Wednesday, April 29, 2015

8 yr old has outbursts when he fails at something

Thank you in advance for taking time to read this email. My 8 year old son has not been diagnosed with any emotional issues. He has always been doing well in school and has extra curricular martial arts and swim classes weekly.

Ever since his toddler stage he had night terrors, he still has the rare occasional night terrors (we still deploy a pacifier to settle him, that lasts about 15-30 minutes) At around 5 he started to sleep walk; his night terror episodes decreased. He has in the past 2 years, developed angry outburst when he fails at tasks. He does not get physical or verbal but will burst into grunts, tears and shakes. Talking to him or reasoning seems to not work, nor do distractions. We've tried to use his martial arts to let him learn control but he seems not to be getting better at it. We have used the time out to think method, it resulted in him sitting in his room crying and grunting for 20-30 mins. These outbursts will always trigger sleep walking and at times night terrors on the night following the anger. He and his younger brother both attend a school for advanced academics. He has not experienced these outbursts during school hours despite the work load.

Are there other ways we can help him to gain better anger control? He is a very smart young boy who is very socially accepted in school, but he seems not to control his anger at home.

Family back ground: we are an active duty military family and lived in many large military towns. I have two sons, both were born into military life, most of their classmates are the same. I am a stay at home mom and my husband does not spend much time away from home.

Thank you for any advice you can give me. Having to move around a lot makes getting professional advice difficult.


One thought I have is to help your son anticipate that he will sometimes fail at tasks, and that this is to be expected because he is learning new things.  If he doesn't sometimes fail, you would be concerned that he wasn't learning anything new.  In other words you want to normalize failing, since you said this is a situation that leads to his angry outbursts.  You would need to do this before he gets upset, not during an upset.  During an outburst he is not thinking rationally, and the more you try to talk to him, it is possible that he will continue to escalate. 

In  the second volume of my parents' manual, I write about developing a mantra that you repeat daily to your child in order to help him change whatever perception is precipitating an outburst--in this case it is failing at a task.  The mantra is a short saying with a new message for him to consider.  You could discuss with him when he is calm some alternatives and pick one together.  Examples for failing:  a) everyone fails sometimes, b) it's good to fail sometimes because it means you are learning something new, c)  I hope you will fail sometimes, or d) even (famous person like Einstein) failed a lot.  

If you discuss what led to an outburst (after he calms down), you could be understanding about his disappointment in himself, but also help him to look at things a little differently. You could even suggest that you will get him an ice cream (reward) the next time he fails (whether he gets mad or not)!  Then after a few weeks, you could say that the ice cream will be earned if he changes one thing about his upsets, and you would pick one thing he says that you would like him to eliminate or change.  You would be very specific and still allow him to get upset and earn the ice cream.  This of course assumes he like ice cream and also assumes that he does not have access to ice cream otherwise.  You could pick something different for the reward based on the interests of your son.

In the first volume of my manual, I explain other strategies:  how to teach children to recognize different levels of anger and how to look at things from different perspectives. There is also a section about developing relaxation strategies.  

Remember to be patient and understanding as you "seed" a new way of looking at failure. You don't want to rush things because then your son might feel like a failure for not being able to accept failure right away!   

Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

Friday, April 3, 2015

4 yr old explosive only with family

In advance, thanks for any thoughts or insight you can provide.  We appreciate your time and expertise on this matter.  My wife and I have been having issues with our 3 (will turn 4 next week) year old daughter and to us, it sounds like the personification of Anger Overload. 

Our daughter is usually sweet and lovable with a really good vocabulary for most of the time.  She has a really good imagination and often plays by herself with her dolls or colors for long stretches by herself.  She also behaves herself perfectly fine at school (really no complaints and no violence or acting out) and with almost everyone else- other than us (my wife and I).  With us, her fuse is often incredibly short and can be lit by even the most minor (as perceived by us) slight or use of the word no.  She has a big brother (he’s almost 7) and he sets her off rather frequently as well.  

Once the tantrum or behavior has started, usually with hardly any advanced warning, she calls us every bad name she can find, often says we’re ‘meanies’ or she hates us or she doesn’t love us, and tries to throw anything she can find on the ground.  Sometimes she rips things in half or will just throw things across the room.  It’s like she’s possessed and focused on violence and destruction for as long as it lasts.  There are also frequent episodes of violence (hitting, kicking, scratching) against us or her brother mixed into these fits of anger.  The duration is anywhere from 1 minute to 20 minutes but they usually end as she explodes with emotion and regret- crying, hugging, telling us she loves us, and she’s sorry.  It has forced us to walk on eggshells for risk of setting her off and has certainly adversely affected life in our home- both for our daughter and for our entire family.

Do you have any thoughts on this?  We recently bought your book through Amazon and are just getting to read it.


First, keep track over the next few weeks of some of the "minor slights" or times you say "no" that lead to her outbursts.   Do you see any themes, or issues, that come up repeatedly?  If you can find find some patterns, it allows you to anticipate and try to head off a tantrum.  Admittedly there will be unexpected outbursts, but you want to try to anticipate some of them so you have a chance of preventing them.  Once a child is in anger overload, it is best to say or do as little as possible, but if someone is being hurt or something of value is being destroyed, you may have to restrain her.  

There are a number of strategies I discuss in my two volumes on anger overload in children that you can employ if you find patterns and can catch your daughter's frustration early, before she erupts.  For example, you can alter a routine so that what she wants to do comes after what you want her to do (if some task is contributing to some of the outbursts).  Another option is to use language that is balanced with "carrots" when you say no to her.  For example, when she cannot play a game, at the same time that you say no, mention when she will be able to play it.  Or use emotional distraction:  come up with a pithy saying or a visual distraction that will get her to laugh or be amused.   It is unlikely that she will rage if she is feeling amused.  The two emotions are contradictory.  I explain more about this strategy in volume one of my manual.

Often children are more explosive at home.  In your case, your daughter has no outbursts except with you and her brother.  The question is why?  Is she real sensitive because she counts so much on your approval?  Is she jealous of things her brother can do but she can't yet?  Is she strong willed and self-centered, as most three and four year olds are?  If you can figure out any underlying emotional sensitivity at home, you can try to help her out by using empathy, and by using mantras that speak to a different way for her to look at things.  I explain about mantras in my second volume.  Essentially it is a way of seeding a new idea, by repeating a catchy phrase daily before any emotional situation arises.  Over time, a child will internalize the phrase (if she pays attention when you say it--that's why it has to be "catchy").  This is one way to help your daughter begin to look at things from another perspective.  Looking at things from another perspective is difficult for young children, so expect that this strategy will not yield immediate results.

There are likely biological aspects to her rapid and intense emotional arousal, and the basic goal is to use cognitive and behavioral approaches that help her forestall the emotional outbursts.  It takes time, but it is well worth the effort.  Also remember that the part of her brain (prefrontal cortex) that helps her with self-control will develop further over the years, so that in this way, time is on your side!

Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb