Saturday, June 28, 2014

How do you teach self-control?

I found your blog while looking for info on excessive anger in children and the person’s post on June 23 is where I am as well.  I am a “retired” Pediatrician who now home schools and the angry child is the youngest of 4.  I’m at my wit’s end and also looking for therapists. My child is bright, even precocious, and he’s always “hated being the youngest”.  I know his older brothers like to tweak him, too, and that’s normal, but his response is not.   The thing is, I feel like I’ve tried most of what I see suggested online. He does get physical, though, and I often have to pry him off of his sibling before I can send him to his room or talk to him.   I also know how sweet the child is after he’s calmed down, alone in his room.  Is my child going to be any more likely to try the “control methods” because a therapist suggests it?  Will going to an outside, objective person be more effective?  We just want the yelling/outbursts to stop—we’ve given him so many alternatives to that. 

I’ve heard there are some who “enjoy the rush of their anger”.  I struggle with anger, so I have some understanding of what this may mean, but a child?  I remember this child at around 2yo, with a viral illness, giving a guttural yell in an attempt to not vomit…which of course ultimately failed.  It was funny at the time.  I was sitting with him and the bucket for a few hours---and he did it every time the urge to vomit came.  So this makes me think some of this is “innate” and not a learned/developed behavior.  Am I looking for excuses?

This child is in his room today, grounded all day, which means he lies in his bed, no books (the height of torment in our house), staring at the ceiling.  This was my husband’s idea and I rejected it at first (the length of time, not the punishment), but maybe this will get the point across.  He is out for meals and some chore work only.  I just worry that an angry child will stew and get angrier with this, though—as opposed to something immediate and short.  But besides spanking, I don’t know of anything else like that.  I’ve been toying with a calendar of anger-free days with a large-ish reward at the end of a month.  Is that reasonable?  The only way it would work is if it restarted after each “failure”, but I honestly think this child would just give up—it would be “too much”.   One month to create a habit, right? 

I saw your blog and the opportunity to email.  I have a list of counselors but honestly am scared stiff about finding a “good fit”.  It seems more like a parenting/spiritual development issue which we should be able to handle at home.  I appreciate you taking the time to read this and would be interested in any comments or suggestions.   Thank you.  

Hi, The problem with rewards and punishments is that once in the overload phase, most children are not thinking rationally; that is their emotional brain (the limbic system) has temporarily overwhelmed their rational self-control mechanisms ( "powered" by the prefrontal cortex).  In order for rewards and negative consequences to work, a child would have to think to himself:  I've got to control this outburst because I don't want to lose this privilege or potential reward.  Most children in overload will be extremely emotional and not be thinking this way.  Even adults when highly emotional say and do things they later regret.

So the key is to build up a child's self-control mechanisms over time and to focus on techniques that can be used early in the anger sequence when a child is thinking more rationally.  I realize this is not always possible because children can "heat up" so fast.  In my parent's manual, I outline ways to pick up signals that a child is close to "blowing up" and I suggest ways to "re-route" a child's thinking and behavior.  First, it is important to  observe what happens before a child explodes.  Try to identify some of his triggers (though sometimes the outbursts will come out of the blue).  You mention that his brothers "tweak" him.  When you see this happen, one approach would be what I call in my book "emotional distraction."  You try to come up with a remark or an activity that your child finds amusing, stimulating, or in some way grabs your child emotionally. It is hard to get angry if you are laughing or excited about something else.  This strategy works best if you can catch the "frustration" before your child is in the overload phase.  Once a child is in overload, it is usually best to say or do as little as possible until the child is calmer.  You do not want to inadvertently "reward" the outburst by giving your child a lot of attention at that time.

Other techniques that parents can use (and that I explain more about on the blog and in my manual) are a) change the sequence to avoid the anger-arousing stimulus, b) lower expectations (if anger comes from high expectations that a child has), c) create a relaxation station in your house, d) teach your child a jingle that helps him change his mood, e) intervene with your older children when they "tweak" your younger son.  All these approaches are initiated by the parent.  I'm not sure how old your child is, but as he gets into his pre-teen years (and sometimes before that) you can teach him ways a) to change his perspective (or to consider other people's perspectives in addition to his own), and b) to use "cue words" or a "mantra" to help him relax, and c) to work on compromise with other people.  The second half of my manual explains how to help children develop techniques that they can use themselves when adults are not around to prompt them.

Basically, what all the techniques are designed to do is stimulate the self-control centers of the brain.  It is like exercising a muscle in a sense.  It takes time and continued practice, but you can help your son develop self-control.  Once he sees he can have some success, he will feel better about himself and he will be more engaged in the process.  So start with the techniques in the first half of the manual (that are directed by the parent) and then after a few months when you see some progress,  consider moving to the second half of the manual (where you teach him techniques to use himself).  

All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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