We had been having some difficulties with our 7 year old son through the beginning of the school year. He had just been very angry and...[disrepectful]...In general he seems to have trouble expressing what is bothering him and seems to act out instead. Over the 3 months in which he was not going to school there was a noticeable change in his behavior for the better. My husband and I looked at each other one day and it hit us how well he is doing. Now that he is getting back to in person school part-time we can already see the return of some of that behavior. Don't get me wrong, he likes school and certainly, at least initially, was excited to go back. But we can see the beginning of the returns of that anger, backtalk, and chutzpah that was gone for the last three months. He does well in school both academically and socially but this change does seem to be correlated. I was hoping you could offer some insight as to what might be going on and how to deal with it.
There can be many reasons for anger and defiance in children. Common causes can be social issues, emotional reactions, trauma, medical issues, or related to family problems or modelled behavior by other children.
When a previously content and well-behaved child begins acting out, the first thing to consider is whether something in his life changed. Did something change in school, like the difficulty level or his relationships with his teachers or classmates? Is there something going on at home that may be making him upset? This last may seem that it would make your son more angry at home (and perhaps less so in school). However, sometimes when something bothers a child at home this can lead to separation anxiety. This, in turn, can cause them to act out when leaving the house for extended periods of time.
Usually when children suddenly begin to act out, there is something bothering them. You mentioned that your son seems to have trouble expressing his feelings. This may be due to discomfort about the issue or about generally discussing his emotions. If this is the case, he is less likely to discuss the things that upset him while they are actively bothering him.
We tend to discuss issues when they are obvious. This generally means that we try to speak about problems while the other person is reacting to them. This seems to make sense; we don’t want to rock the boat when things are okay, but when they are not we feel compelled to. However, this is usually counterproductive. When someone is upset, they are not typically in a frame of mind that is conducive to logical discussion about what bothers them. It is when they are not actively troubled by their emotions that these types of discussions can be helpful.
Trauma can be something that is obvious and clear—like abuse. Often, however, someone can be traumatized by something that is not so evident. These are the times when it is important for the person to be introspective in order to understand their emotional reaction.
It is quite possible that your son is consciously unaware of why he feels upset. Even as adults, there are things that bother us without our recognition of the source. When we later consider our emotions, we can usually acknowledge what it was that upset us. Children, however, often do not have the cognitive and emotional maturity to do this. Sometimes, discussing things at an unemotional time can help them to identify what bothers them. Sometimes, a professional can help them to connect logically to their emotions. This is the first step to properly dealing with them.
There are medical issues that can cause behavioral problems. These include thyroid problems, Lyme disease (caused by ticks), PANDAS, and hormonal imbalances. Your son’s physician can help to determine whether there might be a medical cause for his behavior.
Mental health issues can also lead to anger and defiance. For instance, feelings of depression, anxiety, and trouble focusing (as with ADHD) are often related to these behaviors. A mental health professional can help to identify and resolve these.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
Brooklyn, NY | Far Rockaway, NY
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317