Friday, January 11, 2013

What to do for 11 year old with 20 minute tantrums

We need help.  We have an 11 year old son that has rage.  Most of the day he is a great kid.  He gets good grades and has nice friends at school.  He is active in sports and school, but there are triggers that will set him off.  When he has an tantrum it usually will last about 15-20 minutes but sometimes longer than an hour.  We try and follow a lot of the things that are discussed, including, let our son calm down, we try not to talk with him while he is upset and do it when he is calm, we give consequences for the behavior that caused it and not the tantrum, but all this doesn't seem to be working.  It is like a switch in his head flips on and no matter what we do or say he doesn't listen while he is upset.  Then the switch will go off and he will listen and we can talk about it.  Whenever we ask him, "what set you off" or "why did you act that way" the answer is "I don't know".  It is like his brain shuts down and and he can't control it and has no idea why.  Any ideas?

Hi, What I would do first is chart what is going on before the tantrums start, so that you develop ideas about what triggers his rage.  Then begin sharing your chart with your son while he is calm.  Show him what you have come up with.  When he tantrums again, wait till he is calmer and then fill out the chart together.  Do this repeatedly after tantrums have ended. I have an example of a chart in my book and I include blank charts for parents to use.  The  purpose is to make your child more aware of his triggers.  

Once he is beginning to see some patterns, then you and your son can develop strategies to catch his frustration in earlier stages before a tantrum is extreme.  In my book, I explain how to use benign (nonjudgmental) labels, like colors, to point out when anger is beginning.  The label is like a signal for your child to think about what is happening while he is still rational, and then to try to use a calming strategy.  If he can't, or won't, use a calming strategy, then you try to distract or re-direct him.  I also explain how to teach your child to look at other people's perspectives.  Often children have misperceptions about other people's intentions, and many children have egocentric perceptions about what people should be doing for them.  For example, one child felt parents didn't care about him if they said no to a sleepover.  Teaching a child to look at other points of view is a key part of developing self-control.

Lastly, I explain in my book how to teach a child to compromise.  Basically, you pose the dilemma to him and ask how he thinks you all should solve it:  "I feel....and you feel..., what are we going to do?"  You have this discussion before a tantrum, or if the tantrum has already occurred, you discuss possible compromises later when he is calmer.  Then in the future you try to problem solve together before he erupts.  This approach works for issues where you are okay with compromise.  Some rules are non-negotiable in families, like he must attend school and he cannot physically hurt other people, so you wouldn't use this strategy then.

All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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