elevating child care

The Most Important Thing to Know About Your Child’s Aggression

Children act aggressively to express a variety of feelings that all come under one heading: Discomfort. Understanding this truth is crucial for parents committed to respectful care, because our perceptions of our children’s behavior will always dictate our responses. When we treat an uncomfortable child in need of our help and safety like a bad kid needing scolding, a lesson, or punishment, we create distance, fear, and even more discomfort. And so the cycle continues.

One of many blessings I received over the recent holidays was an insightful update from Helena, a mum in New Zealand, who first contacted me four years ago and allowed me to share her impressions in “Life With Baby: A New Parent’s Struggles and Success”. Here Helena shares how she created safety and emotional release for her “violent” boy by following three steps I recommend:

  1. Calmly, confidently set and patiently hold behavioral limits.
  2. Acknowledge your child’s perspective without judgment.
  3. Welcome all feelings (this is the gold).

Hi Janet,

It has been easily over a year since I last contacted you, sharing some of our parenting struggles and triumphs. I think it may have been when we discussed weaning my son off TV, which, by the way, was eventually a great success. It involved both weaning him of the habit, and encouraging me to be more organised with my time and create more ways to do life with him (rather than have the TV to distract him while I did jobs). He is now approaching 5 years old and his little brother is almost 2. He does watch a bit of TV, maybe one or two times a week. It has become special family time when we watch short movies and talk about them together.

I had the most amazing experience with him yesterday that I really wanted to share with you. It was one of those oh-so-hard-at-the-time moments with the most beautiful reward at the end.

In New Zealand the school/preschool year is winding down. Christmas time is summer for us, so this is when we have our big break. As the school year is ending, he has started to realise there are big changes ahead. Because of age differences, many of his best friends at preschool will not be will be attending the same school as him next year.

I knew that these changes, as well as the general end-of-year activity was really weighing on him. When I picked him up from preschool yesterday afternoon, he was immediately, visibly distressed. It had been the last day for his very best friend, and though he had had a great day playing outside with him, I could tell it was really hurting him.

Not long after we got home he had clearly had enough and couldn’t hold in his sadness and anger any longer.  I had a friend visiting, and his little brother was home, and we were all catching the business end of his mood. He became violent and his language was rude and hurtful.

I began placing myself between him and his brother and (after several deep breaths) saying, “I won’t let you… hurt your brother, throw that train, speak that way, etc.” I acknowledged his frustration with not being allowed to act out.

For a while this worked, and he was able to redirect himself to something else. As time passed, however, his behaviour worsened and his language got rather abusive. So, after telling him I wouldn’t let him use his words to hurt us, and that I would help him by taking him away, we went together to the bathroom, and for many minutes he continued with some very awful language and tried with all his might to hurt me. I continued to firmly stop him from hurting me and explained that I won’t let him go back to his brother while he is still using hurtful words and a rough body. I gave him some options for what to do (we let him get his bad words out as loud as he likes in the bathroom with a closed door) and told him some things he could safely be rough with.

After more minutes passed and what felt like my fair share of abuse, I was beginning to be rather embarrassed as my friend was still in the other room with my younger son, not to mention that I had left a half-prepared tea in the kitchen, school bags un-packed on the floor, and washing to hang out. But I persisted. It was one of those If I really believe that this works moments where I had to stay committed.

Then the magic happened. All of a sudden he stopped. It was as if a switch had been flicked. He went limp (I had still been holding his arms to stop him hitting me), and he looked up at me with soft eyes and said, “I love you mummy,” and then just crumpled into my arms and gave me the most amazing hug. It was truly such a special moment. I knew that he was really struggling with grief and the loss of his friends, and that this was a big burden for him to carry. If I could be calm and resilient, I could be there for him to share all his yucky feelings and assure him that is was OK to feel this way. Seeing it play out like this was priceless and encouraging.

So thank you for your continual encouragement and wisdom with letting our kids feel what they need to feel. This way of parenting is so worth it!

