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My 6-year-old child has very aggressive behavior. He is very sweet and caring when he is in a great mood, but he loses his temper in few seconds like if my older son (10) touches his thing or even looks at his things he becomes angry and starts screaming and abusing. He spits all the time, scratches with his nails, and uses abusive language all the time. I speak with him making him understand, but then he comes to hit me. Please help and suggest. He has had this behavior for the past two years. In school most of the time he is fine, but once in while I do get complains for his aggressive behavior.

We also started doing family meetings where we sit down every night to discuss and write about any unhappy or inappropriate behavior by any one of us and then everyone receives happy face if we did good deed and sad face if we hurt someone. And the rule is if we all get happy faces then is the time we can go eat food in restaurant. But that doesn't seem to work either. My husband and I have done lots of talking with him about not to use his hands and mouth to spit and say dirty words, but he doesn't care about anything.

Physically he is very petite as per his age. He looks like a 4-year-old child. He has very bad eating habits as when he was young he had some issues with constipation and that's why he learned to hold his bowel movements. Because he started holding them he became less energetic, so I used to forcefully make him sit on the toilet, as I knew once he is on toilet he will pass his bowel right away. But sitting on the toilet was a big struggle. I used to also force him for food as he would not eat much until his movements are clear. We did lots of tests on him, but nothing could be found and doctors told me he would grow at slower pace.

So now I don't force him for anything, understanding that he will use his own skill to understand his body and there won't be any struggles between us. So now he goes to toilet every 4-5 days and sometimes he eats great. The other times he doesn't eat for like 12-15 hours. I want to force him to eat, but at the same time I don't want to struggle with him.

I think his aggressive behavior could also be due to our struggles.

What can be done to help him and me to change his behavior?

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5 Answers 5

It looks like you have 2 issues:

1) Food

2) Behavior

I think it might be helpful for you to separate the 2 issues in your mind and in you actions. Maybe you can work on one at a time?

1) For the food issue, does his pediatrician say he is not growing as he needs to?

If not, then every recommendation I have heard says to let kids be in charge of how much they eat. For us, it works great to ask that a) you sit down with the family for dinner and b) you take one bite. You also have to wait a little to be excused (usually looking at the food makes you want to eat, if hungry).

If he is not growing as he needs to you obviously needs to talk to a pediatrician about how to get calories in him.

2) I don't have any great answers for the behavior issues. I hope you get some good ones answers. I would say, though, that it sounds like that by writing down 'bad deed' you focus on the negative (rather than - what was the good things we did today? Or maybe even: what was the best thing, what was the worst thing?). It may also make you son feel singled out, if the rest of you mostly get happy faces, and he gets sad faces. He might not know how to control his behavior, and feel he is singled out? I also wonder if the reward is too abstract because it is time wise removed from the behavior?

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The entire family is suffering here; you have my sympathy. Raising a temperamental child is difficult, but you can change things. This has been going on for a long time now, and it will be very difficult to correct the dynamics without a lot of help and support. I have a few recommendations, but you might need professional help from a family therapist if you don't see results from whatever you decide to do.

Food: No one without severe psychiatric issues starves in the presence of food.

Don't try to control his eating or bowel movements, except for sensible rules he needs to follow. This is a battle you don't need to fight right now. He needs a daily children's multivitamin without iron (iron constipates.) He needs to sit at the table while you eat - it's family time. He doesn't have to eat, but he should sit there. Maybe he can even do a quiet activity - color, draw, build something small with legos, etc. - but he needs to accept that much. Keep healthful foods around so that when he is hungry, he has nutritious options. Don't keep any junk food or foods very high in sugar in the house. If you don't want to deprive your older son of sweets, perhaps you can let him eat some at lunch in school.

Stool: Encourage plenty of fluids, and a daily non-laxative stool softener will help in at least two ways: 1. it will make his stool a bit bulkier so he will have the urge to go more often, and 2. it will be less painful to pass, removing a potential reason he might be holding it in. If he doesn't have a bowel disorder (such as Hirschsprung's), let nature take it's course. It's not likely you can increase his dietary fiber right now. If he doesn't go for a week or more, or is soiling his pants, or has abdominal pain, call his doctor. Read about Encopresis.

Your son sounds like he has a hard time dealing with frustration. It is important for your child to learn how to deal with failure or frustration without losing self-esteem. I agree with @michelle's answer (that he needs a warning word which signals an impending time-out when he starts misbehaving.) I would also recommend a short book called 1-2-3 Magic which outlines a way of giving time outs without argument and with sufficient time for your son to learn to control himself (build up his tolerance to frustration). A sticker chart for the times he does respond by controlling himself and a non-food reward for a certain number of stickers (I used to keep small toys my kids liked in the house to give out immediately once the number of stickers was reached) is a positive reinforcement for good behavior.

