Sunday, March 2, 2014

Mom worries about her 10 yr old daughter

Dear Dr. Dave,

I have stumbled across your page about anger overload, whilst looking for answers about my daughter.  My daughter is a beautiful, intelligent 10 yr. old (almost 11) who is very loving and sensitive to others feelings. She has a sister, aged 7, who doesn't have any behavior issues

She grew up with myself (mother) and her father, until we separated 18 months ago (I moved out, my ex-husband remains in the family home). My ex-husband and I have shared care (i.e. girls are with me from Wed afternoon to Sunday morning each week, and him the remainder of the week).

My daughter has had angry outbursts for as long as I can remember. I have taken her to see a number of professionals, including 2 child psychologists, (for extended periods of time, and not all at the same time!!). She is currently seeing a consultant psychologist, but I am having trouble getting her to understand or realize how severe this problem is, and this has always been the case. I feel so frustrated, that these professionals give me literature on parenting skills etc. which never really seem to make any difference. I am almost at breaking point, and need help so badly.

She has always performed very well academically, and there have never been any behavior issues at school (teachers look at me strangely when I try to explain the behaviors that occur at home).

Triggers are usually minor, and reactions seem way over-the-top e.g. her homework sheet gets scrunched up in her bag, and she screams and yells that it is completely ruined, and will continue to rant for up to an hour. Or I tell her I am going to wash her hair (as it's Wed night, we always wash hair on Wed night) and she yells and starts kicking the door and slamming doors  etc.

She has started to physically attack me, and she will kick me, punch me, scratch and slap me.  She has displayed this behavior with her father, and with my mother (who has been a significant person in her life), however, I seem to bear the brunt of the behavior, when she is with me.

I have a long history of depression and anxiety, and my daughter is well aware of this (probably too aware for someone aged 10) and I really struggle at times to manage and cope with her behavior (I have been very well supported by my mom, thankfully, and hence her being a significant person in my daughter's life).  My daughter has indicated that she believes that I left the family home because I had depression, and feels that it was her responsibility to make me happy, and that she failed in doing so. I have explained that people don't get their happiness from other people, but from inside themselves, but she can't seem to get past this point.

A strong trigger for my daughter, seems to be around my new partner, who doesn't live with us, but does spend quite a bit of time with us. My daughter has openly said that she hates him, because he makes me happy, and she couldn't.  I have tried to stress to her that she, nor anyone else, is responsible for other people's happiness. I also wonder if she is somewhat anxious, because the mom she has always known (i.e. depressed, sick, lying on the lounge - which was always reinforced by her father i.e. "mom is sick, leave mom alone") is now healthy, happy and vibrant (something very new and strange, maybe threatening? to her). I have reassured her time and time again, that I am always going to be her mom, I am not going anywhere.

As advised by my psychiatrist, and my daughter's child psychologist, we have a "girls' night" and "girls day" each week (which is time without my partner being there). And my daughter frequently has one-on-one time with myself.

I feel like I have read a gazillion self-help and parenting books, (maybe that's my problem??!!) and have spent a fortune on therapists (I wouldn't mind if it helped), but I don't ever seem to get anywhere. Do you think my daughter may have "Anger Overload?" I would be so grateful for any advice you may offer.

Hi, It sounds like you have tried really hard to help your daughter.  In the long run it is going to be good for your daughter as well as you that you are happier.  It sounds like your daughter's anger issues began a number of years ago, and thus it is unlikely that your new relationship is the cause.  She may be jealous of him in part, but she may also be relieved that you are feeling better (though she does not say this and may not be aware yet of all her feelings about this).  Deep down children want their parents to be happy and feel relieved generally when that is the case.  It is great how you are able to spend some time alone with her, and despite her protestations, I would also recommend doing some fun activity with her when your partner is around, if you do not already do so, so that she sees she can have fun then too.  It sounds like you have tried verbally to reassure her that you love her, and I would talk less about this now, because she may try to make you feel guilty at times to get all that verbal reassurance. 

It is a good sign that she has self control in school.  When she explodes at home, you want to say as little as possible until she is calmer (unless she is hurting someone or breaking something of value).  In my parents' manual I outline a number of strategies parents can use at different stages of anger overload.  What I just said about ignoring her is usually effective when a child is in the extreme overload phase.  If you can catch the anger in an earlier stage, you would use a different strategy, for example what I call "emotional distraction."  You try to come up with something engrossing, silly, or funny, that distracts your child.  For regular events, like washing hair (which you describe is one trigger) you would want to have a significant fun activity follow this on an every week basis.  If she refuses or tantrums when it is time to wash hair, she would not earn the fun activity.  Or if hair washing is still upsetting to her, try to think about how you could make it fun.  Would different color shampoos help (she could squirt or mix the colors), and what about letting her hold a mirror so that she can see what is happening?  Is she upset about getting soap in her eyes?  Is there a way, in other words, to ease her anxiety? 

You want to try to set a rule about physical violence when everyone is calm, and you may need to bear hug her (restrain her) if she is hurting someone or move away from her (if this is possible).  You would not say a lot at that point, but later in the day, you might review what happened and explain what alternatives (verbal) would be acceptable when she gets angry in the future.  Some children respond over time when a privilege is taken away for 24 hours (after physical violence) and some children's behavior is unaffected.

The key is really to use the strategies I outline at earlier stages of anger overload whenever possible.  Your daughter is at the age where she might be able be able to learn some self control skills.  The second half of my manual is about how to teach your child these important skills.  If you think she is ready to understand the seriousness of her behavior and wants to control it, you would start with some of the strategies that have to do with developing self-observation skills.  If you do not think she is ready yet for this, then stick with the first half of the manual, which explains what parents can do (without requiring a child's direct participation).

One last thought:  It would be important for all the adults to work together to give her the message about physical violence.  You want to be a united front if at all possible.  

All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb 

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