Helping a Violent Child - A Case Study
by Naomi Drew, M.A.
author of Hope and Healing
Sean was a child who taught me more about anger management than any course Id ever taken or book Id ever read. I met Sean about 15 years ago, shortly after my first book, Learning the Skills of Peacemaking was released. Sean was my student. He was 7 years old and a very an interesting child - bright, perceptive, articulate, but he also possessed a quick, explosive temper. Sean would go completely out of control when something triggered his anger. None of the usual things worked with him - consequences, reward systems, phone calls home, time-out; when his impulsive rage kicked in, watch out.
Everything came to a head the day I found Sean out on the playground with another child pinned to the ground, the childs head gripped tightly in his hands, and Sean ready to smash the childs face into the pavement. Heart in my throat I ran over to Sean and yelled for him to stop. The shock of hearing my voice and seeing me suddenly next to him, made Sean let go of the other child before any real damage was done. I feared the next time might be different.
I sent Sean to the principals office where he was reprimanded and his mother called in for a conference, but I knew these measures alone would not solve the problem. On a hunch I decided to sit down with Sean and see if I could get inside his head. Something told me that his own words might hold the clue to a solution. My hunch turned out to be right.
Me: First of all Sean, you need to know that hurting another person is absolutely unacceptable no matter how angry you get.
Sean: (lowering his head) I know. My mother tells me that all the time.
Me: Then why do you still do it? Do you realize that if you were an adult and you did what you were planning to do before, you could have been arrested. Its called assault.
Sean: I cant help myself. I get so angry.
Me: What happens inside of you when you get that angry?
Sean: What do you mean?
Me: How do you feel when you start to lose your temper?
Sean: (thinking hard) Well, its like I have this energy that just wants to come out, and I cant stop . . .
At this point he hesitated and looked down at the ground as though he had more to say but wasnt sure if he should.
Me: What else?
Sean: I cant talk about it. Im too embarrassed.
Me. Look Sean, I want to help you. If youll just be honest with me, maybe well be able to find a way for you to get a handle on this problem.
Sean: (looking down again) Something really bad happens inside me when I get mad.
He started to struggle - looking away, biting his lip, squirming in his seat. Finally he continued -
Sean: Its like I have two parts of me - the good part that knows the right thing to do and . . the other part.
Me: (touching his shoulder) Tell me about the other part.
He screwed up his face.
Me: Its OK Sean. Just tell me. . .
Sean: Its like what my mom told me about the devil. Its like the devil in me takes over, and even though I know what Im supposed to do, I just cant.
He started to cry . I was dumbfounded by the way this seven year old was able to articulate his feelings. He was fully aware of this dichotomy he lived with, and it was tormenting him.
Me: So you feel like when this part of you takes over you have no control.
Sean: (still crying) Right.
Me: Its wonderful that youre able to recognize whats happening inside you. A lot of grown-ups cant even do that. Youve just take the first step in getting a handle on this problem.
Me: Really. We all get angry, Sean. We all have that dark part of ourselves that wants to do doing bad things. Its part of being human. But we dont have to act out the thoughts we think. We can make another choice.
Me: There are a number of things you can do to gain control when you feel angry and thats what Im going to help you with. First, tell me what happens in your body when you feel really mad like you did today.
Sean: In my body, what do you mean?
Me: Well, when I get angry my heart beats faster and my mouth gets dry.
Sean: (Thinking hard again) I guess I feel hot in my face and I feel my hands go like this (he formed a tight fist with both of his hands.)
Me: This is great Sean. Just knowing these things is going to help.
Sean: But how? Im still gonna feel like doing bad things when I get mad.
Me: You might feel like doing bad things , but you dont have to act on the feeling. Theres something you can do instead, at least when youre at school.
Me: You can come to me. The minute you feel your face getting hot, your fists clenching, and that surge of energy you talked about before, say to yourself firmly, Stop! Hold up a big red stop sign in your head. Then run to me as fast as you can and tell me what's going on. I promise , Ill drop what ever Im doing to help.
