My Kid Is "The Bad Kid". Now What?
January 5, 2015 1:40 PM   Subscribe

Nutshell question: "did YOUR kid act this way? What helped them? What was wrong with them?" Nutshell synopsis: WeeThumbscrew is a bright, sweet, cute nine year-old. He has also exhibited SEVERE social issues in school this year (think "has been kicked off of the school bus", think "at least one phone call from the principal every week"). He is already in therapy (with an excellent pediatric Psy.D). Miserable, gray, hopeless snowflakes inside...

Elementary school hasn't been easy for WeeThumbscrew. Due to some academic/behavioral issues, he's been tested/evaluated/analyzed out the ying-yang. Results: he's very bright, he likely has ADHD, he displays some spectrum-y traits but is not formally "on the spectrum". With some extra support, his academic performance has improved. However, his social skills... haven't.

The kid's never had friends. He's never received birthday party invitations. He had one playdate over another kid's house, and when I asked him a few weeks later if he'd like another one, he quietly mentioned, "Oh, I don't think [OtherKid's] dad likes me..."

All of this was bad enough. However, this year has been excruciating. The calls from school have been constant. He is super-inflexible, refuses to back down in a conflict, refuses to ever accept responsibility for his actions, and will often blow up and resort to yelling/threatening/pushing during petty conflicts with other kids. He does horrible, "who DOES that?!" shit (e.g. telling a first-grader than he'll "rip her face off" and making her too afraid to ride the bus), then lies about having done it.

His principal and teachers are AMAZING. They are incredibly patient and supportive of him (way more than I'D be). However, they're getting increasingly-frustrated, and I can't blame them. We've spent hours and hours talking to him and modeling appropriate behavior... no dice. It's all forgotten the next time a kid jokingly calls him "poopy head".

He's getting to the age where socialization plays a MUCH bigger role in kids' lives, and the forecast is grim as hell. So what do we DO?

Things We Have Done/Are Doing:
- He's in therapy with an excellent shrink.
- We're looking into getting him medicated, either an SSRI OR ADHD meds.
- We've talked until our lips cracked re: "how to not be a little a-hole".

Things We Are Willing to Try:
- Anything short of giving him to wolves to raise, because they'd probably do a better job than us.

Relevant (?) Info:
- His dad and I amicably divorced when he was 1; we're friendly.
- None of this seems to bother WeeThumbscrew much at all; at home, he seems happy and chipper and non-tortured.
- He's generally super well-behaved in my house; his dad (who is more of an authoritarian than I) has reported some behavioral issues at HIS house.
posted by julthumbscrew to Human Relations (53 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
You don't really mention any kind of discipline or consequences for his bad behavior beyond getting kicked off the bus, just talking and modelling and supporting. If he doesn't really care about having friends, then what motivation does he have to stop behaving like this?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 1:51 PM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: (Oh, good point: I did not mention punishment. He has been richly punished, trust me, in a variety of ways. We're not slacking in that area, despite being quasi-hippie-esque in other ways.)
posted by julthumbscrew at 1:52 PM on January 5, 2015

-Social skills workgroup/playgroup
-Educational psychologist (not a school psychologist, not a shrink) for assessment and treatment of whatever issues he has.

-The book "It's So Much Work To Be Your Friend: Helping the Child With Learning Disabilities Find Social Success"

-School supports should include socialization support, a behavioral plan, a quiet room he can go to when he gets overwhelmed, maybe a one-on-one aide for some of the time to facilitate social shit. Make a big stink about them kicking him off the bus (is there a bus aide other than the driver? Demand a bus aide.). This should be part of his IEP/ISP/whatever it is called in your state. I feel like the school is sort of "managing" you. It's nice that the teachers are understanding and stuff, but understanding is not a service or a support. It's well-established although not widely known law that social skills are part of a child's education and lacking social skills are grounds for a special education plan and services. Are they the ones that told you he "likely" has ADHD and is "sort of" autistic? But wouldn't actually agree that he has those conditions and is thus entitled to special education services? Get back with them formally to get these supports to improve his social behavior in school so that he can learn. No more phone calls; have him reassessed or assessed for the first time and have a formal meeting about what your son is legally entitled to to thrive in school.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 1:53 PM on January 5, 2015 [29 favorites]

Little Chesty was very, very difficult from about 2 on. Stubborn, tantrums, inability to transition, threats to kill himself or us. You'll have to trust me when I say that this was beyond the magnitude of normal kid shit. We thought we were total garbage parents, or rather, my husband was a little hand-wavey and I thought we were garbage parents. From the sewer.

He was diagnosed with mixed-type ADHD and an anxiety disorder. A fairly high (pediatric) dose of liquid sertraline (Zoloft generic) in his juice helps make life bearable for him and for the family as a whole. I am not in love with the idea of the medicine for him but it's very clear when he hasn't had it (kids metabolize SSRI's much more quickly than adults.) We don't medicate him for the ADHD -- when the anxiety is in check, behavioral modifications seem to get enough traction.

