Q: My eldest son is turning 7 in a few months, and I need advice on how to help him deal with anger, especially in the heat of the moment. He is well behaved at school, has many friends, gets along with just about everyone, is typically happy and good-natured, has been identified as gifted at school, and feels emotions intensely. When he’s mad or hurt or disappointed, he goes from zero to 10 in mere seconds. He then often lashes out physically. If you send him (carry him) to his room to cool off, his first instinct is to trash his room. Eventually, he calms down on his own by reading or playing with Legos, whereupon he is always contrite and says he knows it’s not OK to react that way. We talk about better ways to cool off. But it always repeats. I have tried staying near him when he’s upset, but it seems to enrage him more. Any advice on how to deal with this is appreciated, especially if it happens in public.
A: You have my full empathy here. You are raising one intense little guy, and it sounds like it can be tough. Let’s try to understand your son so that we can help him.
You gave me two important bits of information in your letter: Your son has been identified as gifted, and he feels emotions intensely. I am going to assume that you have read up on gifted children and sensitive children and how they interact in the world, but if you have not, please avail yourself of some books. I suggest Dan Siegel’s, especially “The Whole-Brain Child,” to help you understand what is happening in his mind, as well as “The Highly Sensitive Child,” by Elaine Aron, and any of the classes at the Neufeld Institute (which can be taken online and at your own pace). A common theme you will find is that gifted children are equally intelligent and intense. This intensity is due to how fast the brain works and how it gets too much sensory information, which then leads to a slowing of maturity. Why? When the brain is this inundated with sensory information, it is busy sorting and filtering and has less time for growing. Does this mean that your son will not mature? No! It just means it may take a little longer.
So why is he so violent, and why does it escalate so quickly? You can imagine that as your son works hard to stay on task all day, his brain is slowly becoming overloaded. His prefrontal cortex, which is right on the brink of maturity, is working overtime to focus on the teacher, stay patient with his fellow students, keep his body still and follow directions. His gifted brain may be trying to take him down many paths during the day, so it takes him even more energy to focus and be good in class. By the time you see him after school? He is kaput. Every ounce of his good intentions has been spent, and when his systems cannot handle any more, guess what happens? Eruptions of frustration that manifest in violence.
Think about it. You have challenging events happen all day. You finally see your beloved partner, who forgot the oregano you were counting on for dinner, and boom! You may get short, become sarcastic or, if you are really tired, completely overreact. Is it really about the oregano? No. That was just the last straw. You are with someone you are inherently vulnerable with, and all the frustration spills out. Once you are finished with your own tantrum, you will feel tired, apologetic and embarrassed.
Your son explodes, and as soon as the attacking energy has left his body, he is full of shame and remorse. This is good. It means that his mind is saying: “Oh, man, that was wrong. I really don’t want to be like this. I don’t want to attack the people I love.” But his good intentions don’t seem to be enough to stop these fits, do they? How can we help him?
1. First, accept that his timeline to maturity may be a bit more complicated than that of his peers. This acceptance will relieve you of the thinking that sounds like “He is too old for this” or “He should know better than this.” That will only lend itself to more frustration, and you need all the patience you can muster here.
2. Now that you understand you are working with an overwhelmed and overtaxed brain, look at some basic strategies that help stressed brains. First, make sure he is getting protein and complex carbohydrates. Children with overwhelmed brains could experience “hanger” – hunger and anger — suddenly, so if we can regulate his blood sugar, his brain will stand a greater chance of not losing control.
3. Along with food is exercise and other sensory information. Some gifted and intense children need silence and alone time, some need a dose of healthy outside time, and many children love some trampoline time. Reflect on what your son may or may not need to decompress. Anything you can do to help his frazzled nervous system will help him hold on to his good intentions and possibly bypass some of these explosions. When you get a sense of what your son needs, create a chart together to help establish a routine.
4. Take note (literally, write it down) when your son is melting down and the antecedents to these outbursts. Is it after you have made too many requests or demands? Is he misreading exchanges with siblings or friends? Is the environment too chaotic or controlled? I am in no way saying that we can create the perfect environment for your son, but there could be simple tweaks we can make to avoid triggering him.
5. Stop dragging him to his room. Yes, he may be violent or out of control, but create a plan where you can keep everyone and everything safe without physically moving him too much. Why? It is clear that kind of physicality sets him off into further frustration. You can, at a quiet and peaceful moment, let him know what will happen when he has a tantrum. He can have a positive “time-in,” in which he picks a place in the house where he can cool down, and if that works for your family, do it. You are going to need to find a way to make this your own for him.
6. If you can’t seem to help him regulate his anger, please get support in the form of a good play therapist who has a keen understanding of gifted and intense children and who is also happy to work with you. A good intermediary may help with some scripting and simple behavioral plans so that you and your son can work more cooperatively.
Good luck and have some faith that he will mature; he is just going to take his own path and time to get there.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education and a master’s degree in school counseling, and is a certified parent coach.