Seven-Year-old Quick to Anger
I have a 7 year-old child that is quick to anger (unfortunately, I know where he gets this). Often this anger is directed at his younger siblings. I think he bottles up his feelings to some extent and then unleashes it on them in the form of hitting, usually. Often times it’s about the fairness of a game or if they are not doing things the way he wants. Help! I feel like I’ve tried everything (even hugs) and don’t seem to be getting anywhere.
Thank you, Karen, for your question. My name is Jo Ann Strachan. I am a licensed associate in marriage and family therapy and one of the Positive Discipline Associates who answers questions for the website. I also have a son and daughter. My daughter is in her first year of college and my son is 15.
First of all, I think it is very important for you to know you are not alone. There are many parents I have worked with through counseling and Positive Discipline classes who feel very frustrated and “at their wits end” trying to work with misbehavior particularly hitting and anger. Also, my favorite saying from Alfie Kohn is “raising kids is not for wimps.”
It is not indicated in your question, how long this has been going on. I sense from the character of your letter it seems it has been going on for some time.
Whenever looking at behavior - or misbehavior - of a child, I think it is helpful to have a meaningful understanding of where they are developmentally. Between 7 and 8 years old, children in play activities “like to compete and play games,” “require supervision in play – unsupervised play frequently ends in brawl,” “looks after younger sibling, but fights with him/her a good deal; jealousy still occurs at times,” “Likes to help and have a choice.” “Has very few tension outlets,” “Desires family approval.” These are only a few that I picked out that relate to what you are experiencing.
There are many possibilities as to why this is behavior is occurring. I will cover a few ideas that may help.
I was struck by your comment that you think he “bottles up his feelings.” As the parent I see you as the expert on what is occurring. As I pointed out at this age there are few tension outlets and you are right he is probably feeling strong emotions and hasn’t developed the skills to communicate them or know what to do with them. Parents can model how to handle strong emotions and when frustrated can say, “I am feeling so frustrated because this isn’t going right, I think I am going to go sit down quietly until I can handle this.” It is also a good idea to keep what you say to short sentences. As Jane Nelsen says, and I maintain as a mantra when modeling or working things out with my kids, is to keep it to 10 words or less. More than 10 words and you lose them. So you could shorten the above example to “I am feeling SO frustrated, I’m going to go sit down.” That’s 12! But it's less! It's also a good idea to show with your body language how really deep the feeling is such as taking a deep breath and gesturing with your hands. It gets their attention, they realize others have strong emotions, and they see how you handle them.
Positive Discipline is based on the philosophies of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Driekurs. Adler believed that a basic human need is to feel belonging and significance. Your son may have the mistaken belief that in order to feel significant he has to be in control or to be the boss. A way to handle this that I have found effective is to find ways for him to feel significance whenever possible throughout the day. One way is to engage him in problem solving or planning such as “We need to get groceries and find time for you to play. How should we handle this?” The first few times make sure to do this when you have the time to be flexible and can follow his idea so you can say, “Okay, let’s do that. I appreciate your help in figuring that out” or “I knew I could count on you.” Another opportunity is in the car on the way home from shopping or playing, “Let’s see we have all these things in the car, how should we get them in the house?” I used to do this because I had their undivided attention. After awhile my kids would start the process out with things like, “if you take the mail and the bag of groceries, I’ll take the _____________.” Not only do they feel significant and capable - they feel belonging because they are working with you to figure something out. They are also learning cooperation, problem solving skills, and thinking things through ahead of time.
Another idea is to have regular family meetings. You can read about family meetings in Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen. Family meetings are wonderful opportunities to teach problem-solving skills and to involve children in determining decisions for your family, who your family is or your family’s identity. Parents and children get into thoughts like, “I wish my family did this...or I wish my family was more like....” with no avenue for resolution. Family meetings are a way to define your family with your children’s involvement. It is also another way for children to feel belonging instead of being the person who is told what to do. I always tell the parents I work with that the perk is you get away from being the person to resolve everything and you save lots of energy! If a problem arises it can be placed on the agenda for the next family meeting and dealt with when everyone is calm. Also, something that is critical or urgent on Wednesday isn’t so important on Sunday. Children are very creative and have great ideas given the chance. I have always been amazed. Remember though there will be times when you secretly think to yourself, “Oh, she is 5! How am I going to respectfully deal with this?”
Sometimes fighting is to get you (the parent) involved or get your attention, “if I can't get positive attention, I will get negative attention.” Until you get your son into problem solving or learning to handle emotions, another idea is to have your children go to separate playing areas or outside. I always like to front load things by saying something like, “It's upsetting to me when you fight and the next time you do I will tell you to go to different rooms or outside until you are ready to play together without fighting. Then if it comes up you can say, “It’s time to go outside until you can play together cooperatively.” You may need to repeat this a few times until you have established a pattern and they know what to expect.
Once your son has learned problem solving, when difficult situations arise you can say, “You have good judgment, I am sure you can figure this out.” I always love saying this because I love to see their reaction. At first it was a double take and now they look away smiling.
I hope this gives you a few ideas. One thing to remember is that when you change your behavior and responses, they may not be ready so they could be consciously – and more than likely unconsciously – thinking “this isn’t working I have to do it more and more intensely!” It is like a bell curve and they sometimes increase the negative behavior until they see it won't work. This is an important point to keep in mind so parents don’t give up and give in. Also keep in mind that families, friends, and couples all have difficulties and there are things that ‘come up’ sometimes. The important part is how to maneuver through the problems and come out with a stronger relationship.
Again, I truly hope this helps you. Remember parenting in general has its heartfelt rewards but it also can have many challenges. It is helpful and liberating to keep in mind that other parents go through difficulties as well - all in different degrees at different times. It is so very helpful to know you are not alone.
Karen, your children are very lucky to have such a resourceful and dedicated mother! I am hoping you give yourself credit for all that you do for your children.
My best to you,
But what do we do when he hits? Is that the time for a positive time-out?
Karen, it is our guess that if you do the suggestions, the hitting will stop. The way you are suggesting "positive time-out" sounds more like a punishment for hitting. Positive Time out works when children "choose it" not when they are "sent to it." Once he has hit, you can't take that away. It is already done. Punishing him for it doesn't help. A few suggestions:
1. Let him know that hitting isn't okay and brainstorm with him on some suggestions for what he can do the next time he hits.
2. Teach other to decide what they will do when he hits--just leave the room and refuse to play with him until he is ready to deal with a problem more respectfully.
3. Ask him to come up with a plan for how he can make amends for hitting. What can he do to help the person he hit feel better.
None of these suggestions will work unless your attitude is both kind and firm instead of disgusted and accusing.