi, Sounds like you have tried a number of things, and it must be very frustrating to see little or no change in her angry outbursts.  While I will mention a few strategies to try, it sounds to me like you should meet with a mental health professional in your area who works with children and families.  

One concern is that there are various signs of subtle developmental lags, and these lags are probably causing her frustration with schoolwork.  You mention the dyslexia which will affect her interest in reading, writing, and schoolwork generally.  Maybe it is a reason why she resists homework.  You also mention her difficulty with distinguishing left and right and with fine motor tasks.  I would recommend a complete psycho-neurological evaluation that looks at her cognitive strengths and weaknesses, as well as a pediatric occupational therapy evaluation that looks at her fine motor skills and her ability to distinguish left from right.  Sometimes when kids get help with these skills, it reduces the frequency of temper tantrums as they feel less frustrated and feel more adequate in relation to their peers (and her sister).  What if testing shows she is bright but struggling in school because of learning disabilities?  You would want to address those issues while she is young and her brain is growing.

In terms of anger, I like your use of routines to try to head of outbursts.  If there is a change in routine, try to let her know early in the day.  If you discuss reasons, keep it brief, and stop if she escalates.   In regards to her relationship with her sister, I would try to ask the local children's librarian for books about jealousy with siblings, because indirect stories may help her gain perspective, whereas when it is about her, she may get emotional and not be able to reason.  Also try to play games where she and her sister are on the same team against you or her father, and encourage cooperative activities both kids enjoy.  

When she feels things are unfair, I would avoid a discussion because it is hard to change a child's mind if she feels it is unfair.  Sometimes children will work for "go with the flow" points.  I would mention ahead of a possible conflict that this is a "go with the flow" opportunity.  You could tie one or two points into earning a special game or baking a fun dessert.  This may or may not help because sometimes children debate whether they earned a point or not.  And it only works if you give a signal to earn a point before she gets angry.  If you forget, wait for another occasion before she gets mad.

Lastly consider making a funny comment if she is just starting to get angry.  Sometimes humor changes a child's mood.  If she giggles, she won't be mad at the same time.  Sometimes ridiculous comments work well--like "hey there is a gigantic elephant pooping in our backyard"  or "I think I hear our cat is saying 'feed me.'" I mention other ideas in my parent's manual and children's workbook on anger overload.  

Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

Thursday, May 31, 2018

7 yr old rages at home

Hi there 
I have two sons ages 7 and 4. My oldest lost his father in a car accident at age 3 and have always thought it was an underlying cause for his behavior. We are on a waitlist for in home counseling and I have ordered your book on anger overload. He screams for minutes and slams doors when he doesn’t get his way or over small inconveniences. Sometimes he becomes physical with me and his brother. At school he is quiet and withdrawn, and refuses to do work though his teacher says it’s not lack of ability because he is more than capable when he chooses to be. Other days he’s the sweetest most caring little boy. I think this is what overload sounds like but I guess I’m asking if this is it? Am I on the right track to help him with his anger? 


Hi, the intense rage reaction to disappointment or frustration is what characterizes anger overload.  In my books and in this blog I offer strategies to lessen angry outbursts.  One idea is to identify some of his triggers and anticipate when he might get angry.  Then you can try to avoid the situation or you can lower your child's expectations before the triggering event recurs.  

Once your child starts to get angry (before he is in overload), try to distract him with funny sayings or funny songs.  If you can change his emotion before he gets enraged, you can prevent anger overload.  Once he gets overheated, it is usually best to ignore your child unless he is hurting himself or someone else.  

Having someone come to the home for counseling is a good idea.  That person can help you identify triggers and help you develop strategies.  At school, are there any patterns when he is more likely to refuse work: Certain subjects or times of the day?  Sometimes an incentive chart will help with motivation in school.  If you develop a chart with the teacher, make sure the incentives are exciting to your child and fairly immediate (not delayed to the end of the week--for young children).  But there may be some issue causing him to stop working.  See if you can identify that with the teacher's help.  If the teacher is unsure, you could ask the school do do an evaluation of his learning strengths and weaknesses.

Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

10 yr old angry when competing

Hello Dr. Dave,

My 10.5 year old son has been exhibiting fits of anger recently and I'm not sure what to do.  It has gotten progressively worse over this past year where previously this was not an issue.

He is a competitive athlete and I first noticed it there.  Where he used to be a great competitor and calm and collected, he's more frequently showing his frustration by "air hitting" his racquet on the ground (i.e. not smashing it but making the move as to) or jumping up and down or banging the tarp, etc. in ways that are noticeably off.

At home, we've had a couple incidents that were troubling.  Last night, he was playing chess with his dad and lost three games in a row.  His dad had sweetened the deal by offering him a prize if he won and he got close but lost.  He started banging his fists on the table in a violent manner.  When his dad when downstairs and said something to me, my son thought he was laughing at him and ran downstairs and started hitting my husband with his fists.  While they "rough house" for fun, this is the first time something like this has happened.  He then started banging his head (not hard) against the shower door and saying things like "I suck" "I hate myself" "I'm no good" etc.

So far there haven't been any issues at school, but he did say to me in passing that sometimes his friends make him so angry he could punch them (but he hasn't). He's also been more frustrated with me - if I am reminding him about something or nagging (yes I probably nag sometimes) he gets visibly frustrated and clenches his fists.

Most of the time, he is a wonderful, loving boy who does well at school.  But this recent-ish behavior is worrying me. Is this normal tween/ pre-teen stuff or should we be concerned? Is this something we can/ should try to work on with him as parents directly through behavior modifications, workbooks, etc. or should we be seeking the help of a therapist? 


Hi, one cause of anger overload in children is when their expectations of themselves are too high.  I would try to re-frame his expectations before he starts  competitive activity.  For example, you could work on a mantra with him, like "everyone wins some and loses some," or "even the best tennis player like Roger Federer (or other sports hero) loses some games."  You could also model this behavior by talking out loud when something does not go your way.  For example, you could say "it was frustrating when I didn't _____, but sometimes things don't go my way.  Oh well.  There will be a next time."  

I would practice a re-framing mantra before competitive activities and see if over the next couple of months, he develops better self control.  Also, try to find out more about what angers him with his peers, and see if you find a theme.  Then you could use re-framing for that type of situation as well.  

For "nagging" you could start by saying something like "I realize I may sound like a broken record, but I could sure use your help with _______."  There are two parts to this request:  You are anticipating that your son may get frustrated, and also you are asking him to help you.  This approach often lessens anger overload.  Other strategies for defusing anger are explained in this blog and in my parent workbooks.

You could start therapy now or wait a month to see if there is some improvement in self control.  Therapy can be very useful in helping kids look at potential anger triggers in a new way. Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

12 yr old has outbursts playing soccer

Dear Dr. Gottlieb,

I am so glad to have found your blog today and look forward to reading your books (I just ordered on Amazon).  Your definition and explanation of anger overload (from the greatschools article) fits our twelve-year old boy very closely.  We have been working on this with him on this for about three years.  We have been seeing a child pshycologist for the last two years and feel like we’re making progress.   Initially he barely passed the threshold for ADHD but that diagnosis didn’t fit for us and an attempt at  trying the traditional stimulants was disastrous (several severe angry outbursts in a short period).  We then switched to SSRI’s on the view that he has underlying anxiety and together with cognitive therapy we think he’s much better at coping and avoiding outbursts.  As an example of our cognitive therapy, an angry outburst at home that involves swearing results in $1 fine to the swear jar.  This has dramatically reduced the swearing incidents.  We also try to talk thru the events afterwards, try to help him understand triggers, what he might have done differently, other’s perspective etc. 