Helena

  I offer a complete guide to understanding and addressing common behavior issues in my new book:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

 

 

(Photo by stevegatto2 on Flickr)

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28 Responses to “The Most Important Thing to Know About Your Child’s Aggression”

  1. avatar Megan says:

    Thank you for this timely article. We have been having some trouble with my 3 1/2 year old in terms of aggression which I think relate to changes happening in the house – I’m pregnant – and him being around new boys at a newer childcare center, who are more physical than his previous nursery school mates. My husband said to me last night “Does Janet Lansbury have a good article on how to deal with a child who just won’t listen and gets angrier and angrier?” I am having him read this tonight! Thank you Janet! I find whenever we are experiencing a troubling time or moment we’re not sure how to react to or need some guidance, I can always find some valuable wisdom in your articles.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Megan! Those are major reasons for discomfort and, therefore, aggression. Do all you can to roll out the red the carpet for him to safely express these feelings. Take good care!

  2. avatar Yasmine says:

    Thank you

  3. avatar John says:

    The behavior that this child showed, where did they learn it? What are the events leading up to this? You may need to go back days or weeks to find out what is at the root of this behavior. In my discussion with Shelly Birger Phillips from awakeparent.com she says,that if your child is having daily tantrums you are missing the warning signs. If you are aware of the warning signs these types of tantrums can be avoided all together.

    • avatar Sonya Lynette Miller says:

      We learn aggression and expressing anger from society. The most aggressive people when in sports, in business, in video games, in sales….You do not have to learn this at home. Our society rewards the aggressive; this slowly teaches us at an early age the more aggressive the more “successful” you will be and that being aggressive is what fuels us to get homes, cars, mates, more money, etc..

      • avatar Kim says:

        I’m not sure where aggression is learned! My son showed signs of aggression as early as 6 months. He’d get easily upset out of the blue (in pain?) scrunch up his face, clench his fists and yell. It scares me! He continues to do this now (even though he’s 2.5 years and very verbal). I feel like he has a lot of cortisol coarsing thorough his body that he cannot control. He hits others and tantrums easily. I can’t pinpoint what his triggers are because it’s always something different.

        • avatar Tracy says:

          Your comment is very familiar… my son was the same when little. Have you had him tested for sensory processing disorder? Kids with SPD are kind of like a glass that is full almost to the brim all the time (because of constant sensory overload or trying to process everything in their environment), & it takes very little to make them spill over. The earlier you can get him occupational therapy the better, if he does have it.

    • avatar Anna says:

      I don’t think aggression is learned, I think it is instinctual. It is the “fight or flight” response which was essential for survival back in the cavemen type day if you are confronted by a bear or something. But in today’s world it is not helpful because our “emergencies” are not being attacked by a bear (for example). When children get mad/upset/frustrated it triggers the “fight or flight” response which can cause anger and aggression. They need our help to learn how to deal with these feelings in a different way.

  4. avatar PS says:

    I’ve got a son that will be 2 1/2 in a couple weeks. Just before Christmas, he picked up a stutter that he never displayed previously. It’s not constant, with some days little occurring, and others having it show up often.

    I’m not concerned about stuttering alone, because it seems fairly normal for kids 2-5. However, corresponding with the stuttering, he’s started to misbehave at daycare. Before, he was on the receiving end of kids acting out at daycare. Now, he’s hitting, spitting, kicking and not listening. He’s normally such a fun and sweet kid, so it makes me think they’re related, considering they started around the same time.

    My son likes going to day care, but they’ve had staff turnover in the last six months or so. Combine that with him having 7-month old sister, and his world has changed a lot since just before he turned 2.

    Anyone else run into aggression and stuttering starting together? My son has always been a lively, fast-paced kid, so it makes me think he’s just growing up and can’t express himself as quickly as he’d like.

    • avatar Kristin says:

      PS, We went through exactly this with my son, who I would describe similarly. He had two stuttering episodes that lasted a few weeks each and caused him a lot of frustration. We just continued to talk to him as we always did, tried not to interrupt or finish his sentences, and soon he was back to his very verbal self. My son has also displayed aggression related to his younger sister, so I would imagine your son is doubly frustrated. That must be so hard, wishing you all the best! 🙂

    • avatar janet says:

      The transition to accepting a new sibling is one of the most stressful early childhood experiences, so his behavior makes sense. The staff turnover is also quite stressful. Aggression and stuttering are both symptoms of stress so, again, this all sounds normal. I would be very careful not to scold or shame him for his impulsive behavior and, instead, calmly stop him when he’s out of line, while welcoming the feelings: “You feel like hitting. I will stop you.” My books, articles and podcasts are geared toward helping parents understand limit-pushing behavior and responding effectively. So, please have a lot around, and thank you for sharing with me.

