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

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