According to the therapist we were seeing, if his scores on the assessments for ADHD and anxiety had come back normal, she would have been considering Oppositional Defiance Disorder, which you may remember from episodes of Law & Order. If that gives you any sense of the depth of our struggle.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:53 PM on January 5, 2015 [7 favorites]

Also adding, after seeing Snarl's post above, that he does have a 504 plan at school, and it's focused on the behavioral modifications mentioned above.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:54 PM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Feel free to memail me. I have an 11 year old with really similar problems. We've taken a multiple pronged approach to it, but the biggest help has been treating ADHD and really understanding how his brain works, which is that it has a narrow window of being able to stay calm. At my son's last school, they were all about super discipline, which actually ended up making the problems exponentially worse. We've been working a ton on mindfulness and teaching coping tools. We also switched him to a new school designed to better deal with learning challenges. It was awful earlier this year. I'd really recommend the route of exploring if it's ADHD because if so, it changes how to deal with him and how to best support him. Good luck, it's hard!
posted by Nimmie Amee at 1:55 PM on January 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

God, this describes me at age 7 far more than I'm usually willing to admit. Maybe 8 and 9 also. I hate to say it, but going on ADHD meds in fourth grade is what really turned things around for me. (I had one friend who decided he didn't like me in second grade, I almost got suspended for fighting, etc.) My academics were better and AFAIK I didn't exhibit spectrum behavior, but I know where he's coming from.

You said you've had him tested and that he very likely has ADHD. Look into structure around that. About six months after being on meds, my brain slowed down enough that I was able to develop coping strategies. You're likely to see glimpses of this even after he cleans up his act, so look for progress, not miracles.

On preview, Snarl nails everything else I was going to say. It's been twenty years, my memory is fuzzy and honestly, there's some stuff I've intentionally forgotten, but the chances are that he will improve.
posted by Hactar at 1:58 PM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

I came in to mention ODD (oppositional defiance disorder) which I see someone else has brought up. It is definitely a Thing and it may be something to rule out along with all the other stuff you're looking into.
posted by Hermione Granger at 2:00 PM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Everything you're doing (e.g. seeking psych help) is correct.

refuses to back down in a conflict

IMO, it's very rare that a kid just independently does this out of the clear blue sky. Other than deep-seated psych issues (which you're already looking into), human children just don't work that way.

No, what's happened here is that he's learned that this behavior works. If he wants X, he has learned that the price of X is never backing down, never accepting responsibility, etc.

Kid in a supermarket screaming for candy? It's because the kid has learned that screaming is how you get candy (or attention, or anything), because that's what happened last time (and the 10 times before that).

And unfortunately, I bet that speaks to parenting style. Remember, you aren't a friend, you're a parent. You talk to him for hours, yes. You model behavior, yes. But you also enforce rules in an ironclad, unemotional manner. You do not negotiate. You're the LAW-GIVER.

Moreover, you and your ex need to be on the same page here. If you're not, you have a different set of problems.

I know it may sound trite, but the TV series Supernanny was rather spot-on in this regard. Rules set, rules enforced. Do it right, and you'll only have to do it once.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:03 PM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Off the top of my head, has the school done a positive incentive program with him and really given it their all? Basically his day is broken down into pieces, and it's continually previewed with him that if he does ____ behaviors, he will get the desired reward. When he's caught being good, it becomes an "awesome job using your nice words! Here's a sticker (or whatever)!" He gets to mark off the chart that he did well during that period and the clock is reset for the next amount of time, again with the rules explained (nice words, hands to yourself...whatever are determined to be the most troublesome behaviors). And on, throughout the day. If he has X amount of awesome times, he gets the chosen item that he wants. And for that these tokens need to be brainstormed with his input. Cars, stickers, candy, pizza, ice cream, special use of the copier, a new book, etc. But it requires his buy in. This can help.

It also helps to know, via a Functional Behavior Assessment, WHEN and WHY he's doing this. Kids usually misbehave at this age (assuming they're neurotypical) because they're either trying to avoid something or to gain something. If they want to avoid sitting in circle time, they may act up (avoidance). Getting pulled out 1:1 to discuss their behavior can also, strangely, be a pretty positive motivation for kids (gained adult time and away from scary peers).

The bus can be a really fraught experience for kids, overstimulating, no real rules, etc. If he's a bus taker, I would stop that for now and get him to school in a more gentle way.
posted by kinetic at 2:03 PM on January 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

My dad is behaviorist, and if you haven't tried rewarding, I'm going to suggest it.

Work with Wee Thumbscrew's teachers for reports, and work overtime to catch him doing the right thing so you can reward him. M&Ms were the currency at our house, but you can do stickers, minutes of screen-time, or whatever else it is that lights his fire.

I had a kid in one of my classes who was an ADD/ADHD. He drove me batshit with banging/drumming on the desk, popping up and down, shouting out, touching people. He was 14 (and a juvenile sex offender, but that's a whole other story.) His inclusion advisors and I worked up a reward system. I kept masking tape on my hand and every time he went to disrupt the class, I'd make a hash mark on the tape. If he could get through class with under 5 (and trust me, it was a totally manageable number compared to the kabillion he'd usually do,) disruptions then he could go get a pop from the fridge. It was freaking magical. He settled down and happily claimed his reward daily. All for the price of a coke.