It is never ok for your son to express himself violently or by spitting. This deserves a warning-free immediate time out. Every single time, no matter where he is when he does this. The more consistent you are in your handling of this, the sooner your son learns that his behavior will indeed have consequences, every time.

When he is being sweet, clip his nails.

I would recommend that the nightly family sit-downs be replaced by weekly sit-downs (since they don't seem to be working well anyway) where the focus is on self-expression, acceptance, and problem-solving for everyone. No stickers need be involved.

I wish you the best; it's obvious you love him very much.

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It's great that you are discussing behavior and offering rewards, but at his age, the consequence for his actions needs to be immediate or he will not adjust his behavior. Have you ever heard of "Love and Logic"? It is a parenting program that I've found very useful with my own temper-prone child. Here are the basics:

  1. Understand that children learn how to behave by making mistakes and misbehaving. This can really help put you in the mindset to respond appropriately when they do things that madden you.
  2. When your child misbehaves, it's your job to help them see the natural consequence of that behavior. Have a little phrase that you say when you notice him start to misbehave ("Uh-oh" "Oh-no"). Like Pavlov's bell, this will eventually become a reminder that he needs to get himself in check before the consequence is applied.
  3. You should always respond with empathy, so your child makes the connection between the consequence and his actions, instead of focusing his anger on you.

So, in your example of attacking someone violently, I think the best consequence is to remove him from other people. That is really the only option for keeping everyone safe. When I noticed that he was starting to lose control, I would say "Uh-oh. looks like we need to cool down. Do you want to go to your room on your own or should I carry you?" Of course, depending on how quickly he's angered, there might not be time for all that - you may just need to say "Uh-oh", pick him up, and put him in his room. Once he is in his room, do not give him any attention until he has calmed down.

In our house we turned the door knob on my son's door around so we could lock the door. While he was locked in, we sat outside in the hallway just to keep an ear and make sure he was safe, but we did not respond to him as he yelled and cried. Once he was quiet, he was welcome to come back. If you go with the lock option, I hope it goes without saying that you can't just abandon the child there - you really need to monitor.

When your son is calm, it would be a great idea to start working on skills for managing his anger. Start by talking to him about how he feels when he gets angry. My son would describe it as feeling like a stomach ache and feeling like he couldn't see. Understanding what anger feels like before your temper takes over is the first step for being able to control it yourself. Next, we talked about what he can do to calm down. Teaching slow, deep breathing ("Smell the flowers, blow out the candle") can be helpful for little ones. The book "Moody Cow Meditates" is a great one for kids, and teaches them how to use a snow globe to calm down. You can also teach your child to put himself in a time out. This is what worked best for our son. I told him that sometimes I need to give myself a time out when I feel angry, and then I showed him how I step away. I let him know that he could do the same thing. We found a safe place for him to go to in order to calm down (this is important - we didn't do this at first, and he would run to get away before he lost his temper - once he ran right into the street!). Now he is 7 and much better at managing. He still gives himself a time out when he is angry. I can't remember the last time I had to put him into a time out unwillingly.

I agree that the food struggles need to be separated out from the violence, and will leave others to comment there.

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Poor growth, constipation and irritability could point to Celiac disease. It sometimes takes years to reach a level of advancement where it can be detected in blood tests. Even if he has tested negative in the past, it may be worth requesting at each yearly check up. It took over a decade for my diagnosis, because my doctors were busy trying to treat each individual symptom as it occurred, not realizing it had a single underlying cause.

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I exhibited similar behaviour at around the same age and my mum discovered the problem was related to food additives which at the time were in everything imaginable (and quite a lot of stuff you didn't expect like peas).

We have the E-Numbers system here (UK) which classifies food additives and labelling laws which state they must be listed where used. Every additive has a number including naturally derived additives/colourings. We also have specific legislation covering colourings which have been found to relate to hyperactivity; the label must include the text 'may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children'.

The colours include:

  • sunset yellow (E110)
  • quinoline yellow (E104)
  • carmoisine (E122)
  • allura red (E129)
  • tartrazine (E102)
  • ponceau 4R (E124)

Source: NHS Choices - Food Colours and Hyperactivity

The FDA have, as yet, commissioned no studies and just maintain that such colours are 'safe'.

A study published 3 November 2007 in The Lancet suggests that the preservative sodium benzoate and commonly used artificial food colourings in fact may exacerbate hyperactive behaviour in young children.

Source: Diet & Nutrition: Hyperactive Ingredients?

I can't tell you it will help for sure and it will take you ages to get round the supermarket reading every label like a paranoid lunatic - but it's worth researching and trying (if you do it by half-measure it won't work) for a couple of weeks. Assuming those additives are labelled, which they may or may not be. Then after a couple of weeks find something that's choc-full of the stuff (a nice bright coloured drink should do it) and if the additives are a problem then sit back and wait for the fireworks.

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