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My 8-year-old son has difficulty managing his anger in a healthy way. When he gets angry at his sister, sometimes he hits her or pulls her hair. Sometimes he hits himself. Sometimes he screams and cries. Sometimes he breaks things. Sometimes he makes threats to hurt or kill himself or someone else, sometimes with a knife in his hand or his hands around his throat.

My wife and I have been taking him to see a family counselor. Together, we identified some things that he can do to calm down, like taking deep breaths, running in place or "shaking it out." He liked the idea at first, but he doesn't want to do these things when he's upset. He resists going to his room to cool off, preferring to sit on the couch and pout, or on his bed if/when he does go to his room. He's usually willing to take deep breaths, but his idea of deep breaths is more like hyperventilating.

To be fair, I understand how he feels. When I'm angry, I don't want to cool off either; I just want to stay angry. It doesn't help that I suffer from depression (I'm medicated), and I think he may be dealing with that as well (he's not medicated). This makes it really difficult to get him to cooperate. I've tried running in place with him, shaking like a fool, punching the bed and all kinds of things, but he usually just lies on his bed and wiggles a little.

I told him that if he could go for three days without having any uncontrollable outbursts I would buy him a book (at his reading level). It took a couple of tries, but he actually did it. Then, I told him that if he could go for five days I would do it again. That was over a week ago. We're still on day #1.

A couple of recent incidents prompted me to post this question here:

  1. The other day, I managed to get him to do some jumping jacks with me, but it was like pulling teeth. At that point, I'd lost all my energy and motivation. I told him to cool off for a while longer without me; that I would come back when he felt like cooperating. That didn't go over well - he started choking himself, crying and screaming that he hates himself, that I'm the worst dad ever, etc.

  2. This morning, my wife mentioned in front of him that his younger sister might need some help managing her anger as well. This made him really upset. He started crying and screaming that she doesn't need that kind of help; that it was just for him. I got irritated and called him out for being jealous (a bad idea in hindsight). He smacked himself in the face, sat on the couch and pouted.

We've hidden the knives, but I'm at my wits end.

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    Your son needs to see a psychologist, in my opinion - not just a family counselor, unless that's what you mean. This seems to me more than normal kid things - self-harm and suicidal thoughts, even if meant as a cry for attention, are concerning. He probably should see this psychologist on his own if possible - I don't know how early that starts, but I imagine 8 is old enough. (Family therapy with all of you also is likely helpful, but I think he should probably have some of his own time.) Some of what concerns him he may not feel comfortable talking about with you around, and that's okay. – Joe Feb 13 '15 at 22:28
  • I know that I saw one at around 9 or 10 on my own, with less severe expression than the above; it took me ages to open up, but he was quite good (he played chess with me for several sessions without me talking a word, for example) and eventually it was very helpful in learning to cope with my own feelings. – Joe Feb 13 '15 at 22:29
  • @Joe fwiw the counselor we've been seeing is a doctor. We established together that he doesn't really want to kill himself, he doesn't really hate himself or us - he just says these things when he's upset. This is why we've been focusing on better ways to manage his anger, and not on suicide prevention per se. – David Kennedy Feb 23 '15 at 18:02
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I am sorry you are going through this. It sounds stressful for you all. First of all, don't expect immediate change. Your son sounds like he is experiencing emotional pain and this is his way of reacting to it. It may be an engrained habit and it may take a while to learn a new one. I would suggest a few things. First get help and support for you and your wife. If you are taking care of yourself, expressing your frustration and how this is impacting you to others, then you are more likely to be in a place of wholeness when you try to be present with your son. Secondly, try to understand what his anger is about. In the following I am referring to Marshall Rosenberg's NVC (Non-Violent Communication). Anger is usually a 'hard' emotion, and there are other emotions underneath. These include sadness, frustration, confusion, disappointment etc. When he is experiencing any of these, then one of his universal human needs is not being met (e.g. connection, autonomy, fun, learning, support etc.). When he gets angry, try empathizing with him. This means listening deeply to what is going on in him, reflecting back his feelings and asking what he is longing for. This might sound something like, "You seem frustrated. Is it because you are longing for some choice in what activity you do?" Of course, it can sound fake especially if your own need for empathy has not been met which is why I suggested you take care of yourself first. I hope this helps. Good luck.

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    For a while, we were trying the "empathy first" aka "hug it out" approach. He generally responded really positively to that, but it always felt like we were rewarding him for misbehaving. For instance, he would hit his sister, I would pull him aside to give him a hug and listen to how he feels. Meanwhile, sister who got whacked is getting neglected. We decided the offended should receive attention first, but then the counselor advised us to try the time out approach which has not been very successful. Thinking about reversing course. – David Kennedy Feb 23 '15 at 18:27

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