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:
- Calmly, confidently set and patiently hold behavioral limits.
- Acknowledge your child’s perspective without judgment.
- Welcome all feelings (this is the gold).
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!
I offer a complete guide to understanding and addressing common behavior issues in my new book:
(Photo by stevegatto2 on Flickr)