  5. avatar Karen Louise says:

    our son is nearly 7 and has been having issues with stress, frustration and anger. At school he’s not too bad other than getting upset over certain things, but at home he can get so angry and frustrated, he needs an outlet and often pushes and bangs furniture. I’ve tried talking to him but he doesn’t want to know. At the weekend I gave him a note book and told him it was his book and when he felt frustrated/angry he could draw/write in the book. I explained that th book isn’t for mum or dad to look at – just him. That night he started drawing pictures of things that make him happy, he has chosen to share the book with us and has shown us all the things he has done.

    So he has chosen to use the book differently to how I thought but that’s fine, if it works for him. It’s very early days with it and I know this may not work for younger children but I’m hoping this will allow him to vent his frustration.

    • avatar janet says:

      I’m glad the notebook is helping. I recommend more listening and less (or no) talking. When we talk in these situations it’s usually an attempt to talk children out of their feelings, which means those feelings will not be expressed.

  6. avatar Wendy says:

    My son is just 2 & since he was 18 months he has had a rough/aggressive streak. Being that he’s so young, it’s hard to pinpoint why he’s acting out. Most of the time his incidences look like a little playful rough-housing gone too far. I would like to check out your book – honestly the only way we’ve been able to avoid incident is when we prep him before social interactions with essentially a bribe. We tell him if he can play nicely without hitting, pushing, or pinching he will get a treat. This strategy – which in one hand feels desperate & in another hand I can rationalize that all of life is about rewards – works approximately 95% of the time. Conversely, if we don’t specifically prep him with the reward talk before an outing he will 95% of the time get into trouble. Ideally, I would want “playing nicely” to be its own reward in and of itself because it feels good to play nicely with others. But most importantly right now, I want to make sure that he doesn’t assault anyone for his & everyone else’s sake! I’ve also found that if my son does assault another child and doesn’t receive some kind of punishment, then I get chastised as a parent…

    • avatar Parent says:

      Just to be clear… the definition of assault is a violent attack. That’s not what your child is doing. We need to be careful with the language we use. I once had someone describe my 2 year old son as a bully because he pushed a child once.

  7. avatar Wendy says:

    Am I on some slippery slope with the reward strategy? We are trying to keep a very respectful, open & honest dialogue with our son. When he gets excited about getting a “cookie” we say “yep, when we play nicely with our friends good things come to us!” Which I think is true, if he continues playing nicely into adulthood he’ll have good friends. Whereas, if he doesn’t play nicely he won’t have any friends. I don’t know! What do the experts have to say?

  8. avatar Vivien says:

    I had the same exact experience with my daughter. After my (now 6 month old) son was born, she started being more aggressive and angry than I’ve ever seen her. One night she was so mad at me and I encouraged her to just let it all out on me. She stormed and raged and eventually she collapsed on top of me and said I love you. Poor things, they have no idea how to handle these strong emotions (most adults have no idea, either!). I need to remember that experience and make sure my daughter knows that she is safe with her feelings.

  9. avatar Nancy Smithfield says:

    Hi Janet,

    I have a 19-month-old child on the opposite end of this spectrum, and am wondering what to do when other children are aggressive toward her. I have a dear friend who’s son (just turned two) is very aggressive, a toy taker, pusher, kicker, etc. My friend, when she sees him do these things, always steps in with, in my opinion, the right response. She even says “I won’t let you hit.” My problem isn’t her son, really, because I can’t control his behavior, and from reading your blog I understand that he is just figuring out how to interact. My issue is what to do about my sweet, sensitive daughter. She immediately starts to cry, lays her head down, and sometimes asks me to pick her up. It of course breaks my heart and I just don’t know what to do to help her. Any advice?

  10. avatar Amy says:

    Hi Janet,

    I just got on your website to search for information as this is the exact problem I am having. I am in Australia so my son has just started his first year of school. He will be 5 in April.

    He began silly, cheeky behaviour at kindergarten in the last few months of his time there. Now he is at school his silliness has continued. He speaks when the teacher is talking, disrupts the other children and has trouble keeping his hands to himself. He has been at school 5 weeks.

