I have all your books and I’m trying to implement your wise advice but I’m still having trouble with my 7 year old son. He’s a really good kid, 99% of the time but every now & again he has these extreme outbursts where he becomes insanely angry & aggressive & out of control. It only has to be something little that will trigger the meltdown & it usually occurs after he’s been really good for ages, like an angel at school all week, or good as gold staying at Grandma’s. Then when he gets home it’s like he’s been being so good for so long it all unravels & he just looses it. And it’s always only for me, never for dad!! Is that because I’m his safe space? He’s getting bigger & stronger & I can’t calm him down when he’s worked up. Your book suggests that I remove myself from the room & lock myself in the bathroom until he calms down, but I also have 2 daughters (3 & 5), so do we all have to stay locked in the bathroom? I can’t leave the girls with him when he is in a rage so I’m struggling to implement your advice. Anything else I could try? Please help!
Dear Concerned Mom
Thanks for your question and for working with the Adlerian approaches thus far. Celebrate that you have a kid who is co-operative and caring most of the time! When children get very upset and explode, we may feel that it is over something small, but to the mind’s eye of the child, something is really very upsetting to them, we just haven’t figured out what exactly it is. We haven’t been able to see and understand their perspective.
We have to be open and curious, asking ourselves “what must be true for this child in this moment that they would want to make themselves so angry?” You see, anger is totally in our control, though we don’t recognize it consciously. Evidence of this is that he chooses not to use anger at school, with grandma or dad, when he just as easily could. He is in control of when and where he turns it on.
We don’t build up and store emotions that eventually bubble over, which is a common but mistaken understanding. The Pixar movie “Inside Out” does a good job of explaining how emotions work. They are transient experiences that last only moments and disappear unless we chose to keep them going longer. We generate the emotion that will help us reach our goal. Anger is called the fighting emotion and it helps us to reach several goals such as winning, gaining control, getting even or getting our way. It has a biological survival purpose we could not live without.
Somehow to the child’s mind, something in the environment has been perceived as putting them in a subjective feeling of being “threatened” “one-down” “less than” “mistreated” “unfairness” “rights violated” or something in this vein, such that he decides to generate anger to right this wrong and rail against the perceived injustice bestowed on him.
For example, he may have the mistaken belief that he must be perfect (perfectionists can be really angry people) and if he is less than perfect, he is somehow not psychologically safe or not worthy. So, while a little mishap like spilt milk doesn’t seem to warrant anger from your adult perspective, he may decide this error proves his unworthiness and he rages in contempt.
For many children, being away from home allows them to thrive as they have different roles and relationships in the classroom and with other adults, but upon returning home they find life discouraging. Perhaps they perceive a sibling is preferred, or that their parents have very high expectations or are critical towards them. They have no need to be angry at school or at grandma’s. It may only be at home, or in this case with you, that he feels something so distasteful that he chooses to solve his problem by turning on the anger. Because mothers are often a child’s primary attachment figure, they are more concerned with mother’s approval, love, relationship and so when it is threatened in anyway, this is perceived as a greater threat than other people. He loves and needs you so darn much that he is more sensitive to you and your reactions.
Does that make sense? Such a big topic! So, to get to your actual question: what do you do when he is exploding, since stepping away (bathroom technique) is not working:
- Instead of stepping away – you could try stepping towards. See how he reacts when you respond to him with caring compassion. This can be achieved by keeping yourself calm in the times when he is angry. Your emotional state should be an infectious type of calm that shows him you are neither angry, nor in a frozen protected state, but rather a solid safe adult who is able to be there for him when he has his biggest of emotions, and you are okay with that. “Even when you are angry, I will not stop loving and caring for you”. “ You are allowed to feel all your feelings, including rage”.
- Listen with Curiosity – Once a child has been fully triggered, they can’t really reason or think well but you can still help them with their emotional regulation if you try to be understanding and curious about what they are experiencing and help them to find the words to express their experience. Active listening helps children understand themselves and their feelings better. It might be something like “You are really, really angry that you spilt your milk. You don’t like it when things don’t go as plan, and this was really unexpected” “Sometimes making a mistake, any mistake, even a small mistake can make you feel super upset. You’d like me to know you’re better than that”
- After he is calm, be sure he cleans up anything he threw and allow for some recovery of expense if he broke anything. But more importantly, now is a better time for talking and asking him to help you understand better what was so very upsetting to him. And here you will have to be really carefully in listening to what he is trying to express and then validate it, not correct it. If he says “you never listen to me” don’t correct him and say “that is not true”. Instead say “it would horrible to be in a family where you didn’t feel heard. It’s not my intention – how can we do that better?”
- Keep a journal of the blow ups to see if you can find a pattern of the triggers. Record the frequency, intensity and duration of the blow ups. They should become less frequent, get shorter in duration and less intense over time which you’ll only notice if you tracking them.
Hope this helps!