Tuesday, May 13, 2014

8 yr old erupts when teased

I was wondering if you could give me some advice.  My beautiful, creative, and intelligent boy has major fits of anger.  He has ruined many beautiful days by being hyper sensitive.  He has no tolerance when it comes to being teased, and will often become verbally and physically abusive towards other children.  His whole body becomes rigid and his face contorted.  He is impossible to distract when he is in the middle of his rages, and usually turns his anger on anyone who tries to help him.  His verbal abuse is getting worse as he gets older.  I am at my wits end.  I feel helpless and I am beginning to go out less, for fear of another outburst.  I have had all sorts of reward or incentive charts in place to no avail.  I can see him going to his angry space, but I can not seem to divert him from going there.  I feel like I want to give up and send him to live with his father, who has anger issues himself. This I know would be detrimental, but I feel he is ruining my life.  He is so rude and abusive, and I feel as though I have totally failed as a parent.  I have started smacking him, which is having little or not effect. I threaten to send him to his father's, which he begs me not to do.  I can't give up on him, but I feel so helpless. 

Do you have any advice that could help? I would be incredibly grateful.  Thanks.

Hi, Usually rewards and consequences do not work well for anger overload.  As you have observed, the anger erupts quickly, and a child is not thinking at that time about rewards.  He is not really rational at the moment of anger overload; his emotional brain is fired up and "running the show."   If you cannot distract him, or if there are no early signs of frustration, then during the overload phase you would try to not say or do much of anything, except to make sure that everyone is safe.  

As far as interventions, you would try to prevent some outbursts by working around some of his triggers.  You wrote that one trigger is when he is teased.  Try to make a list of the times he has been teased lately. Does it happen mostly in school?  If so, in what class or activity?  Can the teachers either a) work around that activity, or b) work with your son to view the activity differently?   "Working around the activity" could mean offering an alternative activity or sitting nearby to catch any "teasing" as it happens.  The first part of my parent's manual explains how to re-arrange a sequence of events to avoid a trigger.  The second half of the manual goes over techniques that you would work on with your son while he is calm, and one of these is helping him "view the activity differently." 
For teasing, I would suggest explaining that other children may be jealous of him, or want his attention, or want to get the focus off themselves. I ask the child to think about the "teaser" and what his motivation could be.  I also empathize with the child that no one likes being teased a lot. For minor teasing, I teach kids to ignore it (give a cold shoulder instead of giving attention to the "teaser"), and for more significant teasing, I teach kids to alert an adult or to sit near friends (preferably a big or popular kid) who might help intimidate the "teaser."  I would also encourage the child to invite other friends to join him at recess or lunch (where most teasing occurs in school), and I would ask the teacher to arrange to have friends (or at least "kind" peers) sit near the child more often in class.  For serious teasing, I explain to the child that the "teaser" has major problems, and it takes many people (the teacher and other students) working together to get through to a child who has major problems.

It would also be important to help your child see how he is likely viewed by others when he loses control of his anger.  Sometimes a child does not feel badly about losing control.  In that case, I recommend talking with the child when he is calm and explain that other children might get a kick out of seeing him explode, and then I would say that he does not want them to get a laugh at his expense.  Also, I would talk about how hard it can be to control anger, but that you are willing to work on it together. It will not be easy and it will take a while, but you both can work on it so that when he gets angry he can do things to head off an explosion. Explain also that he does not like it when his Dad loses his temper, so it would be important to learn how to act differently, or else his friends will someday want to avoid him.  In other words, it is important to help a child see that angry explosions have a cost and motivate the child to work on it with you.  

If a child is motivated to develop better self control, then the strategies that I mention above, like changing a child's perception of a trigger, will be more effective.  In the manual and in other posts I write about how to teach a child to look at things differently and how to come up with catch phrases to help a child remember to deal with his anger differently.  Whenever a child tries one of the strategies you work on together, be sure to praise him, regardless of whether the strategy worked to prevent an explosion.  You want your son to feel that you and he are a team, that you do not expect immediate results, and that you will be excited whenever he tries something you have discussed together.  If he continues to make an effort, eventually you and he will see progress. 

All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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