I have a 7 1/2-year-old son who has been showing increasing anger, both verbally and physically, towards both my husband and I and our 10-year-old daughter. He is a classic "spirited child," and when he is told "no" to something or asked to transition to another activity (i.e.turn off his PSP to come to dinner), he will say "no." After trying to talk calmly about it to him, he will start to escalate to "shut up" or some profanity. He can also throw things, slam doors, kick, or pull his sister's hair. It seems like nothing works. We have tried timeouts but that seems to enrage him even more. He refuses to go in a timeout, or if he does go, he "destroys" the room he's in. We've also tried taking away Wii or his PSP, but he says "I don't care," and it doesn't bother him. This has been going on for quite some time now, and I know it continues because we as the parents do not know what we should be doing for him?
From: Helpless, Franklin, MA
For whatever reasons, your son has decided that the way to belong to your family -- and get what he wants -- is to throw a tantrum. Your job now is to undo that thinking. It won't be easy but family psychologist Linda Budd assures it's possible. And frankly, I don't think there's anyone in the country who knows more about "spirited" children -- she calls them "active alerts."
In a phone chat Tuesday, she said that even though your son says he doesn't care about losing Wii or PSP privileges, don't believe it. "It's just that he's smart enough to figure out that you think it's true," she said.
Taking away the games is your starting point, but here's what's got to change: You take them away not as punishment but as consequence, and not as a consequence for bad behavior but for not being responsible. That means a different set-up. Budd explains. "Remind him that having a PSP is a privilege, not a right, and privileges come with responsibility. You want him to have his PSP but it's his job to show you he is able to show you he is able to play responsibly, which means means turning it off when it's time."
Tell him you will give him a five-minute warning (or whatever you agree to), and it's his job to show you he can do that. If he can't, Budd says, tell him, "That shows me you aren't ready for this. We can try it again in a week." When he protests, which of course he will, be clear: "This is not about me taking away something you want. This is not about power and control. This is about me teaching you to learn how to be responsible. I think you can learn this and I'm going to keep trying until you do."
The other important piece of this is not just learning to tolerate his unhappiness, but also helping him to handle it.
"Active alert kids have bigger emotions than probably anybody else in the family. They need to learn what to do with them," Budd says. She recommends a "fuss box," typically a large appliance box, like for a refrigerator, where he can go when he's feeling these big emotions. He can do whatever he wants in there, like punch holes in it or scrawl on the walls. But, "It's not time-out. It's where he can put the really big emotions without hurting people or things," such as feelings or rooms. If the fuss box doesn't cut it in your family, he can go to his room and if he messes it, so be it, Budd says. "If he wrecks his room, tell him you feel badly for him and you'll help him pick it up."
That's another way for him to assume responsibility.
One way kids can understand about these emotions is to liken their outbursts to a volcano. When your son throws a tantrum, it's as if he's a volcano spewing hot lava over all the people he loves. Or as if he's throwing up all over them, she says. "Kids get this."
There's one other critical piece. Budd instructs, "You need to learn to disengage with him when he's having these tantrums, because otherwise you are paying a lot of attention to his negative emotions." That means you leave the room.
By the way, Budd says these electronic gadgets are a problem for active alert kids. "A weak part of their temperament is lack of boundaries. Too much sensory input puts them on overdrive so [under their influence] they are even less able than usual to self-regulate." When she meets with these kids in her office, she tells them the rule is, "Never let an IT interfere with an US." The gadget is IT; people are US. Tell him, "You may not even care about your PSP in a year, but we -- your family -- are here forever."
Budd is the author of "Living with the Active Alert Child."
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