Try meds, the kid will be happier. Try rewards. Try catching him not being an asshole, and reward him. See if his dad will get on board, but it's not terribly important that he does.

On preview, how funny that Kinetic and I are singing from the same hymnal! Yay! I'm validated!

Also, to agree, the bus is just a disaster. EVERYONE would be happier if you could arrange for a pick up directly from school. I hated the bus when I was a kid.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:06 PM on January 5, 2015 [10 favorites]

Oh, and if you're not monitoring screen time, try it. Perhaps an hour a day. Game, TV or Internet, but only an hour. Too much screen stuff is overstimulating and will exacerbate behavioral problems.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:07 PM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Okay. So ADHD, bright and spectrum-y traits?

We've spent hours and hours talking to him and modeling appropriate behavior... no dice.

Have they discussed a Non-Verbal Learning Disability with you because this behavior screams NVLD to me. Generally, NVLD kids don't interpret social cues, they pretty much can't understand anything but specifically what they hear (and they don't recognize sarcasm or inflection); they have no sense of body language. All the hours talking and modeling...if it's NVLD, he has NO idea what you're saying to him. Did they look into that?
posted by kinetic at 2:08 PM on January 5, 2015 [6 favorites]

I would be wary of piling more discipline onto a child who has the kind of almost-diagnoses you mention, without getting some expert help on strategies that are likely to work.

If he's in public school, has he been formally evaluated by the school district? This is the first step to getting him an IEP (individual education plan). Basically, any child who has issues (health, developmental, emotional, psychological, whatever) that interfere with their ability to get an education should be evaluated. It's the district's responsibility to evaluate and then provide accommodations. If his behavior is sending him down the road of being kicked out of things, you'll want to get on top of this as soon as you can.

If the evaluation results in an IEP, some of the kinds of services he might get are:
- an aide in the classroom and/or on the bus
- pull-out classes in small groups with resource teachers
- social skills groups
- occupational therapy - he may have sensory issues; OT can help
- in-school mental health support - sometimes getting the services from someone who sees him in the school context can be helpful
- being placed full-time in a specialized class
- a behavior plan that includes recommended strategies for teachers/aides to use when things start to go south - you will have input into this, and it may help reduce escalation caused by unproductive responses from the adults around him

This can be a long and arduous process, and a lot depends on how reasonable your school district is. You may be in for a fight that involves outside specialists and lawyers.

Good luck. Feel free to Memail or email me (in profile) if you want.
posted by expialidocious at 2:10 PM on January 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

Check out this book, which I discovered during many years of misery raising my child badly because I did not know what to do and my husband did not know what to do either, but he was pretty sure it wasn't what ever I suggested based on classes, books, etc.

Eventually, after our kid tried to kill herself when she was 15, he came around to the idea that perhaps there was a problem after all. In all honesty, it was a family problem. So if you and your ex can agree what to do, that will make you 1000 times better off than we were.

Luckily and unluckily, my kid primarily acted out at home and not school. Her dad has at least one scar to show for it and I probably do as well. She's nearly 20 and doing well now. We got a variety of diagnoses over the years, including ADHD, generalized anxiety, bipolar disorder.

A friend who works in the pharmaceutical industry once told me, don't worry about the diagnosis. A bunch of these diagnoses have overlapping symptoms and they all involve problems with executive functioning. It's really about the behavior and that is why I recommend this book. There is also a more sophisticated version that he has written for therapists. It is all about how you need to train the parents and not the kid. It was an eye-opener and true.

I have no doubt that you and your partner are doing everything you can to help your child. I was too, but unfortunately as someone with ADHD myself, I am definitely not suited to parenting a special needs kid. I did my best, we all survived, and life is much better now. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 2:10 PM on January 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

Read and apply everything you can find by Aletha Solter. You can start with Helping Young Children Flourish:

Solter's books have been the best help for raising our daughter so far. Good luck!
posted by hz37 at 2:12 PM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I do not blame you in any way for the extreme level of frustration you are conveying here. I likely would of snapped ages ago. But, have you considered getting therapy for yourself? Your negativity toward your son is palpable (though completely understandable) and I would imagine that your son is very much aware of the effect he is having on you. Ditto the great advise about treating your son and providing caring intervention, but it sounds like you need some help yourself in coping--put your own oxygen mask on first!
posted by waving at 2:22 PM on January 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

resort to yelling/threatening/pushing during petty conflicts with other kids. He does horrible, "who DOES that?!" shit (e.g. telling a first-grader than he'll "rip her face off" and making her too afraid to ride the bus), then lies about having done it.

