Monday, November 14, 2011

First steps to help child with anger overload

Many questions I get online and in my office have to do with anger overload.  Children or teens with this problem get very angry for brief periods of time.  They say and do things which are uncharacteristically extreme:  shouting, swearing, threatening to hit someone, throwing things.  Most of the time these children are not acting like this; parents report their children usually are calm and easy to deal with.

So what is going on here?  These children have not yet developed the cortical controls to deal with the upsurge in emotions when they are disappointed or frustrated.  One way to think of this biologically is that the limbic system of these children (the emotional center of the brain) is aroused, but the frontal cortex (outer layer of the brain responsible for self-control) has not fully developed yet.  The cortex continues to develop into early adulthood. 

What we want to do is help children develop greater self-control, in other words, to promote cortical controls.  The first two steps for parents are 1) observe the situations where your child loses it:  what are the triggers?  Who is your child angry at and why?  Is there a pattern?  Once you have some idea of the triggers, you will begin to 2) frame the problem for your child and let him know you are going to work on this with him over the next several months.   If your child gets very angry whenever he cannot play his video games (for example), you would point this out when your child is calm, and explain that you are going to help him develop ways to better control his anger.  Give an example of an alternative to screaming or cursing:  He could say that he is angry or that he does not like your rules.  You might even tell him he could raise his voice so long as he does not curse.  What you are doing here is providing an alternative that is within the realm of possibility for your child.  (You can try for more self-control in the future if your child can master the first step of not cursing.)

Explain that this is important because it will help him deal with all kinds of things that don't go his way in the future.  People will respect him better if he figures out a way to work things out without screaming or cursing.  You are trying to frame the issue and at the same time motivate your child to work on this with you.  You are letting him know it will be a team effort; you are not expecting him to do this alone.  If your child does not say much at this point, that is okay.  If he says he doesn't care, you could reply that one of his buddies someday may hear him lose it and then not want to play with him.  Or think of another reason which might be important to your child.  Another reason might be that he will be more likely to get people to listen to what he wants if he does not scream at them.  Do not argue with your child if he says it is not important to him.  You are just trying to frame the issue for your child, and you do not need his agreement at this point. Your child may be defensive and unwilling to admit he has a problem.  However, you are beginning to chip away at his denial.  You are letting your child know that this is an issue you are going to be focusing on.  More in my next post.

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