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May 11, 2011 1:53 PM   Subscribe

Seven-year-old boy incredibly defensive, takes everything too seriously and overreacts to criticism. Have you been one or had a child like this and can offer advice?

My first grader is defensive, sensitive to the smallest slight, and nasty in his reaction. For example, if he is playing a pick-up game of kickball and another player tells him he's out and his disagrees with the call, he'll get mad, kick dirt, scream, and stomp off (maybe calling the boy who said he was out an idiot). When an episode like this happens, the other children look mystified because his reaction is completely out of proportion to what has occurred. When I try to get him to talk about what he's feeling, he'll just tell me the other kids are idiots and were to mean to him. Have other parents had this problem? Were you like this as a kid and was there something that clicked with you that helped you understand your actions weren't going to help you keep friends? I'm a little at a loss so any advice would be appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Needs waaaay more info. Are you divorced and if so how much time does your son spend with the other parent? Does the child have siblings? Has this come on recently? Is there a particular kid or group of kids that provokes this reaction? Tough to get a read without knowing more to the story.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 2:03 PM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was an extremely, extremely sensitive and defensive child, although I tended to turn my anger inward instead of outward.

It's not that I thought this was good behavior. It's not that I thought I was going to keep friends that way. It's that I would construct a narrative inside my own head where whatever had just happened was WAY larger than it looked on the outside -- it was a sign that I was less loved, or it was a sign that I was a failure, or -- at any rate it wasn't an isolated event, it somehow attained a huge symbolic significance in my own head, even in the space of a few seconds. And once I bought into that narrative, then I really couldn't help reacting as if it really was an enormous tragedy. And I absolutely could not communicate this to other people, because I only dimly understood it myself, and was terrified of being judged.

I wish I knew what would have been helpful to me at that age. As I got older I started to get familiar with basic techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy -- I got better able to talk with myself about what was going on inside my head and whether it was actually justified -- but I also learned that I had to pull myself out of frustrating situations immediately, before I reached a tipping point where I wouldn't be in control of my reactions. But it took me well into my twenties before I was any good at reacting with less sensitivity. (I'm still pretty bad at it.)
posted by Jeanne at 2:13 PM on May 11, 2011 [10 favorites]

I am a parent of older kids and have seen this behavior frequently in 7 year olds. My sense is that not all 7 year olds can handle competition yet. I have a friend whose 10 year old still cannot play a game that entails losing. Seriously, some kids just haven't gotten to the point where they can take these things with perspective or a grain of salt. If you were saying that the child had tantrums about *everything* my response would be different, but it seems like you're really talking about the frustration of losing (either points or the game itself can feel like losing).
My sense: try to keep things as low-key as possible. Don't urge him too much to engage in competitive games at this point -- let him mature a little. Meanwhile teach (in a non-judgmental way) the concepts of good sportsmanship, and let him see you lose with grace (even if you have to lost a card game on purpose to teach this.)
I remember when my nephew was able to handle losing a few points of ping pong but still freaked out if he lost a game. This evolved into being able to lose a game gracefully by the time he was 10 or so.
IMO: Remember it's probably a matter of varying degrees of maturity as well as varying degrees of intensity in how kids experience competition. Try to keep things calm, defused, and allow him space to lighten up, rather than add tension by telling him no one will be his friend.
posted by Tylwyth Teg at 2:14 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, the big question is: is this a sudden change, or is it a trait you've seen in his personality that is just getting worse.

I'm not typically one to suggest therapy for kids - I think most of the time it's more for the parent's benefit than the kid's - but if you're not having any luck talking with him and this is a new, sudden behavior, a couple sessions with a therapist .. especially one that works in play-based therapy ... to get to the bottom of this.

