Tuesday, April 24, 2018

12 yr old has outbursts playing soccer

Dear Dr. Gottlieb,

I am so glad to have found your blog today and look forward to reading your books (I just ordered on Amazon).  Your definition and explanation of anger overload (from the greatschools article) fits our twelve-year old boy very closely.  We have been working on this with him on this for about three years.  We have been seeing a child pshycologist for the last two years and feel like we’re making progress.   Initially he barely passed the threshold for ADHD but that diagnosis didn’t fit for us and an attempt at  trying the traditional stimulants was disastrous (several severe angry outbursts in a short period).  We then switched to SSRI’s on the view that he has underlying anxiety and together with cognitive therapy we think he’s much better at coping and avoiding outbursts.  As an example of our cognitive therapy, an angry outburst at home that involves swearing results in $1 fine to the swear jar.  This has dramatically reduced the swearing incidents.  We also try to talk thru the events afterwards, try to help him understand triggers, what he might have done differently, other’s perspective etc. 

At school, he has only had a few outbursts and never been punished beyond a call to us (twice in five years).  The real problem I’m concerned about is avoidance and withdrawal from “society” in the aftermath of these outbursts. This has meant withdrawal from team and group activities.  For example, he was kicked off a team 2 years ago for two big outbursts. Then after one season a second team would not invite him back due to another outburst.  This week he had another swearing, angry incident with a third team that he has been with for about two years.   He is one of the “stars” of the team, plays well with teammates, shares the ball, is normally kind and considerate etc. This is not a high-pressure team and the environment is generally positive, he usually enjoys practice and games very much. He is indeed a risk-taker and plays with passion and bravery.  However at practice this week he felt slighted by two of the other boys (he said they were tripping him on purpose), had the typical loss of control and angry outburst, and needed to be taken home to cool off.  He is now determined that he will not rejoin the team.   I am confident that on his own accord, he will not go back.

Do you have any advice?   He’s now 12 and I’m afraid we’re at an inflection point where letting him quit delivers the wrong message and won’t help him.   He loves soccer, loves playing, but I believe is now sad, embarrassed and doesn’t want to “face up” to the situation that led to the episode.  He did not want to go to school today (where he would likely see the same boys) but he didn’t protest too much and he was angry but did not lose control and made it to school   From experience, I know that if we try to talk through it, with the aim of getting him back to the team, he will likely become angry and defiant.   Bribery might work but probably not.  I doubt forcing him will work.  Punishment doesn’t seem to be the right approach either.

I would welcome any thoughts!

You've done a great job trying to help him understand his triggers and helping him understand the perspective of others.  It's a shame he was kicked off two teams and now does not want to go back to a third.  The first two incidents set a pattern unfortunately which your son now is continuing of his own volition for the third team.  You mention the trigger for the most recent incident was that he felt slighted and felt he was tripped on purpose. Do you think the boys were doing it on purpose, and were there other reasons he felt slighted?  

Once you have determined what else (if anything) he was reacting to, you would want to help him re-frame these incidents.  Try to help him look at "being slighted" and "being tripped on purpose" in a new way.  For example, you could talk about how even in professional soccer players get tripped, sometimes by accident when everyone is going for the ball, and sometimes on purpose to prevent the opposing player from making a good shot or good pass.  Which does your son think was happening in his game?  By giving him a choice of explanations, you are giving him a chance to say how he felt, and then you can do some re-framing that takes into account his feelings.  

He will probably say it was on purpose, and then you can explain why that happens in soccer, even at the professional level.  Name a  soccer star if he knows any, and explain that he gets tripped too.  The ref is supposed to call a foul, but if he doesn't the player would try to get the ball back when he was able, so that the opponent does not get the advantage by tripping him.  You could practice a mantra (I explain more about mantras in my blog and books):  "fouls happen in soccer."  and/or "When they trip you, it's because they can't keep up with you.  It means you're the better player."  Another possible mantra:  (Name a pro player he knows) and say:  "He gets up and uses his anger to try to get the ball back. You can do that too."  The basic idea is to help your son see that tripping happens a lot, that he is the better player, and that he can do something about it in the game to help his team.

Once you know the trigger, you can re-frame what happened and develop a mantra.  By the way, it's great you got him to go to school.  He will see by going to school that he can deal with what happened, and any anxiety will then decrease.  Whether he plays for this team or not, practice the mantra several times a week so that it will be in his head when he does participate again.  

One last thought:  if possible would the coach call him or have a couple of teammates reach out to say they miss him and need him?  Since he feels slighted, if he were to feel wanted, that would be the opposite feeling, and might help him feel like returning. 

Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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