Recognizing the Cause of Disruptive, Aggressive Behavior

In this episode: A parent writes that her 3-year-old has been having difficulties in play school — hitting other kids, screaming, and not listening to the teacher. The behavior often continues at home, and this mom admits she “can’t manage to stay calm every time, so sometimes I yell too.” Her primary concern is that her boy won’t be accepted in playschool, and she’s looking for some advice how to address his behavior.

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be responding to an email from the parent of a three-year old boy and a four-month old girl. She says that her son is hitting other kids at playschool, screaming, and generally causing a ruckus. She’s afraid that he’s going to be kicked out of the playschool, and so she’s looking for advice for dealing with her son’s behavior.

Here’s the message I received:

“Dear Janet, I am the mother of two wonderful kids, a boy who is three and a girl who is four months old. I would like to ask your advice regarding my son’s behavior. He is hitting other kids in playschool, screaming, not listening to the teacher and disturbing the class. He’s a strong little man, so the kids are crying when they’re hit. Also, he hits me at home sometimes if he doesn’t get what he wants or if I ask him to do something, as well as screaming as loud as he can when, for example, he has a fall and I’m trying to help. I can’t manage to stay calm every time, so sometimes I yell too. I put him on timeout, but he never obeys. He only listens to his father when he puts him in timeout. I’m afraid my boy won’t be accepted in the playschool anymore. I would really appreciate your advice.”

Okay, so I thought this would be a good one to cover because it reflects a common misjudgment that we make as parents. I believe we even do this with ourselves. We have a feeling about something. We feel really uncomfortable and out of control over something, and we just want the feeling to go away. We just want to make it go away. So we might stuff it with substances or food, and avoid the feeling. Escape from it, just get it away.

This little boy sounds very, very unsettled. When children behave in this manner, when they are hurting other children or lashing out, it’s a sign that they can’t contain their feelings. They’re communicating their distress. They’re putting it out there, as children do.

So we aren’t going to be successful at helping our child with this behavior if we’re just looking at it as a problem in itself that we have to fix — the behavior. We’re just trying to manage the behavior: just stop acting like this. Maybe if we punish him he’ll stop. Timeout, yelling at him because, come on, just stop. Stop acting like this, stop feeling like that.

He can’t, because young children actually are very healthy in the way that they vent. They don’t usually hold on to the feelings at this young age. They are really good at processing them out, and that’s healthy for them to do.

So whenever children are behaving in these challenging ways, we have to look at what’s going on. Why is this happening? What is the cause for this behavior? We can’t be successful just addressing the behavior itself and getting it to stop.

There can be a lot of reasons that children are dysregulated like this. A very, very common one, sounds like it’s at least part of this situation if not the main part, is that there’s a new baby. That is extremely uncomfortable for most children.

I believe it’s in Siblings Without Rivalry where they use the classic example of what this feels like. Imagine that your spouse came home one day, or maybe they were even telling you in advance that this exciting thing was going to happen. They bring home a new young wife or husband, as the case may be, and they say, “Hey, I still love you just as much, if not more, but now we’ve got him or her here, too. I love them as well. Let’s just all love each other and live together. Come on, isn’t it great? She’s cute, or he’s cute.”

We don’t understand how unsettling this can be for children.

But this could happen to a family for other reasons as well, and that’s why I thought it was a good example, because I’ve actually covered the situation in a lot of my podcasts and my posts and in my book, No Bad Kids. I’ve covered the difficulties of this transition. But this result could be caused by other transitions as well, other forms of stress that a child is taking on. All we know for sure is that there’s something going on when a child acts like, particularly acts like this outside the home.

The classic scenario is that a child rises to the occasion outside the home, at school, when they don’t have the parents there. Then when they come home, they release stress through this kind of limit-pushing behavior. But in this case, these feelings are bleeding out into other situations. The way we can help with that is in our homework, in the way that we handle it at home.

So this mother says that she sometimes has the experience where her son hits her when he doesn’t get what he wants, or when she asks him to do something, as well as screaming as loud as he can when, for example, “He has a fall and I’m trying to help.” So those are examples of venting. Screaming is actually, for a child this age, it’s actually a very healthy form of venting.

So I would try to shift your perspective to perceiving the screams as not a problem, not a fire that we have to put out, but actually the release, the healing that he’s needing. Falling down or getting hurt is helping him to vent that. It doesn’t mean that he’s terribly hurt, it means that he’s tapped into this feeling that he really needs to vent and he’s blasting it out there.

So as hard as this can be for us as parents, and it’s probably the most challenging thing to see our children’s expressions of uncomfortable feelings as so, so positive, that’s what’s going to help him to feel safe. Sharing this, venting this with the people he really needs to vent it with — the mother that betrayed him by having another baby that she loves. That’s who he needs to scream to.

