My 6-year old will suddenly lash out and hit his mother or sister. What can I do?
MOLLY: This came from a reader based in Michigan. The father added that unlike the rest of the family, his son seems to be a natural extrovert and asked if this could have anything to do with his impulsive and violent behavior?
Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): I doubt that that the essential issue would be that he’s an extrovert in a family of introverts. It’s possible that he senses he’s different, but that feeling usually doesn’t manifest itself in this kind of impulsive behavior that leads to tantrums and hitting.
This kind of behavior in a child that age is really a matter of degree. If he’s really disruptive to the family and they’ve tried a variety of interventions that don’t work at home, that child may need to see a professional child psychologist.
MOLLY: To figure out what’s going on?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, to figure out what’s going on and to help teach the child to control his short fuse and violent behavior. Because if this is not done when the kid is a kid, and it goes on into adulthood, it will cause no end to problems in his interpersonal relationships on all levels.
MOLLY: What are some of the steps this parent could do at home before turning to a professional?
DR. RUTHERFORD: The parent will want to talk to the child about putting his feelings into words so that he doesn’t have to act out his feelings. When he starts to act out, if he starts losing his temper, he’ll have to be quite firm with him. He needs to make certain that he is looking at him when he speaks to him. He may have to restrain his hand, and say something like: “Use your words, not your body. Hitting is unacceptable behavior and you will have a time out in your room if you don’t use your words.”
He’ll have to be quite firm about this consequence so that he believes him when he says it. Then, later, when he’s not in the thick of it and he can think more rationally, he needs to talk to him about what it is he thinks causes this to happen. He should ask him why he thinks he loses control when he knows that hitting is not ok.
His dad will want to engage his ego and encourage his sense of reality in this process. At first he might say, “I don’t have any idea,” or, “Sister made me do it!” Or some other excuse. But his father shouldn’t accept an explanation that exculpates him from responsibility for his actions.
This is one of those times when he might want to have some kind of chart to use. He can mark the chart every time he behaves violently in a way that’s out of line. By charting his behavior, he can actually see how often he is out of control. Usually we use behavior charts for positive reinforcement, but in this case he might want to show him exactly what his behavior is first.
MOLLY: What do you mean by that?
DR. RUTHERFORD: What I mean is that he can make a daily chart for a month, and every time he acts out with violence instead of words he can make a mark on that chart. When he’s in a calm state, his dad might want to say, “I want us to have a look at this behavior chart and let’s see how many times you’ve acted out this week.” Sometimes there is a bigger impact when the child actually sees it in black and white.
Of course, you don’t want to pull out something like this in the middle of a tantrum, because children aren’t able to think rationally in the throes of such emotion.
The other thing he will want to do is to check on what he’s eating because it turns out that a lot of food sensitivity reactions can push a child into angry impulses and acting-out behavior. He’ll want to watch carefully what he’s eating to see if there’s any kind of pattern in what he’s eating and the behavior that follows that.
MOLLY: Sometimes it’s obvious, like with my daughter. She eats a cookie and an hour later she has a tantrum. It’s like clockwork.
DR. RUTHERFORD: Right, and that’s exactly the example of a pattern that we’re talking about looking for when we suspect food sensitivities. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t know what it was in that cookie that caused the reaction in her. It could have been the wheat, it could have been the chocolate chips… We don’t know which ingredient is the problem unless we get her blood tested.
So you can address violent behavior on several different levels but it absolutely has to be addressed.
MOLLY: You know, when we had my daughter’s blood tested for hidden hypersensitivity reactions and then changed her diet accordingly, it made a world of difference not only in her physical health but also in her mood and behavior. Now it is so clear to us that it is the wheat and sugar in that cookie that brings her to a meltdown, whereas before it was all a mystery as to why she would lose control so randomly.
Full disclosure: My older sister, a naturopath (ND) and holistic nutritionist, works with this type of food sensitivity testing and dietary therapy. We were able to identify and solve some behavior issues simply by changing what she ate. I would especially recommend this testing for kids who might not be having success with other behavior modification approaches, because what they are eating may provide the missing link. She can tell you more about it, so please feel free to read more about it on: www.ElizabethYarnell.com/FoodSensitivities.htm.
DR. RUTHERFORD: So there are a number of things to look at when dealing with this kind of behavioral problem. One – to help the child see what he’s doing and to help him put his feelings into words rather than to act them out. Two – using a chart that tracks behavior is extremly helpful because children tend to be concrete in their thinking. So they can actually see the pattern on paper. Three – possible food sensitivites should be looked into because it is not uncommon that there is a relationship between food sensitivites and disruptive behavior.
MOLLY: What might you see in an adult that didn’t deal with these issues as a child?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Often there is no end to problems in their relationships with others at all levels – his parents, his teachers, his friends, his bosses, his girlfriends, his wife. People don’t tend to tolerate a co-worker with tantrums and he will not be as effective as he could be in the workplace and at home.
Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with your child’s aggressive behavior. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.