Six-Year-Old Son has anger / control / empathy issues - Mothering Forums

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Old 11-11-2013, 08:12 PM - Thread Starter
 
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My boy is very sensitive - but all of his sensitivities result in anger, never sadness.  He can be kind at times, and is even helpful when it's on his own terms.  Full of control issues.  When he's having a rough bout (usually a couple months) it has been suggested he's somewhere on the autism spectrum.  He lacks empathy - has to be told when the appropriate time is to say he's sorry - but then he gets angry because you're "telling him what to do."  I've never seen him be genuinely sorry or care about someone else's feelings.

 

He doesn't like his three-year-old sister (who is truly more empathetic and selfless than anyone I have met).  He turned into a different person when she arrived, and he has not returned to his former self.  He doesn't not want to be around her.  Ever.  If his friends are over, he belittles her (when she tries to play with him, he will mock her, saying "Blah blah blah, no one wants to hear what you say") or plays games where he and his friends run away from her, or they'll simply ditch her.

 

We don't punish.  Any kind of natural consequence I can come up with (such as explaining he was rude to his sister, therefore he obviously is feeling ornery and needs to be alone for a while, asking him to go to his room - or establishing beforehand that if she is excluded or treated poorly, the friends will go home) is met with aggression. Violent, door-kicking aggression.  

 

But those consequences sound more like punishments to me.  The natural consequence, really, of being mean to someone is that they cry, or get angry with you, or don't want to play with you any more.  I spend all day long explaining to him the proper way to speak to people without constantly being angry about every little thing.  It goes right past him.

 

He now exhibits these behaviours around other children.  Tonight at swimming lessons, he laughed at another child who could not do the same maneuver he was able to do easily.  He did it two separate times.  He absolutely lacks the ability to see this could hurt the other child's feelings.  And does not understand it's wrong.  He just knows what he sees in his back yard - buddy 1 tease his younger brother, buddy 2, so my son thinks it's the right way to treat people.  The brothers are doing it in a good-natured way.  My son is not.  (He can do this with anything - takes a silly thing someone else does and turns it into something angry, mean.)

 

I have read Siblings Without Rivalry and How to Talk back and forth, for three years.  And I just don't understand how to help him.  

 

One time in these six years I bribed him - he was five years old and still having a horrible time with encopresis (voluntarily withholding his stool).  I had tried everything I could think of or was suggested to me by others, over a three-year span.  Finally I gave up and made a little sticker chart for him.  If he chose to go on the toilet 30 times and get 30 stickers, he got a Lego set.  From the moment the sticker chart went on the wall, he never "held" again.  (Knock on wood.)  I was flabbergasted.  Bribing is wrong!  I can't believe I ever had the idea!  And I cannot believe it worked!

 

Can you bribe someone to act like a compassionate, empathetic, caring human being?  My tongue is in my cheek here.  But, really.  If I know the only time he's motivated to do something is when he knows what's in it for him, how can I use this to help him not care what's in it for him?

 

Sigh.

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Old 11-11-2013, 08:48 PM
 
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Originally Posted by ATD_Mom View Post
 

 Bribing is wrong!  I can't believe I ever had the idea!  And I cannot believe it worked!

 

Can you bribe someone to act like a compassionate, empathetic, caring human being?  My tongue is in my cheek here.  But, really.  If I know the only time he's motivated to do something is when he knows what's in it for him, how can I use this to help him not care what's in it for him?

 

Sigh.

Not as extreme, but I have many of the same problems with my oldest daughter, similar reasons, similar though less intense reactions.  Not sure I have much advice, but definitely commiseration.

 

I think the best thing I could DO was to appeal to what empathy existed--cultivate it at times when there wasn't a fight by bringing home books about caring for animals, lots and lots of animals stories.  It might not have done a single thing for dd, but it brought our her sweet side, and that encouraged me: "It's in there!  Eureka!"  But I think it also allowed her to see her sweet side, even if she never connected it to anything.

 

Looking for ways to connect with dd also kinda sorta helped.  It helped my guilt.  But dd was the type of child that would take all you had and still complain that it wasn't enough.  Perhaps if there was 2 of me..... We cuddled through the night, and that helped.  I think.  :nut

 

I know you are looking for advice within the no-external-carrots-or-sticks idea, but at some point along the way I ran out of patience and doled out some well-connected *punishments* to deal with it.  I'm not *encouraging* you to go there, but I some point I just had to put the brakes on things and let it be known that I was ready for a battle if I had to.

 

So, I would not be opposed to a well-designed bribe.. I mean...reward system in a crisis.  The last time I used it for dd, I explained point blank that this was something of a trick to help her train herself to not break the rules.  I very clearly stated the rules, stated what she did that crossed the line.  The prize was not a toy but an extra rising lesson at the end of a month.  Worked for a bit.  I also mentioned it was temporary.  It was also incorporated some mild sticks in it too.  (Part of the reason it worked for dd1 was that it didn't work at all for dd2, and that eventually forced us to abandon it.)