It’s different from screaming at, that it’s your fault. It’s screaming to.

He’s sharing with you. He’s taking off all the layers and showing you his heart right there, and there’s distress. But the more he can express it, the better he’ll feel and the calmer he’ll be, particularly if we can get this message and be okay with it, be comfortable with it. See it as positive, see it as the cure not the problem.

So the screams are golden opportunities for us to welcome the feelings, which doesn’t mean we let him run up and scream in our ear, we don’t let him take it out on us, but we want him to vent that, we want him to scream.

Now the hitting is a lashing out of the feelings and, obviously, we’re going to stop that with our hands as much as possible. But even then, if we could sometimes, not all the time, it’s not going to be possible, we’re human, but if we could see those feelings and accept the feeling of wanting to hit me, not judging him for having that feeling, which is the same as the scream, it’s venting. It’s just seeping out of him.

So if we can say, “Ah, I see, you really want to hit. I see that,” while we’re blocking it comfortably, easily. He’s still a little guy. We can do this, we don’t have to get up and put him in another room and send him away, or move away. We can hold his wrists, we can hold him firmly, and look at him and nod our heads. “Yeah, man. You really want to hit. You want to hurt me right now. You didn’t like that I …”

All we have to know is what just happened or why he’s hitting, if we know. If we don’t know, then we just notice he’s hitting. “You want to hit!”

We don’t have to come up with the reason behind it or name emotions right there, just acknowledging what we know and acknowledging it in a way that lets him know we see, we don’t judge, we welcome him to share those feelings, but we’re going to stop him from acting on them because we’re the adult and we have that self-control that a young child doesn’t always have.

So these opportunities at home are precious. That’s where we have a chance to rise to the occasion — this is show time — to give our child this message that will help heal him and help him feel safe in all of these things that are inside him. He can’t control those. He can’t help the way he feels.

Feelings are involuntary. We all have feelings sometimes that don’t even make sense to us as adults. Or I guess I can’t say we all do, but I certainly do. It’s just part of being human.

We can’t control how he is at school. Hopefully the teachers are handling that the best way they can. Ideally, they’re providing a sense of safety, that they’re not alarmed by him, that they see him, that they’re going to help. That they understand between them that here’s somebody that’s having a crisis. Right now, not forever. They’re not branding him as a hitter or a bully, or any of those things. He’s going through something. Teachers know this. Experienced teachers see this all the time. So hopefully they’re handling it in a manner that helps him to feel safe.

But the person he really, really, really needs to accept him is his parent or parents.

People probably think I’m a bit crazy to say that these messy situations, these messy experiences and transitions our children have, are incredible opportunities to foster their self-worth, to build our relationship, to deepen trust. But these are opportunities. If only we could see every conflict and every issue that’s going wrong as an opportunity for growth. Wouldn’t we all be so much healthier?

I certainly can’t say that I am able to do that most of the time. But children, they’re so open, they’re so innocent, they’re so heart-on-their-sleeve. They so need us to be on their side and stay on their side, and accept them at their worst.

So I would stop doing the timeout. Stay calm. This parent says sometimes she yells too, and that’s okay, forgive yourself. Work on what you’re perceiving here. Work on what you’re seeing when he’s being this “bad kid” at home, hitting you. Yeah, it does look bad. We don’t have to be Pollyanna-ish about it and say, “This is okay.” It’s not. It’s definitely not okay. But why is he doing it? Because he doesn’t feel okay inside, he hurts.

If we could shift our perception of this as offensive, awful behavior and signs that we’re terrible parents and we have a terrible child, and all of those things. If we can shift that to, “Whoa, he’s flailing. He needs me right now.”

Yeah, it is ugly behavior but that’s the kind of behavior we have when we’re hurting, all of us. If we can see it that way at least 55% of the time, we can help our child heal these feelings and heal this behavior.

I really hope that helps.

Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thank you for listening. We can do this.

7 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. avatar Piper Kotsaftis says:

    This is really helpful. I have a 4 year old son and a 3 month old daughter and have been experiencing a lot of screaming from my son. I agree with what you write and try my best to welcome his feelings. My question is what do I do when the screaming scares the baby? If I am alone with them. I don’t want to leave my son to feel abandoned but the baby really gets scared at a certain nouse level.