I'd be at least a little bit concerned that he's been the victim of physical abuse, given that sort of behavior, and you seem to be minimizing it somewhat. Violent, threatening behavior is something that really should be a major focus, and not something you should just chalk up to ADD or being on the spectrum.
posted by empath at 2:22 PM on January 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Update on some of what's been mentioned: he has an IEP (currently being reevaluated), his diagnoses are from a non-school PsyD, he has 100% never been physically abused in any way, and I do not take my frustration out on him (I do fantasize about flinging myself off a bridge sometimes, but then I buck the hell up and parent).
posted by julthumbscrew at 2:26 PM on January 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yeah, as said above, if he meets the diagnostic criteria for ADHD (or another condition), he needs to be in treatment for it. If he had a more obviously physical disease you wouldn't expect to reason him out of it; this is no different.
posted by oinopaponton at 2:44 PM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

If he has ADHD, consider medicating him. ADHD + giftedness is like constantly being in that irritating spot where you can hear a TV show just enough that it's distracting, but not well enough to make out the words. It's maddening. Stimulants may make the aggression worse, it's a balancing act. You need to find an excellent child psychiatrist, which is difficult. I can recommend in and around NYC and maybe Boston.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:47 PM on January 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

I am not in favor of medication for every kid with ADHD but it makes a huge difference for some kids. Like night and day. Basically, it allows the part of their brain responsible for self-control to be strong enough that it can put everything else in check. So I think you should get a firmer diagnosis for ADHD, and if that's really what it is, explore treatment options.

In addition to kids with ADHD having a hard time with self-control (so that they tend to say impulsive things and have a "short fuse"), ADHD also makes it harder for them to pay enough attention to others in social situations to learn social cues and behavior modelling from their peers. It *also* makes school stressful, which can lead to bad moods and contribute to bad behavior.

I taught a child who had just started on meds in sixth grade. He was finally learning how to really read more than a sentence at a time, and he was also learning how to interact with his peers in a normal way for the first time. And he was just so proud of himself - like life had always been a huge struggle at school and had suddenly become much more manageable. And as the year progressed, the others kids' perceptions of him changed. I saw them accept him more and more as he figured out how to interact.
posted by mai at 2:51 PM on January 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

After seeing your update: If he has an IEP with accommodations, and his issues have not improved or are getting worse, then you have a different problem. I see three main possibilities: maybe the school accommodations are inadequate for his identified issues and need to be stepped up; maybe he needs more medical or psychological treatment outside of school; or finally, maybe all of his issues haven't been identified. If your Psych has recommended meds, you might move those higher on your list of things to consider.
posted by expialidocious at 2:58 PM on January 5, 2015 [7 favorites]

I'm really overwhelmed by events today, so just real briefly:

I homeschooled my two little monsters sons and I used to kind of be someone in the online gifted community. So I will suggest you join an online forum of some sort for parents dealing with gifted kids (you can probably find one from some of the links on the self linked page I just posted) and look into either homeschooling or grade skipping or some other accommodation for his high IQ.

It doesn't look to me like he has been abused or has terrible social skills and so on. It looks to me like something I dubbed long ago as "Bored Gifted Kid Syndrome." Basically, if you have a very smart child and they are not getting their intellectual needs met, you will soon learn the meaning of the expression "Idle hands are the devil's workshop" as there will be hell to pay for it.

Best of luck!
posted by Michele in California at 2:59 PM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

It sounds like your kiddo might qualify for Developmental Disabilities Case Management Services (or Case Coordination Services, idk what they are called in PA) and even if he doesn't, the process of being assessed for eligibility may include a very thorough evaluation at no cost to you that may help you come up with strategies. Please don't freak out about that suggestion. I'm not suggesting that he may be Intellectually Disabled. Autism is one of many Developmental Disabilities that are often unrelated to whether or not a kid has a high IQ and Case Management services may open up the doors to a bunch of resources that might otherwise not be available.

A quick google turned up the following contact information for Philly:
The Department of Human Services, the Office of Development Programs toll-free Intellectual Disabilities Customer Service Line: 1-888-565-9435. Toll Free TTY Number (Telephone for Hearing Impaired Only) 1-866-388-1114. A Customer Service member will answer calls during normal business hours, which are 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (Eastern time), Monday through Friday.

As a behaviorist who works with kiddos on and almost on the spectrum all day long. I would suggest that you rethink punishment entirely. Punishment of negative behaviors is only really effective when combined with reinforcement/reward at a high ratio. i.e. you find ways to reward appropriate behavior much more often and frequently than you end up punishing.

The only way he's going to stop acting out is to learn that he can get what he wants (or make what he wants to avoid go away) with an alternate and more efficient behavior. This is why incentive and reinforcement is more effective than punishment.

I would also make sure that his rewards/incentives for appropriate behavior be evenly spaced out and pretty instant. This may mean getting the school on board with a positive behavior management plan. You can request a functional assessment and behavior plan as part of his IEP. You can also request that his transportation be looked at. It's possible that they can provide transportation other than the school bus for him. School buses are terrible for kids with attention or spectrum type behaviors.
posted by dchrssyr at 3:17 PM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had different issues, but my ADD as a child manifested quite frequently in serious impulse control problems, and that's one of those things where it's like... who does that? Well, lots of people have the impulse to do all kinds of crazy things, but they don't do it because that part of the brain kicks in that says okay, no, that's bad, don't do that. Lying about stuff like that suggests that he knows it's wrong. Maybe he just wants to avoid punishment, but I know I had a problem with it as a kid because I just didn't want the adults in my life to think of me as the sort of person who made the stupid mistakes I made. Try to take that into account. By his age, I think he's definitely starting to get old enough to have the problem where lack of self-control feels like something to be ashamed of.

