A guest post from Patty Wipfler.
Almost all of us struggle with our children’s aggressive behavior. It comes out of the blue, and once it starts it crops up again and again. What should we do in these difficult, heated moments?
You’ve probably already found that conventional remedies like reasoning, star charts, Time Out, spanking, and enforcing “logical consequences” don’t stop a child’s aggression for long. In fact, the knot of intense feelings that drives your child to lash out can’t be dissolved by any of those tactics.
When your child can think, she loves her friends and siblings. Secure in her connection with you, she can let you know when they irritate her by letting out a cry or running to you, upset and asking for help. But when she’s in the full grip of big feelings, the things you do and say to correct her actions churn like nonsense in her beleaguered mind.
Aggression behavior in children is a sign that your child feels afraid. It is so much easier to help your child once you realize that she lashes out because she is afraid.
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Here are some strategies that can help to drain away the underlying feelings that often cause aggression. Using these will allow you to help your child become more inclusive and flexible in his play with others, including siblings. The process can take time. If you spend time talking about your own feelings with a caring adult who you trust, to offload your own fears and upsets, you’ll speed things along and tame your own intense feelings as you reach for your frightened child.
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- Observe. Under what conditions do your child’s fears lead to aggression? Is it the morning after Mommy goes to her evening class? When there have been arguments at home? When other children crowd her? When she’s left to play with a sibling in a separate room? When a friend comes over to play, and wants one of her toys?You may learn to detect subtle signs that your child’s fears are rumbling. For example, you might notice that just before she bites, pushes, or hits, the expression on her face goes flat, or perhaps her posture stiffens. The better you are at anticipating her difficulties, the better you’ll be at creating strategies that connect the two of you before she erupts.
- Abandon false hopes. We parents sometimes let unrealistic hopes mislead us. Disregard that little voice in your head that says, “Gee, I hope she doesn’t go after Joey before breakfast,” if your daughter has lit into him before breakfast almost every morning for the past two weeks. The odds are, she’ll do it again. Be ready. If your child tends to bite you suddenly during rough and tumble play, be ready. Play so that you keep her head at least an inch from your body at all times. Dart out of the way or provide gentle resistance as she tries to nuzzle in close.
- Make it your job to keep everyone safe. Once you have identified a pattern of aggression, prepare for it by staying close—less than an arm’s distance from your child—in case she lashes out.
You’re going to try to be alert enough to prevent your child’s hand from landing in her friend’s hair, or to intercept a shove meant to deck her sister. For example, if your child tends to push the child in front of her on the ladder of the playground slide, put a hand on her tummy as she climbs up. That way, you can keep her a safe distance from the child in front of her. You can say something like, “I need to keep things safe, so I’m going to slow you down just a bit.”
If your child becomes upset about the gentle, preventative touch you impose, stay and listen while she expresses that upset. When your child feels urgent about having things a certain way, it’s a sure sign that fear is running the show—there are few things in life that truly must be done only one way, or right this minute! She may cry because, in her isolation, you feel like an alien, and you’ve invaded her space. Feeling all alone is what she’s used to when she’s scared, and the feel of your touch brings those feelings to the fore, without anyone getting hurt.
- Talk less. Let your presence communicate both caring and limits. Most adults around an aggressive child will issue lots of warnings. “Now today, no hitting when Isabel wants to play with your train set. Remember, hands are not for hurting!” In truth, your warnings aren’t needed when your child is feeling connected. And they’re useless when she’s not. Save your breath! Instead, do a friendly patrol, and bring those invaluable limits when they’re needed. Let your limits deliver your love.
- Elicit laughter when you can. Connecting with a warm adult in play can be a powerful means of keeping a child’s sense of connection alive. Don’t tickle, but do offer affection, and find ways to take the less powerful role. It’s that sense of fun and closeness that will help your child stay on a good track with her friends and siblings, and make it more likely she’ll ask you for help when she feels upset.
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This guest post is from Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting. The focus of her work since 1974 has been teaching basic listening, parenting, and leadership skills to parents. She has led over 400 residential weekend workshops for families and for leaders of parents in the U.S. and in 23 countries. Copyright © Hand in Hand Parenting, 2017. Follow Hand in Hand Parenting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.