“My 9-year-old son, Zachary, gets violent, and he rages,” says Christine. “He’s hit me several times in the arms, the face. One time, he back-handed me and it hit me right in my jaw. He kicks, breaks things, thrashes uncontrollably. It’s like watching someone have a seizure.”
“He’ll grab stuff in the room and just tear it apart,” adds her husband, Ron.
Christine says Zachary has a history of abusive behavior toward animals. “It started off with our goldfish. He wanted to squeeze it, so he could flush it down the toilet. He put this kitten inside a pillowcase and zipped it. He threw it or stepped on it and broke its neck. I saw him push a puppy off the balcony. It’s overwhelming, if you can imagine, day in and day out for years on end.”
“It happens more with his mom than it does me,” Ron reveals.
[AD]”Something’s got to give, and it’s got to happen quickly,” Christine says. She believes her husband blames her for their son’s behavior. “He feels that I am too forceful verbally, and it’s increasing his behavior, which I don’t see. He’ll say, â€˜What did you do to set him off? It’s your attitude that probably causes all of this stuff.'”
“Chris has gone over the boundaries,” Ron says. “She overreacts and gets too much in his face.”
Christine says she’s tried time-outs and spankings, but nothing seems to curb Zachary’s meltdowns. She has also taken the tween to more than eight doctors, but no one seems to understand where his anger stems from. “My biggest fear is either Zachary hurting himself or someone else.”
“When you see the behavior that you see on the outside with him, can you imagine what he must be feeling inside?” Dr. Phil asks the couple.
“All the time,” Ron replies. He pauses to wipe away tears. “It’s got to be horrible. It’s got to be hard for him.”
“What do you want for him?” Dr. Phil asks the distraught dad.
“I just want him to have a chance to succeed in life.”
“Do you really think that [Christine’s] to blame for this?”
“Some of the parenting tools she uses, I think, add to a lot of his behavioral issues. Sometimes she’s hit him across the chin, or lashes out and screams at him a lot, and it seems to just amplify his anger,” Ron replies.
“We were raised differently. I don’t feel that I’m increasing his behavior. I’m more firm and strict, and I discipline the way I was raised,” Christine adds. “We’re not on the same page.”
[AD]Dr. Phil assures the parents that they did not cause Zachary’s behavior. “Can you do things that make it worse, exacerbate it, irritate it, accelerate it? No doubt about it. We do know that there are factors that can cause aggressive behavior to continue and to escalate,” he explains. “That’s good news, by the way. There are some things we can do to put on a to-do list to improve this situation.”
Christine remains skeptical. “Nothing’s worked,” she tells Dr. Phil. “It’s getting worse. He’s getting bigger and older. Now he’s hitting me.”
Watch a video that Christine shot of Zachary in a full-blown rage as he chases the family cat.
Dr. Phil points out several red flags in the video. “I am a huge and outspoken animal advocate, and I just learned, today, that you still have two cats and a dog in the house,” he notes. “That can’t happen. The pets need to be removed from the house.”
The parents agree to remove the animals temporarily until the situation is under control.
Dr. Phil introduces Dr. Alan Kazdin, professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University. He is also the author of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child and a member of the Dr. Phil Advisory Board.
“This situation is not nearly as hopeless or desperate as it might feel to parents who are stuck in the day-to-day grind, true?” Dr. Phil asks.
[AD]”Absolutely true,” Dr. Kazdin replies. “There are very effective treatments now that have come up in the last 20 years.” He tells the parents that it’s not so much what happens during the tantrums as what happens in between that gives them opportunities to correct the behavior.
Learn what to do when your child’s tantrum becomes violent.
“What do you hear him saying about this?” Dr. Phil asks the couple.
“That we’re not doing the right thing when he’s having the tantrum,” Christine replies.
“You’re rewarding bad behavior. His currency is your attention,” Dr. Phil points out. “If you went away, who’s he performing for now?”
“I will walk away from these tantrums, I will ignore him totally, and he will follow me down the hallway,” Christine says. “He continues the behavior, and gets louder, and more aggressive and more violent.”
Dr. Kazdin explains how the parents can “practice tantrums” with Zachary.
Dr. Phil offers to send Zachary to the Lawlis Peavy PNP Center in Dallas, Texas, for a thorough diagnostic test. Dr. Kazdin has agreed to conduct web sessions with the family to help them implement his discipline strategies.
“That’s exactly what we need,” Christine says.