Ignoring a child’s explosive temper may not be the best choice
ome children have serious issues with emotional regulation (also known as anger management). The emotionally dysregulated child has a low tolerance for feelings of frustration and disappointment. These negative emotions fuel a sequence of biochemical and neurological events in the child’s nervous system that lead to an intense behavioral explosion. The normal parental “no” can trigger an episode of yelling, kicking, throwing, cursing, and other violent actions in children who should be well past the age of temper tantrums.
“Malki really wanted me to buy her the expensive hoodie that’s in style now. She has five other hoodies that I’d already been hoodwinked into buying — no pun intended — and I wasn’t going to indulge her bottomless craving for material satisfaction, so I said ‘no.’ She started screaming how I don’t love her, how she hates me, how I never do anything for her, how I don’t care how she feels and on and on and on, peppered with stamping her feet and throwing books off the table and slamming doors. Malki is not four years old — she’s 14.”
School-age and teenage children should be able to express their unhappiness in words and then move on. Maybe they’ll try to convince their parents, asking the same question a few times in a few different ways. Maybe they’ll make a face and stomp off looking miserable. Maybe they’ll even make a sarcastic or brazen remark (“Ya, so how come you can afford to take a vacation this month?”). But they don’t become violent. There’s a difference between behavior that requires a sharp reprimand and behavior that requires professional intervention.
“If I set a limit for Dovi, he can’t take it. Like tonight, when I asked him to do his homework after dinner and he freaked out on me. He started yelling about how much he hates homework and how stupid it is and then went around attacking all the kids in the family — punching them, ripping their papers, spitting at them. He even pushed the baby down — something he’s never done before.”
Parents usually educate their kids to be respectful and well-behaved. But the techniques that worked for other children don’t work for the violent child, leaving parents feeling worn down, confused, and hopeless. They feel like victims of a merciless perpetrator. They’ve tried a million strategies, but nothing works.
“I just can’t take it when my child physically attacks me. I push her off and I yell back at her. Yes, I know it doesn’t help. And my husband then tells me that she’s violent because of me! It causes marriage problems. He’s not here all day. He has no idea what I have to contend with. I believe my aggression is because of her. How much can a person take without losing it?”
Meeting the Challenge
Children who are out of control need parents who are very much in control. While it’s understandable that a parent may begin to decompensate, it’s obvious that joining the child in his or her madness will only make things worse. The child has to see what emotional regulation looks like in action.
In addition to modeling self-control, parents of violent and explosive children need to do more than regular parenting. For example, in addition to having the child practice calming-down techniques when not angry, the parent needs to learn professional-level behavior-modification strategies. This goes beyond the standard praise and consequence techniques that are effective in normal parenting. It requires professional consultation and training.
Sometimes cognitive-behavioral therapy for the child is also warranted. Dietary modifications, nutritional and herbal supplements, and other practices found in integrative medicine may be appropriate initial interventions too, as these can lower the child’s overall reactivity. Assessment for mental health or medical conditions and an accurate diagnosis can point to appropriate treatments. In teenagers who are still explosive, psychotropic medication may be recommended.
In all cases, parents of violent children need to adjust expectations of themselves and their child, treating the situation as the health condition that it truly is. Ignoring it in the hopes that the child will outgrow it is a recipe for disaster and one that fails to protect the other members of the household.
A child who practices an aggressive response for years on end tends to perfect it, not drop it. His or her future happiness in marriage and family life necessitates an equally aggressive intervention on his or her parents’ part.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 648)