However, I also wonder if he's mirroring a behavior he sees from an adult in his life. The use of the word "idiots" is sort of a big, red, flashing light for me. This isn't the sort of word that kids pick up from other kids at that age.
posted by anastasiav at 2:16 PM on May 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

We have found two things helpful with our anxious, inflexible, explosive son. One is the book The Explosive Child by Ross Greene. The other is a program we're using now and are almost halfway through, Turnaround, which introduces children to cognitive-behavioral techniques for managing anxiety. It's being very helpful for our almost-10-year-old; our own 7-year-old is listening as well and finding it interesting, but I think he's a little young for it. With our older son, we tried a lot of things and in some ways what helped most was him getting older and developing better self-regulation and self-understanding as he became able to. But with The Explosive Child at least we felt like we had an understanding of what was driving him, and some useful strategies for dealing with it.

One things I've seen in my kids and my friends' kids is that different things can drive similar behavior. So what has helped us understand, cope with, and help our kids might not be worth diddly with yours. But I throw them out there for your consideration.
posted by not that girl at 2:21 PM on May 11, 2011 [7 favorites]

Oh, also, our younger son started having fits like this during this last year, after being a very easygoing kid the first six years of his life. We read the book Your Six-Year-Old and were amused by how accurately it described our son, and reassured at the idea that some of his behavior was developmental and normal for his age. It's from a series that is kind of old-fashioned in its tone and in its discipline recommendations, but the descriptions of what's going on developmentally for kids at different ages, and the idea that kids move in and out of periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium, have been helpful to us.
posted by not that girl at 2:24 PM on May 11, 2011

I don't have anything to add from a developmental standpoint, but I can tell you as a formerly* very uptight child who maybe just maybe didn't keep things in perspective: don't marginalize the feelings or send a message that the feelings are ridiculous. It really only teaches the kid you can't be trusted and they should hide feelings from you because you won't understand. I think "you think too much" and "don't be ridiculous" and "you read too much" are pretty much the anthems of my childhood.

So -- you do understand. It's frustrating to lose. Sometimes other people do stuff that makes us mad. But learning how to manage these feelings is a big deal, learning how to express things when we're angry, how to assert ourselves when we think things are unfair, and how to lose with dignity. That's all teachable and you can tell him you want to help him learn that stuff so the game stays fun for him and for everyone else.

The other thing is that I don't think this is terribly weird for seven.

You might also take a look out for any role models who might be going a little bonkers with losing and sending him a message that if your baseball team loses it makes perfect sense to scream at the television. Or, actually, watching pretty much any sport on television will sooner or later involve seeing some guy go frothy and nuts about a wrong call.

*ha ha ha
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:47 PM on May 11, 2011 [8 favorites]

My little brother was always very quick to anger, defensive, and shouty, starting from a very young age. The slightest thing would set him off on a fit of grar. My parents are also both very short-tempered. As soon as he grew up and moved out of their house, he mellowed out almost completely. He still yells and gets mad, but he calms down almost immediately.

Are you and his other parent (if there is one) similarly quick to anger? (My parents both think they're relatively chill, which is extremely laughable, so maybe consult a third party on this.)
posted by phunniemee at 3:11 PM on May 11, 2011

Kids that age are still figuring out where the lines of social appropriateness are. He needs an adult to tell him, firmly and as many times as it takes, that this kind of behavior is absolutely NOT ACCEPTABLE. By all means, be sympathetic; explain why it's not acceptable. The other answers in this thread will be helpful for that. But getting from here to there is a process, and in the meantime you can't just let him keep on in this way, or the behavior will continue long after he should have learned his lesson.

It's not a matter of stopping the behavior *or* addressing the cause of it... tackle both at the same time. And don't be afraid to put your foot down, you're the parent here. Tell your son he is simply not allowed to treat other people that way, and if he continues, there will consequences (you determine what those are and let him know up front, before he acts out, so he has no excuse).
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 3:11 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Stanley Greenspan's "Playground Politics" points out that until kids hit the age of 6 or 7, most of their relationships go on with family. Other kids are a whole 'nother story. Suddenly, a child is thrust into a sort of perpetual first day where he's asked to navigate complex social systems (some team members are old friends, but all strangers to a new kid), master new skills (catch, throw, run, listen, understand the rules, please a coach), and see-interpret-respond to hundreds of emotional cues. Your child might be hitting this wall--especially if he's the kind of kid for whom anxiety is divided into a) "THEY'RE MEAN", and b) the silent self-doubt about being judged and found wanting. Better to get yelled at for poor sportsmanship than to be...inadequate. But behind that, there may be a kid who's really struggling to figure out relationship with other little people. And that's hard.

