Friday, May 2, 2014

9 yr. old poked a child with a pencil

Dear Dr. Dave, 

I have just come across your blog regarding the "anger overload" issue. Wow I am excited to see that my child is not the only one that reacts like this! My son is 9 almost 10 and has always shown a sense of being overwhelmed by his emotions. He is a very smart, caring and thoughtful child but once he gets his mind made up that things are not going his way, his anger can get the best of him. He can be disrespectful to me and his friends. While he doesn't get physical with me or his friends he will punch or throw things out of anger.
Our home life is very normal, me and my husband both work but I am just part time so I am able to be with our son outside of school. He has been  involved in Tea Kwon Do for the past 3 years and is in line for his black belt. So if he wanted, he would actually do harm. I am scared that one day he may use this skill out of anger and not defense. I received a phone call last night from a parent of a friend he has goes to school with. She said that my son poked her son in the knee with a pencil and there were marks. When I asked my son about this he said that he was frustrated with another child and basically took it out on her son.   (Her son was also kicking him and would not stop when asked.) I feel this was out of anger and could have been much worse. My son was very remorseful that he had actually hurt his friend, so I know he wasn't trying to be mean. I just don't know what to think about this.
One thing that I know is not helping the situation is that he likes to play the video games. I have restricted him from playing during the week after his attitude and being disrespectful started showing. I am aware that these games are not very good for developing minds but he does enjoy them like any other 9 year old boy. 
I guess I am just venting thoughts and would like your opinion on any ways I may be able as a mother to change this behavior. Thank you for listening and appreciate any thoughts you may have. 

Sincerely, Concerned 

     Hi, Yes, many children have trouble controlling their anger, and the first step is for you to identify some of the situations that trigger your son's rage.  You mention that it happens at home when things are not going his way. If there are certain times that he is more likely to get disappointed about things not going his way, then you would try to anticipate these trouble spots, and  re-arrange those situations (if possible), For example, if he gets upset when he has to stop one activity in order to get ready to do homework, you would try to re-arrange the order so that what he wants to do (play a game) comes after what you want him to do (the homework).  Or, you could warn him in advance that something is about to happen that may disappoint him.  Sometimes if children know ahead of time what is coming, they do not respond so angrily.  You will not be able to anticipate every outburst, but if you see some patterns, then you can try to head off some problems before they reach the overload phase.  I write in my parent's manual how parents can either change the sequence, or lower a child's expectations, in order to head off angry outbursts. 

     Other techniques I write about in the first half of my parent's manual are "emotional distraction" (that changes a child's emotion from anger to laughter or to some other emotional state) and developing a calming zone in your house.  All these techniques you can employ without having to explain to your son that your goal is to prevent or lessen his outbursts..  The second half of the manual discusses other strategies that do require your son's participation, and they are useful once your son realizes he has a problem with anger and desires to develop better self-control.

     When he poked the child at school, what was he frustrated about?  Who was kicking whom?   If the provocation was serious (like being kicked), first empathize with your son's anger, and then think with him what else he could do if that happens again so that he would not get in trouble.  If the provocation was not serious, you would say that you see how your son interpreted what happened, but you would add that there are other ways to look at it.  You would then try to help your son understand the situation from the other child's point of view. In my manual, there is a section about teaching children about other points of view. Some children do not realize when another child's behavior (like bumping into someone) is accidental, and misinterpret an accidental bump as an intentional act.  If a child can see things from another person's point of view, he would be less likely to get angry.  So teaching your child (when he is calm) about other points of view may be helpful.  

     This can take months to really help at the time of emotional upset, though.  Because anger overload happens so fast, children often do not stop to think about what was going on and just react.  But it is worth the time and effort to go through examples where people think differently about something.  You can also use yourself as a role model, and talk about a time when you got upset, but realized later that the other person was not meaning to hurt you.  Another technique that can help is to practice repeating a phrase with your son at least once a day for the next few months that will help him remember to think first.    In my manual I write about how these "catch phrases" can help a child remember to think about things before reacting.

     All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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