If there's anything you can find that would basically be mindfulness-for-kids, that might help. Meds have their own side effects but do improve my impulse control substantially. Can you get him to go run around on a regular basis? I'm not sure if it's the dopamine or the sensory stimulus, but either way regular cardio seems to improve it substantially.

It sounds like all of this is really hard, but I wouldn't call it gray and hopeless. I didn't even get a proper diagnosis until I was like thirty, barely finished high school, but I'm starting to do better than my early life would have suggested. My postsecondary academic record is good and I have a social life now, even if my friends are also weirdos, I'm working out a career plan that suits me. It's better to catch things early than late, but recovering from a rough start is totally doable. Especially the social stuff, I know a lot of people who struggled hard with that before adolescence but eventually found their crowd, I don't think it's worth sweating a lack of friends until high school if you can find activities and stuff to keep him engaged.
posted by Sequence at 3:23 PM on January 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have done some pro bono work with parents contesting IEPs for their disabled kids (I am far from an expert in this area though).

I do not know whether your kid can get a free and appropriate education in his current school with his current/revised IEP. However, there are organizations that will advocate for your kid and help you navigate the bureaucracy of it all. If it is determined that his IEP is inadequate, he may be entitled to free education at a private/special school and transportation to that school; you may also be able to get a an attorney to help with this pro bono - many of the advocacy organizations have partnerships with the top law firms.
posted by melissasaurus at 3:43 PM on January 5, 2015

Do it right, and you'll only have to do it once.

Yeah, no. This simply isn't true with all kids. A large number of kids are wired such that they weigh the options, and do the bad thing anyhow. Or they can't resist doing the bad thing in the moment.

You're sort of describing my son. ADHD, spectrum, gifted. He's in 3rd grade, one playdate ever, has never been invited back (or on another). Miserable because he has no friends. Not so much with the "kicked off the bus" behavior, but that is partly (I think) because he was bullied in Kindergarten and now hates bullies with a fiery passion. He was kicked out of camp, though.

Getting him into a Superflex group (10 kids + 2 adults, done through speech (of all things) at his school but also available privately) has helped some. ADHD medication has helped more. Absolutely get him in with a behaviorist. Absolutely yes on rewards, rewards, rewards - lavish praise, and more tangible rewards too (we do a lot of rewards with screen time, damn the torpedos, because it's something he really responds to).

Most of all, don't blame yourself. Love him. Lavish attention on him. What has saved our kid is having a good network of kids-of-our-friends who have known him since he was an infant and accept him as he is. Feel free to MeFi mail me anytime if you have other questions or just need to vent.
posted by anastasiav at 3:48 PM on January 5, 2015 [11 favorites]

Taking a left-field, wild guess here, but how much does he play outside? How much energy does he burn off in a given week? I'd get outside with him yourself, or in a group/activity and try to burn off every little bit of extra energy he has and then see how he does.

Having a physical outlet can sometimes reduce behavioral issues just enough for everyone to be a lot happier.
posted by cnc at 3:53 PM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Has your son had a diagnosis yet from a child psychiatrist? If not, your choices of medications may be entirely inappropriate. I would urge you not to predetermine what medications he ought to be on or the order in which they should be tried. For example, if your child has childhood bipolar disorder (quite possible from your description) and not ADHD, ADHD meds such as stimulants may be wrong for him. You talk about "looking into getting him medicated" -- no. Look into getting him a child psychiatrist who you want to work with for the long haul. Medications are just part a comprehensive care plan. (I have parented a child like yours, feel free to memail.)
posted by summer sock at 3:58 PM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Focussing on some of the friendship things I wonder if it would help to find some different social opportunities for him. Ones where he could start fresh and that are shorter than your typical school day. Is there a sport he'd like to try? A scout group or choir? Nine year olds have some amazing opportunities and great interests, if you can harness that in a supportive environment it might change his perceptions of himself.

Physical activity can also be great as part of a plan to manage ADHD, particularly running. Kids on the spectrum can find team sports really challenging but can thrive in track, swimming, gymnastics, martial arts...especially with a mature and caring coach who is part of your behaviour management team.
posted by five_cents at 4:02 PM on January 5, 2015

what's happened here is that he's learned that this behavior works.

This is sometimes true, but often is not.

I want to nth those talking about Oppositional Defiant Disorder, because this really sounds pretty typical - down to the inability to back down, and most tellingly, the fact that he acts up more in your ex-husband's strict household than in your own. School can really push these buttons - arbitrary rules that don't make much sense, the insistence on obedience over all else.

Is a less regimented school an option at all?
posted by corb at 4:45 PM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Why isn't he on medication? He can't handle this on his own. It will take some time to get the best dose and you may want to talk about a stay at a hospital until his medication is where it needs to be. I know this sounds scary but, a week or two in a hospital to get him relief that he has needed for years is not the worst thing.

Another option is home schooling for a year or two, until things settle down for him.

Whatever you do, help him now, before puberty starts.

