Is my kid OK? Mom finds 6-year-old son’s violent outburst troubling
Q. I hope you can help me. My son has never had tantrums or outbursts that I deem “abnormal,” but a recent incident troubles me. He is 6 and in the first grade. I was recently called to his school because another child was hitting him. A week later, I was at the school again because he choked another little boy for sitting where he wanted to in the cafeteria. I’ve talked to him, and he seems more concerned about his punishment than he is about hurting someone, even though he knows how bad it felt when another child hurt him. He has never seen nor heard anyone talk about choking that I know of, and that is also troubling to me. He just impulsively choked someone with basically no provocation. I am concerned for his mental health. Is this normal?
A. Violence in young children can mean many things, and because your son was recently a victim of violence himself, I would not jump automatically to a mental-health problem. Children this age often have a difficult time dealing with strong feelings such as anger. Your son may have seen that the child who hit him found an outlet for his anger and may have internalized this as a possible coping skill. However, in his mind he may not be able to connect his pain to the pain of the child he choked. And he may see his actions as justified because the kid who sat in the seat he wanted made him angry.
I recommend talking to your son very concretely about the incident. Rather than just asking what happened, ask how he felt at those moments. Some children will be able to give you descriptions of their feelings, others will not. If he isn’t able to tell you what he was feeling at the moment, you may need to give him examples of how some basic emotions feel. Also, talk about what he wanted to happen. Did he want to hurt the other child or just make him move? If he wanted the child to move, talk about and role play other ways to deal with the situation. If he tells you he wanted to hurt the child, discuss this with your pediatrician and ask for a referral for a pediatric psychologist.
Once your son recognizes his feelings, he needs to know how to deal with them. There are many things he can do. For example, focusing on his breathing and watching his chest rise and fall could be a great help, as could counting his breaths. Yoga is another wonderful coping mechanism for children who need to calm down. It helps children focus on themselves internally rather than on what someone else is doing. Other times, children just need to get their emotions out. Running around, jumping up and down, and even shouting can help. The goal is to get enough of the angry energy out to be able to talk about what has happened. Encourage your son to start using coping skills as soon as he feels a bodily reaction, rather than waiting until he feels like he can’t hold his feelings in any longer and wants to lash out.
Most children have empathy, but parents may still need to help them strengthen and develop it. It is not abnormal for your son to be more concerned about the punishment than the other child’s feelings. At 6, children are still very self-centered, seeing everything that happens as being connected to them. You can help your son put himself in the other child’s shoes by imagining the situation from the other way around — what if someone else wanted his seat and then choked him? Other activities you can do to help your son connect to others’ feelings include having him make a “feeling face” while talking about the other person’s feelings, talking about the feelings of characters in books and movies, or having him guess how characters might feel in various pictures.
Be sure to contact your pediatrician if your son tells you he wanted to hurt the other child, if his behavior continues or if you start to see other problems (withdrawing from people and activities he likes, increased risky behaviors, difficulty with schoolwork or tasks at home, or dramatic mood swings). A pediatrician can give your child a physical, talk to you and him about any changes or stressors in his life, and recommend further testing he may need.
Regina Alexander is a licensed clinical social worker. She works as a counselor at Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital. Please submit your questions to “Is My Kid OK?” by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.