Sunday, March 9, 2014

Strategies for 4 yr old: Should you spank?

Hi Dr. Gottlieb,
I came across some articles today on Anger Overload while I was researching about my 4 year old son. FINALLY, something that describes his behavior accurately.

My son is generally a very sweet, well mannered and extremely caring boy. He is extremely intelligent and does very well academically. Both parents are in the home and we have a good relationship, we fight occasionally but generally get along well. He has a younger sister who is 2. Both my husband and I are very Type A people, strong willed and driven. We see a lot of that in our son. While he is very sweet, he often has angry outbursts that end in hitting his sibling, a friend, parent or teacher. He has exhibited anger since he was under a year old. I would notice that when he was working on a puzzle or something, if he couldn't get it right he would get extremely angry. This has progressed as he's gotten older.
Now, he can have several "Hulk"-like outbursts a day. It's causing trouble at school and I feel bad for us and him. Once he has an outburst and hits someone he will often quickly apologize, but we have got to find a way to stop the physical violence before it gets worse. Right now, it's worse at school than at home. I often try to "talk him down" when he is angry and this sometimes works and he will "be happy again".

I just purchased a copy of your book and I'm looking forward to getting started with it. A few questions:
1) Would you recommend that he see a psychologist?
2) You seem to stress parental interaction, how important is teacher interaction?
3) With consequences, what are your feelings related to spankings? We are thinking that we need to be tougher with him than we are right now. None of us like the idea of corporal punishment, but we're not sure what else to do. 
Thanks and I look forward to your response.

Hi, In answer to your questions, let me first say that parent interaction is key at home, and teacher interaction is key at school.  With younger children especially, most of the interventions need to be initiated by the adult.  Generally most 4 year olds will not be able to anticipate nor modulate their outbursts on their own.  The frontal cortex (that is critical for self-observation and planning) is not fully developed.  For strong willed children and for children who have quick emotional reactions, this can be a problem.  Their emotional energy is strong but the cognitive capacity to handle it is not all there yet.
After you have observed some patterns of behavior and have ideas about some of the precipitants, you or his teacher would try to intervene before your son reached the overload phase.  You will see in the manual that I explain how to lower a child's expectations (if this is one cause).  I also recommend parents alter the sequence of events in order to avoid a potential anger-arousing situation, when possible.

The next "line of defense" if a child has begun to get frustrated is to use either "emotional distraction" or calming techniques.  I describe in the manual how to use distraction and how to set up a calming zone.

In answer to your questions about spankings, I find that this does not usually work.  There may be an initial decrease in violence by your child if you spank him, but his anger will continue to be aroused frequently (because of his biological stage of development and because of his strong willed personality) and you will not want to spank him repeatedly.  Also, spanking on a regular basis can lead to more violent reactions by your child because he may model your actions when he gets frustrated.

I have found that incentives and consequences help reduce anger for some children but not others.  If you want to try incentives and consequences, they need to be meaningful to your child and fairly immediate.  It is sometimes trial and error to find what might motivate your child.  But remember that the problem is not really that your child isn't trying; the problem is that there is strong arousal along with limited cognitive capacity to observe and modulate emotion.  Incentives and consequences do not work so well in that case; they are more effective when the problem is a lack of motivation on the part of a child.

There are certain communication techniques to keep in mind with young children.  Generally, it helps to remain calm, give concrete and positive commands, and specify one request at a time.  For example, if a child is running around when they should be sitting, it would be better to say "Come sit by me" rather than say "stop running around."  And keep in mind that children with anger overload tend to already provoke a lot of negative reactions from others, so more punishment is not usually going to help.

As for the question about professional help, it depends whether you make headway in the coming few months.  It often takes a long time to see a huge change, but you would want to see some improvement in the next few months; otherwise consulting a professional is a good idea.  Some parents find it is helpful to both work with a professional and use my workbook at home.  There may be particular characteristics of your situation that a professional could pick up on.
All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb 

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