Monday, June 8, 2015

4 year old with anger overload and sensory sensitivity


Thank you very much for reading my email and for any advice you have for me. I just bought your 2 books today about anger overload, but they will not be here until next week.

My son is almost 4 and a half and about 6 months ago seemed to change into a person that is very angry at times and can also be very negative too. His feelings can be very easily hurt, even if no one meant it that way. If my son felt hurt by what you said, then he will burst out crying and run to the next room. He just finished his second year of preschool and has done very well there. His issues are almost always at home with me or his dad. 

We have tried to keep track of his outbursts, and they mostly seem to happen around changing activities (especially if it is an activity that he does not want to stop, like playing baseball) or if it is an activity that he does not want to do such as a bath or go to bed. Most of the time the outburst starts with excessive crying and him running away to the next room. If I go after him and try to reason with him (which I am learning I should not be doing), that is when the violence starts with things like him trying to hit or kick me and call me names. He will also say things like "you don't want me to do anything" or "you don't love me". Then he will say outlandish things like " go ahead, put me in jail" or "just throw me out in the garbage". I have no idea why he would say something like that because I have never said anything like that to him. The outburst can last anywhere from 1 to 15 minutes. When the outburst is over he is remorseful, saying he is sorry and is asking for hugs and kisses. 

He seems to have these outbursts at least once a day up to 3 times a day. My husband and I have been trying different techniques, but if my husband does not see improvement in a few days, he wants to move on to something else. I think we need to be patient. I know this will take time to get better. We need to be consistent. 

My husband and I have differing views on how to discipline our child. He does time outs where I take things away from our son. I realize that both of us need to be on the same page so we do not send mixed signals to our son. The only thing we agree on is that we will never hit our son. 

The other thing that has happened is our son started to be an extremely picky eater at about 2 years old. He is now doing much better with his eating and is willing to try new things to eat. We call it the " no thank you bite". If he does not want to eat something, he has to at least have the no thank you bite to try it. 

He has never liked loud noises and still doesn't. He also has an extremely sensitive sense of smell. That started when he was 3. I have taken self-tests for him being highly sensitive, which it seems he is, but a lot of the books I have read do not go into the anger and/or negativity issues that our son has.

He does not seem to fit ADHD or ODD or even pediatric bipolar disorder. Do you think that this can be anger overload? And/or high sensitivity as well?

Thank you very much for your time and with helping us. This is causing a lot of problems in our family and in our marriage. 

Yes, I think it could be anger overload and sensory sensitivity.  It is not unusual for these two issues to occur together in young children.  Being sensitive to intense sounds, smells, or other extreme sensory input can be irritating for some young children and there is some overlap between the area of the brain that processes sensory input and the area of the brain that deals with emotional stimulation.  For example, the temporal lobes are involved in processing sound and smell as well as emotion.  And the frontal lobes help people organize and control their responses to all different kinds of stimuli, sensory and emotional.  For children with anger overload, there is probably either a lag in the development of part of the prefrontal cortex (that processes and controls emotions like anger) or a lag in communication between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala (an inner brain area that sends emotional signals to the prefrontal cortex).  With time and practice, children's brains develop, and children learn to better control their anger, but it does not happen over night. 

You are right not to follow your son into the other room and try to reason with him when he has outbursts.  Give him time to settle down.  Also try to arrange troublesome situations, like bath time, so that something fun comes afterward.  For bedtime, it is tough to arrange for a subsequent fun activity but try to sit near him in bed and spend five to ten minutes with a favorite story or quiet activity before you turn the lights out.  You want your son to look forward to this bedtime activity so that he will get ready without a big fuss, and sit in bed with you.

You also mention that he erupts sometimes when his feelings are hurt.  Keep track of those situations and look for a theme.  If for example you think he is feeling criticized sometimes, try to mention something that he handled well that day at the same time that you mention something he might not like to hear.  Keep your comments short.  If there are early signs of displeasure or disappointment, try to re-direct him or distract him before he gets too upset. 

In my manual (part 1), I explain how to use emotional distraction and relaxation strategies. The first half of this manual will be especially relevant for four year olds.  In my second book (Anger Overload Volume Two)  I explain how to help sensitive children keep perspective. This section should be helpful to you as well.  In essence you are helping to head off anger overload before it happens, and also helping your son feel better about himself so that he doesn't get as easily hurt.  

Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

No comments:

Post a Comment