Monday, June 6, 2016

How does cognitive behavioral treatment work for anger overload?

In answer to the parent in my last blog post, I mentioned that my anger overload parent's manuals and children's workbook use aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy.  The "cognitive" part means than if you change the way someone looks at something, you can help them learn new ways of coping.  So part of helping someone with anger overload is helping them understand what is going on when they get angry.  This is why the first part of my books instructs parents and children to record some of the situations that have led to angry outbursts, and then look for patterns.  Not every outburst will fit into one pattern, but the more patterns you can discover, the better you will be able to help your child devise strategies to master his or her anger.

Now, because most children's emotional responses to frustration are so quick and "automatic," knowledge (about one's triggers) alone will often not be enough to prevent angry outbursts. This is why catching anger early, and, if possible, preventing it in the first place is so important.  Therefore, many of the strategies I outline in my parent's manual and children's workbook aim to help avoid or change the sequence of events that brings on a child's anger.  Knowing the child's triggers will make it possible in the future to avoid or change some situations that typically have led to anger overload.

Another group of strategies has to do with helping a child deal with his vulnerabilities that can trigger anger.  So if a child is triggered by losing a game (as was the case in the last post by the parent of the 9 year old) it is important to help change the child's perceptions about losing BEFORE he loses a game again.  This is where mantras, or catch phrases, can be helpful to a child.  If they learn to hear the mantra in their heads, they will realize that losing a game is to be expected.  If they accept new expectations about losing a game, they will be better able to cope when it happens.

Another section of the parent's manuals and children's workbook deal with emotional distraction.  If a parent or child is aware of the child's triggers, they can use emotional sayings, lyrics, or activities to re-direct a child's emotions.  To put this idea in another way, it is hard to be angry if you are laughing or feeling joyful.  It is important first to observe one's triggers, because then everyone will be more alert to when an emotional distraction may be needed.

Once anger reaches the overload stage, the strategy becomes one of containment.  Having a "go to place" in your house where a child can emote without alienating other family members can sometimes help.  However, it can be a struggle to get a child to use a "go to place" away from the family because the child is not thinking rationally at times of high emotion.  Thus, it may be necessary for family members to ignore or leave the scene of an outburst, and talk later about what happened when everyone is calmer.  Then the goal is to talk about the triggers later and to try to look for early warning signs that everyone can use next time to try to divert the child at earlier stages of frustration.

More about all these ideas is written in other blog posts and in my parent's manuals and children's workbook.  The children's workbook is designed for children 8 to 18, while the parent's manual is useful for parents of children of all ages.

Dave Gottlieb, PhD

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