I know you're not thrilled with the poor behavior. I speak as someone who just had a frank and full discussion with my son about recognizing the right of other children not to bear the brunt of his unjustified anger. But please consider whether it is a symptom of your child's personality/struggles with emotional development, and if it is, come at solving it from that angle. It's going to take time and empathy, but you can help him get through this really tough time.

Anyhow, you may not have time to read Greenspan's book, but at least have a look through this portion of "Playground Politics" --"The Roots of Friendship," pages 79-81, particularly the last bit-- and see whether it helps you think through your son's situation when it comes to understanding the complexities of relationship. Good luck.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:13 PM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

From my own experience: I was (and still am!) rather obsessed with the idea of things being just and fair. Because, hey, that's what people had been teaching me, right?

Why do we share things? Because it's fair.
Why do we do chores? Because pitching in is fair.
Why does he get to sit in the front seat this time? Because she sat in the front last time, and that's fair.

Except... life isn't fair. I agree with the commenters above who have pointed out the complex negotiations implicit in school relationships, where some people treat others better because they've been friends longer (or simply because they don't like the way the third person looks or acts). That can be very, very difficult to deal with: if I'm normal, and other kids or adults are acting in a non-normal way but getting away with it, what does that say about me? How can I draw more attention to this situation to make it better, or at least to get some clarification? (Yelling!) We learn about people like MLK, etc. fighting for what is right, so how can I stand up for myself? (Start with the little things!)

And hell yeah, I was defensive. Wouldn't you be, if you lived in this bizarro world?

Maybe it's not the combination of a bunch of little things; maybe he's been set off by some larger thing that has shaken his equilibrium and sense of what's normal. But it's worth pondering.
posted by Madamina at 3:27 PM on May 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

From the OP:
folks wanted more background. So... no divorce, an only child, not a new personality trait, doesn't come up just in competitive situations. He is, at heart, just a easily offended defensive person. I'm looking for ways to stop that story in his head so he understands the give and take of play. That he knows that kids are just joking with him or are just doing their thing and aren't attacking him. Or, at the very least, he doesn't react in anger.
Thanks very much if you can add this in.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 3:59 PM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have an 8-year-old with Asperger's syndrome who can be a bottomless well of GRAR when things don't go his way. (NOT saying your kid has Asperger's, just saying where I'm coming from on this.) There are all kinds of cognitive skills that contribute to being able to live in the world and not melt down about every little thing. Frustration tolerance, perspective taking, emotional self-regulation, impulse control are biggies. Everyone develops these at different rates. One thing to keep in mind is that they are skills, not moral virtues, and lacking them doesn't make your kid a bad person, and "putting your foot down" most likely will not help him develop them any faster. The Explosive Child by Ross Greene is worth a read. Also check out the information at Think: Kids.
posted by Daily Alice at 4:20 PM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding not that girl's recommendations. You may also want to look into finding a pediatric therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. Their focus is on helping you and your kiddo figure out what those stories are in his head that make things feel so out of control and also give him some specific skills he can use to manage those big feelings.
posted by goggie at 4:22 PM on May 11, 2011

I suppose another way to think of this is his anger is in proportion to how he interprets the situation.

What is he thinking in that situation when he gets called "out", does that mean he's a lousy player?

I do recall being younger and being rather defensive when I was told I made a wrong answer, instead I thought it meant that they were calling me "stupid".

I basically had trouble differentiating between "mistake" and "character flaw".

You may want to have someone help with developing some skills to cope with anger and frustration, as well as talk to him to see how he's processing these situations and possible other ways of looking at it.

Maybe a therapist or one of those books will help with a seven year old level of processing things.
posted by mbird at 4:22 PM on May 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

He is, at heart, just a easily offended defensive person.

Just a thought, but the flip side of that might be highly sensitive, extremely observant, an emerging social analyst.

That's the good part. The bad part is he might be a future English major.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:26 PM on May 11, 2011 [14 favorites]

I have no idea if this applies to your son, but there was an interesting post on here a few years ago about clever children whose parents emphasize how smart they are -- this psychologist says that emphasizing "you're so smart" rather than "you are making a great effort" leads kids to have exaggerated fear of failure to the point where they will avoid activities if they're not going to be the best, etc. It makes winning seem like a reflection on your innate qualities or character (smart, athletic), and the idea is kids want to avoid threats to their identity as smart or athletic... whereas if all the emphasis is on trying hard, rather than the enduring intrinsic characteristics, failure is not so threatening.

So one possible solution is to transform all your talk into talk about the process, the practice, the making-an-effort, rather than ever talking about results, winning, etc.

Another thing I've seen people suggest with kids who have a hard time losing is to play a lot of games of eg blackjack, where each hand lasts two seconds, so you're winning and losing and winning and losing a lot with very low stakes.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:19 PM on May 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

I was sort of like this as a kid. I don't flip out and get angry, I'm more likely to slink away and cry to myself that the other kids are mean idiots. To some degree I'm still like this. It stems from the pressure I put on myself to be PERFECT ALL THE TIME. It's very hard for me to not be good at something, especially in front of others. For example, if the family is playing horseshoes at a picnic, and I suck at it, I won't want to play. You have to let him know that getting an out in kickball doesn't make him a bad person, or mean the other kids hate him*. It's OK to get out or be wrong sometimes.

*(ok. they might. kids are assholes.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:53 PM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Google Highly Sensitive Person - there are some good books on the topic.

He probably feels insecure/has low self esteem. This probably stems from any Highly Sensitive Person traits as well as a perfectionist personality and feelings of perhaps being a little lonely/disconnected from his peers.

If you build up his confidence and help him handle his sensitivity, he'll be able to deal with disappointment/making mistakes a lot more easily.
posted by mleigh at 10:06 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would personally not try to analyze the kid's reactions too much; whatever is driving them will be pre-rational. What I would do, if that were my kid, is take the line that I understand that he's angry, but that screaming and yelling and carrying on when you're angry is not OK. And after explaining that a few times, I would just start counting those behaviours.

This approach has worked well for little ms. flabdablet, who is now six years old and much faster at getting past spikes of rage than she used to be.
posted by flabdablet at 11:46 PM on May 11, 2011

Whatever you do, don't invalidate your child's experience or emotions. You can help give him perspective on situations but let him express himself and tell you when he's upset or joyous. If you look at him and judge his acts to be wrong, he's going to take it that he's just wrong and he will suffer from an emotional complex as he gets older.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 6:25 AM on May 12, 2011

I second the recommendation of Ross Greene's The Explosive Child. It may help you make sense out of your son's behavior, and also has plenty of scenarios and practical techniques.

It sounds like you're trying to process these explosions with your son, which is great. One thing that has worked with me is starting by stating what I think the child is feeling ("You're really mad that you got out."). This often helps the child open up. It puts you "on their side" as an empathetic listener, rather than you being another person the child has to convince. When in doubt, reflect his feeling or repeat exactly what he just said. It often works better than a question to keep a child talking.

For what it's worth, I was like this as a child. I hated to do anything I wasn't already good at, I hated being teased or joked with, and I HATED being wrong. What helped me the most was talks like I described above--someone taking the time to listen to how I felt, rather than telling me that what I felt was unreasonable and too extreme, and someone helping me understand how the other person was feeling. Now I work with children, and am often described as a calm, patient person. What your family is going through is hard, but it absolutely can change.
posted by epj at 6:54 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, effective discipline absolutely relies on empathy. The point is to teach Junior that what he feels is what he feels, and whatever he feels is fine, but that bunging on a big shouty drama is unacceptably obnoxious regardless. Far better to teach him that when he's really angry he needs to (a) say, not yell, "I'm really angry now" and (b) go for a run to burn it off, or take himself away to a quiet place until he calms down.

Kids need to be encouraged to exercise and practice self-control. It's a vital life skill, and growing up without it leaves them the poorer.
posted by flabdablet at 7:45 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

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