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The story below of Ryan, a 7-year-old boy with normal aggressive tendencies, is excerpted from my new book, Parent Fatigue Syndrome: What To Do When Conventional Wisdom Is Not Very Wise :

When I met seven-year-old Ryan and his mother, I knew from a prior phone conversation that I would likely be the last therapist they would see, since she and her husband were considering residential placement for their son. Her look of hopelessness as she entered my office broke my heart.

Ryan was an adorable boy, full of chaotic energy. He burst into my playroom and immediately bombarded me with questions. After a few minutes of frantic exploration, he asked if I had any guns he could play with. Not stopping for an answer, he then started to throw the life-size golden-retriever puppet into the air. His mother tried to settle him down to no avail while I began to narrate his experience. I told him that the playroom was a place where he could say and do almost anything, except destroy the toys, or hurt himself, his mother, or me. After a moment of puzzlement, he broke into a mischievous smile and resumed throwing the dogpuppet around the room. To help him, I set the boundaries: I told him that I would let him know if anything he was doing was unacceptable. He acknowledged my instructions with a quick “OK.”

Mom was relieved at this quick rapport with her son, and she opened up to tell me their history. While he continued to whirl around the room, stopping occasionally to forcefully bump into his mother, she told me that her son's obsession with guns and violence was getting him into trouble both at school and home. He intimidated the other children, and was rarely invited for playdates.

Ryan shifted his focus to the “rain stick” propped in a corner, which he quickly transformed into an imaginary gun. Mom stiffened, but I entered the play with him by asking what he would do with the gun. He responded by shooting the retriever puppet, mimicking bullet sounds. Dispassionately, I narrated his story as he killed off several puppets and his mother. Both mother and son seemed surprised that I wasn't distressed by his “acting out.” But my acceptance of his play within the boundaries I had established enabled us to understand without judgment what guns meant to him.

His parents, an older couple, had trouble conceiving and were thrilled to finally have a son. Both had been parented in a conventional “spare the rod, spoil the child” way and were determined to not discipline their child similarly. But as the boy turned three, his normal aggression triggered memories of harsh physical punishment in his parents and left them frozen as to how to react. They tried their best to talk him out of his feelings and squelch his actions, which did nothing but temporarily drive them underground. His behavior became more and more exaggerated; and by the time he reached pre-school, his violent acting out was a dominant theme.

Feeling helpless, these worried parents took their son to his first therapist when he was three. Her method was to work alone with Ryan and spend little time talking to and learning about the parents. Her own worry about Ryan's aggression led her to recommend medication to help with his behavior. This “help” first came in the form of Ritalin, which after a year had not helped at all. Various other anti-psychotic drugs followed over the next few years; they caused many negative side effects but did not eliminate his obsession with violence. By the time Ryan's parents found me, they had been through a four-year journey of frustration and medication, following the advice of experts who told them nothing about the normal developmental milestones of a boy of Ryan's age.

Did you enjoy the story above? Do you have any criticisms? Feedback is so useful. Please feel free to send me an email.

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