 

Hopefully other, more patient folks will offer some better suggestions that are more like what you are hoping for.  We still live without bribe systems, and I try to keep any punishments low-key if I have to use them.  

 

Good luck!

 

P. S. You cannot bribe empathy, I don't think.  But at some point, you need to focus on the offending *behavior*.  I tried so hard to appeal to dd's empathy, but in the end I had to simply focus on her feelings and her actions and not expect to transform the way her brain works.


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Old 11-12-2013, 08:38 AM
 
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I did have one additional thought.  Framing the situation from another person's feelings, and trying to get dd1 to visualize how it must feel, never really worked.  It did work better-- sooth feelings, make behavior somewhat better-- to address her feelings.  "Are you angry at your sister?" and start from there.  I definitely still mention others' feelings, but focusing solely on those would be met with protests.  What she was trying to say (and now she's almost 9 she uses her words) is that her feelings do get hurt.  There is not a randomness to her actions and words.  Though she seems callous, she is actually enormously sensitive.  I need to continually remind her that there are lines she cannot cross, regardless.  And that she has my ear.  Hopefully one of these years, empathy can take root, even it is more intellectual rather than deeply emotional.


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Old 11-12-2013, 08:55 PM - Thread Starter
 
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Oh my, are you ever so very smart.  

 

"I tried so hard to appeal to dd's empathy, but in the end I had to simply focus on her feelings and her actions and not expect to transform the way her brain works."

 

Oh, so smart.  I'm still trying to do both. Some days it seems to sink in, others not so much.  It's so hard to figure out how to get through to the way his brain works.

 

"Though she seems callous, she is actually enormously sensitive."

 

Yes, yes!  The typical run-down of events in my house after he accidentally hurts his sister:  I help her, hold her.  Make sure she's okay.  He stands there and smiles.  Or even laughs.  But I can tell it's a nervous laugh.  He does feel badly.  He knows he's supposed to do something, but is too ... stubborn? embarrassed?* to do it.  So I mouth to him, nicely, to help him understand how to react, "Are you okay?" and then it begins.  The screaming, the crying, the fit-throwing.  Because I've told him what to do.  Ohmyword.  "I KNOW!  I KNOW!  STOP TELLING ME WHAT TO DO!" He screams over and over again, stomping and punching the air.  (The same thing happens if I don't do anything at the time of the incident, but attempt to speak to him about hurting her, or his non-reaction, later on.)  This general scenario happens when *anyone* "tells him what to do" in nearly any situation (for example, his Grampy explaining how to hold a golf club).  

 

If you ask him to do something - say, comb his hair.  Brush his teeth.  Help you.  His reaction is to scream and yell and refuse.  When he finally finally does it (oh, I do all I can to "save his dignity" and "let him think he wins," etc.), he refuses to do it until you leave the room.  He can't bear to have you see him do it.  Life is a constant battle of control and power.  We're exhausted.  I'm certain we're doing everything wrong.  We're happy to change, but I can't figure out what "everything right" is.

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Old 11-12-2013, 09:13 PM
 
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Is he old enough to read notes, follow lists for things like brushing teeth, etc?  Then you can walk away?

 

I would not say anything to him at the time of comforting your daughter.  When she is over her emotions and off with a snack or a game, that's when to tell your son that it's OK to be angry at his sister.  It is not easy and you know it.  He can talk to you how angry or annoyed he is, but he cannot cross the line, and he did that today.  Then walk away.  Even that might be too many words.  What you want to do: 1) sooth the victims feelings. 2) Acknowledge your son's feelings 3)  Tell him his actions are what get him in trouble, not the anger.  Ideally, you would coach him, but I think you have a very brief window to work with him.  Then , after a cooling off time, see if you can engage him in a game or a story, or even just sitting next to him watching TV.  

 

If none of this works, consider good-old bribery.  Getting out of bad habits is what this system is best at.  I would not give him toys or anything, but an afternoon out with Mom or Dad without his sister might be just the ticket.  I know this is the what's-in-it-for-him idea, but really isn't that also a major point of treating people well?  Part of the reason we do that is to create a happier environment, and that affects *us* positively.  Our good actions rebound on us.  Even philanthropy gives people an endorphin rush.  It *is* about what we get out of it at a very fundamental level. Recreating a habit, even if it is entirely for selfish and intellectual reasons, can bring us to a place where we can finally notice that there are benefits to acting that way.

 

ETA: I was a hyper-empathetic kid.  This is entirely new for me.  I know no parent personally who is dealing with this, and I'm stuck making it up as I go along.  We don't have so much defiance in connection with it, but there is a great deal of anger.


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