Thursday, September 19, 2013

8 year old loses it doing homework

Hello Dr. Dave,
I'm at my breaking point with my son.  I have 3 children, he is my middle 8 year old.  He's always been sensitive, easily angered, quick to cry when feelings are hurt, and quietly emotional (will run to his room to cry if his brother hurts his feelings etc.).  However, he's generally a pleasant, happy child.  When things are going his way (ie. he has a friend over for a playdate, and his siblings aren't getting involved) he is sweet, kind to others, and incredibly funny.

Lately (just started the 3rd grade) he's been frustrated by schoolwork, and I believe he bottles up that frustration until he gets home.  With me he is incredibly angry, won't do homework, and when I press forward and insist that homework needs to be completed...well that's blow up time.  I try and stay calm, but one little thing I say can set him off and he's throwing cushions off the couch, he runs and buries his head in his bed, he cries, yells at his siblings.  He never has hurt anyone, but he throws things now and he's a strong boy.  I'm afraid of this escalating, and having him cause damage to things or hurting someone during his fits.

I also am ashamed to admit that he has gotten me so worked up that even I have lost my patience and I've yelled, or tonight I turned one of his Lego bins upside down in his room because I was so completely exhausted and enraged, I lost it.  I tried so hard to talk to him, but he won't talk. He says I ruin his life, that he hates everything, and he doesn't want to go anywhere for help.  I've offered tutoring, a doctor to help us figure out a way to work together so we are both happy. Ugh! I'm so upset, if  you have any recommendations, please let me know.

Hi, It sounds so frustrating for you and for your son.  We all have trouble containing our emotions sometimes.  When your son is calm, you may mention that sometimes you get so angry too, and add what you try to do to control your anger.  You can be a role model for your son.  He may not respond to your remarks, but he may feel less frustrated knowing that he is not alone in having times of overload.

You mention that some of the blowups recently have occurred at homework time.  Did this problem begin this year in third grade?  Do you have any ideas why now homework is getting to be a struggle for your son?  You might want to talk with his teacher if you suspect that the work is difficult for him or if you think he is having difficulty concentrating.  You would want to rule out a subtle learning disability and rule out attention deficit disorder. If the teacher is unsure, then you could ask the school to do some testing to rule out learning problems.  If there is a chance that your son has a learning disability, you would want to take some pressure off doing all the homework until you and the teachers know how to help him.   If you think there is no learning problem nor attention issues, and if you think that the problem is motivational, what is your son wanting to do instead of homework?  Is there a way you can tie in completion of homework with extra time doing what he wants when he finishes?  Make sure that whatever your son loves to do comes after (and not before) the homework. 

You mention also that your son is sensitive to being hurt by his sibling and that he is emotional then.  Some children are more quick to cry than others, and crying by itself is not a problem, but if your son feels inadequate in some ways compared to his brother, you would want to try to help him with his self esteem.  Help him see that he has an area of expertise, or help him build an area of expertise (for example, sports, music, art, social service, or kindness to others) or explain that his brother has had more practice in the areas where your son feels frustrated (if this is the case).  Continue to have friends over that your son enjoys, and think about whether there is some other activity in your community where your son would like to participate (and it could become an area of pride for your son).

When your son gets angry, if you can, try to intervene before his anger is explosive.  In my parent's   manual, I explain how to do this:  by using "emotional distraction"  or calming  strategies.  In addition, you would want to lower your son's expectations (in whatever area causes him stress) when he is not angry.  It sounds like your son does not like to talk much about his anger, but you may be able to propose a new way of looking at things when he is calm, maybe later in the evening.  Keep your comments brief, since he is sensitive about his anger issues.  In the parent's manual, I explain how to do this. 

When your son is explosive, do not talk with him then.  As long as no one is being hurt or nothing valuable is being destroyed, then try to wait it out.  Usually the more you talk when a child is in overload, the more emotionally reactive a child becomes.

As far tutoring or counseling, think about what you feel is best, or consult with his teacher.  Then you make the decision, rather than ask him his opinion.  Your son may not like the idea at first, but if the person you hire can form a good rapport with your son, his resistance will decrease.  Remember he is frustrated and just wants the problem to go away.  But you know that it won't go away without something changing, so you have to do what you think best.  Hang in there!  I can tell you care a lot about what your son is going through.  Hope these comments are helpful.

All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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