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Ask Dr. Meg: My Son Has Anger Issues

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Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg,

My son is super smart and I am exploring the idea of emotional intensity in him. He can be anxious, is empathetic to his core, and has some issues with anger, which is my main concern. He has started saying “hate”, “kill”, he wants out of our family, he wants to go to heaven when he is mad. He is getting items from his room to “fight” me and is doing damage to his room. I know setting events include hunger and lack of sleep and we have a pretty set schedule to avoid these things. I also have to be on top of hydration and bowel movements (he gets constipated) or these affect his eating. Frankly, it’s all very exhausting, as I have to be on top of everything all the time.

He is seven so we are working on moving all this responsibility over to him (slowly). I know I am a trigger to him; how I interact with him. We have spent a lot of time providing him replacements to get the anger out in an appropriate way. For example, he can squeeze his fist down at his side but he can’t threaten me with a fist up. He can pop bubble wrap, dance it out with his favorite music, write or draw and rip it up. Some of these work. My background is a Ph.D. in special education with a master’s experience in autism and work experience in ABA. Most of the time my son is easy and a joy, but these episodes are increasing and not decreasing and he is crossing many boundaries for our family. His five-year-old brother has now used some of these inappropriate terms. I worry about my 7 year-olds’ emotional health and handling it appropriately to preserve that. I would appreciate any resources you may have in mind. Thanks in advance.

Dear Mom,

I think there are two issues that are making you crazy.

First, you are over thinking your son’s behaviors. A lot of parents do this (myself included) and it makes everyone at home miserable. You have a sensitive, bright boy who wants power in the house. When he doesn’t get it, he throws fits and you may see these as pathologic because you are hovering. Let me tell you something – boys don’t have meltdowns because they are thirsty, hungry or constipated. I am disturbed when I hear you say that you are a trigger to him. You are making excuses for him – stop. He knows that you are hovering and it’s probably driving him a little crazy too.

Many 7-year-old boys have temper tantrums and say mean things – especially to the people with who they feel most safe. And – many 7-year-old boys don’t make eating, drinking or pooping a priority. They have better things to do so they don’t stop to do these. Simply talk to your pediatrician about a regimen to get his bowels on track and then let him be.

Second, your son has got your number. He knows exactly how to get you upset and he’s using this knowledge to play you. He isn’t bad, he’s smart. He wants to rule the roost and the way he does is to get you worried because then you back away from him and cave. Stop doing this. Strong-willed, smart kids manipulate their parents because they are trying to get power. But you and I both know that letting him feel that he’s in charge makes him frightened, insecure and very frustrated. You are seeing him act these out.

Here’s what I recommend.

First, stop hovering. Really. He’s going to be fine and you need to give him some space to breathe. He may be having temper tantrums to get you away from him. Stop worrying so much about his anger and when he has temper tantrums, rather than telling him exactly what to do make him go outside and run around. Let him figure some things out.

Second, you need to step up and take charge. Establishing yourself as the authority in your home doesn’t mean you hover or become too controlling. Once your son sees that you are going to clearly establish yourself (and his father) as the authorities, not him, he will stop his tantrums. He doesn’t feel secure. So, make a few simple rules, tell him what they are and then tell him what the consequences will be if he breaks the rules. Then watch out! He will immediately test you. He’ll do something bad to see what you will do. Then he will throw a whopping fit to get you to change your mind. (He knows that you are worried that he is emotionally intense and that something may be wrong.) When he does this, DO NOT back down on the consequences. Make them stick. He will test you repeatedly but I promise, once he accepts that you are in charge, life will get a whole lot more pleasant for everyone in your home.

One more thing- congratulations on getting your Ph.D.!  Make sure to use it to help as many people as you can but don’t use it at home. Just be Mom. It’s hard, but you can do it.

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