10 Year Old with Power Struggles

Ten-year-old male, angry and continually in conflict at school and at home.

John’s favorite pastimes were screen time, computer and television. He responded to attempts to limit his screen time with hostility and anger. He perceived the limitations as a threat and retorted with screams of: “I hate you.”

Likewise, he rejected traditional expectations such as earning privileges through increased responsibilities. Outbursts and emotional breakdowns were frequent; “flipping out” was a daily occurrence. Punishment was reactive, and agreements were momentary.

In John’s case, family and caregivers only recognized outbursts that were obvious. To this end, recognizable communication was louder and larger. Restrictive approaches became excessive. Time limits for screen time and consequences for bad language, aggression, or threats had no effect. Attempts to break the cycle by involving John, reviewing his actions, and planning for change, did not seem to register.

Our first concern was how to break this cycle and positively redefine his mother’s role. We began by eliminating her role as the time monitor. We removed time limits as the schedule for screen time. The agreement changed to identifying television programs and computer games of interest rather than using time to measure programs. Having specific TV and computer programs with definition that were not limited by time reduced the anxiety of running out of time and the format of loss.

With no time limits, the evaluation of program viewing shifted to the content of the shows rather than their length. This may seem insignificant, but if an individual has difficulty grasping general concepts of how the world works, programs are more tangible than time limits. John had to discuss his viewing opportunities with his mother, and together they made decisions about what he would watch. This format allowed mom to reinvent her role as leader of influence and not always be the “warden.”

Discussing the programs as to content engaged conversation about storytelling, and the interactions transitioned to: What was your favorite program today? Why was it your favorite? Were there any you didn’t like? John was tasked with keeping a log himself of what he watched, and the discussions with his mother added opportunities for connections, clarity, and trust.

John spent most of his free time alone. One of our goals was to identify areas where we could build on participation and partnership, especially activities that he and mom could share together and enjoy. For example, monitoring John’s eating had been difficult, so we shifted the focus to eating together. Snacks became a social event. Instead of standard repetitive snacks, every day was different. John and his mother took turns choosing their favorites. Both loved bike riding, so they talked about what kind of practical snacks work on a bike ride. While they were riding, they would discuss the snack that they ate on the ride or would eat when they returned home.

Why are these changes important? At first glance, they may seem obvious. As a starting point, a shared activity has to be favored and desirable for the other person to accept your invitation. You can’t start with an invitation to clean the bathroom! The activity needs to be fun and a shared interest. It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s how you do it! Shared enjoyment. Sharing a popsicle, ice cream, bike ride, or TV show is connecting through its simplicity. Clarity spells out your intentions.

As John’s mother learned to do, take the opportunity to use talk less and demonstrate more. If you are suggesting a bike ride, demonstrate riding a bike. When your partner guesses correctly, you have forged a connection! Connections are built on participation and belonging. Meet your partner where they are, not where you would like them to be. It’s important to start simple. Cementing experience takes practice.