Wednesday, April 18, 2018

9 and 5 yr old bicker and break things

I read your November article in Greatschools and found it helpful. I will order your parents manual and the workbook.

I have a 9 year old and a 5.5 year old, both have significant anger overload issues, at home. At school they are model students.  My daughter is a high performer and probably has some stress related to that, she is also very shy so would never speak out at school. She is a nail and lip biter, so some evidence of anxiety. My son probably has dyslexia- we are working on that with a speech pathologist, and I think it affects him emotionally a little bit, but we talk about it and he seems fine at school. But in general at school they are incredibly well balanced and teachers say of both of them, that they are real carers always looking out for other students. They are popular with kids and have lots or friends, polite etc. No anger issues at all.

At home it's a different story. They are VERY active children and fight each other for sport. Sometimes this leads to major conflict between them, sometimes violent, biting, hitting, etc. I would say with pretty good frequency, daily? or almost daily.

Even without fights between them, they fly off the handle wildly and frequently. My son, if he struggles with legos will scream, really scream. He will throw things, damage things around the house.If he's really angry at me, he might pull all the bedding off my bed, or take clothes out of my cupboard and throw them on the ground. My daughter gets angry before school every morning because it's difficult to get my son out of the house. She shouts, at the top of her lungs and threatens him with toys she will never let him play with again. If he is in her vicinity she will trip him or push him.

Last week, we were watching a family movie and the children were bickering. I separated them. It continued. I reminded them that the consequence for yelling and out of control behavior was to lose the movie. So finally I switched the movie off. He took two wine glasses off a counter in the kitchen and threatened to smash them together. He kept threatening, until finally he banged them lightly and they shattered.

Then I lost my temper. And here I think is the root of the problem. I don't lose my temper very often, but occasionally. And I think it's enough that they see this behavior modeled by me, and then they model in the same way. 

I had a similar anger problem as a child and as a teenager. My parents could not manage me. I don't think I have ever lost my temper in public, and it's very much a 'fight or flight' anger related to feeling as though I cannot control a situation, feeling disrespected or humiliated.

So I usually try to remain calm and speak calmly and try tactics to help the kids avoid outbursts, but when I've been doing it for days on end I'm totally at the end of my own coping rope, I feel backed into a corner, because I cannot control this chronic daily problem, of screaming, back talk, and fighting. And then I explode. I shout. No hitting or throwing things. This solves the immediate problem, because the kids are scared and they stop. But I know it's a completely wrong tactic.

I am consistent with consequences, but there aren't very many in our house. Just our Friday night movies. We don't have any other TV etc.  I have also canceled playdates as a consequence.  We have a 'house rules chart' that indicates behaviors that are not allowed. We made that chart together.  Maybe we need to remake it. And I always make a point of praising them for good behavior, or managing themselves through situations that sometimes cause stress (like a lego problem, or solving their own conflict).

There are other things too of course. We are going through a stressful time in our life. We have lived abroad for eight years and are supposed to be leaving this year but we don't know where we will move or when. So there is ambient stress in the household. That said, they have more or less always been like this, it just happens to be worse right now.

Apart from the manual and the workbook, do you have any other suggestions for resources? 

I would be grateful for any additional advice.

Hi, you are doing a great job in a difficult situation.  I like that you have tried a chart and that you praise your children for good behavior.  One idea is to use a catch phrase (that suggests how they should behave) either before they misbehave or when there is the slightest sign of a problem.  So if you know they get into fights when they are doing a joint activity, such as watching a movie, explain beforehand that "movie time is quiet time" so we can all hear it.  At the slightest bickering, take away the movie.  Have in mind a go-to-place for each of them.  Tell them where that is ahead of time, and explain that if they both go to their places if you turn off the movie, they will get to watch the end of it later (mention a time), but if they don't go when you direct them to, the movie will be lost entirely.  The idea is to plan in advance, catch any problem early, and take action.  If they fail to obey, there is a significant consequence: no movie.  They may test you on this, but if you hold firm, they are likely to behave better the next time you show a movie.

With other situations, use the same principles:  catch phrases in advance, early intervention, and take action (using as few words as possible when they are misbehaving).  For example, with legos, say in advance that "legos break easily," in other words, predict what sometimes happens that frustrates your son.  You could add: "when they break, say 'I knew you would break.'"  Then you model the words by making something out of legos, say the catch phrase before you start, and then say "I knew you would break," when a piece breaks off.  After you model the behavior, then he is to say the catch phrase and then he can build something.  Praise him if he tries to follow your example.  When a piece breaks, if he does not say anything, you say "I knew you would break Mr. Lego."  

Another idea is to use humor and emotional distraction.  If you say something that makes him giggle or laugh that will interrupt his anger.  So you could talk to the legos:  "You silly legos, why don't you stay together?  I'm going to give you one more chance, or I'm going to tickle you."  Now we don't normally talk about tickling legos, but the idea is to say something strange to get him to laugh.

For your daughter, predict that her brother will be slow getting ready in the morning, and explain her job is to play in a different room and give him no attention until he is ready.  Explain that her brother probably likes making her mad because he has gotten her attention then.  If she does not understand this, that is okay, but try to have her play where he can't see her, and praise her later for ignoring him.

Hope this helps.  When you move, you might also want to meet with a therapist who works with children and their parents.  Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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