At school, he has only had a few outbursts and never been punished beyond a call to us (twice in five years).  The real problem I’m concerned about is avoidance and withdrawal from “society” in the aftermath of these outbursts. This has meant withdrawal from team and group activities.  For example, he was kicked off a team 2 years ago for two big outbursts. Then after one season a second team would not invite him back due to another outburst.  This week he had another swearing, angry incident with a third team that he has been with for about two years.   He is one of the “stars” of the team, plays well with teammates, shares the ball, is normally kind and considerate etc. This is not a high-pressure team and the environment is generally positive, he usually enjoys practice and games very much. He is indeed a risk-taker and plays with passion and bravery.  However at practice this week he felt slighted by two of the other boys (he said they were tripping him on purpose), had the typical loss of control and angry outburst, and needed to be taken home to cool off.  He is now determined that he will not rejoin the team.   I am confident that on his own accord, he will not go back.

Do you have any advice?   He’s now 12 and I’m afraid we’re at an inflection point where letting him quit delivers the wrong message and won’t help him.   He loves soccer, loves playing, but I believe is now sad, embarrassed and doesn’t want to “face up” to the situation that led to the episode.  He did not want to go to school today (where he would likely see the same boys) but he didn’t protest too much and he was angry but did not lose control and made it to school   From experience, I know that if we try to talk through it, with the aim of getting him back to the team, he will likely become angry and defiant.   Bribery might work but probably not.  I doubt forcing him will work.  Punishment doesn’t seem to be the right approach either.

I would welcome any thoughts!


You've done a great job trying to help him understand his triggers and helping him understand the perspective of others.  It's a shame he was kicked off two teams and now does not want to go back to a third.  The first two incidents set a pattern unfortunately which your son now is continuing of his own volition for the third team.  You mention the trigger for the most recent incident was that he felt slighted and felt he was tripped on purpose. Do you think the boys were doing it on purpose, and were there other reasons he felt slighted?  

Once you have determined what else (if anything) he was reacting to, you would want to help him re-frame these incidents.  Try to help him look at "being slighted" and "being tripped on purpose" in a new way.  For example, you could talk about how even in professional soccer players get tripped, sometimes by accident when everyone is going for the ball, and sometimes on purpose to prevent the opposing player from making a good shot or good pass.  Which does your son think was happening in his game?  By giving him a choice of explanations, you are giving him a chance to say how he felt, and then you can do some re-framing that takes into account his feelings.  

He will probably say it was on purpose, and then you can explain why that happens in soccer, even at the professional level.  Name a  soccer star if he knows any, and explain that he gets tripped too.  The ref is supposed to call a foul, but if he doesn't the player would try to get the ball back when he was able, so that the opponent does not get the advantage by tripping him.  You could practice a mantra (I explain more about mantras in my blog and books):  "fouls happen in soccer."  and/or "When they trip you, it's because they can't keep up with you.  It means you're the better player."  Another possible mantra:  (Name a pro player he knows) and say:  "He gets up and uses his anger to try to get the ball back. You can do that too."  The basic idea is to help your son see that tripping happens a lot, that he is the better player, and that he can do something about it in the game to help his team.

Once you know the trigger, you can re-frame what happened and develop a mantra.  By the way, it's great you got him to go to school.  He will see by going to school that he can deal with what happened, and any anxiety will then decrease.  Whether he plays for this team or not, practice the mantra several times a week so that it will be in his head when he does participate again.  

One last thought:  if possible would the coach call him or have a couple of teammates reach out to say they miss him and need him?  Since he feels slighted, if he were to feel wanted, that would be the opposite feeling, and might help him feel like returning. 

Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

9 and 5 yr old bicker and break things

I read your November article in Greatschools and found it helpful. I will order your parents manual and the workbook.

I have a 9 year old and a 5.5 year old, both have significant anger overload issues, at home. At school they are model students.  My daughter is a high performer and probably has some stress related to that, she is also very shy so would never speak out at school. She is a nail and lip biter, so some evidence of anxiety. My son probably has dyslexia- we are working on that with a speech pathologist, and I think it affects him emotionally a little bit, but we talk about it and he seems fine at school. But in general at school they are incredibly well balanced and teachers say of both of them, that they are real carers always looking out for other students. They are popular with kids and have lots or friends, polite etc. No anger issues at all.

At home it's a different story. They are VERY active children and fight each other for sport. Sometimes this leads to major conflict between them, sometimes violent, biting, hitting, etc. I would say with pretty good frequency, daily? or almost daily.

Even without fights between them, they fly off the handle wildly and frequently. My son, if he struggles with legos will scream, really scream. He will throw things, damage things around the house.If he's really angry at me, he might pull all the bedding off my bed, or take clothes out of my cupboard and throw them on the ground. My daughter gets angry before school every morning because it's difficult to get my son out of the house. She shouts, at the top of her lungs and threatens him with toys she will never let him play with again. If he is in her vicinity she will trip him or push him.

Last week, we were watching a family movie and the children were bickering. I separated them. It continued. I reminded them that the consequence for yelling and out of control behavior was to lose the movie. So finally I switched the movie off. He took two wine glasses off a counter in the kitchen and threatened to smash them together. He kept threatening, until finally he banged them lightly and they shattered.

Then I lost my temper. And here I think is the root of the problem. I don't lose my temper very often, but occasionally. And I think it's enough that they see this behavior modeled by me, and then they model in the same way. 

I had a similar anger problem as a child and as a teenager. My parents could not manage me. I don't think I have ever lost my temper in public, and it's very much a 'fight or flight' anger related to feeling as though I cannot control a situation, feeling disrespected or humiliated.

So I usually try to remain calm and speak calmly and try tactics to help the kids avoid outbursts, but when I've been doing it for days on end I'm totally at the end of my own coping rope, I feel backed into a corner, because I cannot control this chronic daily problem, of screaming, back talk, and fighting. And then I explode. I shout. No hitting or throwing things. This solves the immediate problem, because the kids are scared and they stop. But I know it's a completely wrong tactic.

I am consistent with consequences, but there aren't very many in our house. Just our Friday night movies. We don't have any other TV etc.  I have also canceled playdates as a consequence.  We have a 'house rules chart' that indicates behaviors that are not allowed. We made that chart together.  Maybe we need to remake it. And I always make a point of praising them for good behavior, or managing themselves through situations that sometimes cause stress (like a lego problem, or solving their own conflict).

There are other things too of course. We are going through a stressful time in our life. We have lived abroad for eight years and are supposed to be leaving this year but we don't know where we will move or when. So there is ambient stress in the household. That said, they have more or less always been like this, it just happens to be worse right now.

Apart from the manual and the workbook, do you have any other suggestions for resources? 

I would be grateful for any additional advice.

Hi, you are doing a great job in a difficult situation.  I like that you have tried a chart and that you praise your children for good behavior.  One idea is to use a catch phrase (that suggests how they should behave) either before they misbehave or when there is the slightest sign of a problem.  So if you know they get into fights when they are doing a joint activity, such as watching a movie, explain beforehand that "movie time is quiet time" so we can all hear it.  At the slightest bickering, take away the movie.  Have in mind a go-to-place for each of them.  Tell them where that is ahead of time, and explain that if they both go to their places if you turn off the movie, they will get to watch the end of it later (mention a time), but if they don't go when you direct them to, the movie will be lost entirely.  The idea is to plan in advance, catch any problem early, and take action.  If they fail to obey, there is a significant consequence: no movie.  They may test you on this, but if you hold firm, they are likely to behave better the next time you show a movie.

With other situations, use the same principles:  catch phrases in advance, early intervention, and take action (using as few words as possible when they are misbehaving).  For example, with legos, say in advance that "legos break easily," in other words, predict what sometimes happens that frustrates your son.  You could add: "when they break, say 'I knew you would break.'"  Then you model the words by making something out of legos, say the catch phrase before you start, and then say "I knew you would break," when a piece breaks off.  After you model the behavior, then he is to say the catch phrase and then he can build something.  Praise him if he tries to follow your example.  When a piece breaks, if he does not say anything, you say "I knew you would break Mr. Lego."  

