“In the past few weeks, our three-year-old has become increasingly aggressive towards his one-year-old brother and us. He constantly wants our attention, and when he doesn’t get it, he does something aggressive or too rough. He receives a lot of one-on-one attention from both his father and me daily. When this happens we calmly tell him we can’t let him hit, throw, etc. until the behavior stops. Lately, it doesn’t stop, and we have to bring him to another room so his brother does not get hurt. This is when we give him the opportunity to share feelings etc. After he calms down, we talk about our rule of not hurting any people, animals or things in the house. Honestly, we feel like he is being aggressive to get our attention. How do we set firm limits and boundaries without it being used by our son as a way to get more attention?”
All attention isn’t equal
It can be difficult to understand why our children seem to keep seeking attention in negative ways when we are giving them plenty of positive attention. I give, give, give to my child and yet… she still won’t let me go to bathroom in peace. How unfair is that!
Very. And this is one reason you won’t see me echoing the advice commonly shared to “fill your child’s cup” (or bucket, etc.). For me, it’s misleading to imply that if we give children a measurable amount of our attention we can prevent their challenging behavior. Like all of us, children’s attention needs are more layered and nuanced than that. They can’t be generalized, accumulated, or scheduled.
The right kind of attention
Every interaction we have with our children sends messages about their relationship with us and themselves. In the moments we’re giving our children what most consider positive attention, such as being fully present while they play, enjoying an outing together, reading books or just hanging out, we communicate messages like: You are pleasant to be with… I love you just as you are… You are fun, entertaining, interesting, capable… You have good ideas.
But when our children behave in challenging and/or unpleasant ways, they are often impulsively (and mostly unconsciously) seeking another kind of affirmation from us: assurance, acceptance, a sense of security, and strength in our leadership. Even if it feels messy to us in the moment (screaming, fighting us, resisting, persisting), the message of acceptance from us is a positive one. Nothing could be more comforting and powerfully healing than feeling accepted by our loved ones when we are at our worst.
In the situation this parent describes, the messages their child is seeking might sound something like: You are safe with us, even when you feel like lashing out… Don’t worry, we won’t let you hurt or upset us… We are here to help when you are out of control… Your feelings and impulses are acceptable to us… We see the discomfort behind your behavior… It is normal to have the impulse to hit and throw stuff when you are overwhelmed.
So, how do we do this?
The way this might look in practice would not be too different from what these parents are already doing. They are being respectful and non-punitive, and they’re even empathizing with their toddler’s experience. There are just a few tweaks I’d make to ensure he clearly receives the messages he needs to be able to fully exhale, feel more secure and less unsettled. His relief will be reflected in calmer, less challenging behavior.
“When this happens we calmly tell him we can’t let him hit, throw, etc. until the behavior stops.”
1) Show (right away) instead of tell
Physically limit the behavior while accepting and acknowledging the feelings or desires. While confidently blocking (not overreacting or overdoing it), we might say, “You want to hit your brother. I’m here to stop you. I see you really feel like lashing out.” And then maybe, “That’s a scary feeling, isn’t it? I’ll always try to be here to keep you safe.” Subtext: I’m on your side. It’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling.
2) Don’t repeat or reiterate rules
While their behavior is driven by impulses, on some level children are usually aware when they are outright breaking rules or not doing what we wish. In other words, they already got the memo and know better, but can unwittingly find themselves venturing to the dark side anyway. Yet our instinct in these situations is often to repeat or rephrase the rules. (They must not have heard or understood the first time!) One problem with that approach is that it is difficult to stay calm when are repeating ourselves to no avail. Naturally, our frustration mounts and gives our children’s behavior power and negative attention. The message our children really need is not a reiteration of the rules, but our acceptance of their immature, human impulse to break them.
3) Learn the most helpful way to genuinely acknowledge
Our intention in acknowledging our child’s feelings can’t be to fix or otherwise put an end to the behavior in the moment. Our purpose must be to connect and actually encourage our children to feel what they feel, to demonstrate to them that their desire to hit and throw stuff is, in fact, okay with us, although acting on it is not (a message we teach by blocking those actions from happening). Ideally, we’ll be coming from a place of understanding that we all have dark feelings, and when we are stressed or overwhelmed, we might act on them, even as adults.
Young children are generally far more sensitive and emotionally turbulent than adults, and they have not developed an adult level of self-control. Therefore, their threshold for acting on their feelings is much, much lower. If we judge and forbid these impulses (which are, again, beyond their control), our invalidation creates even more stress, resulting in even more impulsive behavior. Seeing and accepting these impulses creates the emotional release that eases the negative behavior cycle. We’ve successfully addressed the cause of our child’s behavior rather than forbidding or combating the symptoms.
“Lately, it doesn’t stop, and we have to bring him to another room so his brother does not get hurt. This is when we give him the opportunity to share feelings etc. After he calms down, we talk about our rule of not hurting any people, animals or things in the house.”
4) Normalize impulsive behavior rather than giving it special attention
Take the least possible action to block the hitting or throwing, and make this look as easy and uneventful as possible. Bringing a child to another room to cool down and then extending this session further by reiterating rules and lessons gives an abundance of unnecessary attention to these typical sibling behaviors (more on that HERE). That is exactly the kind of attention that children don’t need, a drawn-out story about what they did wrong. So, whenever possible, it’s best to stay where we are, calmly blocking the action while providing a brief message of acceptance and safety to our children. If they have feelings to share, they will.
Our own thoughts might run to forgiving, letting go, moving on, recommitting ourselves to using our energy to give children the messages that bring them comfort and us closer.
I share more in my book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame