Strong-willed Child Will Not Go To School
December 5, 2013 6:59 AM   Subscribe

At out wits' end - we have a very smart, very angry, very sad, strong-willed 6 year old who has decided that he is going to sleep until Christmas and that he is not going to school ever. Flurries of special snowflake details inside.

At the beginning of the school year, we switched districts going from one side of town to the other and then moved physically shortly thereafter. Historically, he has trouble with transitions especially centered around schools and teachers - transitioning in a different classroom in Pre-K was good for a few months and then became a nightmare and ended up with the teacher quitting. His kindergarten experience was also two months of great followed by trials (this teacher, a 20 year veteran, managed him well).

He is a child who is slow to trust, stand-offish, and doesn't make friends quickly. The friends he does make, he tests constantly. He exaggerates negative things to make himself feel worse. He pushes most interactions to as much confrontation as he can get. He deflects positive attention and craves negative. Logical/natural consequences have little or no meaning for him - he will do what he wants and take the consequences with no remorse or no indication that the consequences would prevent him taking that same action in the future, except when the penalty is so high that he feels that the entire situation is not worth pursuing anymore. He is very quick to push everything to high stakes negotiation. He also goes quickly from feeling anger to acting on the anger and refusing to communicate (for example, throwing a chair).

Now he has decided that school is stupid, it's too hard/too easy/I get hurt there/I hate everyone there/it's all bullies/pick your own excuse (and to get this took 20 minutes of high stakes negotiations with him - many Bothans died to bring us this information). He has started to threaten physical harm to himself (putting his head in plastic bag, not eating, cutting) and has written about it in his school writing.

We've spoken to his classroom teacher, the principal, the school counselor. We've started taking him to a psychologist - no real data yet. Read books out the wazoo (the best so far is "You Can't Make Me, But I Can Be Persuaded").

Today he decided that he wasn't going to school and, quite honestly, there is nothing short of physical force that would get him to go to school, which I'm sure you can see would be a loss for child, parent and school. Days like this set a bad precedent: that by acting like this, he can get what he wants (whenever he wants).

My wife is in crisis mode. I don't know what we're supposed to do with these circumstances. We're living with a miniature terrorist.

I'm fully sure that changing schools is only going to delay/propagate the problem. Homeschooling is not an option. Not having an education is not an option.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (94 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
First of all, this sounds really frustrating. So sorry you're going through this with your little guy.

I know you're posting anonymously, but a couple of questions:

We've spoken to his classroom teacher, the principal, the school counselor.

Can you tell us what came out of those discussions? Did they offer suggestions as to what might be triggering him to lash out, or suggestions on what to do about it?

Has he been to a doctor to see if there is anything physically wrong with him (low blood sugar, etc.)?
posted by ladybird at 7:07 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

transitioning in a different classroom in Pre-K was good for a few months and then became a nightmare and ended up with the teacher quitting

He has started to threaten physical harm to himself (putting his head in plastic bag, not eating, cutting) and has written about it in his school writing.

The friends he does make, he tests constantly. He exaggerates negative things to make himself feel worse. He pushes most interactions to as much confrontation as he can get. He deflects positive attention and craves negative.

You're right to take him to a psychologist. How often does he see him/her? How long have the appointments been going on? Is the psychologist a child specialist?

Normally I would say that you need to force him to go to school through any nonviolent means necessary. But your child (frankly) seems seriously mentally unbalanced, and I think getting his mental health in order should be your first step. Call the psychologist and see what he/she recommends. This goes well beyond normal kid tantrums, as you seem to already know. My only suggestion for the short term is to not "reward" him with negative attention, since that is what he's after. Hard to say what to do, but I'm quite sure it needs to involve medical professionals.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:08 AM on December 5, 2013 [53 favorites]

When my daughter decides she won't do something she needs to do: bathe, to to bed, clean up, get up to go to school, she gets punished. The harder she fights the harder the punishment. A mild punishment is no story at bedtime, and then she is forced into bed by threats that I will take her stuffed animal. If she doesn't get up and get dressed to school, she is taken out to the bus in her pajamas and ratty hair. This isn't to humiliate her but to show her she has to take responsibility for herself. It's not my job to conjole her into doing what needs to be done, it's her job. I'm telling you what, getting seriuos and not evering tolerating this behavior works very, very quickly. We don't help her get ready, she does it herself, we don't get her home work out and tell her to come do it. She needs to do it herself and make sure to ask when she needs help, not just expect it to happen or whine and demand we help. When she is good she gets rewarded with lots of hugs and a special treat. If your son doesn't want to go to school, I would make him stay in his room all day with zero toys and tv. He's going to go ballistic, but school might start sounding lots better than sitting in your room all day. I'm sure my tactics are off the chart to some parents, but my kid is in line and is actually enjoying school more and more because she's getting better at it and understands there is no negotiation. Now she can focus on her school social life and getting positive attention from her teachers. This was not an easy journey but the key is to set the boundaries and never let him cross them. It will take some time but it will happen. He can't have so much power over you, you really need to reverse that. Negotiating just doesn't always work but if you give up he always wins.

Sounds like a really bright kid, and those are often the toughest, but you can do it.
posted by waving at 7:11 AM on December 5, 2013 [35 favorites]

Hmm- this sounds very frustrating and terribly difficult for all involved. I'm sorry you're experiencing this!

That said, I think I'd go the route of very calm (nearly emotionless) and resolute action. No negative attention - almost no attention whatsoever. Act as though you are getting a bulky and awkward piece of equipment from one point to the other - it doesn't require negative emotions on your part, it just requires getting it through the doorway. Down the stairs. Into the car, etc. Nothing positive or negative about it, it is just logistics.

Kid: "I'm not going to school!"
Parent: "Ok. We're leaving the house now."
Kid: "But I'm not going to school!"
Parent: "Ok, but I'm locking the door right now and you need to be outside the door.
Kid: "I'm not going to school!"
Parent: "Ok, We're getting in the car now."

Etc., etc. I think I would make it firmly that he has to be at the school - and if the school is willing to cooperate, his two options are sitting by himself with no fun stuff in a room in the Principal's office, or being in the classroom. I got to spend three days sitting at an empty desk in the Principal's office with no one talking to me, engaging with me, or getting to do anything fun or even interesting. At the end of the three days I was pitifully eager to go back in the classroom.

Good luck.
posted by arnicae at 7:12 AM on December 5, 2013 [11 favorites]

It sounds like there's a good chance he's suffering from some serious anxiety related to something traumatic that happened once or happens regularly at school that he's afraid will happen again. Maybe this is no more than the trauma of having new social interactions with the concomitant embarrassments, but maybe he is also being seriously bullied. Ditto the psychologist, but be careful there as well (be sure to get a second opinion on any major diagnosis, and a "blind" one! Don't tell the psychologist about the other psychologists diagnosis!).
posted by dis_integration at 7:13 AM on December 5, 2013 [24 favorites]

Take all his stuff out of his room and make him sit in there all day, staring at bare walls. Tell him that it's either go to school, or do absolutely nothing at all.

It's entirely possible that your child has some psychological issues, but Occam's razor suggests he's probably just being a bit of a brat, and your question suggests you may have indulged him in this in the past. It has to stop.
posted by downing street memo at 7:16 AM on December 5, 2013 [7 favorites]

Have you tried picking the brain of the veteran kindergarten teacher that managed him well? Don't ignore all that other advice re: the psychologist, but that teacher was with him every day for a whole school year. See if you can reach that teacher to get his or her advice, and ask for no sugar coating. Teachers who are in it for the long haul do it because they love children; if that teacher can help, they will.
posted by juniperesque at 7:16 AM on December 5, 2013 [49 favorites]

Please check out the website Think:Kids and the book The Explosive Child.

The short version of these: When kids behave in challenging ways, often it is because they lack the skills to do otherwise. Rather than focusing on punishment or rewards to force compliance, teaching the lagging cognitive skills can lead to better outcomes.
posted by Daily Alice at 7:18 AM on December 5, 2013 [26 favorites]

We've started taking him to a psychologist - no real data yet.

Your whole post was so specific until this. Why is this so vague? How recently did you start taking him? Why is there no 'real' data yet? Have you gotten data that you think is not real in some way?
posted by tomboko at 7:21 AM on December 5, 2013 [19 favorites]

I'm sorry you're going through this. I think this is definitely a more serious issue than a child behaving badly or being a brat; threatening self-harm needs to be treated as an emergency. Talk to your psychologist about getting him in for appointments every day, if necessary.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:22 AM on December 5, 2013 [27 favorites]

Wow, this sounds incredibly hard on all people involved. I feel for you.

My elder child has some similarity to this but not nearly so extreme--but real challenges with school transitions, shutting down when a new teacher would give feedback on assignments, extremely hot and cold feelings about people when she was a preschooler (I.e., fascinated with a friend of the family when said person wasn't around, but completely unwilling to engage with that person when she was present). The latter calls to mind the testing-the-friends aspect you described.

We also moved this year which caused her to have to change middle schools at the start of 8th grade. Things never got as bad as what you're describing but suffice to say this fact was greeted with extreme and long lasting prejudice.

My take on this part of my daughters' personality is that in all those cases she was just not able to handle the stresses, the losses (of attention, of perceived esteem by the teacher when work was corrected), the perceived judgement (as she was sure to face when starting a new school.) She's shy and absolutely hates to, say, be introduced to mom's coworkers or to attend a concert because strangers will be there.

I bring these all up because what's worked well for us as we've gone along is to be very empathetic, but also very firm. If something needs to happen (the move, accompanying mom to work) I make sure she understands that I get what she hates, I understand it, I take it seriously and will help her manage it--while also being clear that this challenging situation is non-negotiable. She can still be very negative and fearful at times but she gets at a basic level that we are acting in her best interests.

Does that work for your son? Do you see where he is coming from? Does he get that you get his worries and fears? The poor guy is acting out so badly, it seems very clear that he can't cope with whatever his fears and stressors are. I know you are loving and concerned parents and I'm pretty sure that's obvious --but well I know how easy it is to get locked in power struggles like this and get overwhelmed.

You have my total sympathy, all of you. Good luck.
posted by Sublimity at 7:23 AM on December 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'm not a parent, I have zero experience with kids, so I have no idea what I'm talking about.

Can you humor him? Even though he's six, he sounds like he has logical, defensible reasons for not wanting to go to school. When I was in middle school (older than six, like ages 11 - 15) I hated school, I hated it, I was bullied and picked on by students and teachers alike. Every single day, to and from school, I would beg my mother to take me out, home school me, send me to boot camp, anything but go back to that horrible place. I was a very smart but very mediocre student because I spent most of my energy mismanaging my social anxieties.

Can you talk to his school and work out at-home school for the rest of the semester? Then, for next term, look at a different school or put him in testing for gifted / autistic / special needs of some kind? It's pretty alarming that a young child would threaten self-harm, but I started self-harming at a rather young age because I hated school so much.

Like I said, not a parent at all and have no idea what I'm talking about.
posted by mibo at 7:25 AM on December 5, 2013 [7 favorites]

"I would make him stay in his room all day with zero toys and tv. He's going to go ballistic, but school might start sounding lots better than sitting in your room all day. "

As a veteran teacher I second Waving and downing street memo here.... NOT doing what you need him to do, needs to be more unpleasant for him than doing what he wants to do....

A lot of parents get so ground down by tantrums that they just want to enjoy the positive when their kid is willing to give it... the problem with that, is that everything gets to be on their terms and the parent ends up being a child's pavolov's dog....

Don't do that.

And learn how to make what I call a "screensaver face" nothing on your face at all, no expression, no nothing... not good attention, not bad, just NOTHING. Be a machine. In adopting this look you will lower your own blood pressure and not end up working from your extremely stressed limbic system.... you can make calm decisions and kid won't see that he is slowly killing your will to live.

And kids know that not going to school IS A REALLY BIG DEAL... ie- many parents are so afraid of "not being able to get their kids to school" and looking bad to the teacher and other parents that they will back down and appease the child....

BUT you put on your screensaver face, like you just don't care, and plop him in his room- he'll soon get the message...

Good luck.
posted by misspony at 7:25 AM on December 5, 2013 [15 favorites]

The adversarial relationship implied by the "punish them into oblivion" crowd is not a requirement. Lots of kids who are "just being brats" are suffering from lagging skills like frustration tolerance, perspective taking, and emotional regulation. It's possible to punish one's way out of this, but it's hard, and the more severe the lag in skills, the harder it gets.

You could try to teach someone to read by plunking them down in front of a book and giving them an electric shock every time they got something wrong (or a cookie every time they got something right), but that would be a seriously hard row to hoe, compared to teaching them how to sound words out and all the other normal ways one teaches someone to read. The cognitive skills that lead to successful behavior aren't different. They're skills, not moral virtues; having them doesn't make a kid "good" and lacking them doesn't make a kid "bad".
posted by Daily Alice at 7:26 AM on December 5, 2013 [73 favorites]

This is what psychologists are for, and you should be taking the opinions of trained professionals over what anybody on AskMe tells you to do for this. You have a seriously at-risk child, and you need to put your resources into making sure that your child is getting the best care humanly possible. That's what you do right now. If this psychologist isn't helping after a couple weeks, find a different one. Keep looking until you find a doctor who helps. Mental health should not be treated either more lightly or more harshly than a physical health problem, and talk about self-harm is serious and needs to be treated as such. Get good care, and do what those people tell you to do, not what people on the internet tell you to do.

Lots of kids with mental health issues grow up fine, but lots of them do not. Intervening now is great, but make sure everything you do is in support of the goals of the professionals who are treating him.
posted by Sequence at 7:28 AM on December 5, 2013 [34 favorites]

Also, just so you're aware, "strong-willed" is not what makes kids totally refuse to go to school and talk about hurting themselves. "Very sad" and "very angry" and "wants to sleep forever" and "won't go anywhere" and "threatens self-harm"--these are symptoms of an underlying problem that needs treating. Again, by professionals.
posted by Sequence at 7:31 AM on December 5, 2013 [116 favorites]

Definitely counseling--possibly for you and your spouse too.

Let me start by saying that you definitely need to listen to your child. There may actually be a genuine problem at school, e.g., bullying. But it doesn't sound like he's actually settled on a reason, nor does it sound like any of his teachers would support such an explanation. So by all means, do your due diligence to investigate his situation, and be fully aware that he may not actually realize what the problem is, or be able to communicate it to you if he does. But you also need to be prepared for the distinct possibility that your son is just being a brat.

If that's the case, the bottom line is that children simply cannot be permitted to dictate terms to their parents under any circumstances. This does not mean that there cannot be some degree of give and take, nor does it mean that he can never get his way. You can and should be understanding, empathetic, and flexible. But there are certain things that are simply non-negotiable. Going to school is one of them. Your child needs to understand that. So do you. You absolutely cannot let him win here. If assuming misspony's "screensaver face" is what needs to happen, then that's what needs to happen.

By all means, explore the idea of lagging developmental skills. That could put you a long way towards figuring out what's going on here. Indeed, simply punishing your son without doing anything to help him figure out why he's acting the way he's acting would be a horrible idea. But first things first: he needs to go to school, whether or not he wants to. Period. Heck, going to school is probably what he needs to work on any of those skills that might be lagging. Get him back on the bus, then try to figure out what his deal is.
posted by valkyryn at 7:31 AM on December 5, 2013

I have no advice beyond saying that I would treat this as an emergency and put a call in to his psychologist for him to be seen ASAP. Not next week, not tomorrow, but as soon as they can get him in today.

Something is going on that needs to not fester, staying home from school today (or tomorrow, or the next day) is not going to help and in fact might just cement it as a coping strategy for the child.
posted by lydhre at 7:32 AM on December 5, 2013 [15 favorites]

I don't have personal experience with these type of challenges, so take this fwiw, but this

Now he has decided that school is stupid, it's too hard/too easy/I get hurt there/I hate everyone there/it's all bullies/pick your own excuse (and to get this took 20 minutes of high stakes negotiations with him - many Bothans died to bring us this information). He has started to threaten physical harm to himself (putting his head in plastic bag, not eating, cutting) and has written about it in his school writing.

all sounded to me like he feels unsafe. I don't mean physically unsafe, although that could be a component. Rather, it sounds like he feels emotionally unsafe. Like he can't get the support he needs at school. He's having trouble trusting others, making friends...

I have been doing some reading lately on attachment issues and attachment disorders, and some of the behaviors sound similar to what is talked about around those disorders. Your question immediately made me wonder if your son is adopted, or had some instability in earlier years with regard to his caregiving situation.

Whether that's the case or not, please don't take the route that your son is just deliberately being bad and needs to be punished into submission. Yes, boundaries need to be set. For example, he needs to understand that school is important. Maybe a traditional school setting isn't best for him, who knows, that isn't really the issue here. He is clearly trying so hard to figure out how to be safe, and that's what you need to figure out. How to first make him safe, and then make him understand that he is safe.
posted by vignettist at 7:33 AM on December 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

He's right, of course; school is stupid.
Tell him you've decided to let him do the housework instead.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:36 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Upon reading I think mefites will fall into a few camps on this, but a few things that I think are true regardless (and with great experiece) are these:

kids want to know what to expect and get a little nutty when they don't know what to expect (from you, the school, from breakfast, from life etc.)

No needs to mean no. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don't feel bad about that, its for safety.

Refrain from bargaining with kid. They are too young for it. It makes them not trust the parent.

HAVE CONFIDENCE in yourself and as a parent. Sure, you may be making mistakes- you wouldn't be human if you weren't... but if your heart is in the right place, then- well- your kid will eventually get over any huge shortfallings....

Be strong, it will be okay.
posted by misspony at 7:38 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

"He has started to threaten physical harm to himself (putting his head in plastic bag, not eating, cutting) and has written about it in his school writing."

Hugs to you, OP. Good for you for calling in a psychologist. The excellent news is, you are not in denial - you know something is very wrong here. Seconding The Explosive Child. This is not a mere discipline issue.

I'm the mother of a 6-year-old boy myself, and 6 has been by far his most challenging age, FWIW. But from where I sit - your mention of the chair-throwing and the threats about self-harm make me feel like there's definitely something more serious going on with your son - and that must be awful to hear, I'm sorry.

There is something that made you mention the bullying, and you're good to follow your parental spidey sense there. It does seem like something at school is taxing him. It could be changes that are making him work so hard to process them that he has nothing left for social graces or mood control. Or it could be that he does not have enough recess, and that US schools are not really set up for meeting the physical play needs of young boys.

Things I'm thinking about could be things like having his seat changed in class so he's next to someone he has conflict with, learning new skills at school that he's not confident about and is struggling with, some new kind of food he's ingesting at school that has something that's irritating his system (artificial dyes or sweeteners would be my first guesses), something other kids are talking about that are scaring him (movies or tv shows or stories). Or bullying.

You know this isn't your fault, so see if you can switch out of "taking care of it" mode and "disciplinarian" mode into detective mode to see if you can figure out if there's anything new in the timeframe you've noticed the downward changes in. Talk to his teacher. Look methodically at anything external that could be stressing him out, and be prepared for it to be something small that wouldn't stress out an adult or older kid.

Have a conversation with your son at a time when your family are all calm and well fed. Rather than focusing on what is bothering him - an avenue you've explored fruitlessly for how long now? - do some problem solving, and ask what would help him feel better when he starts getting so upset. Help him think through ways to calm himself or use his words to express when he Just Can't Handle People Anymore.

You've probably already read this but Ames & Ilg's Your 6-Year Old: Loving and Defiant will give you a sense of what the average 6-year-old acts like. Generally, age 6 is a hard, emotional, defiant age for pretty much all kids but for smart boys especially. Behavior and attitude usually starts to improve starting at age 6.5.

After you read the Ames book, talk to his teacher again ASAP. Find out what s/he sees is going on for your son, as well as for the class as a whole. Teachers often have great great insights into the kiddos in their care. Get the teacher to tell you what strategies they employ with your child (and with others he might be interacting with). While I don't minimize the impact of bullying, I was calmed by Ames & Ilg's assertion that 6-year-old friendships ARE inherently turbulent and that they do eventually get through that phase.

One-on-one time playing with your son, working on strengthening the bonds between you will also help him (and you) immensely, so I suggest checking out Playful Parenting by Dr. Lawrence Cohen -- great for helping dads and sons keep a strong connection.
posted by hush at 7:44 AM on December 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

If he is adopted and/or the survivor of trauma this makes a lot more sense. Please go to a specialist. I'm so sorry you are going through this.
posted by Mistress at 7:45 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Some parts of this sound a whole lot like what I was going through when I was about that age. I was a terror, I frequently got sent home from school (I had no idea why), I joked about killing myself but no one took it as a joke (I wound up talking to a shrink in the second grade), I just decided not to do homework anymore, et cetera. School was a huge struggle for me in more ways than I care to name, and my parents tried their damndest to figure out what was wrong, until finally in the sixth grade, a doctor suggested I might have ADD and prescribed Ritalin. I won't say that fixed everything, but it made a huge, huge difference.

Not that I'm diagnosing your kid with anything, because who knows, but I guess just be open to whatever the psychologist tells you.

I agree with suggestions that punishments should probably include a heavy element of boredom. If your house has a room you can spare, set it up as a time-out room - no TV, no toys, no phone, no nothing. He can shrug off negative consequences as long as they're remotely interesting in whatever way, but boredom, I suspect, will be something he'll have a harder time handling, and may be more likely to comply in order to avoid it.

It's something you'd have to be a hardass about. He acts up, he gets an hour of no external stimuli. Keeps it up, he gets two hours. Explain to him that either he can go to school or he can be in time-out during the hours he'd normally be at school. If that won't cut it, say nothing short of physical force will get him into school, so there you go. He's six. Pick him up and carry him into the car and drive him to school and pick him up and carry him into school. He will howl and cry and say he hates you and he hates his life and he's so miserable he wishes he were dead. Do it anyway.

I also agree that there's probably more going on here than just being strong-willed, but building long-term positive behavior patterns will take time, and you don't really have time here. I would first establish, with absolute certainty, that this is not a choice he has, and that he cannot issue edicts to his parents. And that if he does attempt to issue edicts to his parents, the response will not be sitting down with him to figure out where his head's at and come to a compromise that works for everyone; the response will be, "No." To be clear, using boredom as a weapon will not make him into a model child, and it's not intended to. It may get you over this one hurdle so you can keep moving forward. His behavioral issues are problems that need to be worked on with a professional.


and to get this took 20 minutes of high stakes negotiations with him

This is not a situation in which you should be negotiating. He is not on equal footing with you, and it will do him a disservice - and some damage - to treat him as if he is. It's good when you can act like you're friends with your kids and it's heartbreaking when you can't, but right now he doesn't need friends, he needs parents.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:48 AM on December 5, 2013 [19 favorites]

Hi! I'm a therapeutic foster parent who has dealt with a kiddo having very similar issues.

My experience is with kids who were traumatized, so often that requires a different set of tactics but here's my piece:

The suggestion, "Tell him he can go to school or sit in his completely empty room all day doing nothing." may not be a good idea. As a rule NEVER offer an option to a child that is not viable. You say him not getting an education is not an option so, "Go to school or stay home" is one valid option and one threat. I said something similar to a 7 year old once and his response was basically, "I accept the terms of the agreement and will be sitting in my empty room all day until further notice." Whoops.

I agree that he should go to school. Even if the best you can do is put him in the car and drive him there and camp in the parking lot or the lobby. Then you are true to your word that he has to go to school.

I might also suggest that you stop doing things you don't want to for him and be honest about that. "I used all my energy getting you to school this morning so now I don't have any left to make dinner. Here is the stuff to make a sandwich." This type of approach was helpful to one of our placements because it showed that ALL people do things they don't want to do and it acknowledged that his behavior came back to influence his life in ways he did care about.