Once he begins responding to the medication and you feel it would be safe, get him a really smart, really calm dog. He's probably really lonely and a dog could help.

One more thing, you are doing a great job as a mom. You have tried everything. You have stuck by him. You have loved him all along. Don't beat yourself up about this. It is not something that you did and it isn't anything that you can fix on your own.
posted by myselfasme at 6:04 PM on January 5, 2015

julthumbscrew, I just wanted to say that my prescription for YOU would be, honestly, a break from the madness. You are dealing with some particularly tough issues here!

Also, I am betting that your son just had Winter break, and only recently returned to school again, so you are frazzled both from having him home and dealing with holiday stress and THEN having him transition back to school and the reawakening of these issues, coming back at you full force.

If there is any way you can get away for a short time, like a weekend when your ex has custody, for instance, and allow yourself to RELAX and take some time just for you, I think it would be good for you.

Good luck with your son! I know it's tough because you are working so hard to do right by him, but I feel it will pay off soon if you can just hang in there a little longer. You really are on top of this as much as any parent can be. Hugs to you.
posted by misha at 6:33 PM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Having a kid that's not "normal" makes one feel like a failure. I know this from personal experience.

You are really doing well. You are doing the necessary things for your kiddo.
posted by heathrowga at 6:43 PM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: (Also: thanks, everyone. Especially people who MeMailed me with support. I should've said that. Just because this hurts like expelling fire from every orifice does NOT mean you guys didn't have a variety of interesting suggestions. I appreciate the support and the ideas. Now to go sob.)
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:54 PM on January 5, 2015

I was this kid (and was diagnosed with ADHD). Punishment actually didn't work on me because I had serious distrust of authority figures, especially ones who treated me like I was stupid or gave me rules to follow "because I said so." What helped was having people who took seriously how I was feeling and let me know that anger is a legitimate feeling even if it's not always an appropriate one to act out in a public space. I did have environmental factors that were causing me to act up, and once those calmed down, so did I. Nota bene: it took until college for my parents to stop getting those calls from the principal's office.

I would have liked more explicit guidance about how to act, rather than just people telling me what not to do. I struggled a bit as an adult, realizing there was stuff I should have learned as a kid that was never really laid out for me in a straightforward way. I think my impulse-control problems, which I still have, stem partially from my ADHD and partially from having kind of a lenient upbringing. I think kids want structure and advice, particularly when you don't call it "rules."
posted by mirepoix at 8:33 PM on January 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

Maybe "lenient" is the wrong word -- maybe my parents left me to fend for myself a lot because they believed that I was more "mature" in some ways than I actually was, being bookish and worldly for my age. I think they didn't realize that childhood is a terrifying time for some kids. Everything is a huge question mark. A lot of lashing out comes from that.
posted by mirepoix at 8:52 PM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

My son had a lot of that kind behavior in his classroom when he was younger, because it was a way for him to get the hell out of the room. We got him a one-on-one aide (I make it sound so easy...) and it made everything so much better. He could leave the classroom when he was feeling overwhelmed and go to a quiet, prearranged place to relax. The aide would be in the hallway or nearby, since the school didn't want my son wandering around by himself, but far enough away that he could have some peace and quiet.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:34 PM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you're not monitoring screen time, try it. Perhaps an hour a day. Game, TV or Internet, but only an hour. Too much screen stuff is overstimulating and will exacerbate behavioral problems.

Yeah, my kid is basically lovely but too much screen and she transitions smoothly into a nightmare.
posted by Sebmojo at 11:07 PM on January 5, 2015

Ok. I have more time to respond. I'm a special ed teacher; my background is with kids like your son. If your son were one of my kids, this is what my team and I would do:
* Start with a Preference Assessment to find out what would motivate him to do the right thing. Video time, candy, whatever. These items will become the incentives used in a BEHAVIORAL PLAN, the type I mention upthread.
* Do a Functional Behavioral Analysis to see the Antecedent, Behavior and Consequence for what's going on and analyze those results. Your district SHOULD pay for this analysis. It can be done by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) or a competent special ed teacher. But this will pinpoint WHEN and WHY he acts out. It's never random.
* The behavioral plan is worked for a discrete period and results are analyzed. If the plan is done well, there will be improvement. Every kid will respond to treats. The plan will be adjusted accordingly.
* He may need to be redistricted to a program for kids with his diagnoses. Most towns have them, where the kids are mostly mainstreamed but there's a dedicated sped staff and classroom where they do social skills, speech and language pragmatics, OT, other stuff.
* He should be getting a MUCH higher level of support than he now receives.
* No more school bus; it's way too anxiety producing.

* Look into NVLD and think if your son has some aspects of it. Generally, these kids only literally understand what they hear. Every other bit of communication is lost on them. They flounder socially and react weirdly to people because they don't understand people. It's often misdiagnosed as "spectrum-y type behavior."

