Tuesday, February 14, 2017
9 yr old melts down over missing legos
Dr. Dave -
I ran across your article several months ago and thought - he just described my son! I am pretty sure my 9 year old son has anger overload. Tonight's episode went something like this: Him, his younger sister and I go downstairs to work on a Lego set he received for Christmas. I move the set we are working onto the table, he begins to look for the figurines that go with it - he asks his sister where they are, she says she doesn't know. He starts moving things around looking for them, blaming her for loosing them and then it begins - he totally looses it. He starts crying and yelling that it is ruined - without those figurines, the set is worthless. I tell him they are here - we'll find them (they have a lot of Lego's and aren't good about keeping them confined to an area). He continues on saying that they are lost and now the sets are ruined.
This quickly escalates to him lamenting about tearing down multiple Lego sets when a friend of his tricked him (a friend convinced him to take apart several sets a couple of years ago and the parts are all mixed together making it difficult to put them back together) and how everything is ruined, that he can never fix them and how stupid he is for falling for that trick. He is screaming and crying and ready to throw completed Lego sets. I go to him, take the Lego set he has out of his hands and guide him away from the area. He falls to the floor, continuing to yell and cry that everything is so unfair and that in heaven he'd have all the room for his Lego's he wants and all the sets would be complete.
He continues on with how unfair life is this for several minutes when it starts morphing into how his classmates are treating him at school, that they don't want to play with him, that they go out of their way to leave him out, don't pick him because he only has one grandparent alive (his dad and I are older and he lost a grandmother unexpectedly in 2015 and a grandfather in 2013), that when he tries to fit in it only makes it worse (all of this is contrary, for the most part, to what he tells me about school on a regular basis - that he played X with such and such and today he did X with this group of kids, etc), this then leads to basketball being horrible, that his team isn't any good (which they really aren't, although he is athletic) and it isn't fair that they play teams that are so much better than them (which they do) and it isn't any fun. This continues on for almost an hour (or longer in some instances), until he is completely worn out.
Sometime later he came to me and said he was sorry for lying - when I asked what he was lying about he said everyday when I come home from school and say things were good. So I ask to clarify - so when you were upset and telling me stuff about how the kids treat you at school you're saying those things are true and when you come home from school and say your played bombardment with X and Y and did this with A and B, those things are not true? He says, yes, for the most part.
He doesn't have these meltdowns on a regular basis, they tend to be sporadic. They can be months apart or they can be weeks or even days apart. But I liken them to a volcano - building, building, building and you don't know when it is going to blow. That is exactly what happens - he seems to bottle every little slight to him and it builds until he can't take it and the smallest thing sets him off. Sometimes it happens when he is being disciplined, sometimes like in situations of not being able to find something or feeling he has failed at something.
He generally appears to be a happy kid with a touch of orneriness. He is in a private school with 15 children in his class, several have learning disabilities and behavioral issues that demand a fair amount of time from the teacher. According to his teacher he interacts well with the kids in his class. He is bright and gets good grades, but sometimes has trouble with accepting responsibility for his actions and following classroom rules. From what I understand from his current and past teachers he has never had an outburst like I described above at school.
I have your book and workbook for kids, but haven't attempted the workbook with my son. I feel like some counseling is needed, but don't know how to even approach that - I guess I'm afraid of him being diagnosed as something he isn't - bipolar, oppositional defiant disorder, etc. I spoke to his principal last year (a former guidance counselor) and she mentioned bi-polar disorder. After reading your article and book and reading about bi-polar and ODD, I really felt like his issue was more anger overload. I am concerned for my son - that he has difficulty controlling this and he feels like a failure for not being able to control his anger at times. His comments about heaven also concern me.
Any thoughts from you are appreciated.
Hi, You are a good observer of the sequence of behaviors leading up to you son's angry outbursts. One thought I have is to try to intervene early in the sequence, using "emotional distraction" or a "mantra" (both of which I discuss in my books that you have). Be on the look out for early signs of frustration. In the example you give, your son asks his sister "where are the figurines" before he escalates. You can anticipate from past experience that if he does not find them, he will get upset. So when he first asks about the figurines, you could employ a distraction strategy. You could suggest you all take an ice cream break, or point out one of his favorite shows is on television, or wonder out loud about some other interest of your son's, like wondering what would happen if Michael Jordan could play for five minutes on his team. However, if your son is determined to go on with the legos, then he may not be easily distracted. Another alternative would be for you to take your daughter up for a bath (or some other activity) at this time, so that your son does not get into an escalating discussion with you or his sister about where the figurines are.
Another approach would be to create mantras that you would practice with your son once or twice a day (before he gets involved in an activity that has caused anger overload in the past). The mantras would be focused on activities, like legos, that can lead to anger overload. Examples would be: "Lego pieces always get lost." or "When we play legos, there are always some missing pieces. Let's try to be creative and find another way to build things then."
When kids are angry they will sometimes talk negatively about themselves or about other activities, like your son's comments about his friends. Wait to see if the comments are similar when he is calm. My guess is that your son has mixed feelings: he likes playing with his friends, but sometimes feels angry like when his friend tricked him into breaking apart some of his legos. You could explain that friends can be fun but sometimes can be a pain. You could practice this once a day as another mantra. The idea is to help your son look at the situation with peers in a new way, that is more objective.
Other possible mantras could aim at his high expectations about legos and basketball. Examples would be: "Some years our teams lose and other years we will win a lot." Here's a possible mantra focused on discipline issues: "Sometimes I will make a mistake and get in trouble. No one is perfect." But if your son continues to put himself down, then you might consider checking with a therapist in your area to help him further with his self esteem.
It is a good sign that he does not have outbursts at school. That indicates he has some self-control mechanisms that work for him. You note that the teachers confirm that he gets along well at school. ODD and bipolar are not likely given his even temperament at school.
When your son does reach the overload phase, be sure not to talk with him then. Give him time alone to settle down.
Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb