My Five-Year-Old is Constantly Angry

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Reader’s Question

My 5 1/2-year-old is CONSTANTLY angry. He hasn’t been having as many hour-long meltdowns as he was three years ago, but at least then he had ‘normal’ time in between. The meltdowns are completely draining and exhausting; he goes completely out of control, and needs to be restrained at times.

Now, he is just angry. He wakes up angry. If he wakes up earlier than me, he yells at me to get up. If I’m already up, he yells at me for getting up first. Sometimes he will be smiling one minute, then turn violent a minute later. And the smile — it never seems genuine. It’s like he’s trying to show me he is ‘happy’ but it’s not real. He freaks out if I even utter the word “no”.

Sometimes he leaves his preschool (just walks out the front door and the teacher has to run after him); he threatens people; he is very aggressive. I have tried 1-2-3 Magic (which worked wonderfully for my other son) and I have read The Strong-Willed Child. I have taken him to a psychiatrist, who said he has Asperger-like symptoms, but wasn’t ready to give a diagnosis and said to come back after he starts kindergarten, so they can talk to the teacher. No one is helping me. I am desperate. There is something seriously wrong, and I don’t know what to do.

I think he is having the major meltdowns less often because I am giving up. I am no longer even trying to discipline him or hold him in his time-outs, as he weighs 44 pounds and is almost stronger than I am (and he scratches, hits, bites, punches). He does have major problems with transitions, but he’s pretty good socially. He has friends at school. He is outgoing. His eye contact isn’t great, but he can hold a conversation with you.

We are a family of four: husband, wife, and two sons. We are middle class, and have no history of abuse, alcoholism, or drugs. I have been a stay-at-home mom since he was born. He goes to preschool three days a week.

It is so hard to see my sweet boy so angry all the time. Do you have any advice as to where I can turn?

Psychologist’s Reply

Dealing with discipline is one of the toughest jobs a parent has to accomplish. The word discipline comes from the Latin root to teach. Unlike punishment, it is a way for children to internalize good behavior, and it sounds like you’ve truly been doing your best. 1-2-3 Magic is a good book and I’m glad you’ve been trying some of their strategies. I also commend you on trying so many different things. That is the mark of a dedicated and loving mother.

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When figuring out what is going on with kids’ behavior, the more information you have the better. As such, looking for patterns of behavior will be useful and the best way to do that is to start a journal. Whenever I am working with a family dealing with behavior problems, I want to know both what sets off the child and what makes her or him happy. Consequently, start writing down everything surrounding his tantrums. Pertinent information can include how much sleep he got, what he ate, the time of day, his energy level, who is around, what he was just doing, the weather, and how he responded to intervention. I would also want information about activities he enjoys and the times when he seems happy, or at least not angry.

In getting more information, I would also want to know how your son behaves at his preschool. If he is outgoing and social, does that mean he can ‘turn off’ his angry behavior while he is not at home? If so, I would want to know what disciplinary strategies they use, and what kinds of activities they see that he enjoys. I would want similar information from other places and people with whom he spends time, like neighbors, family members or civic organizations.

All of the information you compile should be of assistance in trying to see your son’s triggers and rewards. It will also be useful to the healthcare professionals you consult. If you’ve done all that you can, it’s time to again ask for help. Just like you would before undergoing a major surgery, I recommend getting a second opinion. Find someone who has a great deal of experience with children with behavioral difficulties and meet with them. There are many things that could be affecting your son’s behavior and the trick is to find the professionals who can be of assistance — that could be anyone from a play therapist or a child psychologist, to an occupational therapist. Although it is daunting, I would continue to consult until you find someone who can help. There should be no reason to wait until your son goes to kindergarten, because there are many things that can be done now.

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