Mother of two young kids, Molly Skyar interviews her mother, Dr. Susan Rutherford, a Clinical Psychologist, about how to stop aggressive behavior in kids and how our parenting decisions today may affect our children as adults.
Question: My 6-year old will suddenly lash out and hit his mother or sister. What can I do?
MOLLY: This question came from a dad in Minneapolis. He added that unlike the rest of the family, his son seems to be a natural extrovert and asked if this could have anything to do with his impulsive and violent behavior?
Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): I doubt the essential issue would be that he’s an extrovert in a family of introverts. It’s possible he senses he’s different, but that feeling usually doesn’t manifest itself in this kind of impulsive behavior that leads to tantrums and hitting.
This kind of behavior in a child that age is really a matter of degree. If he’s really disruptive to the family, and they’ve tried a variety of interventions that don’t work at home, that child may need to see a professional child psychologist.
MOLLY: To figure out what’s going on?
Dr. Rutherford: Yes, to figure out what’s going on and to help teach the child to control his short fuse and violent behavior. Because if this is not done when the kid is a kid, and it goes on into adulthood, it will cause no end to problems in his interpersonal relationships on all levels.
MOLLY: What are some of the steps this parent could do at home before turning to a professional?
Dr. Rutherford: The parent will want to talk to the child about putting his feelings into words, so he doesn’t have to act out his feelings. When he starts to act out, if he starts losing his temper, he’ll have to be quite firm with him.
The father needs to make certain the son is looking at him when he speaks to him. He may have to restrain his hand, and say something like, “Use your words, not your body. Hitting is unacceptable behavior, and you will have a time out in your room if you don’t use your words.”
He’ll have to be quite firm about this consequence, so he believes him when he says it. Then, later, when they are not in the thick of it and can think more rationally, the dad needs to talk to the boy about what it is he thinks causes him to lose control. He should ask him why he thinks he acts out when he knows hitting is not OK.
His dad will want to engage the boy’s ego and encourage his sense of reality in this process. At first the child might say, “I don’t have any idea,” or, “Sister made me do it!” Or some other excuse. But his father shouldn’t accept an explanation that exculpates him from responsibility for his actions.
This is one of those times when the parent might want to have some kind of chart to use. He can mark the chart every time he behaves violently in a way that’s out of line. By charting his behavior, he can actually see how often he is out of control. Usually we use behavior charts for positive reinforcement, but in this case he might want to show him exactly what his behavior is first and how frequently it occurs.
The other thing he will want to do is to check on what his son is eating, because it turns out that a lot of food sensitivity reactions can push a child into angry impulses and acting-out behavior. He’ll want to watch carefully to see if there’s any kind of pattern between what he’s eating and the behavior that follows, even if it’s hours later.
MOLLY: Sometimes it’s obvious, like with my daughter. She eats a cookie and an hour later she has a tantrum. It’s like clockwork.
Dr. Rutherford: Right, and that’s exactly the example of a pattern we’re talking about looking for when we suspect food sensitivities. There is a test called the MRT that can help identify the culprits when observation alone can’t tell.
So he can address the violent behavior on several different levels but it absolutely has to be addressed during youth.
MOLLY: What else should you look for?
Dr. Rutherford: There are a number of things to look at when dealing with this kind of behavioral problem. First, to help the child notice what he’s doing and to help him put his feelings into words rather than to act them out.
Second, because children tend to be concrete in their thinking,using a chart that tracks behavior is extremely helpful. So they can actually see the pattern on paper.
Third, he should investigate possible food sensitivity reactions, because it is not uncommon there is a relationship between food sensitivities and disruptive behavior.
MOLLY: What might you see in an adult who didn’t deal with these outburst and violence issues as a child?
Dr. Rutherford: Often there is no end to problems in their relationships with others at all levels: with his parents, his teachers, his friends, his bosses, his girlfriends, his wife. People don’t tend to tolerate a co-worker well who throws tantrums, and he will not be as effective as he could be in the workplace and at home.
The reason I’m aware of the effect of food sensitivities on behavior is because my other daughter is a naturopath specializing in food sensitivities. You can learn more about the connection here.
Molly Skyar and Dr. Rutherford publish “Conversations with My Mother,” an online resource for offering practical parenting tips and psychological insight into raising kids. Dr. Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist in practice for over 30 years. She has her undergraduate degree from Duke University, a Masters from New York University (NYU) and a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Denver. Contact – Website – Facebook – Twitter
Photo Credit – jdl214