These are things I would suggest if I were allowed to legally suggest them but I can't because teachers WHO ARE EXPERTS CAN'T SAY THESE THINGS TO PARENTS:

* Has he had a thorough workup by a pediatrician? Is this a sudden shift in behavior? This could something physical. Get that ruled out.
* Look at his diet. You want less processed, more whole stuff. You MAY want to consider eliminating dairy, wheat, and soy.
* Has he been allergy tested? Is there a correlation between his physical health and increase in behaviors? One of my kids is completely fine unless he's getting a cold, and then for whatever reason, post nasal drip turns him into a monster.
* Keep screen time in his life but ONLY if he works for it. So, he needs to play outside for an hour first, help cook dinner, ride his bike, do chores, read a magazine, whatever. The point is that it HAS to be something he earns.
* Consider medication for ADD. It will either make a difference quickly or it won't and you can try something else. If the ADD meds are working, he will be in a much better place for a behavioral plan to work.
* Do nice things for yourself and take breaks away from him. You didn't cause this and he will behave better. It's going to take some time. But of course his behavior is super annoying and you've got to give yourself a break. Your town probably has a SPED PAC for parents like you. Look into joining it. It helps to know you're not alone.
*Consider buying him a "calming vest" and look into whether his clothes are bothering him. There may be some tactile/sensory stuff going on that he can't express. Tags, waistbands and sock seams can be huge triggers.
*Sign him up for KARATE or other martial arts; this is where many behaviorally-challenged kids go. He'll learn some discipline and self-control and get to punch things. I can guarantee there's a dojo with a sensei who has worked with tons of kids like yours. Also, socializing!!
* A very weird suggestion but I've seen this work: Bulletproof coffee in the morning. A little caffeine and enough good fats to keep his brain stabilized and to keep those stimulation-seeking receptors working. I've seen it work like magic with ADD boys.
* If the school is being positive and friendly BUT NOT DOING ANYTHING IN THE WAY OF BEHAVIOR MANAGEMENT, you need to get ready to start fighting them, perhaps hiring an advocate. They can be sympathetic but they also need to be getting him help.
* A pet that requires care. Ideally a very calm dog, like a rescued greyhound, or a cat. He needs to have a thing that he can lavish with attention, that depends on him.
* Weekends and vacations need to be structured. That means posted schedules and always giving him a choice in what fun thing you're doing. This kid needs some control within a safe and predictable structure.

***Find that parenting group. You're not alone. And this will get better.
posted by kinetic at 3:21 AM on January 6, 2015 [12 favorites]

From your description, it sounds like your son has ODD if not a few other things.
Also you might consider reading "You Can't Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded)" if the phrase, "the only thing I have to do is to die" makes you wonder if your son said it.
posted by plinth at 5:57 AM on January 6, 2015

It doesn't sound like ODD to me at all. That's really unlikely, IMO, if he's okay at home.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 6:46 AM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Final update: we have a meeting with the school to revise his IEP in two weeks. I will be perusing every book and other suggestion recommended, comparing against what he's entitled to via law, and attending said meeting with a whole stack o' notes. Additionally, we'll be meeting with his med management doctor within a month. This thread definitely helped me become more comfortable with the idea of medication than I'd been previously. Lastly, I am pretty firmly sold on the idea of social skills coaching, and I'll be making some calls to practitoners in our area today.

Thanks very much to everyone (especially those who MeMail'd me). It helps to feel less alone, and a little less like I'm just failing all over the place.

Also, just a gentle-but-firm FYI for those who suggested ODD: listen. I know your intentions were good. But while no mental health practitioners would ever phrase it as such, it IS "Sociopathy Jr.", so it maaaaaybe ODD isn't the most tactful casual suggestion, even if it does ring some bells (it's like piping up "maybe it's a brain tumor!" to a medical question).
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:04 AM on January 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

(Also: thanks, everyone. Especially people who MeMailed me with support. I should've said that. Just because this hurts like expelling fire from every orifice does NOT mean you guys didn't have a variety of interesting suggestions. I appreciate the support and the ideas. Now to go sob.)

Hey, you are doing fine. Honestly, I read your question and thought, "This kid isn't the bad kid." First, there are not really very many bad kids. There are a lot of kids who have developmental quirks and ticks that cause them to struggle in a school or social setting, and it sounds like your kiddo is one of them. Second, I expected way worse behavior than, "He shoves the other kids and scared a five-year-old with a threat that he probably echoed from a videogame." Kids shove each other. It's their nature. Maybe put him on a violence-free media diet so he doesn't pick more of that stuff up.

In general: don't ignore it, don't write it off as "okay" or "he'll grow out of it," but don't think of it as a sign that your son is like innately bad and the other kids have to be protected from him. He has to be protected from his symptoms and given a chance to thrive, and there are a lot of tools to help him with impulse control and executive functioning.

Final update: we have a meeting with the school to revise his IEP in two weeks. I will be perusing every book and other suggestion recommended, comparing against what he's entitled to via law, and attending said meeting with a whole stack o' notes.

Is the school reassessing him or is this just an annual review? In your shoes, I would ask them in writing to reassess WeeThumbscrew for social skills, impulse control, and any other area he may be deficient in. I wouldn't wait to bring it up at the meeting.

Hang in there, you're doing great.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:21 AM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

You say he isn't officially on the spectrum; has he been given the ADOS test by someone who knows what they're doing? That's the best test out there, for now.

