Tuesday, May 20, 2014

8 yr old hits parents

Help!  A friend of mine sent me one of your articles and I felt like you were in my family room watching my daughter have one of her tantrums.  It’s getting so hard that I don’t know what to do.  She becomes incredibly violent and yells, kicks, punches, hits and then hits some more until she is at a point when she is ready to calm down.  She only will do it for me (her mother) or sometimes her father.  It never happens at school, camp or a friend’s house – just when me or my husband are around.  If she doesn’t get exactly what she wants when she wants it, if she gets frustrated or even if we look at her in a way she doesn’t like…she goes from 0 to 80 in half a second and there’s no stopping her.  We’ve tried everything…remaining calm, yelling back, ignoring her, hitting her back, locking her in her room, locking us in our room, hugging her and holding her tight, making her laugh…I mean everything and nothing works until she’s ready.  These can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour and a half.  It is completely destroying our family!  Imagine walking on egg shells whenever she’s around so she won’t get started.  We’ve been to 3 therapists and nothing seems to work.  We’ve done the rewards and punishments…that works a little, but not enough.  

Recently she created a list of 10 things she can do to calm down and I would give her a point for each one she does.  When she gets to 10 points she gets a reward.  Sounds great, right?  When she’s in the throes of her tantrum, she wants nothing to do with the list and would rather just keep hitting me.  I cry because it’s the most horrible thing to just sit there and take the abuse.  It’s also very difficult because after she’s done hitting me, I have to be the one to calm her and snuggle her and love her – talk about having to turn your emotions around and sometimes I just don’t want to.  And then I’m so incredibly hurt, on the inside and out, that I don’t want to be around her and don’t talk to her.  When she’s good, she is the best child a parent could ask for.  When she’s in one of her tantrums, you just want to run away.  This has been going on for several years and has seriously taken a toll on our family dynamic.  My poor son (11 years-old) loses out because we can’t go places because of her or she will go after him and start hitting him for no reason.  It hurts him very much to see the way that she treats me.  Again, at school she is the perfect angel and her teachers don’t believe me when I tell them what happens at home.  Any suggestions???!!!

Thanks for letting me tell my story.

Hi, It sounds so hard on everyone in your family right now.  As you noticed, when children rev up, rewards and consequences do not work well.  Children with anger overload are not thinking rationally during the overload phase.  During this time, when your daughter is striking out against family members, I would recommend restraining her, rather than letting her hit you.  I know this will be difficult and may take two of you.  But I would bear hug her and lie on the floor, or one of you grab her arms and the other parent grab her legs.  I know she will hate this and fight you, but you are then making it clear to her you will not allow anyone to be hurt.  Do not talk to her while you are restraining her, and let her go once she has calmed down.  You may have to hold her again if she revs up immediately after you let her go.  

If you let her hit you and then hug her when she calms down, you have in a sense rewarded the negative behavior.  I know this is not your intention, but too much love after a tantrum may inadvertently send the wrong message.  I would recommend instead talking about something totally unrelated to the tantrum after it is over.  Sometimes it helps to talk later in the day about what happened when she got mad and explain how important it is to work on anger together.  The second half of my manual describes ways to talk with children about their anger.
Since she tantrums mostly with you and sometimes other family members, I would consider hiring someone outside the family (if you can) or have a relative come by if you and your husband can't be there together.  That way you have someone to help if she tantrums, and furthermore it may discourage her if another adult is present.  I would only do this temporarily to try to break the cycle.

Another idea is to make a list of what preceded each tantrum, and then try to think of a way around some of those situations.  Granted you will not be able to predict many of the tantrums, but if you can avoid some of them, it will help you keep your sanity!   Look for patterns: are there times of day when she mostly tantrums, or during certain activities (or when stopping a favorite activity)?  In my parent's manual, I talk about "re-arranging the sequence" to avoid some triggers.  If you can't avoid a trigger, then sometimes predicting out loud that some chore  or activity is coming up that she will not like and then saying that "you  don't think she will be able to do it without a tantrum so you are getting ready to restrain her"--this may cause her to show you she can do it without a tantrum.  Just try this last idea once or twice; it may or may not work.  For children who are extremely oppositional, it sometimes helps to predict a tantrum because that can motivate them to show their parents that they can control themselves.

Once you reduce the frequency of tantrums, then the other strategies in my manual will be helpful.  But first she has to see that tantrums "do not pay."  And it will be a struggle for a few weeks, so wait until you and your husband are ready to try to break the cycle.  Even after a few weeks, there will sometimes be tantrums, but if you cannot reduce the frequency, get a psychiatric consult to rule out pediatric bipolar disorder. and/or check with a psychologist who works with parents on how to deal with angry children. Also, keep in mind that biological factors often play a role in extreme anger, and that as your daughter grows, the brain structures that deal with anger should also grow.  So hang in there.  I can tell you are trying really hard.  

All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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