Saturday, November 12, 2011

14 year old's angry outbursts

"I just read your article on anger overload on and it fits our 14 (almost 15) year old to a tee. From the time he was very little, he's had these angry outbursts that are uncontrollable and pretty severe. After he calms down, he is the sweetest kid. He is very sensitive, hates to get in trouble and is embarrassed that he can't control his behavior. He has been in several schools and we finally thought we got it right at the arts school he currently attends, but he is a few months into the year and just had another blowout today.

We have tried counseling a couple of times, but it didn't seem to help. I know he likes this school and doesn't want to have to leave it--last time we pulled him out and he did online school, he was miserable. He has no problems getting along with friends--just certain teachers (some of his teachers see him as a great, participative student!). His dad and I have been concerned for quite some time, but now that he's in high school, I'm very concerned about the impact this is going to start having on the rest of his life--he's not a little kid any more.

We have no trouble with him at home. He does experience quite a bit of anxiety and often has trouble sleeping. We are not sure what to do next--rewards and consequences have had no impact on changing his behavior in the past. We took him to a child psychologist who said just to pull him out of school, and that he did not have a specific, diagnosable disorder, but your description of anger overload sure seems to fit perfectly.

Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated."

Here are my thoughts:  There are two issues which you raise, which may or may not be related.  One issue feels like anger overload, as you suggested, but the second concern you raise, anxiety, is not necessarily a part of anger overload.  First, what I would recommend is observing when his anger occurs in school.  What are the teachers saying or doing when he gets angry?  Also, what does he say or do during the outbursts?  Look for a pattern.  Since you say he is sensitive, I wonder if he feels criticized or put down before he gets angry?  Is he being admonished  in some way?   What was he doing, if anything, before the teachers' remarks to him?  Some other questions to think about:  How far does your son go?   Does he swear, is he disrespectful, or does he get mad but not blow up directly at the teacher?  If you want, let me know the pattern, or think about it yourself, because this will give you more clues about what to do.

If he is feeling criticized, then you can approach it in several ways: 1) help him "re-frame" the teacher's comments.  For example, some kids react negatively to any critical remark, and it may help him to realize that the teacher talks like this to other students (if that is the case).  2) Then teach your son about "self-talk":  that is, teach him to talk in his head that "it is okay, the teacher does this with others, and it is okay to get called out once in a while."  Help your son learn how to reassure himself.  3) Can he take a break if he feels he is heating up, and ask to go to the bathroom until he feels calmer, or does he heat up too quickly? 

Since most of the questions I am getting on the blog are about anger overload, in the coming weeks, I am going to outline techniques in six areas:  1) behavior management, 2) how to model self-control techniques for your child, 3) self-observation skills, 4) changing your child's emotional set, and 5) changing the way your child looks at things, 6) helping your child learn to compromise.  A few of these areas I talk about in my book, but I will give you more specifics on the blog as I get time over the next month or so.

Regarding the other issue you mention, your son's anxiety, what triggers it for him?  Keep a record of when he gets anxious, what is going on in the hour before he gets anxious, and what he does once he gets anxious.  Does anything help him so far to feel calmer.  There are many techniques that can be helpful for anxiety, including physical relaxation techniques, cognitive re-framing (listing your negative thoughts when you get anxious, and then listing more positive ways of looking at the situation, and practice saying these more positive explanations in your head before stressful situations), and gradual desensitization (approaching low anxiety situations before more difficult ones).  There are other approaches too, and it depends on what the triggers are.  There are many psychologists and other mental health professionals trained in cognitive behavioral approaches to anxiety, and you might want to ask in your area who is trained in these approaches for anxiety.  Good luck, and let me know if you have further questions or comments.

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