    At home he has trouble focusing when I try to talk to him or ask him to do things (like get dressed). He just laughs and moves away to play and be more silly. His tantrums have been very violent, rude and upsetting. I don’t know how to help him with anxiety he may be feeling about school to prevent the tantrums. I don’t think a notebook will work (as mentioned above) as he doesn’t love drawing at the best of times.

    He is normally a very confident and friendly boy who communicates well. If anyone can offer any advice I would be most grateful.

  11. avatar Carmelite says:

    I’m having a lot of trouble recently with the way my 4 year old (5 in a few months) son is behaving towards my mother, his grandmother. My son had his fair share of rough toddler years punctuated by defiance and emotional outbursts, but he has been such a calm, cheerful, and cooperative kid for awhile now with everyone except for my mother. I am a single mother, for the most part (my son spends a couple of afternoons a week with his Dad), and a nursing student. My mother lives with me and helps me take care of my son, which is the only way that I am able to get through school. She takes him to preschool in the mornings on the days when I have class or clinical, and also watches him sometimes when imam overloaded with homework. The situation is complicated by the fact that my mother has an autoimmune disease that she was diagnosed with 2 years ago. There is some muscle atrophy and permanent neurological damage that makes it difficult for her to move sometimes. She can walk, and drive, and carry bags and such, but her balance is weak and she tires very quickly. She doesn’t have the strength to pick up my son, who is pretty small for his age. She is only in her early 60’s, so this is all pretty difficult for her to cope with.

    Recently, my son had begun telling my mother that she smells bad, and has become phobic of her touching him, his food, or even things he might be holding, like a paper towel. The smell issue is clearly not the primary concern. My mother doesnt smell in any way that any of the rest of us can discern, and even if he is picking up some subtle odor that we are missing, her smell certainly hasn’t changed recently and she certainly can’t cobtaminat food with an odor simply by touching it. At first my mother became self conscious when my son said these things to her. She is already self conscious about recently having become disabled, and she has expressed worry to me that my son won’t think she is fun since she can’t play games and run around with him. When he told her she smelled she started trying to accommodate his concern by not touching his food, and letting him help to make breakfast. This entailed complicated routines that incolved using napkins and utensils to move food around. Biggest routines were punctuated by periodic meltdowns when he thought she might have touched something.
    Personally, this all seemed crazy to me. I have been encouraging my Mom to just tell him that she understands he doesn’t want her to touch his food, clothes, etc., but that he is too young to do all of these things on his own and that she is going to help him. I told her to tell him that the food is safe for him to eat, even if he might feel scared, but not to force him to eat. Jus matter of factly put the food on the table, acknowledge his emotions if there’s an outburst, and let him slip breakfast if that’s what he chooses. She is trying to follow that advice, and I think th food issue is getting better.
    The other issue, though, is that he is really rude to her sometimes. Tonight she wa trying to get him anthem while I was finishing homework in the kitchen and I heard him call her “stupid” and a “penis”. He also told her to shut up at one point. A few nights ago he pushed her, and he has thrown pillows at her. He never does this to anyone else. If he acted that way towards me (he did sometimes when he was 2-3 years old), I would generally follow your advice of allowing emotions but not allowing behavior such as hitting. My mother, though, can’t really catch his hands and hold him, or prevent him from escaping. She simply doesn’t have the coordination or strength to physically restrain him. What can she do?

    In general, what can adults who are disabled or injured do to cope with outbursts of violence and name calling from children?

  12. avatar Rae says:

    I just came across this article and I’m in awe of how this mom handled this seemingly frustrating and embarrassing behavior from her son.

    My situation is a little different. I’m the mom (first timer) to twin 3.5yr old girls. I have one who has been displaying melt downs and I like to call them, since she was 2yr or so. I didn’t notice them at first but we had a flood in our home a few months after their second birthday and it caused us to have to leave our home for four months and live in a hotel. It continued after we moved back into the house. Then that September the girls started a new preschool program.

    It hit me that she doesn’t handle change good. She’s sensitive to anything and everything around the time of the change. I have a very stressful lift… marriage issues and stressful job. I’m wondering now if she can sense all of that in me?

    I have tried so hard to positively parent her during these episodes, but my husband says ignore her and she’ll stop. I can’t do that. She’ll punch me, kick me, yell at me, etc, but I always let her know that I’m here for her but I won’t let her hurt me, herself or others in the family. Then there are times I just can’t take it anymore leave the room in pure frustration. And well… feeling like a complete failure and jerk.

