Wednesday, March 20, 2013

2nd grader who gets mad at himself

Dr. Dave,
First of all, thank you so much for your research and forum about anger overload. I have often felt very alone as a parent dealing with my son's outbursts and your blog has really opened my eyes to others experiencing similar cases.

We have tried some of your modification techniques on our own over the years, but I'm anxious to try others that you've mentioned and make a commitment to be more consistent in our approach as well. My son is triggered by disappointment in sports or other competitive activities mostly, although the majority of the time he thrives and really enjoys the teams he participates with. He performs extremely well in school, but has had a handful of issues with his anger there too, usually when he doesn't feel like he's mastering something he's learning very quickly. His outbursts usually are displayed with screaming and flailing his body onto the floor, etc... He is always brought to tears during his outbursts though, which isn't something I've seen mentioned by others in this blog. He talks very poorly about himself during the episode and the tears just continue to roll. He has gone through times where we've noticed his outbursts are fewer and farther between and we begin to think he's growing out of it. Then, all of the sudden, he seems to regress. Because of this repetitive behavior he has been labeled as a 'cry baby' by his peers and there are many boys who know that he is an easy target and which 'buttons' make him react.

My son has always been way ahead of the 'curve' physically and academically, but emotionally I've always felt that he is far behind his peers. We've tried to be supportive and encouraging as much as possible (even when we're at our wits end!). We explain that it's completely fine to feel the emotions he's feeling and to be sad and disappointed, but it's not ok to react the way he reacts. He's continuing to label himself all the time and I'm worried that it will continue to alienate him as he grows. His self-esteeem seems to be so high and stable most of the time and then he puts himself down and feels awful during these moments of overload.

I would appreciate any additional advice you could give. Have you had patients who become extremely sad and cry in these anger overload moments too?

Thanks so much!
Mom of frustrated 2nd grader

Yes, I've worked with children who cry and direct anger at themselves when they make mistakes or do not perform as well as they expected.   Most of what I've written about in the blog is about children who become extremely angry at other people, rather than themselves.  What you are describing is a variant of anger overload where anger is self-directed and where there are displays of sadness or self-criticism. 

You can apply some of the exercises in my workbook to this problem.  I write in the book about a child who explodes because he feels peers do not like him.  Another child is my practice blows up when he walks a batter in a little league baseball game.  One important thing to work on with your son is changing his expectations of himself.  After he calms down, talk about how everyone makes mistakes in school or in sports.  Mention a sports figure or academic figure he might know about.  For example, in Chicago the White Sox slugger Adam Dunn hits a lot of homers but also strikes out a lot.  Or Albert Einstein was brilliant but had trouble spelling.  The idea is to convey that people are not good at everything they try, and also, even when they are good at something they have off days or make mistakes.  Review these ideas after each explosion is over.  Also, teach him to say a catch phrase to himself every morning when he gets up, something like "everyone makes mistakes," or "it's impossible to get everything right."  Pick a catch phrase that your son likes and that applies to some of his outbursts.  Over a few months time he may be able to soothe himself at the moment of upset by remembering the catch phrase and then not react so strongly.

In the meantime, let him know it is okay to cry.  Explain that the crying is his way of letting out frustration, and explain that when he learns that it is cool to make mistakes, the crying will probably lessen, because he will not be so frustrated then.

Another strategy is to use distraction if you can catch him starting to get upset.  This is hard to do if the upset happens real quickly.  I explain in the book how to use "emotional distraction," that is to say something that makes your child laugh, amused, or curious about something. 

Also, keep a list for yourself of the times that he gets upset.  You may start out focusing on changing his expectations about mistakes, and then find there are other situations that are causing distress.  Then you will need to come up with a new catch phrase!  But only work on one or two catch phrases at a time.  When he is handling one situation better, then you can work on another.

Hope this helps, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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