Thursday, March 17, 2016

How to help a strong willed 7 yr old

Ahhh I found your blog and book and finally feel like I have some hope—that we are not alone!  We have a 7 year old boy who has always been more competitive, more active and more of a risk taker than other kids.  He is at the top of his class in first grade, and has not had any problem with behavior at school or with anyone other than my husband and I.  He is very, very confident in himself-sometimes I worry too much so, but then I see all of the little boys on his Y-Ball team we coached, and they were much alike-so who knows! He is also a very loving, affectionate child, who loves hugs and still likes to sit with mom and snuggle:)

   He has always been strong willed, but we could distract him or convince him to make the right decisions with different behavior charts and incentive programs we’ve used.  When we did send him to time out, we’d send him to his room and tell him he could come out when he was ready to “make good choices”.  At times (not always) he would throw something, kick the wall, but it was very short lived, and once he calmed himself, he would come out and say “I’m sorry” and our day would go on happily. Self soothing and letting him calm down always worked better than us trying to talk it out like it did with our daughter.   

Most of the time, he is a smart, very funny little boy. However, a couple years ago, he began having angry outbursts, when he didn’t get what he wanted or was being told what to do(bedtime, chores, etc…).   It always seems like fatigue plays a part ( later than normal bedtime, or end of the week) -but for heavens sake, he goes to bed around 7 each night and sleeps 10-11 hours so I am not sure?   It usually begins with him talking back or arguing with his sister, we can see it coming, he pushes us—with a lot of attitude ( and even laughing at times), and then eventually turns into an explosion.  When we try to initiate bedtime, get him to do something, or lay out consequences, he yells, talks back, throws things,  and even pushes us or kicks us when we are trying to calm him.  If we ignore him, he yells things out his door, if we stay and try to talk-he just says mean things and tries to provoke us.  So we aren’t sure what to do?   He is completely inconsolable and irrational.  I am not sure how my funny, smart little boy can get so angry, so fast?  

I feel like your explanation fits him to a T, because except for intermittent (once a week or twice a month) angry outbursts, he is what I would think of as a normal 1st grade boy.  But my husband, daughter and I ( and grandparents) have unfortunately seen him explode, and it is so frustrating!  I know this is a lot, but am hoping that it gives you some insight and you can advise us in some way to conquer or learn to work through his anger.  I found your book on Amazon and so it should be here in 2 days, but if you have any advice, can you please send it our way?  Thank you so much!   I have been feeling hopeless and concerned about our little guy, and I am hoping your book may have some answers. 

Hi,  You write that you can often see it coming, and on those days you have more options to intervene.  At lower levels of anger, you can often use emotional distraction, relaxation strategies, or mantras to help your child settle down before a complete melt down.  I explain how to use each of these strategies in earlier blog posts and in my manuals.  When my manual comes, note that you can either use interventions in the first half of my manual without planning ahead with your child, or you can try to involve your child in observing his anger triggers.  In either case, you want to keep track of his triggers yourselves (which is sounds like you have already begun to do), because then you will know when a possible explosion is coming and can try to head it off.  

If you involve your son in the plan, try to help him see what some of his triggers are.  Be sure to do this in a noncritical way, and maybe talk a little about your triggers, because that will help him see that everyone has triggers.  You want to encourage him to work with you on this.  Then you can develop a mantra or distraction strategy for when one of the triggers occurs.  

If you decide to use interventions without discussing your plan with your child (if you think he will be resistant to working on it with you) then you would think through possible emotional distractions with your husband and your parents.  An activity or a funny remark that captures your child's attention will help divert him if you can catch his anger before it reaches the explosive stage.

If he is exploding, then try to say as little as possible.  When he is irrational, talking will not work. You can try talking after he is calm.  In the future, you would want to try to re-arrange the sequence of events such that you try to avoid or change the timing of whatever was frustrating him.  You mention bedtime routine as one trigger.  Try to have him prepare earlier and then do something fun together in bed, so that he is more motivated to get into bed.  You could play a short card game or read together.  If he is arguing with his sister (another trigger you mention), then try to re-position your daughter or son to avoid whatever they typically start to argue about.  Another option is to set up a cooperation chart, so that each evening there are no squabbles, they earn points together to do something fun on the weekend.  

You mention that your son is strong willed, and this can be an asset in most situations in life. But sometimes it can lead to difficulty with compromise, and as he gets older (if not now) take a look at my chapter on compromise, and consider working on it with him.

Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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