In contrast, on days when it was easier I would say, "This morning was 15% easier and I have 15% more energy left this evening. I would like to use that energy to do something nice for you, can I make your bed for you or make you a hamburger?"

arnicae's advice for getting him out the door is good. I would just add that the night before I would say, "You are going to school tomorrow. If you cannot do it on your own I will help you by moving your body. I really hope you decide to go on your own though, because I love you and want to spend happy time with you." Just so you've set a really clear expectation.

My husband and I battled (on his side, against his trauma) with a super troubled little boy for 7 months and if you'd like to talk more in depth I'd be happy to over memail.
posted by Saminal at 7:53 AM on December 5, 2013 [55 favorites]

He has started to threaten physical harm to himself (putting his head in plastic bag, not eating, cutting) and has written about it in his school writing.

I'm really surprised that people here aren't more concerned with this. Ever seen the documentary Boy, Interrupted? Is there a history of mental illness in your family? That data needs to come back pronto from the psychologist. If he is a threat to himself or others then he needs to be taken to an emergency room. In the future, he may need to go to another school, one that serves disturbed children.
posted by Melismata at 7:54 AM on December 5, 2013 [12 favorites]

I'm sorry that you're dealing with this. I don't have kids and reading this makes me realize that I wouldn't know what to do if my fictional kid was doing this. I don't know if any of these things will work but here are some thoughts.

Is he okay with leaving the house at all? Can you try going out to breakfast with him before school? Maybe try actually going with him to school? It might be helpful and encouraging to see that you are both going to school and you could see if there's some kid who keeps giving your kid the stink eye or some teacher who just is not good at dealing with your kid. Eventually, your kid will have to deal with disagreeable kids and teachers but let's start small for now. Maybe after going to breakfast a few times before school, you can cut back to picking up a doughnut with the kid before school and staying for part of the day.

Also, do you have surrogates you can bring in? My aunt is a grandmother and I think that if she told me that she loved me and I had to go to school, I'd go. Does your kid have an aunt, uncle, godparent, someone who might be in a position to get through to them?

Finally, I think that something I could have used as a little person was if someone had said, when you get upset about something, here are things you can do. I remember being told to punch a pillow but if an adult had just said, you can always duck into the bathroom, count to ten, take some deep breaths, and just remove yourself from the situation for a minute, that would have been helpful. I don't think I was taught any coping skills for stress so my only coping skill was crying, feeling sad and eventually self-injury and depression. A child psychiatrist can help him come up with strategies for coping with stress and when he uses one of these strategies, you should congratulate him.

When I was in high school (totally different, I realize), I was taking pre-calculus and physics in the same semester and struggling more than I ever had in my life. I would come home from school, study, eat dinner, study and go to bed and I was still getting Ds. We had a snow day and I was thrilled but then the next day, I could not deal with the idea of going to school. Going to school just meant more failure. My dad got me out of physics. I actually felt really badly about it because I hated the idea of quitting but then my pre-calculus grade went up very slightly and I didn't feel as miserable.
posted by kat518 at 7:54 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Oh, and yeah - everything I said assumes that he's not adopted or a foster kid who may have past trauma unrelated to you. If he is, it's a different scenario which will need a different approach.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:57 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

First of all, push for an evaluation. Your very bright child may have a processing problem, a learning disability or he may be perfectly fine but a complete asshole.

You can work with anything, just so long as you know exactly what it is you've got.

You and the school need to be on message, so I'd consult with his teacher and the principal to get a game plan in place.

You can't just dump him on the school and leave it to them to manage. The teacher has 20-30 other kids to deal with and your son can't commend 100% of her attention.

Your son is seeking attention. Don't give him any. Even negative attention is a reward.

While I love the idea that a room with nothing in it could be a solution to this problem, if your kid is especially bright and manipulative (and all signs point to yes, on that) he'll sit in there, forcing you to eat up your PTO, to wear you down.

So you need to reframe the conversation, "Not going to school isn't an option. All children have to attend school. So, given that, what is it that we can do to make your school experience better?" Teach him to be a problem solver, give him agency for solving his problem.

You can even agree with him, "I hear ya Buddy, school can be stupid sometimes. You know what, my job is stupid sometimes, but working at my job is how we get money to live, so I've got to put up with some stupid. Know how I deal with it? I read articles on my computer sometimes. So, what are some things you can do when you feel that school is stupid?"

Stand firm, ultimately, he's going to school. Acknowledge his feelings, but continute to impress upon him that at 7:30 on Monday morning, he will be on the way to school.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:59 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

"School refusal" is the educational/psychological term for this and might help in your research.

You can also have your kiddo evaluated for learning disabilities and emotional health challenges (attachment disorder, depression, etc) by the school at no cost as part of an evaluation for special education. Anything that keeps kiddo from learning- like refusing to go to school- is game for intervention from a special education team. To get the ball rolling, send a written letter to your district's special ed department. You and Kiddo have legal protections that come into play once you request something in writing, so that's why it's important to do that and not just call.

Letter could say: "I am my referring my son Kiddo for special education evaluation in all areas of suspected disability. I am referring Kiddo because he struggles with transitions, cannot control his anger or regulate his emotions, and refuses to go to school and this is interfering with his education. I look forward to your evaluation plan for Kiddo."

You can also get Kiddo evaluated by a private neuropsychologist. Sometimes your health insurance pays for this and sometimes it doesn't. In your shoes, I would pay out of pocket if that meant I could get Kiddo in to the best place in town/nearby before Christmas.

I agree with other posters who say this is an emergency and you should treat it as an emergency. Especially good is the advice to check in with his kinder teacher and get her advice- I bet she is a wealth of resources. I'm not an expert in discipline or school refusal, so I can't advise you on that, but my instinct is that punishing your way out of this may very well backfire- what happens when he decides he's perfectly happy telling himself stories in an empty room all day? I would work more on emotional regulation and resilience with Kiddo before getting into high-stakes punishment. Ask your psychologist for resources.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:02 AM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

transitioning in a different classroom in Pre-K was good for a few months and then became a nightmare and ended up with the teacher quitting.

I just want to chime in here because this stuck out at me. It's unclear exactly what the precipitating cause was but from your wording it sounds like either the school has said or you have assumed that the teacher quit because your kid was "a nightmare." My mom has been a teacher forever and before her my grandma was a teacher and principal forever and I have absorbed generations of teacher stories from them and their colleagues. No matter what your kid has going on, he's six. It's not his fault that an adult teacher quit their job. Please do whatever you can to make sure that you, your wife, and the school never uses that against him. Putting that burden on him, on top of whatever else he clearly has going on, is really unfair.
posted by phunniemee at 8:09 AM on December 5, 2013 [27 favorites]

Continue with the psychologist, but consider seeing a narrative family therapist, as a family. How you narrate your experiences of this (and how you narrate/describe your child) matter -- narrative therapists have a lovely way of helping kids and their parents articulate what's going on in ways that are constructive (help you move forward with confidence) and inspire hope. They also prioritize allowing your child to have a voice in how to understand what's happening. Schools, assessments, being "talked about" as a problem can push a kid (and anyone, by the way) into a discursive, combative corner . Narrative therapy can get you all get on the same page working (and even laughing!) together.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:10 AM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Are you aware that "school refusal" is a recognized thing that is treated? I just throw that out, because you don't use the term, and I am surprised that the psychologist hasn't explained this to you or the expected course of treatment. Make sure the psychologist you are using has some experience in this matter.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:11 AM on December 5, 2013 [7 favorites]

Yes, this needs to be evaluated medically and psychologically and educationally by professionals, as fast as you can navigate all of those bureaucracies and their scheduling issues. (Personally, I think it's okay to say, "We're going to take two weeks off from school while we get all of these assessments done and figure out our new strategy," rather than increasing the tension and stress by insisting on a form of school that is not working, and most schools will work with you to make that happen so he can have a home curriculum for that time. But you know your child best and you and your child's professionals can make that decision.) If your pediatrician isn't already involved (you don't mention), you need to see the pediatrician, like, TODAY.

As you go forward with a plan, six is not too young for children to be involved in "family conferences" with the school, which are like parent-teacher conferences only the child is also involved. Children struggling this hard with school often need to feel they have some control and are heard, so bringing him to some of the meetings (as appropriate) and having him participate in making his treatment plan and behavior contract may help a great deal.

Some children do not function well in a traditional classroom even if they have no disabilities or learning differences. (In fact, I was just talking to a mom last night who put her child into an alternative program because he struggled in classrooms with 20 kids but does great in classrooms with 8.) It's okay to pursue alternatives that are different from a traditional classroom -- that isn't "giving in" to a whiny child, that's helping a struggling child find a school setting that works for him -- and even small districts usually have at least one option; large districts will probably have several. Memail me if I can help you with navigating US school bureaucracy and understanding options.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:12 AM on December 5, 2013 [18 favorites]

He has started to threaten physical harm to himself (putting his head in plastic bag, not eating, cutting) and has written about it in his school writing.

I agree with Melismata's emphasis on this language. I am only a layman, but even I can see how this sort of behavior as well as other things you mention fall well outside of "you know how boys are at that age". This is serious, and even if you never subjected him to education of any sort ever again, I suspect he would continue to act in a disordered manner towards other people. The school issue is a red herring, in my view.

The psychologist is a good start. I would not be surprised if the psychologist gives you a referral to a psychiatrist. If you haven't received that referral already, ask for it. I think a personality disorder is indicated, which may be amenable to pharmaceutical treatment.

I am so sorry.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:14 AM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

My brother was like this. He was (among other things) on the spectrum. Has your guy been assessed for that kind of stuff?
posted by windykites at 8:17 AM on December 5, 2013 [7 favorites]

I am so sorry, this sounds so stressful and sad. This: He has started to threaten physical harm to himself (putting his head in plastic bag, not eating, cutting) and has written about it in his school writing would terrify me as a parent.

I think as others have suggested that you must call your psychologist, insist that your son be seen ASAP- and treat this as a real emergency. I honestly think there are mental health issues that need to be addressed immediately.

And as you have seen already from some of the answers here, our society pretty much sucks at dealing with mental health issues in children. Notice how on this site, which treats any adult with any hint of sadness/depression/upset with the tenderest of mercy, many of the posters immediately react with MOAR PUNISHMENT for a 6 year old that wants to hurt himself.
posted by aviatrix at 8:18 AM on December 5, 2013 [32 favorites]

This is totally familiar to me - my son is now 10 years old and we started seeing some of these behaviours much, much earlier. At 10, however, we have finally got a diagnosis of Opposition Defiant Disorder (ODD) from a psychologist - along with a high level of intelligence and a possible diagnosis of ADHD (which can't be diagnosed, really, until his behaviours are under control). There was a LOT of information gleaned from the psychoeducational testing that may, eventually, also come into play. As I have joked, we are living with an evil genius.

Taking everything out of his room? He won't care. Take away all of his toys? Nope, doesn't bother him. Ban him from all the things he loves to do? Doesn't care. Talk, rationalize, discuss? Nope, no impact. Rewards didn't work, either, nor did bribes. NOTHING works.

I won't go into all the details of where we are now, mostly because we're still in the early stages of trying to figure out how to work with him on things, but I will say that you need to get the testing done as quickly as possible, if you can, to get a good grasp on what's going on. Then get the school on board with that understanding of how best to work with your son - the laws come in to play here - and to make sure expectations are consistent across all channels.

We tried all the various things that worked on our other kids, and we tried every bit of advice we were given, and it has all been frustrating as hell. We are slowly making some progress now that we know exactly what we're up against.

You have my sympathy and my empathy.
posted by VioletU at 8:19 AM on December 5, 2013 [15 favorites]

Some children do not function well in a traditional classroom even if they have no disabilities or learning differences. (In fact, I was just talking to a mom last night who put her child into an alternative program because he struggled in classrooms with 20 kids but does great in classrooms with 8.) It's okay to pursue alternatives that are different from a traditional classroom -- that isn't "giving in" to a whiny child, that's helping a struggling child find a school setting that works for him -- and even small districts usually have at least one option; large districts will probably have several. Memail me if I can help you with navigating US school bureaucracy and understanding options.

Yes, this.

I'd suggest researching Sudbury and Anarchist Free models of schooling, which are child-led. I agree with the suggestions of a psychologist, but don't rule out the possibility that there's some sort of bullying going on that you or the teachers don't see. I'd take this extremely seriously.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:25 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

This sounds really hard I am sorry this is happening to you. Make sure you take care of yourself too. Kids pick up on our panic crisis mode and often mirror it back at us escalating an already difficult situation. Yoga, mediation, a walk, what ever it takes. If he feels that you feel things are out of control, that is scarier.

I have two kids, have not had to deal with stuff like this...The hurting himself is a big deal...yes get everyone you can to help...find Doctors that work, you may have to try many till you find one that really listens to your child.

What about an "unplanned" trip somewhere" hay, Dad has a business trip and we all have to go too? I think two things. Forcing a child in this situation is not such a good idea. Yet it has to be on your terms if he does not go to school or like others said this might become a pattern. Deflect the situation till you have a better idea off what is happening. It is ok to give the family a few days to figure this out.

If something wrong is really happening at school how would you know and and how can your child tell you? If they tell you and are not believed what other choice does a child have but to threaten those kinds of things? I think it important for any human to say "I feel unsafe"... and be listened too no matter the reason. Then from a feeling of safety small steps to learn new coping skills to handle things. I understand that nothing may be wrong with school, but he feels there is. Anxiety is a frustrating thing. There was a time after my child was bullied that we switched to half days, till he could cope better.

Kids sometimes feel they have no power...everyone else is in control. Acting out makes them feel in control. For my own kids finding something they have say over has helped, such as the deciding what everyone eats on Saturdays, or being in charge of a family outing or a space in the house.
posted by klausman at 8:27 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

People who think this is a behavioral problem that should be addressed with punishment (shut him in an empty room all day etc) are so wrong it's giving me an adrenaline reaction.

I have kids with anxiety, one of them pretty severe, so I'm going to re-emphasize a few things from above and add a couple. I'd go on at length but one of my kids and I are leaving for therapy in half an hour.

1. Do make sure his psychologist knows how severe this is. Call her if you have to, get him in right away. Sometimes it helps *me* just to be sitting in there with my kid's therapist and knowing that I'm with someone who gets it. Where we are, there is a shortage of therapists who work with kids, so more appointments may not be possible, but if they are: get in there weekly. Consider the possibility of bi-weekly. Do NOT be afraid to take him to the ER or to whatever equivalent you have to our local Community Mental Health if he's really having a rough time. My kid recently had a four-day panic/anxiety attack and I wish I'd hauled him off to the emergency doctor sooner.

2. Talk to the therapist about alternatives to school for awhile. My kid has tremendous math anxiety and we are in the process of shifting away from problem-based math for awhile, not because he doesn't need to learn that math but because he needs a break from the constant adrenaline and stress hormones, and he needs to know there are options that aren't just the one approach he finds so stressful. Maybe you don't have any options. Consider whether you do. I have friends whose kids have been temporarily homeschooled; who have been allowed to spend an hour a day reading quietly in the school counselor's office instead of participating in certain activities; who have arranged a partial-day arrangement with their kids' school...

People are right that it shouldn't be "school" versus "total fun time." But "this way of learning that's not working" versus "this other way of learning that might be better for him" is a totally legitimate thing to think about, within the restrictions that exist because of family and school resources.

3. Consider whether your son needs an IEP. This could help get him supports that would make school less stressful.

4. Good luck. It's exhausting being in full-time crisis mode; I've been there. Exhausting for all of you. It might be worth taking a break of some kind *together*. My kid and I recently spent two weeks replacing homeschooling with watching a classic movie every day. It really helped with lowering everybody's stress levels and helping us feel connected to each other again.
posted by not that girl at 8:30 AM on December 5, 2013 [51 favorites]

Nthing the recommendation of "The Explosive Child." I had an exceptionally bright, stubborn child -- school refusal was not an issue, thank God, but EVERYTHING ELSE refusal was. Matching her stubbornness produced conflicts and tantrums so floridly over-the-top that I was basically just biding my time until it was ethical to pursue a bipolar diagnosis. (Her issues turned out to be not-mental-health-based in the end, but my god, it was bad.) The techniques in "The Explosive Child" helped me to at least pursue a strategy that actually solved problems rather than just causing fights. Fighting fire with fire, otoh? just made a bigger fire.

However, my child at her worst never threatened self-harm. That is something that needs to be taken seriously, pronto, today -- he needs to see the shrink ASAP. Even if it's "just attention seeking behavior," consider how badly he would need attention to seek it in that manner. He is your child and he deserves your attention.

Best of luck. I am so sorry. I really think that this goes way beyond a discipline issue, and trying to discipline your way out of it will not serve you, your child, or your family well.
posted by KathrynT at 8:30 AM on December 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

This is some pretty hardcore behavior for a six year old. I clicked through expecting at least 9, 10, middle school. But you are describing some pretty severe emotional disturbances, to the point that people in this thread are wondering if there is a trauma or neglectful birth mother that you somehow forgot to mention.

Your wife is right to be in crisis mode, it sounds like he is a danger to himself -- and sadly that could quickly escalate to being a danger to you or to other children. What happens when you force him to go to school and then he snaps and tries to hang himself in the bathroom?

Mental illness (edit: and severe anxiety! thank you notagirl!) in children is not common, not often talked about, but it does exist, and this sounds very, very serious to me. (Former teacher, I have worked with children similar to yours and the worst case was twin boys in our preschool who seemed actively homicidal towards other students and teachers and we were like holy shit these kids are only five years old.)

If he had an immune disorder and had to be pulled out of the classroom, you'd figure it out right? You'd hire a tutor and change jobs or do whatever the fuck. This seems to me like similar territory.

ALSO: What reason did he give for the refusal to sleep until Christmas? General excitement or fear or insomnia or what? IF HE DOES NOT SLEEP HIS BEHAVIOR WILL GET INCREASINGLY ERRATIC. Sorry to shout but I am also having an adrenaline reaction, I sincerely hope that you are now convinced to treat this as a mental health issue and NOT just a discipline issue.

Good luck, it sounds like you have the means and the motivation to help your son, please do.
posted by polly_dactyl at 8:38 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Thinking more about this, I think what you need to understand about the cutting and the self-harm is that these are usually desperate measures undertaken by a child when they have no control over their life. If he is being somehow harmed during school, even if it's "just" psychological--if he's having anxiety or panic attacks, being picked on or bullied--refusing to go to school is a self-protective mechanism, just like quitting a job with an abusive boss would be a self-protective mechanism for you. But he can't do that, as much as he's trying--you're forcing him to do something that's miserable and painful for him, and he has no control over his life. So he's going to control what he can: his body, his food intake.

The solution isn't to exert more control over him. The solution isn't to break his will like he's a naughty pony (do we even train animals this way anymore?). The solution is to listen to him, to treat his complaints as valid, and to give him safe, appropriate, responsible alternative options. He's six--not even to the traditional "age of reason" yet. A new school, if that's what he wants, if that is what makes him feel safe and secure, is definitely an option. But you need to start taking the things he says and feels seriously, or else you're going to push him into more self-harm and pain. He needs to know that you are there for him, that you are there to make the world safer for him. You are his parents. This is your job.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:43 AM on December 5, 2013 [27 favorites]

Disclaimer: Not a parent, don't have kids, don't even have siblings. But I did have a lot of problems when I was your son's age through adulthood, which wound up being the result of psychiatric issues.

I'm so sorry you're dealing with this. It sounds like hell for all of you. I am also very, very, very concerned about the mentions of actual or threatened self-harm. Unfortunately, six is not too young to need to take those seriously. When I was younger, I spent time in an inpatient adolescent psych facility that had a pediatric wing, and the little kids there were there because they needed someone to help keep them safe and get back on an even keel, so they could go home.

If your psychologist (child specialist hopefully) is not responsive (like TODAY), you should really consider taking him to the emergency room if it happens again. It sounds really terrible, and it is certainly not pleasant, but if he is presenting a threat to his own safety or that of other people, it's an emergency situation. Hopefully it doesn't come to that, especially given that we're coming up on the holidays, but please don't write it off as an option.

Long term, I hope you and your partner plan to retain a family/marriage/relationship counselor, even if your relationship is doing well now, because you're in a prime position to face caregiver fatigue and other challenges, and you need to take care of yourselves. Also, if the psychologist or other care providers can nail down something like a diagnosis, please be sure to reach out to local support on that issue - other families or parents facing the same situation.

I really am so sorry you're dealing with something this frightening and exhausting. I'm hoping for the best for your whole family.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 8:44 AM on December 5, 2013 [8 favorites]

You have a six year old who is cutting himself and threatening further self-harm. Escalate the hell up because this is way beyond the bounds of very bright and frustrated. There definitely is overlap in behavioural issues and illness, but he hasn't been stable for a long while and you guys have run through the regular checklist.

Did you say self-harm to the psychologist? Is this a counsellor or a licensed psychologist? In my experience, any mention of a minor and self-harm instantly escalates you up to immediate intervention. Depending on where you are, the fastest way into the system can be to go to an ER at the next self-harming event and report it as a medical crisis, if you're getting dicked around by insurance etc.

Forget about school. It will be way less harmful for your child and your family if he has a weird year with lots of missed days and has to repeat the year than if you prioritize school over getting the kid help. One of my kids stopped speaking because of massive anxiety at the start of this year, with major exams looming. We made the decision to back off entirely on school and instead push therapy and art/social activities, and he flunked some of the exams but is now happier than he has been in years. For a smart six year old, a missed year of academics is nothing long-term.

Find other parents of kids with severe issues. Regular behavioural issues advice will not apply, and you need to find people who are in the same trenches. The well-intentioned advice of people who have not had to lock away knives or plan their entire day around screaming just doesn't work and makes you feel worse. Memail me if you want to vent/talk.

It can get better. It's not a phase and it will take so much work and resources, but it can get better. I wish you guys the very best.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:45 AM on December 5, 2013 [11 favorites]

I am so sorry you are dealing with such a stressful and scary situation! All I can tell you is what I would do (as a parent of two kids in college now), and hope it helps.

1. Your child has to go to school, but it does not have to be THAT school. You cannot let him simply give up on school because it is too hard, but bullying or people hurting him is simply not okay. Make it clear to your son that the only outcome here is him returning to school, but that the school he goes to can be reconsidered. Also be really clear that his old school is not a viable option.

2. You say he is a high-stakes negotiator. What does that mean? To me, it sounds like he is emotionally blackmailing you both. He should not be getting what he wants all the time, because that is setting you all up for failure. You have to get that parent/child relationship re-established; not everything is open to negotiation! There WILL be disappointments in life! You know this yourself. Talk to his psychologist about how to effectively counter his negotiating tactics without allowing him to self-harm.

3. Ideally, you want to be proactive and not reactive going forward. I feel like your only interaction with your son's school(s) is when something goes wrong, and then you step in already prepared for a fight of some kind. Parents and teachers should have a united front, with the goal of successfully educating your child. So consider becoming more active at school, volunteering there if at all possible. Keep the school and home expectations consistent. At home, do you have specific rules and boundaries, rewards and consequences for behavior? Do you teach your child to respect that the same applies at school?

4. If I were you, well, I would look at my and my partner's parenting because there are obviously ongoing issues with my child's behavior, especially where school is concerned. Do not think bad or wrong here, because blame is not what this is about! Instead, look at what you know about your own child and remember to focus on the end goal: you want your child to be successful and happy while the two of you retain your own sanity!

I put successful first there deliberately, because part of our job as parents is to equip our kids to one day manage life's challenges independently. Sometimes, we are so worried about our children's happiness that our protective impulses kick in in a way which can make things worse. This is natural, but you have to be aware of this impulse and nip it in the bud. I am concerned, after reading that a teacher had to quit because your child has transition issues, that you are in the habit of fixing problems for your child and expecting others to do the same. Lots of kids struggle with transitions, including mine, and what is really helpful for the child is to learn coping skills. That is something you and your partner could be working on at home.

Other thoughts: Are you both consistent in your parenting (ie, one of you is not more strict/lenient than the other, there are hard and fast rules for the really important things and consequences for breaking rules, you do not allow yourselves to get caught up in minor squabbles over trivial things). How might you be enabling these alarming and self-destructive tendencies in your child? Again, your son's psychologist may be able to help with this.

Parenting is an incredibly tough job, and it is all hands-on, on-the-job training. You will get some things wrong, because we all do! Remember that making mistakes does not make you bad parents. Your kid is not a bad kid, either! You are all learning and figuring this stuff out together.

Being willing to change and working at this stuff for the sake of your child's--and your family's--well-being is 100% worth it. That's the mark of good parenting. Keep at it! You can do this.
posted by misha at 8:46 AM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

I misread the sleep til Christmas part, obvs. But wanting to sleep til Christmas is equally problematic, as others have said.
posted by polly_dactyl at 8:54 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I somehow missed the self-harm threats on my first reading. I'm of two minds on that.

First, it would not be an over reaction to insist a professional evaluate his mental health right away. The emergency room at a Children's Hospital can do that and in my (sadly extensive) experience they will do it with sensitivity. (This is where foster parents are directed to take kids making these kinds of threats.)

Second, I have strong opinions about inpatient psychiatric facilities for young children which boil down to: they are NOT therapeutic environments. Being in one is better than hurting yourself but it's worse than pretty much anything else. Every time I've gotten a kid back from one I feel like I've lost so much ground. I've had several children be further traumatized in the hospital by other patients mostly.

This is all to say that I think you should seek treatment but that if you can keep your child safe you should try and do out patient treatments only. All the other suggestions I made are for a child who is not a danger to himself and who is relatively stabilized.

I'll also add one more book to your list: The Connected Child. It's aimed at foster/adoptive parents but has lots of practical information about raising children who feel close to you.
posted by Saminal at 9:03 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Aside from all the other valuable advice in this thread, I suggest you and your wife think about therapy for yourselves, particularly with someone who is experienced in aiding parents with troubled kids. Reading your question made me feel a bit of helpless despair and I don't even have (and never will have) kids, so I can't imagine you're feeling much better.
posted by elizardbits at 9:07 AM on December 5, 2013 [11 favorites]

The sleep-til-Christmas thing, coupled with the mentions of self-harm, is really alarming. It feels a little too close to how someone who didn't yet have a fully-formed concept of death would conceive of suicide.

That, coupled with your descriptions of his experience so far--I feel like you've interpreted most of his action so far as one of a kid who is just disobedient or unruly, whereas it sounds like your son is ill in some way. That's an unfortunately common thing--there's a perception that mental illness doesn't exist in children, or that when it does, it manifests in extremely marked, obvious ways--but I think you need to actively work changing your perspective. This doesn't sound like a "strong-willed child", this sounds like a kid who's grappling with something bigger than his ability to understand or control.

To that end, I would let the school thing go for now. In the scheme of things, you are not losing some "battle" against your son by "giving in" (please stop approaching things this way) and pulling him out a little ahead of the Christmas break. It is not an all-or-nothing option where if you take him out of school now, he will have won the right to never go back. That is not how it works. The way you describe things, your son could possibly be a danger to himself or others at this point. The cost-benefit of sending a kid who is hurt and lashing out to school at all costs versus just letting him miss a week or two while you figure out a plan with an actual psychologist are ridiculously unbalanced.
posted by kagredon at 9:24 AM on December 5, 2013 [20 favorites]

I have a 13 y/o stepson that sounds like your child. He has always been extremely resistant to new things and to being told what to do. I entered his life when he was 8, so didn't see him at the age of your child, but at 8 he refused to cut his fingernails, get a haircut, do homework, etc... Refusals varied from tearing up homework to multi-hour tantrums over cutting fingernails. He was also violent with one of his parents -- broke her nose at 9, gave her a concussion at 12 -- neither time was he trying to hurt her but she got in the way of his rage. He also punched several holes in the wall of his room.

After the concussion incident, I demanded that we all get family counseling. We have been doing this weekly for over a year and it has helped quite a bit. Not all counselors are going to be effective with your child and your family. Some of Adam's improvement has come from maturity, some has come from being in a private school for kids with learning differences, and some has come from this counseling. Adam has been in and out of various forms of therapy most of his life -- but the therapy this past year has focused not only on Adam, but also on us as parents.

I feel for you -- if your child is anything like Adam, you have your work cut out for you as parents.
posted by elmay at 9:29 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

If my 6 year old started cutting, putting a plastic bag over his head, throwing furniture, and was otherwise violent towards himself and others, we would be at the emergency room or a specialist pediatrician's office so fast, your head would spin.

This sounds like a medical emergency and not a temper tantrum. You've got the wrong perspective.

Seek medical intervention immediately. Do not delay.

All sorts of things effect emotions and behavior - allergies, deficiencies, thyroid issues - the list is endless. Your child needs a thorough medical work-up to rule out these causes of strong emotion and distress.

If your child is unwell physically, all the psychological interventions in the world won't change this. Seek medical attention immediately.
posted by jbenben at 9:30 AM on December 5, 2013 [25 favorites]

It's entirely possible that your child has some psychological issues, but Occam's razor suggests he's probably just being a bit of a brat, and your question suggests you may have indulged him in this in the past. It has to stop.

This is so offensive I don't even. Anonymous, welcome to the club; you will be hearing these criticisms and assumptions for a long, long time from people who have never parented a child with psychological/psychiatric issues. The most knowing and definitive comments will come from those who have parented no children at all; funny how it works that way. Please do not rely the internet at large for help, and take advice from parents of typical kids with huge doses of salt. You will hear many advising you to be more "consistent," a strategy that is often useless and can even be contraindicated with certain kids (see The Explosive Child). I'm amending what I said above about school refusal: you need to prioritize getting your child a diagnosis. Psychologists are hugely variable in the services they provide; don't be purchasing talk therapy/play therapy until you have a better picture of what is going on. Also, contact NAMI; they have wonderful training and support groups (and please don't be scared of their name). Also, feel free to MeMail, as I've parented a child who sounds similar (and 20 years later, we've survived and thrived).
posted by Wordwoman at 9:32 AM on December 5, 2013 [37 favorites]

Just a bit of a longer term perspective on this - There are alot of good ideas above, about counseling, asking for emergency help, therapy (especially that can work with the school). But also be a bit ready for a longer haul, needing to make room to help him through/with this with a team for a good long while. While my kids' anxiety and panic and tough issues are hard on them, they aren't to the depth of what you're mentioning here, and I've still made some (and will make more) lifestyle adjustments around it. I've turned down a higher paying job because it's not 15 min from school and 20 min from the doctors' offices. I've traded responsibility and advancement opportunities to have a flexible schedule to deal with helping my kids and dozens of IEP and parent teacher conference meetings (it helps that my boss has a kid in a similar situation - his spouse is home full time so he empathises with my need to work and balance my kid issues - I know I'm lucky because I'd been threatened with firing for not being "on time" by five or fewer minutes at other jobs).

You may have to adjust your long term thinking about him and his life/education path. We pulled the kids from excellent (mostly) schools because the kids are smart but can't handle the school (and vice versa) and are thriving in an alternative education environment.

Therapy for you guys, for him. Find a small support group, even online (has helped me tremendously.

I agree with kagredon - mental illness is real in kids, and it's damned hard to nail down and help so you're going to be throwing a lot of resources at it. If a therapist or treatment or action plan doesn't work, try something else. Work with the kid to find out what he's feeling, what he wants (I know, it's hard at six - but listening and showing him you are listening and working with him will go a long way in him trying or wanting to articulate what's going on) and to let him know you guys are working together to find something that works.

"Absent information about previous trauma" - yeah, no. If there were trauma you would have mentioned it. Trauma =\= occurrence of these issues. Sometimes the brain is what it is because it is.

Good luck. Really.
posted by tilde at 9:39 AM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Answers to questions in thread:
1. Home with no stimulus - already managed and there was precedent set in pre-K, where he was sent home for assaulting a teacher at age 4 (I swear I'm not making this up) or endangering other kids. He was doing it intentionally to get sent home and under these circumstances, he spent the day in his room with no toys. And he did it again. And again. In his mind, this was still better.
2. Yes, we try to avoid negative attention, but when you have a child who bolts full speed away, ignores calls to stop, ignores cross walks, and you're scared as hell that he's going to get hit by a car and you have a sibling with cognitive delays next to you, what do you choose?
3. High stakes negotiation is what happens when one party had nothing to lose. Yes, I am still strong enough that I could force him into clothes and carry him to the bus stop (but he is tall for 6) and then I'll have a child who is going to school (a) angry (b) frustrated (c) ready to take it out on the next person he can. He decides that there is nothing for him and he will refuse to cooperate. This usually includes the arms crossed and growling or physical violence (to himself or me or my wife or other objects) and a refusal to listen. I can leave, but how many weeks of morning hours should I spend waiting him out until he's willing to cooperate?
4. He has seen a psychologist. We're meeting with him today - as I said, no data yet. He will likely continue to see this psychologist.
5. When we met with the school staff, the meeting was "Hi, you seem to have a problem. Watch as we cover our asses. Sucks to be you." Seriously. Not one thing constructive - and we have to meet with them again on Monday with a social worker/truant officer who is very likely in the meeting for no other reason than to make sure that there is no abuse at home (there isn't) and to cover more asses.
6. I've tried making him a problem-solver for school. I've played the "if you could change school, what would you do?" "if you could change how we get ready for school, what would you do?" Answers ranged from "make it a pile of dirt" to "I don't care because I'm not ever going"
7. There is likely a blood sugar/dietary component affecting his mood in the morning as he has always been a bear until he gets something to eat, but even with this knowledge, he responds to, "hey - let's not worry about school. Let's take care of you. You must be hungry. What would you like me to make you for breakfast? You know that you feel better after you have something to eat. Let's take a first step and have some food." with "I DON'T WANT ANYTHING TO EAT. I'M NOT GOING TO EAT. I'M GOING TO SLEEP UNTIL CHRISTMAS" My response was to say, "OK, if you want to stay here in bed, go ahead. That's your choice. I'm going to eat." An hour later he came down and complained that there was nothing he wanted to eat (!!) to which I responded, "You said you're not eating and that's what you're doing. If you're hungry, help yourself. I thought you were going to sleep until Christmas. I'm glad you came downstairs. I'm working right now." Every effort to engage me was met with as dispassionate as possible "I'm working right now. Whether or not you go to school, mommy and daddy still work and we're not here to play with you."
8. We had already decided to take him to an outpatient clinic today (I got him to buy into that - at least until I found out that my insurance doesn't have any providers) and my wife said to him "Hey S, we're planning on taking you to talk to someone today. Would you get dressed for me please?" which was met with screaming at her that she was bossing him and yelling at him to do things. Which, of course, was pushing my wife's buttons HARD, and it required me to quickly get her to not engage. I understand that just because you are invited to an argument doesn't mean that you have to attend.

This is not a long term strategy, and yes, my wife is in counseling. I will encourage her to increase the frequency. I will likely seek counseling too as I recognize I'm being stretched thin.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:43 AM on December 5, 2013 [8 favorites]

Based on the OP update ...

Two kids, each with very different issues and needs, phew. I'd start googling around for other schools, and talking to your insurance company and the county about other help and options for schooling, for therapy, for respite care. If a leave of absence helps or is possible ... I was "lucky" enough to be unemployed a while through some of the worst of it to handle it. Some of my parent friends work full or part flex time, or have actually joined the school district staff to have a job and a handy in location.

I'm an engager/escalater myself, and I'm still working on it. Helps that my kids are older now (youngest is seven) but it was messy a while. Mostly went with "When you're done screaming, you can [put your clothes on, eat an apple, pick up your books and laundry]".

A lot of these same questions from a therapist or psychologist will help. Showing him you and they are on the same page may take some time (and perhaps medical intervention as well). Right now his world is you guys and people who give up on him. Broaden the "you guys" team as best you can.

I want to smack the school, though. Urgh. Smells like the part where the school didn't get along with my kids so I gave up on that school ...

Good luck.
posted by tilde at 9:54 AM on December 5, 2013

assaulting a teacher at age 4

I really don't have any advice I can give you, OP, this sounds so hard. I had a classmate from kindergarten through 3rd grade who I think was probably a lot like your son. He had problems with every single thing we ever did in class. He kicked and punched at teachers all the time, ran through the classroom throwing things, forced himself to throw up at/on other people to cause a scene. It was a very small private school and the school was in no way capable of handling him, but his parents paid tuition so he stayed in our class. I know he was put on ritalin at some point. When we were in third grade he went on a rampage, climbing on the desks of other students, pulling things off the shelves and hurling them at the teacher, throwing the garbage can across the room. He even wrangled the teacher, got his arm around her and put her in a headlock, and pressed the end of a pencil into her neck threatening that he was going to kill her. He left the school after that.

I think his family was generally trying to do the right thing by him, but could just never quite get a handle on him. For comparison purposes, his older sister was one of those kids teachers refer to as "an absolute delight!" and an honors student.

I lived in a small community, so I heard bits and pieces about this kid's life over the years. I know he was in and out of juvie all through middle and high school. I don't know any specifics, but I do know that he now (in his late 20s) has a job and a dog and is managing to live at least a reasonably "normal" life, despite his very very tumultuous childhood.

Like others have said, you are not alone in this and you're not the only parent going through this. Please try to reach out and find support in whatever way you can.
posted by phunniemee at 10:03 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

To address your followup: I think you and your wife should probably be in counseling _together_ as well as separately. This is a problem you have to solve together, after all, and it's a problem that affects you both.

I am sorry the school are being butts. Alas, this is common. They are under-resourced and have a lot of problems to solve, and they are going to try and turn as many problems away at the door as they possibly can. However, your son has the right to a free and appropriate public education. Sometimes it can take some real effort to hold their feet to the fire to make it happen, but it can happen. This will be easier if you are in a large, well-funded district, unfortunately.

Is his sibling older or younger than he is?

If you have another child with special needs, you probably understand as well as anyone the mental shift that you undergo between "I have a typical child with typical problems that can be solved with typical solutions" and "No, actually, my child is ill / my child is developing differently / my child is three sigma in some way / my child has a Problem, which I as his parent need to move heaven and earth to find some kind of Solution for." It is not a comfortable shift or an easy one, but I think you need to step across that chasm with your son. I had to do it with both my kids in very different ways, and it was hard both times.

Please, please feel free to contact me if you want someone to talk to, either memail or at the email address in my profile from a throwaway if you want to stay anonymous. This goes for your wife as well. I was / am the parent at home for my children and my heart aches with empathy for her.
posted by KathrynT at 10:05 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Logical/natural consequences have little or no meaning for him - he will do what he wants and take the consequences with no remorse or no indication that the consequences would prevent him taking that same action in the future, except when the penalty is so high that he feels that the entire situation is not worth pursuing anymore.

This is how punishment works, generally speaking. You don't want him to do something, you make it so bad he doesn't do it. Some kids are easier in this regard, some kids really need strict, 100% consistent, serious negative consequences.

The "logical/natural consequences" things don't work on a lot of kids. Seriously. That's what parents (and other adults) are for.

I feel like you two are overwhelmed, have two challenging kids (you buried the lede there), and are really primed to see your son as exceptionally difficult simply because you find him exceptionally difficult. I think that he is smart, he realizes how to manipulate your unwillingness or physical inability to be firm with him, and he craves attention.

That said, I do think he has a serious need for psychotherapeutic intervention, but you all need family counseling to deal with the stress of the situation and to update your parenting skills and tactics for a stubborn, smart child. You're using tactics that would work for an easygoing child and they're not working.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:06 AM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

5. When we met with the school staff, the meeting was "Hi, you seem to have a problem. Watch as we cover our asses. Sucks to be you." Seriously. Not one thing constructive - and we have to meet with them again on Monday with a social worker/truant officer who is very likely in the meeting for no other reason than to make sure that there is no abuse at home (there isn't) and to cover more asses.

When you go in on Monday, bring a letter that asks for Kiddo to be evaluated for special education and hand a copy to each person at the meeting. One thing that sucks about the special education system is that there are so so so many kids with problems that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If the school can manage your family by leaving you on your own and having an occasional "What's the matter with Kansas" meeting with you, that's what they'll do. Some other kid will get the behavioral plan and the individual aide and the tutoring at home. You want YOUR kid to be THAT kid.

You could maybe also try bringing him some apple slices with peanut butter (or any other easy to eat snack with protein and sugar) in bed in the morning before doing any getting up and ready tasks. My dad brought me breakfast in bed in high school and it honestly did help. I still get crazy emotional when I'm hungry and tired and I'm an adult. It sucks when you're a kid and don't understand why you feel how you do or how to fix it.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 10:07 AM on December 5, 2013 [17 favorites]

Also, just to be clear--I think you are having an exceptionally difficult time with your son, but I do not think that he is necessarily always going to be exceptionally difficult. I think you need way, way more support than you're getting and you must be extremely overwhelmed. I really feel for you. At the same time, if he has been successfully dealt with by an adult (his Kindergarten teacher), then it can happen, and for all your sakes, you should stop thinking of him as intractably difficult. The situation, currently, is intractably difficult, but he is not set in stone.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:10 AM on December 5, 2013 [11 favorites]

When you have the school meeting, perhaps you can also get a consultation for a nutritionist or some sort of child nutrition expert. I'm not saying his problems are tied to food, but there are definitely food triggers that affect mood disorders, if that's what he's dealing with.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:11 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's called "school refusal."

My nephew was the same way, and it ended when he left high school early and got a GED. Until then, he was in danger of failing every single year and it drove my sister nuts! He was also extremely anxious, to the point of making himself sick. The only answer seems to be a therapist who is familiar with childhood anxiety.
posted by cherrybounce at 10:11 AM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is his behavior in any way different in summer when there is no school?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:15 AM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh yikes. You have my sympathies.

I was a special education behaviorist who worked for years with kids just like your son. I'm now the principal of a therapeutic high school.

I also have a son who did similar things as you described when he was 7. It turned out that he has OCD and was experiencing severe anxiety about going to school. So he stopped going to school and instead was placed in a day program where he did some academics but it was mostly therapy. He did a few weeks at this program and then was very successfully integrated back into school in a highly supportive program. Your kid may need something like this. (FWIW, my son is now an honor student in high school. He's got a totally normal amount of friends and a job and he still thinks school is stupid, but he goes. What I'm saying is that this is a blip on the screen. It will end eventually.)

Off the top of my head:

1) For now, you have to get him evaluated at the district's expense ASAP. School refusal and suicidal ideation are very real and very serious and he needs to be looked at thoroughly. Get this done and then you'll have a better sense of what your roadmap even looks like. You can't begin to fix the problem because you don't know yet what the problem is. And don't get sidetracked with explosive children, highly intelligent children, kid with autism, kid being a brat sidebars. You don't know. He needs an evaluation. This could be just about ANYTHING.

2) Consider a vacation from school until this all gets sorted. Here's the thing: you don't know WHY this is going on, but it is and it's scary. So if you can take a leave from work, stay with him and keep him out of school. He is very clearly expressing that he doesn't want to be there. Kids at this age aren't THAT school avoidant unless there's some psychological issue. Don't punish him for this because you don't know what this is yet.

So #3. Take time for yourself. This is incredibly stressful but with proper support, it will all be fine.
posted by kinetic at 10:17 AM on December 5, 2013 [32 favorites]

where he was sent home for assaulting a teacher at age 4 (I swear I'm not making this up) or endangering other kids. He was doing it intentionally to get sent home and under these circumstances, he spent the day in his room with no toys. And he did it again. And again. In his mind, this was still better.

I thought I was going overboard with mentioning the homicidal twins in my first comment, but this is exactly the kind of stuff they would do. They sat together once and plotted to attack a teacher that had taken a toy from them, and then one of them carried out the attack (hitting her and making her trip) and then they celebrated. In full view of other students and adults.

Your followup makes me think that you clearly understand that you have a serious problem here. You don't need to be browbeaten with "please get him help" but wow do you need some help. This is bigger than 'my son is difficult, what are some tactics?'

Related: I'm not sure how the entire story plays out with the January Schofield case -- she was diagnosed as schizophrenic when she was six, I think, and her father wrote a blog and a book about it. There was an FPP on the blue. Very controversial. It's not entirely relevant to your case but you might be able to relate to some of the choices/mistakes they made in their family - specifically they had two apartments because January was a danger to her baby brother.

Good luck OP, and thank you for the update.
posted by polly_dactyl at 10:25 AM on December 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just to lend some perspective, as a child I routinely acted out and faked illness in order to get out of going to school. I mean, school was a pretty miserable place for me, but the absolute need to avoid that was not based on school being terrible, it was based on some pretty severe depression and anxiety problems stacked on top of ADD, and none of that got treated at all until high school, and not very effectively until I was an adult. I nearly didn't finish high school and I was unable to go to college at 18. After treatment, which could have been accomplished much younger, I went to college and graduated with honors, finished a graduate degree, things aren't perfect but it makes all the difference in the world.

Like many illnesses, mental health care doesn't work instantly, but if you aren't getting good stuff back from the psychologist right away at least about how to do triage, I would look for a psychiatrist who specializes in children. It should not take that much time to get at least a preliminary diagnosis and an action plan, even though treatment itself may be ongoing. If you're seeing someone for more than 1-2 visits without them being able to advise you, go elsewhere.
posted by Sequence at 10:58 AM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Original Poster, this happened with my child. I don't want to leave a trail of breadcrumbs. If you or your wife (I'm a mom) want to PM me or leave an email in PM, I will explain the steps we have taken, the team we have supporting our child, the advocacy work I have done and more and I will keep all your information confidential, with the assumption you would do the same. If you prefer to remain anonymous entirely, I recommend engaging a developmental pediatrician to be primary coordinator for everything, then a psychiatrist, educational psychologist (to assess for learning disabilities), and probably occupational therapist (to look for sensory disorders and to help with transition planning). You may also need play therapy and family therapy, but some psychiatrists can provide all this and some centres offer all these services. You may also want to put in supports for your wife and you (therapy, respite). The effect of living with a tiny terrorist can cause PTSD or at least trauma and stress and it cannot be overlooked. It's very, very hard and the experience of having a child with these sorts of needs - special needs - can be isolating.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 12:13 PM on December 5, 2013 [14 favorites]

I'd advise against digging into the January Schofield case. Serious parenting problems won't be solved reading the blog of an attention-seeking dad who admits to assaulting his kid, then lies and profits from it.
posted by Scram at 12:14 PM on December 5, 2013 [22 favorites]

I encourage you to read Deborah Spungen's book And I Don't Want to Live This Life. She is the mother of Nancy Spungen, of Sid and Nancy infamy. She had very similar troubles with Nancy from childhood as you are describing, including taking a kindergarten-age Nancy to a psychologist (at the request of her teachers, due to her severe, often violent, behavioral problems). The psychologist emerged from the appointment with broken eyeglasses, and his office aquarium smashed. This all happened in the 1960s, before a lot of research into bona fide psychological disorders/chemical imbalances had been identified in children, and later in life all of Nancy's symptoms pointed toward her suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder.

I definitely think that your child needs medical evaluation from a psychiatrist or mental health professional trained in BPD. There are treatments for it once it's properly diagnosed. Best of luck to you and your family.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:30 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd advise against digging into the January Schofield case. It's a long, controversial slog, and there are other cases to read that may be more applicable to your situation.
posted by Melismata at 12:40 PM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Reading this over again it reminds me of people who let their dogs walk them instead of walking the dog. Train the dog, the dog is happier even though he's confused and probably pissed off during the training. But later he's a much happier dog who gets to enjoy lots of attention, calms walks and people who want to be around him. Untrained dogs drag their owners around while the owner constantly shouts "No, bad dog, stop, No, Spot" on and on. Several dog walkers on my street have been battling thier untrained dogs for years, constantly shouting the same things, like the dog hears or even cares.
I am not comparing your child to a dog. But, think about it. Your kid will thank you for being hard on him now and getting this under control so he can see what an enjoyable life is. He is miserable and has no idea how his behavior is causing this misery. As his parents it is your job to be tough as hell (no abuse, obviously, but I don't want a rash of comments saying I adovacate abuse). I do highly advocate controlling your kid under any and all circumstances so that he can experience some peace and enjoyment because he knows how to control himself. A good thing that came from the Dragon Mothers was that kids don't enjoy something until they get good at it, thus the Dragon Mother works her child harder than imaginable to make them good at something, then the child sees the light and loves the task (like playing the piano--what kid loves that at the beginning and then immediately quits). FORCE that kid to stop this BS. I am not so sure he has a medical condition causing this but more likely has not had enough regular practice. Sorry, but that is one opinion of a spectrum you can take it or leave it. Statistically speaking, your kid is more likely suffering from undisciplined brat syndrome, and possibly a poor high sugar low nutrient diet. Diet can set his moods in a beter place and give him a better foundation for sitting still and not raging. NO cheating with cookies here and there, you have to be militant, at least until you figure this out. good luck to your child, he really needs your help. Going to therapy isn't an answer in and of itself, it's going to take a reevaluation of your own problems and issues with handling your child with such kid gloves that he basically hasn't had any direction or reason to behave well. You're not being nice when you give in to his absurd wishes, you are actually doing him a lot of harm. I don't like it when people think they are great parents because they negotiate their kids to death. Set rules, they need them desperately, and don't provide so many choices for him other than asking him if he wants eggs or tuna for breakfast (he'll eat it when he gets hungry enough).
posted by waving at 1:29 PM on December 5, 2013

I re-activated my account just to reply to your question.

I wanted to strongly caution you against the idea of "punishing" him out of it and especially the idea of escalating the punishment the more he resists.

I grew up in a family where this was the philosophy. I could get punished for saying the word "whoa" or singing a song that, unbeknownst to me, reminded someone of a beer commercial song. So you could imagine how my family would react to me "talking back" or refusing to do something. Punishment was hitting. It could be hitting me with a stick, slapping me in the face, making me sit for hours on a bare mattress without moving, or not letting me see my friends for weeks.

Here's what happened to me as a result of that: I started having crippling panic attacks as a child. I could not eat without having major panic attacks.

But the philosophy of punish them out of it, and just escalate the punishment the longer the "behavior" lasts, was still in place. I'm pretty sure they did believe that if they tried to work with me, I would "learn" that I could "get away with" acting like that. So my family would do things like hold me down, force my mouth open, and force food into my mouth. If I tried to eat, but I wasn't eating fast enough, or I was eating in a way that was annoying, I would get punished.

This worked super well and I was super "in line," right?

Actually what happened was that my weight dropped to less than 80 pounds, my hair started falling out, and I started having heart palpitations. My panic disorder because permanently entrenched. I am an adult and I still have it. I have periods of years where it goes into a kind of remission, and I also have periods where I suddenly have to leave whatever store I'm in and just go sit in my car and try to calm down.

You can't punish mental illness out of a child. Endlessly escalating punishment can lead you to child abuse before you realize it. I think with endlessly escalating punishment, you would reach child abuse long before you reached a satisfactory degree of submissiveness from the child, in many cases.

I do not think you have a brat, and I don't think you're doing anything wrong as a parent. I think you have a child with special needs. And it is okay to have a child with special needs, and it is even okay to have a mentally ill child. It's not a sentence of doom. Even though I have an anxiety disorder I think that I am still a good and worthwhile person, I have been able to accomplish a lot, and my life has been very worthwhile.

I completely appreciate that you guys are freaking out and exhausted, and nothing seems to work. I really think that once you have help from the right professionals, they will be able to help you find what works. I think it's been hard because so far you've been talking to a bunch of "generalists," so to speak, teacher who deal with mostly average kids, and parents who have had mostly average kids. I think if you can spend more time talking to parents of kids with special needs, particularly parents of kids with the kinds of needs your son has, you will get much more relevant and helpful answers.
posted by cairdeas at 1:33 PM on December 5, 2013 [51 favorites]

PLEASE, PLEASE ignore people who are implying strongly that your child has borderline personality disorder or another personality disorder. These disorders are only diagnosable in adults or, perhaps, in older adolescents. That's not arbitrary--it is a disorder that is about a lack of things like emotional regulation, that typically developing children can be expected to lack to some extent.

Additionally, personality disorders are not treatable with medication--but borderline personality disorder IS treatable with psychotherapy and the outlook is very good for many people with the disorder. If that becomes the diagnosis later in his life, fine, but I think it goes without saying that that would be the domain of a very highly-trained mental health professional and not people on the internet reacting to a second-hand account of his behavior.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:48 PM on December 5, 2013 [22 favorites]

Not sure why the first version of this was deleted, but...Y'all... can we please not subject OP, who is in the very beginning stages of intervening in his six year old's mental health emergency, to suggestions that he and his partner read the memoirs of parents whose mentally disturbed children died tragically and too young, or prurient stories about famous child murderers (what the actual fuck). His kid is mentally ill, he is having a family crisis, this kind of sensationalism is not going to help anyone in this situation.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 2:20 PM on December 5, 2013 [23 favorites]

"Read books out the wazoo (the best so far is "You Can't Make Me, But I Can Be Persuaded").

OP, I have to wonder why this particular parenting book is a favorite for you with regard to your son - is it the author's Christian message that's resounding for you? If so, you might also find some support in your local faith community and from your clergy. Count them as supporters.

"I'm fully sure that changing schools is only going to delay/propagate the problem."

I hope you'll reconsider your resistance to the idea of changing schools. Sometimes we initially mis-label special needs children as "having trouble with transitions around schools and teachers" when the issue is they simply will never succeed in the traditional, US/Prussian model, public school setting with 25+ students and one teacher, without the help of intervention specialists. Sometimes you have to let the hard, fast ideas of so-called "normalcy" go, in favor of being more flexible. Free government daycare is simply not a fit for every child, and yes, the school will continue to CYA before they actually help your child. They're afraid of being sued and can't afford all of the services they are legally supposed to provide.

"He has seen a psychologist. We're meeting with him today - as I said, no data yet. He will likely continue to see this psychologist."

If he does not give you any data today, make an appointment with a woman psychologist and demand some concrete feedback. (I'd say get a second opinion, but of course that only applies where you've gotten an actual first opinion.) Hang in there.
posted by hush at 2:33 PM on December 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have a strong-willed child. Much of the advice in this thread about being tough, consistent, not negotiating, etc., applies to my son. We absolutely must be strict and consistent and sometimes severe with him, and he responds eventually. It's exhausting and endlessly frustrating for us, and we constantly have to adjust our approach because every approach we've ever had any success with has stopped working before long. But that's my kid. He's smart and stubborn and emotionally intense, but he is not suffering from any mental illness. He's just sometimes a real pain in the ass.

I do not believe that is the situation with your son. It sounds very much like your son may have an illness or disorder and there is no punishment in the world that will change that. Please get him in for an evaluation with his pediatrician as soon as possible. Let him go in his pajamas if he refuses to get dressed. Bribe him if need be - you really need to get him there regardless of the precedent it sets. You and your wife can certainly physically force him out the door and into the car, but if you're like me, when you get to that level of frustration with him, you may not trust yourself to get physical without losing control.

When you meet with the school again, you need to insist on an evaluation. Unless he is diagnosed with a disorder BY THE SCHOOL SYSTEM you are unlikely to get any support or leniency at all from them. You won't be able to get an IEP unless you have a diagnosis, but once you do, there are all kinds of things that the school not only can, but must do. They may try to put you off because, truly many if not most of the difficult children they run across are the result of parenting issues or other trouble at home, but your kid really needs the evaluation. Demand it.

I don't think you said anything about him getting violent at home. If he is, I recommend putting a lock outside his door. The very second he gets violent, lock him in there and don't let him out until he calms down. He may only be six, those little buggers have ways of really causing some damage when they're determined to. Isolation is the only way I have found to get a crazed and violent kid to back off. Any kind of engagement just feeds the drama.

It sounds like your wife is the one primarily dealing with him and struggling to cope. Please get her some time to herself to decompress. Get time to yourself if you need it too. It is not possible to be consistently calm and even-tempered with an out-of-control kid when you are tired, frazzled, and out-of-control yourself.
posted by Dojie at 2:40 PM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

He is a child who is slow to trust, stand-offish, and doesn't make friends quickly. The friends he does make, he tests constantly.

His not going to school isn't the problem. It's a symptom. Forcing him to go to school is like forcing someone to "be normal." Read what cairdeas posted above. Your child "getting his way" or "missing school" are minor problems compared to ignoring whatever actual difficulty is making him want to stay home. Calling him "strong-willed" and then strategizing how to break his will to resist will just make things worse in the long run. I suspect this school is absolutely the wrong place for him at the moment, even if he can't articulate the reasons.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:52 PM on December 5, 2013 [13 favorites]

I don't think the school is the problem so much either. He has emotions and he doesn't know what they mean or how to express them in an appropriate way. So he creates a lot of drama, gets what he wants, and the emotions subside. It is important to actually get him to learn new skills about his emotions and how he can manage them.

Art therapy might help. Since he's resistant to talking (because maybe he feels no one will listen/understand/he's not equipped to express it), it would help him to convey his emotions to the therapist. It's less confrontational and let's keep in mind he's 6 - he's a kid.

As hippy and new age as this sounds, I think he feels like he's not being heard, but more than that, that he currently doesn't have the skills to express how he is feeling to other people and he doesn't have the skills the recognize and manage the emotions himself (self-regulate). He's currently looking to others to regulate him, maybe because his emotions feel quite intense to him, by acting the way he is.
posted by heyjude at 3:37 PM on December 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just remembered - although I'm not a teacher, I did do some teacher training for the 4-6 year old age group. I once had a 5 yr old boy in class who would go around destroying all the things the other kids made and upsetting everyone. He would get told off and be punished and he didn't care, it would just keep going on and on. One day, while his teacher was doing parent-teacher interviews I sat with him and played a game with him. And in the days after that, his whole demeanor changed. He was infinitely less aggressive with everyone and so much calmer. It was stunning! I can't even really explain it now why there was such a shift. I do know when I was at school (although when I was much older) I was very depressed/bored/combative because there are so few opportunities for people (other than your peers) to talk/engage with you on your level. I personally found school very frustrating. Maybe this boy was the same.

So, that's why I suggest art therapy. Or even play therapy. Just a thought.

The other thing is - a lot of people have suggested punishment. Punishment actually removes the responsibility from the individual (the child) and puts it with the parents or the teachers (which is not what you want). By cultivating self-regulation and emotional regulation, the child develops their own skills to better understand and manage themselves.
posted by heyjude at 5:35 PM on December 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Your son is in a lot of pain, as are you, and your wife (and I imagine this is taking a toll on your other child as well).

Is family therapy an option? I think a situation of this severity (here, I'm thinking of your son's self-harming behavior, and attacks on adults) might require outside help to evaluate the entire family system, and to offer coping mechanisms for each member of the family.

This sounds really scary and frustrating and exhausting. Lean on outside help to get you through it.

I'm very uncomfortable with the suggestions to quarantine the little guy in a room stripped of toys and comforts. What if he escalates to major self harm?

This is one for the pros, not internet armchair parents who have zero investment in the final outcome.

Something about the tone of the original question, and the follow-up, has me very on edge here. It almost sounds like adult motivations/expectations are being assigned to this little guy.
posted by nacho fries at 5:41 PM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

My son was like this, pretty much exactly like this. He's 22 now and finally doing okay. It took a long time and a lot of misery and hard work. PLEASE IGNORE the people who are telling you to punish your child, drag him to school, buck up, he'll get over it - and the people who don't have kids. Just ignore them. My son, like someone else upthreads, has ODD - oppositional defiant disorder and what you are describing is almost textbook ODD. My son also has a visual perception learning disorder and ADD and probably some other issues that we never got diagnosed. No, he's not just a "brat." Again, please ignore a lot of the people above. When you have a neurotypical child - I have one of those too - you can say, well, I'm just not tough enough on them! Be tougher! It will probably work, too. It will not work on an ODD kid. No, it won't. It will just escalate into real and grievous harm to the child and probably to you as well. I think I figured that out on the third day of an absolutely empty bedroom - I mean empty of everything, including a bed - when my then 8 year old son started banging holes in the walls with his fists and his head. He still wouldn't go to school or do whatever it was that triggered that particular event. Get this, I can't remember now what that event was. Yes, this too shall pass, really seriously it shall - but I'd recommend skipping that step. If your kid is like mine, and he sure sounds familiar, depriving him of everything and battening down on the punishment will not work at all.

What you need to do right now is pursue a diagnosis - whether it's ODD, whatever it is - with everything you have, because it will give you the ammunition you are going to need in the future with every school he attends. It will give him an IEP which will give you access to trained people who can help your son and help you help your son. Your psychologist should already have been on this track. That s/he is not is a huge red flag. If I were you, this is what I would do.

1. Take off work tomorrow.
2. Get an emergency appointment with the pediatrician and take him to it. You may have to physically drag him, etc., but do it anyway. Don't leave the pediatrician's without a referral to a qualified child PSYCHIATRIST. Try to get in there tomorrow and if not tomorrow, then Monday. Keep saying self harm, aggression, self harm.
3. Don't let anyone, from the pediatrician to the psychologist, to whoever, commit your son. Just don't let it happen. They'll try, because it's the easiest CYA thing for them to do, but it is a terribly bad idea.
4. Over the weekend, take your whole family out to the zoo or the movies or somewhere awesome, different and fun. Love your kid. Don't rehash how awful everything is. Don't punish him. Don't even mention the whole school thing. The school thing is not the problem. The mental illness is the problem. This child needs help now. I wish I had managed to get it for my kid a whole lot earlier than I did.
5. Get the diagnosis and recommendations and go back to the school demanding an IEP meeting. Go from there. You might have to change schools. You might have to fight the school administration like you would not believe but the results will be worth it. It's actually great that you're starting this process at 6 and not at 10 or 12! No, seriously, it really is.

Your kid can be totally fine. He needs some extra tools in his toolbox to help him get there, is all. Your job - and it's a hard one! - is finding the right professionals to get him those tools. Love him like crazy, stand up for him, and pick your battles.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:01 PM on December 5, 2013 [59 favorites]

P.S. Don't let anyone make you ashamed by calling your son nasty names. I was also called a brat, told that I was just spoiled, attention-seeking, etc. Here's a phrase I also heard dozens of times, as punishment was making me more and more distressed instead of more and more submissive (and obviously wasn't causing my anxiety disorder to go away): "Maybe I'm just not punishing you HARD enough." I was being told this as I was legitimately afraid I would have a heart attack from malnourishment, at the age of 12.

Someone who calls your son names is not good for your son. Someone who calls your son nasty names is working out their own issues, using your son. Please don't take it to heart.
posted by cairdeas at 8:13 PM on December 5, 2013 [8 favorites]

I was a kid that tried to kill herself at 11, because school was extremely hellish (racist bullying from students and teachers alike). That year I refused to do homework, or if I did it was not the way it was intended (e.g. solving math problems with a calculator). I was one of the top students in my school, and won a lot of awards for school competitions and such, but that only made me even more of a target - because I wasn't supposed to do better than the other kids. I was a Racial Minority. Don't let the Minority Kid do better than you.

I THOUGHT I made my feelings about school explicit to my parents - I somewhat remember begging them to take me anywhere but there. Send me overseas or something. But no dice. There were parent-teacher meetings but it didn't go anywhere. At one point my mum, noticing that I would come back home from school constantly angry, tried to get me to sign a contract saying that I will always come home happy. Fat chance. I was likely a behaviorial terror then too - not as aggressive as your kid, but I know I've done things that were really creepy and WTF in retrospect.

I had long suspected that I had depression since I had the vaguest idea what it was (around 14-15 or so). I wasn't diagnosed till the year I was 17; my final year of school ever. Some years school was bearable, other years it was similarly traumatic. My final year of school involved a major national exam, and I ended up skipping half the school year because the panic attacks, depression, and ableism ("you're just making it up for attention!") got in the way. I showed up for the exams and passed. The day after school ended for good was one of the happiest in my life.

This is to say: forcing your kid to go to school may not be a great option, especially when the kid was self-harming. I grew up in an area where no one's probably heard of a child psychologist so my parents' options were probably limited in retrospect. But if someone had really cottoned on and given me an alternative learning environment, I would have probably had a much better childhood. The self-harm and suicidal ideation is what is jumping out at me here - your kid needs help, and they need help NOW. The school doesn't seem to be very cooperative - maybe their attitude with you is similar to their attitude with your kid, no wonder he's frustrated.

What's your kid's attitude to learning in general? Is there something they're interested in, something that makes them happy? Are there bright moments?
posted by divabat at 8:17 PM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Hi, I am very sorry for what you're going through. Some people above have suggested alternative education systems for your son. Assuming you are in the United States, regardless of the school you choose, your son does have the right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education as was also posted above.

Although I've only worked in education around five years, I have had the privilege of working with an (older) student who displayed behaviors like your son is doing now. I say privilege because as a beginning educator, this experience was a learning opportunity for me because it is my job to serve all students in my classroom, regardless of their personal circumstances. It was a great opportunity and not a nightmare because amazingly, this student was functional and satisfied 4/5 days of the week in his fourth grade classroom.

Here's why: the school was working as a team to help him succeed. Everyone knew the kid, everyone had a plan of how to manage his behaviors. What you described from meeting with your son's school disturbs me. The fact that they don't want to engage you in meaningful problem solving discussion is not just offensive and disappointing, it's verging on illegal.

Therefore, I would like to chime in and say yes, first and foremost get a psychologist's involvement going. But don't back down from getting services from the school, and if you don't get what you want, choose a different school for your child. Children with severe emotional/behavioral differences can benefit from public education, and can learn in a regular classroom environment with the right support. A team including you, the child, mental healthcare professionals, and the staff of the school have to be working together to make it happen. I really hope you can get the support you need both during this difficult time and going forward. Good luck.
posted by Temeraria at 10:01 PM on December 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

Please please please don't punish your child

Your child's behavior is a desperate cry for help NOT a sign of being a brat or a strong willed person. Your child is trying to survive, and flourish not to exasperate or anger you.

When one behaves with violence towards a child it only engenders more violence - you will be teaching him to deal with his distress with violence. Your violence towards him teaches him that he should be violent towards himself. If you think about a dog or horse - when you have dog or horse that behaves violently, you don't respond with violence - that just escalates the response and the animal becomes more desperate. Why would you escalate with your own child, who you love so deeply?

As a parent of a similar aged child, I read your post and thought "This child must be so lonely and so desperate to behave this way. " I think he really really really needs you. You post characterized his behavior as a case of "strong will" and of being "difficult". To me your child sounds like someone who is completely desperate, at the end of his rope and really needs help. I don't know if its mental illness or not - maybe its a logical response to a situation you don't fully understand yet. But if you start punishing him, you are just going to escalate the situation and make him feel even more alone.

I want to urge you to provide as supportive environment for him, as you can - don't worry about not being 'tough' enough - you can be very kind and loving and supportive while setting mindful, non-violent boundaries (remember anger and withdrawal of emotional support is a kind of violence to a child). For example if he doesn't want breakfast, then don't make a fuss about it. Don't let him talk badly or angrily to you, just walk away. And when he comes and asks for breakfast, don't punish him by refusing to make him breakfast, just give him a hug - and say something like "My darling child, I'm so glad you came to join me/us for breakfast - what would you like?"

Some resources that you may find useful are the works of Thich Nhat Hahn. His book on parenting talks about bringing mindfulenss and peace to parenting. About transforming anger (if he sees you do it, he can learn from you).

And his book for children has been really helpful to my child in helping her manage her emotions, and feeling in control. One more is this book about a child managing his anger and embracing his distress may also be helpful.
posted by zia at 4:52 AM on December 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

OH! If he's a bear in the morning and his behavior gets worse after a few months of school (when presumably he has to wake up early every day) AND he says he wants to sleep until Christmas...

Have you considered a sleep disorder?
Does he get enough sleep?
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:06 AM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

R.D. Laing recounts his experience with his 9 year old son's non-participaction at school. He tells his son that he'll support him, he'll pull him out of school, take him to another country - he'll do absolutely everything, what ever it takes.

In another section of that documentary, he speaks of the hope of getting one's self together in the future is much more important that dealing with past problems.
posted by at at 7:48 AM on December 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

You have a lot on your hands, and I wish that I had advice to give you. Instead, I can only offer the personal insight into the minds of kids like your son that I gleaned off of my boyfriend who used to be 'that kid.'

I'm a private teacher/tutor of 5 years, and so is my boyfriend. In fact, he teaches music. He is one of the most sincere, kind and gentle people I have ever met. You would never guess that he used to be a little tyrant and hell-raiser, and caused his parents massive amounts of stress for his entire childhood. His parents were constantly being called in for conferences, being told to medicate their son or to take him out of class. To make a long story short, this lasted until he was a sophomore in high school when he nearly died of alcohol poisoning on the lawn of his high school campus. After that, he started playing the guitar, seeing a therapist, getting his life in order and is now an incredible teacher who knows how to deal with kids that are just like the kid he used to be.

I was telling him about this post last night, and he said to me: "I know exactly what that kid feels like." "He hates school because he probably sees straight through all those adults there - he sees miserable people who jump at ever chance to take out their frustration on kids. He sees people who have been broken down by the system and he desperately does not want to be broken down by them or to become one of them. That's why he acts out and refuses to go to school. He sees school as a place where boring, mean and petty people are made. He's probably subject to ridicule from teachers, and maybe even bullying from peers." "As a kid though, you don't know what's going on. It wasn't until I grew up that I realized that this was what it was all about, and why I was the way I was." "Thank god I found music, or I would probably be a fuck-up."

I suppose I want to offer you some hope and a story of a kid like yours that turns out great in the end. My boyfriend never gave in, he just found a way to live and be himself, and he is very happy. I believe that this can be your son's story too. For my bf, his salvation was a hobby that turned into his career. Maybe your son can find some hobby/activity in which to channel his energy? I don't know, but I hope this helps in some way.
posted by chimeling at 11:09 AM on December 6, 2013 [12 favorites]

And I think it's worth noting, too, by way of encouragement, that our understanding of how little ones experience their worlds, and how we can help them and their families, have come a LONG way in recent years.

It's a different landscape in many ways than that described by some of the adults in this thread who are recounting their own childhood experiences, or trying to compare your child's struggles to older children's struggles/failures. Don't let those stories freak you out.

You'll find a solution...there are lots of smart and caring experts out there to help you. If one modality doesn't work, try another. You'll get there. Hang in there, OP.
posted by nacho fries at 2:42 PM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have seen this description of a child before and to say you are in a difficult position is an understatement. The child should have a complete medical evaluation. You describe symptoms of depression almost as if you were reading it out of a book. Your child is threatening self harm as well. So I disagree with all the folks that say you don't know how to parent properly...what you do not know is why your son is behaving this way and you can't find out by guessing, you need a highly qualified medical provider and psychologist. My prayers are with you.
posted by OhSusannah at 3:04 PM on December 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

You should take him to a child psychiatrist as soon as possible. Your son sounds like he's in a lot of pain. Be gentle with him, try to sympathize rather than being angry with him, even though it does disrupt your schedule/plans/family life.

Be strong within yourself and try to be there for him. And find a child psychiatrist who can do an emergency intake.
posted by discopolo at 5:26 PM on December 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I just prayed for you, your wife, and your son.

My paltry advice is: immediately remove him from school, and begin homeschooling if possible. There are plenty of "big box" homeschooling curricula of all flavors. He's obviously very bright, and he may learn much more home with you. I'd avoid setting up a classroom, and just focus on learning. Homeschooling will keep him away from kids and teachers upon whom he may vent his frustration. It may also buy you time to keep him from hating organized school forever, while you search for a solution of sorts.

Nthing full medical workup. FULL. Make an appointment with the Mayo, or a major teaching hospital. Nthing immediate psych treatment. This child needs help and fast.

You have the sympathy of everyone who has read this thread.
posted by heigh-hothederryo at 8:40 PM on December 10, 2013

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