Wednesday, October 15, 2014

How to get an 8 yr old to work on her anger

I have an 8 year old daughter who has always had substantial anger issues. She does not have ADD or ADHD, is not bipolar, I'm sure, although I've never tested her for anything honestly. I am an American ex-pat living in Europe with my husband and we moved here about a year after our daughter was born. These kinds of diagnosis and definitely medication for mental health are just not as common and practiced here as they are in America, and I never thought she was bad enough to warrant the diagnosis anyway. However, she does happen to have a very strong personality, wants to be the leader at all times, is very bossy, and many times has emotional outbursts with us, other family and her friends and teachers at school. 

She very easily cries in general and many times if she feels that another child intentionally tried to wrong her, even though many times her behavior leading up to the episode is usually be a big cause of that. Sadly, she is an easy target for teasing at times, because other children realize how sensitive she is and her reactions are always very impulsive and even if she is right in being angry about something, her reaction is so intense that it overshadows her valid feelings. 

She also tends to say things in a very rude way and acts disrespectful but doesn't seem to realize when she is doing it, and why others may not want to be around her,  no matter how many times we've discussed good manners and treating others with kindness. I will always make a point to praise her when she has done something nice or thoughtful, which she is also many times capable of. 

The interesting thing is that when she becomes extremely angry with other children at school and has a dramatic outburst, it doesn't last long.  She seems to realize quickly that she went too far and then wants to move on, many times joking about things and completely changing the subject like nothing happened. she also says things like "i'm so messed up, i don't know how to act." followed by behavior i can only explain as degrading of herself. As I'm sure you can imagine, it's heartbreaking as a parent to watch this dysfunctional pattern repeat itself over and over. 

She is very smart, no problems academically and loves music and art and has great talent. She is very sweet, funny and loving and craves attention. It's easy enough to get her to do things like homework, practicing piano and some chores...bedtime is tough, but probably nothing over the norm resistance wise. However regarding her anger, I feel like I don't know what to do anymore and my biggest fear is that we will lose our bond as she grows older and continues in these patterns because she can feel that I am always disappointed when these episodes occur..which these days is daily. Even though I try my best to be patient and as understanding as possible, talking to the teachers, keeping communication open, I know she probably hears too much criticizing from my husband and I when we try to explain things to her and why it's bad to behave that way. .

I know we are not perfect. I wish I knew of a better way to approach everything, but what do you do when you walk into the building to pick up your child from school and can hear them yelling at another child at the top of their lungs down the hall because they are so angry about something? I am so weary of the school pick up and hearing about what she did that day. Last year she really started to show improvement and the teacher was really proud of her. She had a group of friends she enjoyed and seemed to be turning a corner, but it seems like its always one step forward, 2 steps back. We did have to change schools because her other school was private and it became too expensive, so I am aware this could have a huge deal to do with her current state..but it's really always been an issue more or less.....

I am sorry if my email seems like an excessive complaint of my child - I am just trying to point out all of the details so that you can understand the challenges and perhaps offer guidance to the best approach..because simply speaking, I am at a loss trying to figure out the best approach and need some help. I happened upon your blog and thought I would try to get in touch. I feel like a failed parent, but I love my daughter so breaks my heart that she has to make things so hard on herself. Any insight or advice is very, very much appreciated. Thank you and all the best to you.

Hi,  The positive signs in your e-mail are that she realizes after an outburst that she has gone too far, and it is also a good sign that the outbursts are short in duration.  She regains control and feels sorry about her behavior.  This indicates that she will be motivated to work on her behavior in the coming months.  It does not mean she will be able to consistently stop from having outbursts in the short term because she feels "injured" emotionally fairly easily and because her anger is easily stimulated.  So how do you get started helping her?  

First, I would talk with her about how some people have quicker angry reactions than others, but that everyone gets angry sometimes.  Tell her you would like to work together on how to express anger, and give an example when you exploded and what you thought you could have said (or not said) when you calmed down.  You want to show her she is not alone, and that you empathize with how hard it can be to control anger sometimes.  

In my manual, I offer worksheets to keep track of anger.  Basically, you want to work together each day on what triggered her anger that day and how she reacted.  Talk about whether there are any early signs that she is getting angry.  Help her to see any early signs as a cue to take an alternative path.  We can all control anger better the earlier we realize we are getting angry.

When you review different situations, write down what she said and what the other person said.  You would do this repeatedly for the next month or two, and you want to keep the records together; it is important that this be done patiently and non-critically in order to sustain your child's participation.  Praise her for her efforts keeping the records together.  
The idea is that over time, she will begin to see some patterns of what provokes her.

I also suggest you establish labels for different levels of anger.  In my manual I write about using colors for low, medium and explosive anger:  blue, yellow and red.  The idea is to help your child see that there are different levels of anger, and for her to see that she has better control at the lower levels.  

In the manual I write about how to tie her observations of early signs of anger with calming strategies.  You want to share with her how you calm yourself and have her choose some ways that feel good for her.  Then you practice together.  If she is willing, you could role play an anger provoking situation and practice one of the calming strategies she prefers.  

It is a gradual process of recognition of triggers and of developing calming techniques.  In addition, over time your daughter may realize that there are other ways to look at "provocations" (a different perspective) that might help her not feel so angry.  Finally, you want to reassure her that she is not "messed up," and that everyone has things that come easy and things that take time to work on.  Give her examples from your life, and point out what comes easy to her too.  

All the best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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