Sean: But what if youre busy with the other kids?
Me: Come to me anyway.
Sean: And you wont be mad?
Me: Just the opposite. Ill be happy.
Sean: (puzzled) Why?
Me: Because stopping yourself and coming to me is a much better choice than hurting somebody.
Sean: But I thought we were supposed to talk things out when were angry.
Me: Thats down the road Sean. Right now, lets just work on helping you not hurt anyone. Once weve got that handled well work on the talking part.
Sean: (looking perplexed) Im afraid its not gonna work.
Me: Why not?
Sean: What if youre not there?
Me: Ill talk to the recess aides and arrange for you to go to one of them.
Sean: But maybe theyll punish me.
Me: Only if you hurt someone. I promise you, they wont be mad if you ask for help.
Sean: How am I supposed to remember this when Im really mad?
Me: Lets practice right now.
We role played situations that made Sean angry - kids cutting in front of him in line, someone taking the ball away, being teased. We started by acting out several situations - with me playing the other child and Sean playing himself. Then we reversed roles so Sean could feel what it might be like to be on the receiving end his anger. For the first time he realized how terrifying his anger could be to another child.
After that we acted out the same situations in the new way, with Sean telling himself STOP when he got mad, coming to me, and then taking some deep breaths till he felt calmer. I taught Sean how to do abdominal breathing, taking a deep breath in through the nose, expanding his abdomen, holding the breath for a moment, then letting it out slowly through his mouth. We practiced doing this a number of times until Sean looked like he had gotten it.
Our next step was to try this out in the real world. I spoke to Seans mother and told her about our plan. She gratefully agreed to try the same thing at home. Now Sean had a comprehensive support system - at home, at school, and on the playground.
Each morning I would remind Sean of the plan we had agreed to, and let him know how proud I was for his willing to try it out. A few days later we faced our first test. Sean became enraged when another child tried to take the ball away from him during a soccer game. He started lurching forward, but then remembered what we had practiced. Instead of hitting, he ran to me all red-faced and said I feel like I wanna hit him!
Putting my hands on his shoulders and looking him squarely in the eyes I said, But you came to me instead. Good. Now lets take some deep breaths. Together we breathed, and Sean started regaining his composure.
You made a good choice Sean. Im proud of you. How do you feel right now?
I didnt think I could do it, he said, managing a smile.
But you did, I said, and now you know its really possible. This is exactly what you have to do next time. If Im not here, go to Mrs. Sarma. And if youre home, go to your mom. Deal?
Deal, Sean said, his eyes looking bright.
Slowly and steadily Sean managed to get his anger under control. I continuously complimented him on his growing mastery over his anger. Within a few months, he truly turned a corner, seeing that whenever he removed himself from the source of anger, he could regain control and that when he did, he felt better about himself.
Ultimately Sean discovered that it really was possible to work out a problemwithout anyone getting hurt. Learning this changed the direction of his life. The same can be true for any child whos anger appears to be out of control. Trying the techniques I used with Sean with your own child will help him to learn ways he can regain control in the face of his own anger.
Naomi Drew is recognized around the world as an expert on conflict resolution and peacemaking in schools and homes. Hailed as visionary, her work has enabled educators, parents, and people of all ages to live together more cooperatively.
Her work has been recognized by educational leaders throughout the country. People of all ages have attested to durable changes in their relationships after applying the principles Drew outlines. Her work has been featured in magazines, newspapers, radio, and TV and she currently serves as a parenting expert for Classroom Close-ups, a public television show.
She is the author of four books, serves as a consultant to school districts, leads seminars, and runs parenting courses. Her latest book is Hope and Healing: Peaceful Parenting in an Uncertain World. Visit www.learningpeace.com for more information on Naomi Drew and her work.
Copyright © 2002 by Naomi Drew. All rights reserved. Site Map