Wednesday, June 12, 2013

3 year old's anger "terrorizing" family

Dear Dr. Dave,
I start looking at google things about angry toddlers and I stop in your article . We have two boys 1 and 3.  The 3 year old started terrorizing the whole family few months ago. We recently moved  so we were positive that he had very hard time to adjust to a new place. But after a few weeks nothing changed, he screamed, cried, kicked without the reason. I said he terrorized us because we couldn't go downstairs without him or first, opening the door.  He always found the reason to get those angry attacks; his eyes looked empty but so angry. He was waking up at night screaming. We took him to a neurologist (they said he's perfectly fine).  Everyone was saying that this is the age.  When the trigger started we couldn't do anything, there was no stop for him.  He goes like this up to half an hour a few times a day.  Talking, begging, ignoring,  nothing helped. He worked like a switch. We went to see psychologist but my son screamed in the office for half an hour, and he asked me to ignore him (which didn't helped) and then he said it was more like a cause of nightmares. Then everything kind of  stopped for few months and now is back again.

My son is sooo angry at everyone and everything . Wrong turn in a street, there was green light not red. We can't do anything, he wants to do everything by himself even things that are to heavy for him (then he gets even more angry), like taking garbage away, doing laundry, preparing meals, opening doors, opening garage, it's like we can't do anything without his permission.  When he's getting those angry attacks the trigger is always different.  Now I can't even go grocery shopping with him because I never know when he's gonna start again . When it starts he's telling me that I'm a bad mommy, that he's not my friend .Where can we go and look for help ?? and how we can we know is that Anger Overload ?? He was never like that; he was always such a sweet,  kind, caring boy, that good one . Even that he's got those attacks he still so polite but when that look in his eyes is coming ,we always say that he is a walking ticking bomb.What can we do ?? THANK YOU.

Hi,  Do you have any ideas why he calmed down for a few months and then started getting so angry again?  What changed during those three months?  Or what happened (if anything) in the family's life when he started with his outbursts again?  If you have any clues, you might be able to try to re-institute whatever was helpful before.  Another question about what the psychologist said about the nightmares:  what did he feel was the cause of the nightmares? 

Anger overload is a term I coined to describe children's angry outbursts when they feel frustrated or disappointed.  The outbursts happen quickly and can be verbal and/or physical.  They can  last minutes or sometimes an hour or more.   Three year olds are prone to outbursts because they do not often understand their limits, or the dangers in a given situation.  They may think they can do things that they can't really handle yet.  Also, biologically, the frontal cortex (self-control area of the brain) is immature in three year olds.  The frontal cortex develops throughout childhood, and continues to develop during young adulthood too. 

The reason the psychologist probably said to ignore the tantrum in his office is that usually the more attention that is drawn to a child having a tantrum, the longer it lasts.  The key though is to try to intervene before your son's anger gets to that stage (when possible).  Your son so much wants to do "adult" chores; can you tell him you want his help when it comes time to do one of those chores (like the garbage or laundry) and find a role for him?  Ask him to help you in some way (that won't make the task more difficult for you!).  And then thank him for his help.

Other approaches are either to try to use distraction, or else avoid situations that trigger him (for example, go shopping without him--if you can go shopping when you have help at home).  If you try to distract him, whatever you say needs to be "emotionally" engaging for your child.  What I mean is that you can't just say "look at that" unless it is something your child will find interesting.  Your distracting comment can be funny, silly, or in some way appealing to your child.  Also this technique will usually not work once a child is in a full blown tantrum, so only try it if you can catch your son's anger before he explodes.  I explain more about when to use distraction (and other techniques) in my parent's manual.

I think your best bet is to find a way to have your son feel he is a "big helper."  It sounds like many of the triggers have to do with him wanting to direct things or help you do things.  So you want to find ways for him to help that are constructive.  Don't wait for him to choose what to do to help, but tell him in advance (right before you are going to do a chore) you need his help because he is a big boy and you need him to do _______.  Pick something that won't make your life more difficult.  Maybe he could hold the door for you, or push the garage button when you are ready, or the two of you could take the garbage out together, or you take the garbage bag and ask him to carry a cereal box (that you say won't fit in the bag or needs to go in the recycling bin).  Whatever you can think of that gives him a role and does not lead to a lot of frustration on his part. 

All the best, Dr. Gottlieb

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