Tuesday, May 22, 2018

10 yr old angry when competing

Hello Dr. Dave,

My 10.5 year old son has been exhibiting fits of anger recently and I'm not sure what to do.  It has gotten progressively worse over this past year where previously this was not an issue.

He is a competitive athlete and I first noticed it there.  Where he used to be a great competitor and calm and collected, he's more frequently showing his frustration by "air hitting" his racquet on the ground (i.e. not smashing it but making the move as to) or jumping up and down or banging the tarp, etc. in ways that are noticeably off.

At home, we've had a couple incidents that were troubling.  Last night, he was playing chess with his dad and lost three games in a row.  His dad had sweetened the deal by offering him a prize if he won and he got close but lost.  He started banging his fists on the table in a violent manner.  When his dad when downstairs and said something to me, my son thought he was laughing at him and ran downstairs and started hitting my husband with his fists.  While they "rough house" for fun, this is the first time something like this has happened.  He then started banging his head (not hard) against the shower door and saying things like "I suck" "I hate myself" "I'm no good" etc.

So far there haven't been any issues at school, but he did say to me in passing that sometimes his friends make him so angry he could punch them (but he hasn't). He's also been more frustrated with me - if I am reminding him about something or nagging (yes I probably nag sometimes) he gets visibly frustrated and clenches his fists.

Most of the time, he is a wonderful, loving boy who does well at school.  But this recent-ish behavior is worrying me. Is this normal tween/ pre-teen stuff or should we be concerned? Is this something we can/ should try to work on with him as parents directly through behavior modifications, workbooks, etc. or should we be seeking the help of a therapist? 

Hi, one cause of anger overload in children is when their expectations of themselves are too high.  I would try to re-frame his expectations before he starts  competitive activity.  For example, you could work on a mantra with him, like "everyone wins some and loses some," or "even the best tennis player like Roger Federer (or other sports hero) loses some games."  You could also model this behavior by talking out loud when something does not go your way.  For example, you could say "it was frustrating when I didn't _____, but sometimes things don't go my way.  Oh well.  There will be a next time."  

I would practice a re-framing mantra before competitive activities and see if over the next couple of months, he develops better self control.  Also, try to find out more about what angers him with his peers, and see if you find a theme.  Then you could use re-framing for that type of situation as well.  

For "nagging" you could start by saying something like "I realize I may sound like a broken record, but I could sure use your help with _______."  There are two parts to this request:  You are anticipating that your son may get frustrated, and also you are asking him to help you.  This approach often lessens anger overload.  Other strategies for defusing anger are explained in this blog and in my parent workbooks.

You could start therapy now or wait a month to see if there is some improvement in self control.  Therapy can be very useful in helping kids look at potential anger triggers in a new way. Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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