The question is: what do you do when your child seems to be stuck in HULK-MODE?
As one mother put it: “my kid needs anger management! He’s like a little Hulk, and anything can set him off!”
Whether the anger is directed at you, your partner, another child, or even a pet, the stress is undeniable. The tension is contagious. Nothing feels normal. It’s heartbreaking to watch yet another family activity suddenly explode into aggression and arguments.
How are you supposed to respond to all that? Let’s be real; there aren’t very many good answers that you can come up with on the spot, no matter what people say. Most of us have heard well-meaning advice, like “Well, try discipline! Tell him: it’s not okay to throw the chair! It’s not okay to hit your brother! You need to go to your room and calm down.”
So you try it. Maybe you send your child to their room, and you spend the next hour listening to screaming, threats and the sound of belongings being thrown against the wall. Then, later that day, it happens all over again.
When the usual strategies don’t work
I’ve actually been there! I did everything I thought I was supposed to do (after all, I’m a behaviour therapist! I’ve got years of experience and a graduate degree so I must have some answers, right?) I made sure not to “reinforce” the behaviour, we set simple rules, we set up consequences, I offered rewards for kind behaviour, we worked on calm-down tools, et cetera, et cetera.
At first, I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I knew I was missing something. Sure, it all looked the same. It all sounded like “ARGHH!” He just seemed to be really really angry, even though his life seemed pretty okay from my perspective.
So, I asked myself: “What is bugging my kid?”
Then I asked him!
I ask my son to tell me his favourite bug. He said “Stag beetle.” And you know me, I like to draw, so I grabbed the blank notebook that I found at the dollar store, and I drew a beetle on it.I told my son: “We’re going to try to work together, and I’m going to notice what’s bothering you. Whenever something is bothering you, instead of having a fight about it, the only thing we’re going to focus on is you telling me, and I’m going to put it in this book, okay?”
Here are some examples of what I wrote down on the first day:
- wanting a podcast instead of music
- not being able to hear the music
- brother was too close
- LEGO train was missing a piece
- waiting for his friend to come,
- LEGO pieces don’t fit together
- when his brother played with his toy
- when Mom said no more screens.
As you can see, these are hard to avoid! I actually made some little notes to myself to just mark how bad it was (little circles for little blow-ups, and big circles for extended or explosive reactions, like when his brother played with his toy that day.)
So, why does this help?
It started to help right away, because it changed MY response. I had been just reacting with my Voice of Authority, like “Hey, that’s not an appropriate response, that’s not acceptable, you can’t behave that way, you have to get a grip…” (I was basically panicking!)
Rather than giving him expectations or corrections, my first priority was just to figure out: “Is there a reason? In your head, what seems to be the problem? What are you focusing on right now?” The “Bug Book” strategy just gave me something to do other than criticize or emotionally react in that moment.
Obviously, moms have an emotional reactions when their kids do, and sometimes it’s sympathy, but often it’s something else too. Ross Greene explained it beautifully when he described kids who act out with aggression and anger and nasty words as unlucky. They are unlucky because they are having the same feelings as the kid who is crying or the kid who is hitting himself in the head, or the kid who just goes in his room and closes the door, but we respond differently to those kids. We respond differently because the behaviour is offensive. It stresses us out, so even though those kids might be doing their best in a tough situation, the way they are acting makes it hard for us to offer the help they need.
So we changed our focus, we start using the Bug Book, and we made this list of things that were bugging my son. Then, on the other side of the page, I made a list of the things that worked, and the things that didn’t work. That was really helpful to me but I think it was also really helpful for my child, because we could talk about it after.
So, for example, on the first day, here’s a list of things that we tried but did not work:
- going to his room
- wrecking things
- hitting people
- saying mean words
- eating cookies
- getting help
- being alone
- reading a book
On a hard day, these are the moments I would remember. I used to go to bed feeling like a failure. “I tried everything I could think of! I offered X, Y, and Z and he just called me names!”
But what did work? I had to make sure I was recording those things. Here’s what I wrote on the first day: “Mom got mad” (uh oh, that actually caused a change in his behaviour), but “doing yoga” also worked. “Doing superhero exercises” (we used this Superkids Activity Guide by the lovely Dayna D. Abraham.)
So, I made those notes to myself because I wanted to come back to them. Sometimes the day goes by so quickly, and something actually works, but those moments are hard to remember! When that same situation comes up again, we’re not in detective mode, we’re just always always responding, so the Bug Book just helped me slow down a little bit and notice more.
So here’s what happened the next day:
- when my brother comes downstairs in the morning
- turning off the iPad
- not getting a t-shirt with no sleeves
- having a stick taken away
- sharing Smarties with brother
- leaving the Science Centre
- waiting for a turn on the climbing wall.
What didn’t work: “trapping”, “arguing” or “grabbing” (I started to notice how my style of confrontation was back-firing and wondered if I should back off.)
What DID work? “Going outside,” “doing yoga with the family”, “waiting” and “eating pizza” worked! I remember that this day was really hard, but I also noticed that the list of things that worked started getting longer! This gave us hope. Actually, after a little while, my son started to write these things down himself! He wrote that his brother had told him “stop” on this particular day, and also he found no banana pancakes when he wanted them.
When I learned to listen to my angry child…
Something beautiful happened when we started to happen as we worked on the Bug Book together. My son learned that I was ready to listen when he was having a hard time. He learned that he didn’t have to scream in order to get help. He could just come to me in his frustration and tell me the problem, and I would hear him instead of having a frustrated reaction of my own.
Then, something even more unexpected and wonderful happened. When I started responding in a softer way, the HULK reaction started to change too. Instead of just anger, I started to see tears. I remember the first time in a long time, when instead of yelling, throwing things, hitting or insulting, my son simply started to cry. This is when I KNEW we were turning a corner, and things would change for our whole family.
Remember those “lucky” behaviours? When a child is crying, what do you want to do? It’s so much easier for you to speak softly and offer a hug, right? Of course, that gentle connection going to help you child calm down so much faster than when you are busy dodging flying objects and yelling to be heard above the chaos. I was so thankful to be able to comfort my child when he was upset, instead of worrying about keeping everyone safe. I wanted to be someone he could reach out to, instead of someone to lash out at.
When I stopped just reacting to the behaviour, and I focused on noticing the triggers and analyzing the consequences, it was a game-changer for our family. Just paying attention and listening in a different way did a world of good, and changed my son’s behaviour more powerfully than any time-out, lost token, or angry lecture.
Do we still have irritable moments? Yes, but we don’t have anywhere near that level of HULK-MODE that we used to, and when I look at this book, there are only five days of dates in it. This is not something we had to do for days and days and days. It was just enough so that we could start to break the pattern.
Would you rather have a Bug Book set up for you, or create one of your own?
I’m designing a printable for parents and I’d love your feedback!
Send me a note here, or come and find me on the Creative Connected Parenting Facebook page and tell me what you’d like to see in your own Bug Book!