    How can I pinpoint what’s causing all this in her? Her twin in the exact opposite. Very caring, nurturing, and all around well rounded. However, I fear that she may be suppressing emotions at times? Can she do that at this young age?

    Thanks for listening.

  13. avatar Lelichka says:

    Dear Janet,

    While I am practicing RIE and love all of your articles, after reading this post a thought came to my mind:

    Are there any examples or studies showing what adults these RIE kids grow up to be? Are they still expressing their feelings so violently and think they can say whatever hurtful words they want to say and expect another person to just accept it? And then they can say that they love that person and everything is “fine”…
    It’s important to me because my husband (he wasn’t raised RIE way) is very explosive. He yells, says hurtful words, becomes really mad and after 5 minutes he is fine like nothing happened and gives hugs. I cannot easily let go, his behavior really hurts my feelings and I hate being yelled at.
    I just don’t want my daughter to be the same as him, I understand that at this point she is immature to express her feelings in a calm way, so she yells and tantrums (she is 3). But I can’t imagine her yelling at me when she is 10 for example, I am afraid I won’t be that patient.
    Thank you!

    • avatar Claire says:

      I have wondered this too.

      In our family, my 3 year old son gets very physical with my 1 year old daughter, any time he is upset with anything or anyone. She is the one who gets the brunt of his anger (obviously I get why – he was the only child who now has a new sibling rock his whole world).

      The problem is, he is very large and strong for his age, and she is particularly small. I worry for her safety, and also for the message we’re sending her. We make boundaries extremely clear, but they are continuously broken and we are continuously removing him or her from the situation and giving him a chance to become calm or let the emotions out. I worry that if my daughter does not see “punishment” for this behaviour, she will think its ok for someone to be abusive to her. (Also, she is becoming more aggressive and reactionary herself in response).

      Unless we literally keep them in separate rooms at all times, or keep our bodies between theirs at all time, we can’t always physically prevent the hitting, pushing, until it’s too late. All we can do is restate the boundary. Is this enough?

    • avatar janet says:

      When children feel completely comfortable, the aggression disappears. Here are some stories I’ve shared about the results of the RIE parenting approach: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/12/parenting-a-healthier-generation/

      You might also appreciate this letter from my daughter: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/03/trust-your-baby-it-works-a-note-from-my-daughter/

      And here’s a post about stress: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/10/10-secrets-to-raising-less-stressed-kids-2/

      This might also interest you, because I share about my intense first daughter: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2015/03/confessions-of-a-pushover-parent/

  14. avatar Laura says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this story. I could feel it happening as I read.

    Sharing!

  15. avatar Steph says:

    This is so timely as we are experiencing a lot of anger and aggressive behavior from our 5 year-old. We are away visiting family (that he sees once a year, unfamiliar places, and he struggles with all sorts of transitions or changes). But what can I do if those moments of aggression happen when we’re in the car therefore I can intervene like this mom did?

  16. avatar Erin says:

    Hi everyone,

    I have been having some real issues with my 5 year old Daughter for some time now. She is very aggressive, angry and lately been very defiant. Her Dad and I have been apart since she was 1.5 years. One of the worst mistakes that I made in the split up with her Father was that I agreed to shared (50-50) custody. I was in a low, vulnerable state and I gave in when I should have fought for it. I believe that still to this day, she has a hard time with the schedule that we have. I feel like she is hurting and angry inside and she is taking it out on others. I have tried talking with her but she won’t open up.

    She had aggression issues (hitting, kicking, biting) in daycare, then again when she started Kindergarten (very hands on but getting a bit better with then help of the Teachers) and now that she is in summer camp, she is being very aggressive again….to the point where they are tired of it. She screams at the top of her lungs when she is angry, even hits me at times. I have tried so hard to understand why she may be angry and help her work through it. I can only control what happens when she is with me. Her Dad is a pretty selfish and angry person at times. He has no patience and very little empathy. He sees people who show emotion, as being ‘dramatic’.

    I feel like a failure as a Mom. Like I have failed my child. I’m at a loss on what to do. Children’s counseling?

    I’m seen the effects of an angry child, when they grow up. My sister was an angry child and took to alcohol to cope. I don’t want that for my little one!

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