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Our 7-year-old son (elder sibling of two) just started school this summer and can be described as a intelligent, pleasant and independent person. Normally, we trust him to be home alone for some 10 minutes or to come home from school by bike or to go to the playground with his (mostly older) friends.

For some weeks now about once to twice a day, all of a sudden he completely loses it: His eyes get some kind of insane glare, he acts in a frenetic way (we compare it to a bouncy ball) and completely acts out. When one of us tries to talk to him, he runs away as if in panic. He does not listen to any commands or orders, even if threatened with consequences. He disrespects everyone, makes funny noises, has no manners at all. He teases, bugs or even attacks his younger brother (5 y/o) or other children (today he left several visible scratch marks on him).

In that situation all communication completely breaks down. Any consequences we impose on him show no effect, he does not seem to care or even be aware of them in that situation. All we are able to do is (a) confine him in his room (where he will scream and cuss and rattle at the door for some time) or (b) physically hold him for an even longer time (with the same side effects).

After the situation has calmed and he is himself again. He is not able to explain his actions and not name any trigger or similar. He, however, does indicate he does not want to act this way and seems to suffer from it. When asked what we could do to help him get out of this state, he told us to "talk" without further explanation.

We are completely lost how to deal with these episodes. They are draining our energy and provoke his younger brother to chime in with this behavior. How can we (a) end this kind of situation quickly before harm is done and (b) help him not to start acting this way in the first place?

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    Have you taken him to see any medical professionals about this? – Becuzz 2 days ago
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First of all, I'm glad you've realized that communication breaks down and that consequences have no effect. Now that you know they don't work, you'll realize they're only harmful. Please refrain from punishment for a behavior that is out of the child's control at that moment (full disclosure: I'd say always refrain from punishment, but that's besides the point here).

Please note that being physically held during an upset can be terribly distressing. There is also a non-negligible medical risk involved, such as restraint asphyxiation. The safest thing to do when a child is acting out is usually to take the sibling to safety, instead of restraining the out of control child. I'm not talking about what's right or fair, I'm saying that only with regards to what prevents harm.

If you feel that you must hold your child, it is generally better to move with the motion of the child, and gently direct, say, their arm away from the intended target, as opposed to using excess force in the opposite direction to hold their arm steady, as this tends to increase arousal and escalate the situation. It is also better to hold repeatedly in several short bursts (seconds) than for an extended time period. But again, know that physical restraint is risky and distressing to the child, and seek out other options.

Above are some things you'll need to know when this happens again, but moving forward, you obviously want to avoid such situations.

After an incident, try to debrief the situation, and analyse triggers. It is helpful to ask yourself what you were demanding from the child in the moments leading up to the acting out. Demands can be things like expecting him to understand an overly complicated instruction, expecting him to socialise in a situation he isn't comfortable with, or expecting him to carry out a task which he normally has no problem with but now he's being asked when he's mentally fatigued. Obviously, also a whole array of other possibilities; I included some examples of demands that may not be obvious why they're taxing, to broaden your thinking about the topic.

If you can't find triggers or environmental factors that may have contributed, it may help to debrief with the child. Something that is sometimes useful is to draw pictures of your interaction, like a crude cartoon, from where you entered the room, where he was sitting, and who said what up until the problem behaviour. Ask him how he felt at the different stages, and what he was thinking. See if you can tease out some information about his feelings and thought processes that could be useful but he might not think to share, or even recall before you ask about that situation explicitly.

From your description, it seems like the onset has been rather sudden, which makes me think that there is an underlying stressor, such as something bothering the child, making him prone to lose control when faced with other challenges. You may or may not be able to get to the core of that now, or even find out if this is the case. Perhaps you'll need to adjust to the fact that he's more easily upset for now, and try to accommodate that. Perhaps there's a problem with a friend at school or something else that is troubling him that you may be able to address directly. Ask the child's teacher if they know of any conflict or if they have noticed anything that has changed matching the time of the onset of this change in behaviour. Ask the child.

We don't know what your child is going through. He may well need some extra attention and comfort in between these sessions as well.

Your question puts a lot of emphasis on what happens when he's out of control. This is almost never the right time to solve a problem. You cannot reach him at that point. Accept that he does not have access to the reasoning part of his brain at that point. I'm not qualified to comment on whether such frequent losses of control is common in 7 year olds, I don't even have one myself yet, but given that control is lost, there is nothing exceptional about the behaviour you describe.

The solutions that will eventually work for you are the ones that are being enacted before he loses control. In the chaos phase, you can only stay calm and give him what he needs to feel safe. And protect others from harm preferably by moving them out of harms way. Do not confront or otherwise escalate his distress.

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How can we (a) end this kind of situation quickly before harm is done and

I can think of some things worth trying:

  • A physical stimulus to help him calm down and/or snap out of it. Over on Reddit, several people claim to have amazing results with popsicle showers. No, seriously: the combination of a warm shower and a cold thing to suck on seems to have an almost magical calming effect on many kids. There might be other things that work for your kid. Music, a stuffed toy to hug, something he likes.
  • Redirect his behaviour to something unproblematic. Get him a literal punching bag or something similar. Or something to bounce on. Maybe a space to crawl into if he feels like it.
  • Come up with a "calming down ritual", a song and/or dance (quite possibly silly) that you practice when he's in a good mood and then try to repeat when he has one of these episodes.

(b) help him not to start acting this way in the first place?

This is more difficult and probably beyond the pay grade of Stack Exchange. I would strongly suggest consulting a child psychiatrist or therapist (or two), because this sounds pretty concerning to me:

He is not able to explain his actions and not name any trigger or similar. He, however, does indicate he does not want to act this way and seems to suffer from it. When asked what we could do to help him get out of this state, he told us to "talk" without further explanation.

Almost like some kind of psychosis (but I absolutey do not have the qualifications to make any kind of diagnosis). On the other hand, it also does somewhat sound like what much younger children experience during a tantrum, namely that they're overpowered by their emotions which they cannot control.

Like @dxh, I also think you should talk to him more about his feelings during these episodes, to understand better how he experiences them. Make sure that when you are doing this, he gets the clear message that you are trying to help him, work together with him to understand what is happening and how to avoid acting in a way he himself suffers from.

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    +1 for your suggestions on (a). As for (b), I agree that the description can be read as concerning, at least if you imagine an adult saying those things, but coming from a 7 year old, I think both the fact that they haven't analyzed the chain of events enough to be able to identify the trigger (or just as likely, isn't comfortable revisiting that scenario or knowing the trigger but not being proud of it and wanting to own up to it), and the fact that they're not happy about how they lost control during a meltdown, are both unsurprising on their own. – dxh 2 days ago
  • @Kat: good point, done! – Michael Borgwardt 7 hours ago

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