In our situation getting an official diagnosis of autism made things easier, as we could tap into more resources, and so I could make finger-pointing people feel bad. (Also it got people to stop saying "ODD," which isn't helpful anyway because it just describes behaviors, and you already know what the behaviors are.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:52 AM on January 6, 2015

Hey, it sounds very much like I was this kid. I was making up for constant boredom in part by reading books I was too young for and like a sponge I could remember every little phrase and stuff from TV as well. Not having learned how everyone wasn't the same as me I would think other kids would get the joke if I flung bits of the books at other kids at random without any understanding of the impact of the phrases. Maybe that sheds some light on that aspect? I sure wish the assessments and medications and helpful threads like these had been available at the time and it's really heartening how much you are doing for your kid.
posted by yoHighness at 7:53 AM on January 6, 2015

Oh, and another good thing about a diagnosis: no more getting kicked off the school bus. The district is required to provide transportation, and if the bus as it now is doesn't work, they need to find something that does. That might mean anything from a seat that's reserved just for him, to letting him wear headphones or play a DS, all the way to providing a car that's just for him.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:56 AM on January 6, 2015

This reminds me a lot of my brother and one of my classmates. Kinetic is amazing in their detail and the post is excellent, I can't favorite it enough. I wanted to come in to say that for both my brother and my classmate, that ADD meds, physical outlets (tai kwon do for my brother, cycling for my classmate), IEPs, and people who really put the effort in (parents, teachers, coaches, etc.) helped. My brother is a successful small businessman, and my classmate is a surgeon. A SURGEON. They give him sharp things to cut people open on purpose and the people are better for it afterwards. The mind boggles but he's incredibly successful and that is a wonderful thing.

Basically: there is hope. My parents thought they were utter failures as well. They weren't. The gods just gave them (several) difficult children to raise. They did the best they could, and so are you, and it really will be ok. Maybe not yet but it will.
posted by RogueTech at 8:16 AM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

One other thing about martial arts: for my brother, it was good because it gave him someone he looked up to as an authority figure but wasn't my parents. He and my parents had been in this willpower type dance for years and my gods, they could push one another's buttons. When he got into trouble with the law in junior high (spraypaint vandalism), he wasn't so worried about the fact that my parents were pissed. They were always pissed at that point, for good reason. But having to explain it to his sensei? That was awful for him. Thankfully the guy was pretty thoughtful and intelligent. He was disappointed, told my brother he was disappointed, and assigned my brother a ton of physical work around the dojo to think about his actions and reflect on why it was not an appropriate action for someone who is an upstanding member of society. The sensei hung around and did his own work around the dojo, but didn't talk to my brother unless answering a question. Sometimes my brother talked, just to be heard, sometimes he asked questions, and sometimes it was quiet. Later, my brother said that was the best thing he needed at that point. After that he started to really settle down.

I don't know exactly what it was, other than having an adult (who wasn't his parents) he cared about both disappointed but willing to put in the time. I don't know that you can intentionally create a situation like this for your son. But I wanted to tell you this story to say that there will be people in your son's life who see who he is and who he will be, who will want to be part of his life and help you. Thankfully my parents were open to having other adults be role models to my brother. Mostly, I want to let you know that there are people out there that will want to help you, and as corny as it sounds, "It takes a village to raise a child" will apply for you and it's ok.
posted by RogueTech at 8:26 AM on January 6, 2015 [7 favorites]

God, I am so sorry I ever mentioned ODD -- I was not suggesting that the OP's child has ODD, I was telling her that my son was considered for it as an indication of how far we've come and how much of a difference the various interventions have made.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:44 AM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

My younger brother had a similar "problem child" diagnosis until my parents fought and clawed to get him the real accommodations and interventions he needed, it sounds like you are on the right track.
I am by no means an expert, just wanted to mention that throughout all this reading you'll be doing, keep an eye on where you leave the books. I got a lot of messages about my little brother from the titles and covers of the autism books that appeared on tables in my house long before my parents really explained any of that to me. I would bet that he might have, too.
Just something to keep an eye out for, but in my house we would sit down and read anything that was out.
Finally - it gets better. Thank you for working so hard for your son, you know who he is. I hope one day my brother thanks my parents for how relentless they were, too.
posted by rubster at 9:57 AM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nthing kinetic and Ruthless Bunny et al's suggestions about using positive incentive programs and REWARD systems and lavishing him with genuine praise about the things your son also happens to be doing right.

Check out Howard Glasser's The Nurtured Heart Approach, and specifically his book "All Children Flourishing - Igniting the Greatness of Our Children." The central thesis of this approach is that most adults/schools inadvertently give energy, attention, and relationship to kids who are exhibiting negative behaviors, while completely ignoring those moments when kids actually are being successful.

Don't forget he's doing phenomenally well when he is at your house-- hooray! Therefore, we know "The Bad Kid" stuff is a mislabel. Be sure to also give him lots of credit and praise for the good choices he makes in your home. You're doing a great job with him, and it's a lonely road whenever a child is atypical. Hugs to you.
posted by hush at 6:56 PM on January 6, 2015

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