I’m 38 and have a son of nine and a daughter of seven. I’m happily married, comfortably off – everything is rosy. The problem is my son’s anger or, rather, how he deals with it. He is intelligent, funny and very loving. He has always been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster since the toddler years. But what seemed normal in a three-year-old is increasingly worrying as he gets older.
The basic pattern is a few months to a year of normal behaviour followed by a gradual build up of anger/frustration/temper. Triggers can be the tiniest things and his reactions can be extreme. These periods have generally lasted roughly one to three months before things calm down again. He can say “I’m going to kill myself”, which I find particularly upsetting.
My husband and I have tried various responses. At one point, dyspraxia was suggested, but while he shows some of the symptoms he is great at maths, has a good attention span, reads voraciously and is almost a black belt. He is very resistant to the idea of talking about what’s happened. I also sometimes feel that he uses anger as a way to avoid feeling other negative emotions such as sadness or shame.
His younger sister is very able and has the sunniest of dispositions. Although I love my son immensely and feel the two of us are very similar, I sometimes feel like our lives would be perfect and happy apart from this situation that he is “causing”.
My more pressing, short-term worry is that this summer we are taking a year out to travel the world. My hope is that the lack of structure and more relaxed pace and time will help him to feel calm and secure. My fear is that the daily lack of consistency in our routine and of any other people to break up the family dynamic will make the situation worse not better, for all of us.
My first impression from your longer letter was that you really care what people think. I wonder if it’s making you put a lid on things at times? Family life, emotions, love, parenting, can be messy and not always how you think it’s going to be. I got the idea that there was a collective holding of breath in your family and it is your son who exhales at regular intervals.
Sarah Sutton (childpsychotherapy.org.uk) – a parent, child and adolescent psychotherapist – thought your drive to “keep things happy may mean there are a lot of strong feelings that have to be pushed out of sight”.
The problem is that, eventually, these feelings have to burst out.
“The outburst,” explains Sutton, “can feel out of proportion, but it has actually built up over time.”
Your daughter sounds as if she is coping by “being sunny and looking on the bright side, but your son may have a particular sensitivity to emotional states and sometimes this means a child becomes a kind of lightning conductor for difficult feelings.”
You mention dyspraxia in passing, but I would like you to have another look at that. Dyspraxic children can be very good at complex things but really struggle with other, simpler aspects of life. Do have a look at a column I wrote last year about a child with dyspraxia (she was, in fact, later diagnosed).
There is very little about your husband’s relationship with your son – and we thought that was really important. You are right, the suicide mention is a “real red flag” as Sutton puts it. You all need support. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a psychotherapist, it could be someone at school/a mentor in school. You mention brief contact with professionals but not what the outcome was. This sounds like it needs committed intervention. Don’t be afraid, please, to ask for help. There is no shame in it. If you do decide to go down the private child psychotherapist route, do look for someone via the website I mentioned at the start.
I asked Sutton what you could do in the heat of the moment, when your son was having an outburst. She says it is really important to ask “what could he be telling us?” and to name his feelings. Not try to pacify him but say something like, “You’re absolutely furious right now.”
“It’s such a relief for children,” explains Sutton, “when it’s OK to feel the full range of emotional states: love, hate, disappointment, contentment etc. What if feelings in themselves were not right or wrong, but a response to the situation someone finds themselves in?”
Part of a parent’s job is to help children regulate their feelings, by allowing them. By, however unintentionally, making your son feel that any of his feelings are shameful or wrong, he will then have to contend with not only the feeling (the outbursts) but also the shame attached to them. “Shame is a toxic emotion,” explains Sutton. “No one can manage too much of it, and in a desperate attempt to survive it we can find ways of getting rid of it on to other people.”
You need to get support to help you cope with your feelings. Your son needs somewhere safe where he can be himself. Emotions within your family need to be allowed to be expressed as a natural reaction. I would counsel against a trip around the world and start exploring things very much closer to home.
This column first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 9 July 2016.