Tuesday, July 10, 2012

7 year old lashes out when angry

Hi Dr. Dave,

I came across your blog today as I was researching anger issues in children.  My son is 7 1/2 years old and he has been displaying these behaviors over the last year.  He's never been an "easy" child, but nothing was ever so much that we thought there was a true issue until the last year.  He is usually smart, happy, and affectionate, however when he gets frustrated or angry he lashes out verbally saying things like, "I wish you were never born!" to his sister and "You're stupid, you're an idiot" to someone who he is playing with. Usually it's to what we would think is minor or they were arguing and he freaks out unnecessarily.  We have taken him off sports teams as he had one screaming fit in the middle of the basketball court when he felt he was "wronged," and because he would get overly frustrated each game and it would often end in tears somehow.  He is seeing a therapist (although he may not be a good fit) and an occupational therapist (who is awesome), but I feel like we need to tighten the reigns on him and while trying to understand where he is coming from, also let him know certain things are unacceptable, like insulting your sister.  I fear he won't have friends and will alienate himself.  He doesn't seem to have learning disabilities and is a bit above his grade level.  He does well in the classroom, it seems to occur in unstructured environments like playing and intense situations like sports.

Any help you can offer would be very appreciated!

Hi, Your description sounds like anger overload: your son is usually affectionate and happy, but lashes out when something seemingly minor frustrates him.  It sounds like one precipitant is competitive activities.  Are there other themes for when he loses it?  I discuss a number of strategies in my parent's manual.  One for your son would be to predict he will get angry when he is losing a game or thinks something is unfair, and role play how to handle it.  You can be him at first, and first act out how he now erupts, and then model alternatives.   In the future when he does actually lash out, you wait until he is calm (later in the day) and review again what he could say next time.  Repetition is necessary because it is hard for your son to regulate his anger because it gets so intense so quickly.  So learning self-control takes time.  I also agree with your approach to limit his participation in intense competitive activities for now, such as the basketball games. 

You may also want to develop cues and catch phrases to help your son "catch" it early.  The cues should be brief and used in a non-critical way.  One strategy is to label the levels of anger with concrete phrases (e.g. you can use the colors of a fire--blue, orange, and red--for low, medium and intense anger, or in miles per hour of a race car).  The idea is to help your son become aware of his anger as he is winding up.  Also, you could use catch phrases when he is starting an activity with his sister to remind him "everyone loses sometimes" or "everyone makes mistakes."  You could also suggest calming activities when he begins to get angry, activities that you have all decided on in advance, and reward him for trying them.  Some children like to do physical activities and others like music or computer games--whatever is distracting can help. 

If you use consequences for saying hurtful things to his sister, I'd recommend being very specific, and only targeting a couple of phrases to start.  Wait and impose the consequences after he has calmed down.  It is going to be hard for your son to control his language once he is at the highest levels of anger, and that is why it is important to try the suggestions I mentioned above to catch it early.  I know this is not always possible because usually kids with anger overload heat up so fast.  Once he can eliminate a couple of phrases, you can then try to add another one or two to the list.  Use a lot of praise if he makes an effort to not be insulting.  Also, help your daughter to understand that he does not mean what he says when he is angry.  He says whatever he thinks will most upset her, and I liken it to "verbal diarrhea." 
At that point it is best to ignore him.

I offer other strategies in my book.  Feel free to review other posts in the blog as well.  All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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