Helping Children Regulate Emotion

angryQuestion: I am an LDS mom of a highly intelligent 7 year old child. Besides praying and fasting, and talking with my Bishop, my husband & I have read several books on helping your gifted child, but I often feel like a failure. He has so many wonderful qualities. He loves the gospel & he loves to serve others. The issue lies with his lack of self-control. If things are not “perfect” or don’t go his way he has a complete meltdown. He doesn’t seem to care where he is, it can be at church, at a park, at the doctor’s office, etc. He will scream & cry and rip articles of clothing off. He’ll yell at the people standing around us & he’ll even punch himself. It is horrendous. I am just beside myself. Many people that we come in contact with assume that we are bad parents or that we indulge his every desire – this is quite contrary to the truth. My biggest concern is that people will never know the wonderful attributes that he has. He won’t be able to be an instrument in the Lord’s hands because everyone will be too afraid to disappoint him. After these tantrums he’ll often say that he wished he were dead. I think that it is only getting worse as he gets older & I’m afraid of losing my little boy. I’ve been trying to search for an LDS child psychologist that possibly specializes in gifted children. I live in the Sacramento are but I’m willing to travel to get the help that he needs. If you have any advice I would be so grateful. Thank you in advance.

Answer: I appreciate the question. If I understand you correctly it appears that your son is having some intense outbursts and really becoming emotionally reactive to you and your husband when he does not get his way. More than likely it is also connected to his inability to emotionally regulate and self-soothe in normal healthy ways when things don’t go his way. Typically children will learn these skills as they move out of their egocentric way of seeing the world. At seven he is still in a position of feeling like the ‘world revolves around him’ much of the time. The difficulty for you and your son at this time is  not the egocentrism, as that is part of normal development, but his lack of skills or knowledge about what to do when he is upset.

One my favorite therapists is Dr. John Gottman, out of Seattle. He wrote a textbook, cited below in recommendations, some time ago that may give you some solid research based ideas for helping your son learn to emotionally regulate. The book is not for him but for you as a parent. It primarily helps parents learn how to ‘emotionally coach’ children rather than simply asking, demanding, or otherwise trying to curb behavior. Please start reading it, I feel it could be of help to you. I’d spend less time in the gifted children’s  books and get a handle on coaching him through his difficulty in regulating his emotions. Based on his statement, “I wish I were dead” his little esteem is pretty low as he is starting to realize consciously that he is not like other seven year olds, that he blows his emotional gasket more often or in more intense ways that others. Another book you should look into that is for more routine issues for children his age is 1-2-3 Magic, see links in book recommendations below.

Also, I’d suggest getting a therapist to help you. Someone that is familiar with child development and works with children, especially those with a difficult temperament (yes your son is bright and talented according to your report) but is having a really difficult time managing and regulations his emotions. Also, I’d be careful how often you call him gifted, special, etc. as this can foster a self-focused egocentric view of himself and amplify the very behaviors you are trying to help him stop. Parents that are upset or ashamed of their child’s behavior in public often compliment them too often and ‘brag on them’ to overcompensate in their own minds that their child is ‘ok’ or to befriend the child with hopes that they will start to follow the parent due to the high esteem the parent places on the child in private or public.

Some things to think about would be what role you play in this as well as your husband. Looking at the ‘system’ and family climate can be helpful in understanding and helping create a context where he can more readily change. I am not inferring you cause this behavior but I am confident that you are interacting with it, sometimes positively other times negatively. You have got to be frustrated as a parent, that I completely understand. Also, did he have any problems while in the womb? Any significant delays eating, rolling over, crawling, walking?

I’d look less at the spirituality or faith of the therapist in this case. You need an expert that works with children in your area  (find someone with your general values, but I would not toss them out if they are not LDS as you are looking for experts that works with children). I have provided a link to all the therapists in your area that have systemic family and child training in Sacramento. , these clinicians have the same credentialing as me and could work directly with you and your son. I would not be able to provide help for him directly as I do phone consultations, but would be happy to assist you in parent coaching via phone should you need/want that. I honestly feel the best course would be for you to find someone at the link above that is in your area that can guide you in finding the solutions you are seeking.

Recommended Books:

The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child

Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child

1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 (123 Magic)

Hang on, you’re headed in the right direction. Enjoy your journey.