Another idea is to use humor and emotional distraction.  If you say something that makes him giggle or laugh that will interrupt his anger.  So you could talk to the legos:  "You silly legos, why don't you stay together?  I'm going to give you one more chance, or I'm going to tickle you."  Now we don't normally talk about tickling legos, but the idea is to say something strange to get him to laugh.

For your daughter, predict that her brother will be slow getting ready in the morning, and explain her job is to play in a different room and give him no attention until he is ready.  Explain that her brother probably likes making her mad because he has gotten her attention then.  If she does not understand this, that is okay, but try to have her play where he can't see her, and praise her later for ignoring him.

Hope this helps.  When you move, you might also want to meet with a therapist who works with children and their parents.  Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Risk Taking and Anger Overload in 3 yr olds

Dr Gottlieb,

I'm writing to thank you for your research and work regarding this subject. My wife and I have a very sweet and generally well-behaved 3 year old girl, who's been presenting "anger overload" behavior exactly as you describe in this article you authored in November. 



What really then took my breath away was this passage, which again described her almost perfectly:

these children are sometimes risk takers. They enjoy more physical play than their peers and like taking chances in playground games or in the classroom when they feel confident about their abilities. Other children are often in awe of their daring or scared of their seemingly rough demeanor. Perhaps most interesting is that these very same risk takers can be unsure of themselves and avoid engaging in other situations where they lack confidence.

This personality trait "fit" is uncanny! 

I've ordered your books on the subject, and look forward to reading them. We also plan to see a child therapist, as she has become disruptive at school and home when upset.  Do you have any recommendations for therapists?


Hi, you want a therapist who meets with children and with parents.  For younger children, parents are the main change agent.  That is, you will implement the strategies described in my parents' manual that will help your child develop better self control.  That is why meeting with the therapist without your daughter will be important.

For older children and teens, both parents and children can implement changes.  For children 8 years and older, I recommend the Anger Overload Workbook.  Both the workbook and the parents manuals are available online at book sellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  Also, you may find some of the advice I've given to parents on this blog useful for you and your daughter.


Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb   

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Moving to a new community triggers anger overload

Good day Dr. Dave.

My family has recently moved out of the country, and this transition seems to have triggered anger overload with my 10 year old son. We think all the changes happening have affected him a lot more than we thought they would (leaving friends, family and pets, new home, new school, new culture, etc.). I’ve been reading about this condition and most of what I’ve read is reflected in my son’s behavior. We are trying to apply all the suggested actions, but are very concerned about his possible actions. He has threatened to run away at night, hurt himself and other unpleasant things to hear. He is violent verbally and physically towards us when having episodes. Is it very hard for him and ourselves in this situation, since there is currently not many people for him/us to reach out to since we’re in this new environment.

In this particular situation, do you think this could fade away once he’s adapted to this environment?

Hi, When a child is making repeated statements about running away or hurting himself, it is usually a sign that he is under significant stress.  An exception is when a child is being manipulative to try to get what he wants.  That does not seem to be the case here.  You mention in your letter the number of changes that have occurred since your move.  I would recommend listening empathically to your son's underlying concerns.  You may want to help him put it into words before or after a tantrum.  The idea is to help him verbalize what has changed and how hard it is for him.  But during a tantrum, try to say as little as possible.

Is there a counselor at school or in the community he can talk with as well?  Sometimes children can voice their concerns  more easily to a neutral person, rather than a family member.  For other children, it is easier to talk to a parent.  Which do you think would be easier for your son?

I would expect his tantrums to lessen, once he adapts more to the new community.  See if you can replicate some of what he liked in the previous community.  Was he into sports or the arts? Did he like hanging out with friends? Can you find avenues to meet these needs in your new community?  

Other suggestions for dealing with angry outbursts can be found in my parent's manuals and children's workbook on anger overload, or in other posts on this blog.

Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb