Wednesday, December 3, 2014

6 yr old withdraws when angry

I am concerned with one of my granddaughters. She is 6 years old; she has some anger issues that really worry me. It kind of sounds like anger overload, except she does the opposite of yelling and screaming.  She will go sit on the couch, floor, corner, etc...and not talk, she likes to seclude herself, and if we try to talk to her she gets more upset, and also says troubling comments.  Like "I shouldn't be in this family", "I wish I was dead". I'm really concerned. Her mom and dad are divorced since she was about 2; they argued in front of her until recently. She is a wonderful, sweet little girl when not upset. I'm considering buying your book.  My son works out of town. Between her other grandmother and me we help watch her while her mom works.  Please any advise would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Hi, Usually children with anger overload are explosive rather than withdrawn when angry, but still your granddaughter sounds like something is really bothering her.  Think about what some of the triggers have been: What is going on when she withdraws silently?  Make a list of a few situations when she gets upset and then think about what are the themes:  Has someone said something to her that she does not like or that she misinterprets?  Is she disappointed about something?  Does she feel badly about something she has done?  If you are unsure, keep track of the situations in the next two weeks when she gets angry.  

One approach then would be to address the underlying "hurt."  Maybe offer a reassuring word, or else a distracting comment, but do not talk a lot while she is withdrawn.  Talking with her while she is angry seems to bring out more anger and her negative comments about wishing she were dead.  Usually when children make these comments only when they are angry, it is a reflection of their anger and not their wish to hurt themselves or die. But if she makes these comments even when she is not upset, or if they are frequent, you should consider a consult with a mental health professional in your area to determine if your granddaughter has an underlying depression.

When she is calmer, try to engage her in a conversation about what bothered her.  Even if you think she is misunderstanding or exaggerating something, show empathy for what she feels.  Then gently help her see that there might be another way of looking at things (if she is not seeing something).  But if she feels hurt by this, then stop and let her know you love her and understand that her feelings were hurt.  Empathy can go a long way toward helping a child feel better.  

You mention that her parents used to argue in front of her.  That is likely to be one cause of her distress. Hopefully her parents will cooperate about child raising issues.  Your granddaughter wants to love both her parents no doubt, and does not want to hear arguments, nor would she want to hear negative comments by one parent about the other.  If the parents' tension recurs, it would be ideal if they sought help from a family therapist.  Even though they are not married, they still are parents together and it will be best if they can cooperate when it comes to the children.  It is great that you and the other grandparents can help out when the parents are working or out of town,  I can tell you care a great deal about your granddaughter, and if things don't improve, consider asking the school social worker if she can talk with your granddaughter, or ask the child's doctor for a recommendation for a therapist in your area.

Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb    

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