This post is for anyone who is dealing with a difficult child. All kids have difficult moments, but if your child has impulsive anger issues and massive tantrums at an inappropriate age (5+ probably) then this may help you. For kids who act relatively age appropriate, with occasional outbursts, then this post is not for you.
As many of you know, we have a son who struggles with ADHD and impulsive anger issues. He’s a sweetheart in every sense of the word, but he is also easily driven to anger outbursts and major tantrums that can last for hours. And, he’s not 2. He’s 7. For years, we have read book after book about parenting and tried every method there was for parenting an “unruly” or “explosive” child. The techniques worked…sort of. They seemed to work for a couple of weeks but then quickly our explosive child returned.
With the help of his pediatrician and a psychiatrist, we finally learned that Ryan has serious psychological issues due to under and overstimulation of two parts of his brain. With the help of medications, we’ve seen improvement. The explosions are less frequent, but they still come. And, when they do, it still throws our family into a whirlwind. At our last visit, our psychiatrist referred us to a psychotherapist to teach us how to discipline and teach Ryan. I was hopeful, but unsure. After all, I had tried so many things and they had all failed.
One little piece of her advice was so simple and so “duh”, that I couldn’t believe we hadn’t figured it out ourselves. The advice: Step back. Let me explain.
What do you do when your child starts to throw a tantrum…screaming, hitting things, throwing things, etc.? Do you just sit back and watch? Likely no. If you are like me, you step towards them and tell them to cut it out. Maybe you give them a consequence like “You need to stop screaming or you’ll need to go to your room”. All the books said to do that. It worked like a charm with my other kids. But, not so with Ryan. When I moved towards him, he freaked out even more. When I gave him a consequence or choice of actions, the tantrum heightened. I couldn’t figure out why a perfectly intelligent boy would choose to keep kicking the door instead of stop and avoid a consequence.
But, the trick is, Ryan’s brain works different. Here’s what we learned. We all have a switch in our brain that will turn on the “fight or flight” response. You see a victim stuck under a car. Your fight or flight switch turns on and you are able to lift the car off the victim. A mother lifts a garage door off of her son. You’ve heard the stories. We all have a switch. Adrenalin is released when it’s turned on and you either fight or run. Some of us are prone to run. Others are proned to fight.
Ryan is a fighter. And, his switch his hypersensitive. Much less significant things can turn on his switch (like I didn’t open the door fast enough, his backpack won’t zip, his sister isn’t sitting down at the table). Even these minor things can result in a massive explosion. Why? Because they triggered his switch. He can’t help that the switch got turned on. It’s a brain wiring thing and it’s not his fault. When the switch gets turned on, adrenalin rushes in and turns off the part of his brain responsible for reason. Now, he’s in a huge tantrum and can not think straight. A consequence doesn’t even make sense to him. Why? Because he is in flight or flight mode where reason is gone and adrenalin has taken over. Since he’s prone to fight, he becomes like a wild animal, out of control and on the defense.
If you understand all of that, here’s the trick. What will a wild animal do when it’s on the defense and you step towards it? Attack! Try it with your child (only if they struggle with these issues, remember). When they start in a tantrum and you move forward either psychologically with consequences or physically with your body, their behavior will escalate. BUT, if you step back and quietly remind them that they need to calm down, they don’t feel threatened and, like an animal, can calm down.
Too simple to be true? That’s what I thought. But, when we walked in the door from our appointment, I found him already in a wild animal state with his babysitter. He was throwing a chair against the wall. I took a step away from him and said, “Ryan, you need to calm down. This isn’t appropriate behavior”. I didn’t do anything and turned away. Sure enough, he started to calm down. The chair was put down and within minutes he followed me upstairs. In the past, I would have stepped in, tried to take the chair away and told him in a loud and firm voice, “Put the chair down and stop hitting the wall with it!”. That’s when I knew not only a chair but everything in sight would be thrown at the wall. I’d continue to discipline all of that behavior, creating an even greater tantrum.
The tantrums won’t stop completely and he doesn’t always calm immediately. But, the tantrums have not escalated to the point they used to. The trick is: STEP BACK!
You’re probably thinking, “doesn’t he need consequences?” YES. Without consequences, apparently kids with his struggles often become sociopaths. He absolutely needs consequences. Next week, I’ll share the insight she gave us on that since that, too, is different than how I give consequences to my kids that don’t struggle with these psychological issues.
Until then, Step Back and share with me how it’s helped you.