Tuesday, June 4, 2013

7 year old has outbursts playing baseball

Hi Dr. Dave!
I was lost! Then I Googled anger in children and found your article. It describes my 7 year old 1st grade boy to a tee. And I felt some relief.  My husband and I have been struggling with this behavior for years. When he was 4 we had a physiologist observe him and we were told that he was a normal 4 year old boy with lots of energy.  About 6 months ago, we brought him to his pedestrian's office and talked with a mental health professional. We talked to him about angry overload and he said basically the same thing. Could outgrow it, no medication necessary. He’s not ADHD or ODD.

Our son is a bright, social boy with lots of friends and is doing well in school. Where he struggles with this is competition, games, winning and losing. We alerted his teacher and most staff to this at the beginning of the school year and to our surprise and relief we have been told that he has had none of these outbursts all year! A few minor ones that his teacher was able to work with him on.  It seems that my husband and I see the worst of it. However, sometimes weeks can go by and he doesn't have any outbursts.

We are really seeing it is on the baseball field. My husband is one of the coaches. What happens is that he gets so intense, loves the game, but is so hard on himself if he misses the ball or gets out. He sometimes gets upset when others miss the ball but mainly when he misses the ball. It seems as though he is a perfectionist? Doesn't want to do wrong? But he gets so down on himself, it's a struggle within him.  We had a game last night where he had 3 outbursts, throwing the batting helmet, kicking his glove and yelling he quits. That was the worst game this year. Typically, he throws his glove down and most people don’t see this. But last night, I think everyone saw it. The head coaches are also alerted to this and we asked them to intervene instead of my husband or I because if we intervene, it seems that it get worse. So when he yelled he quit, the coach put him and all of his equipment behind the dugout and told him to stay there until he cooled down. (We instructed the coaches to do this based on reading your article). Within minutes he cooled down and was back in the game. It usually happens where it takes him a minute to get to this place. A minute in it and a minute out of it. The good news is that he’s not in it for long. It’s so Jekyll and Hyde to watch. It is so tough on my husband and I and last night I was in tears.

When I try and talk to him about this situation when he is calm, he sometimes says he doesn't know what he's doing or saying.  There is something going on!!! And we as parents feel helpless.  Thank you for reading my email and offering your support.

Hi,  It sounds like you have identified the main trigger for your son's outbursts and have begun a good strategy to help him at the baseball field:  letting your son cool off without someone talking to him (until he is calmer).  Once a child is in overload, it is best to say as little as possible because the anger has overwhelmed his rational thinking for the time being.  Once he is calmer, he will think clearly again.  

The next step is to begin to help him understand his triggers and develop strategies he can use to head off anger overload.  In the second half of my parents' manual, I explain some techniques to help teach your son how to control his anger.  Early recognition is key.  One approach is to use catch phrases like "even major league players make errors in the field and strike out at the plate." or "you're like (name of a star he knows), he strikes out too."  Rehearse whatever catch phrase(s) you develop with your son briefly before each game, and give him a high five after the game if he made a mistake and held his cool (even if his self control is only somewhat improved at first, or even if if he only was in control sometimes when striking out or missing a ball in the field).  At some point, he will remember the catch phrase at the moment he makes a mistake and it will help him.  Improvement will likely be gradual because it is hard for him when so much emotion is occurring in his brain.  

You could also teach him calming strategies to use when he realizes he is beginning to lose it.  Maybe he can learn to walk behind the dugout when he needs to (if it is okay with the coach).  Could he repeat a funny word in his head (like "fiddlydoodoo") that might help change his mood?  Or could he learn to distract himself a little by counting how many times in the last week he struck out and how many times he didn't.  This will help if he usually doesn't strike out.  If there are more times he made contact with the ball, he could tell himself he is doing better than you (or some other adult he admires).  What you are getting at with these techniques is helping your son keep perspective, rather than focus just on the immediate strike out.  Discuss different options with your son and see what he would like to try first. 

All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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