  2. Hello, I have been struggling for a little over a year with my older son who is almost 4 who is constantly hurting my younger son that is two and a half. I was expecting him to act out when my younger son was first born, but didn’t have too many issues except could never leave the little one in his reach for a second because he would want to hug (smother) him or poke him but it was with love, he was just so little he didn’t know how to gentle. When the younger one was about a year and a half, the older one started hitting, throwing toys, occasionally biting him, taking toys from him to run and hide them (although there are some times he takes them because he really does want to have play with them), and running into a room and slamming the door on the younger ones face (or whatever body part may get caught) as he is chasing him. The younger one immediately starts crying and either falls to the ground or runs to me. I have tried everything (time out, taking a favorite toy away, spanking, talking to him about how he is hurting the younger brother-“see how sad he is”) and nothing has helped. He also has begun imitating him (repeating things he does even if he knows better, for example mispronouncing words he know how to say) and some clinginess to me. From reading your blog, it seems I have been making things worse and am trying to implement your suggestions. He does not seem to be angry or throwing a tantrum when he does these things but they generally seem to be having a good time together when all of a sudden he will throw something at the younger ones head etc. He seems to think it’s all in good fun and when I asked him once why he does those things he says because “it’s funny”. I go to him and say no I will not let him hurt him again and usually he doesn’t try again, and I try and wait and watch them for awhile but maybe half an hour later he is hurting him or taking something again so I am having a hard time practically speaking being there to stop the throwing, hitting, biting unless I just suck it up for a few weeks and be there and watch them constantly at their side to see if it helps. But it feels almost impossible to be right there with them all day.He also loves being with his brother and wants to play with him and I have talked to him and told him that his brother is not going to want to play with him if he is hurting him and not nice to him. I don’t know if I shouldn’t have said that though. I have since become pregnant and am now four months and while I have noticed an increase in clinginess with the oldest (he asks me a lot more to hold and hug him and tells me he wants to be smaller like a baby) the other behaviors are about the same and I am having a really hard time keeping calm as I have been so much more emotional now being pregnant. I have been trying to give the older one plenty of attention. I even tried to have a date night just me and him and took him out to McDonalds and we were going to go buy some craft supplies he was wanting but the whole time he was just wanting to go back and play with brother and dad because they were going to the park! I try and him more options throughout the day so he feels more control and started taking your advice this past week (I just found your blog recently) to let them try and figure it out if the older one takes something from the younger (although he always overpowers the younger when the younger says “no” and tries to hold on). I want to give it a good solid try to let them work things out before I intervene and have been trying to just acknowledge the younger ones feelings and hold him if he comes to me. Sometimes I wonder if the older one is getting a power rise from seeing the younger one get upset and not just myself. I feel plenty calm when it’s just about taking toys but when he actually hurts him, it’s hard for me not to get upset. Any other advice or insight is much appreciated.

    1. Keep reading here! Every single situation you described so well has been addressed somewhere here. Congratulations on your beautiful growing family. You will find what you need here, but mostly notice how Janet acknowledges our regret when we yell, but says to forgive ourselves and start again. Parenting is hard, but she really shows how we can see the yelling, screaming, tantrums, hitting: all the difficult stuff our children do is actually the best part of parenting, because it is our children trusting us to be their faithful guides. To love them no matter. To be confident: it’s only emotions…we’ve got this.

      Also, go ahead and swoop your son up and say you are my baby and go ahead and baby him. My daughter doesn’t have siblings, but is nearing five and sometimes needs to slow things down and be my baby for a few minutes. I meet her where she is.

      Read read read everything on this site and you will watch yourself become so confident. Still exhausted and weary (parenting is hard!), but you just feel more knowledgeable and less at a loss.

  3. Janet, your guidance and teaching sinks in on so many different levels, that my understanding blooms so unexpectedly. For example, I actually apologized to my 4 nearly 5 yo for ever getting mad at her for making a mess. I told her I made a mistake, because it is my job to teach her how to take care of things, put things away etc. It was a two second one way conversation from me, but I treated the messes the way my mother did and she blamed us: bad kids.

    How were we to know, if we weren’t taught? Responsibity is taught. So, once again, my voice is losing Another edge to it: We Need To Clean Up This Mess….instead, this morning, with a ripped apart house, I said, I work best in a home that is pulled together. Oh, you played all over the living room…ok, well, we will read and talk in here, but your toys stay in the playroom. And then I cleaned up.

    Well, she went into the kitchen and started clearing off the table, in a sweet singsong voice, preparing it for our making pancakes: after the house is picked up.

    Finally, the paradigm shift I needed: the kids are not to blame. The kids are to be taught, guided, modeled to. I am slowly coming around to actually being the adult in the house and not the reactive child/adult. I am shedding my upbringing through your insight.

    Also, thank you for the tip on physically helping child into house or car who may not be listening: “Time to come inside! …. (one minute pass) Ok, time to come inside….” I, now, happily, go outside and take her hand, with love and patience, and lead her inside. Flailing, she might be, but I let go when I see she means it that she wants to run in herself and not actually run away. Usually, she just lets me guide her by the shoulders. I love how involved I still get to be in her life. I miss the baby years and I actually feel like we never left, in that I sense my intense importance even though she seems so independent.

    At bath time, she got out and toweled off without me. I fear the night before was the last time she would get wrapped into my lap and we’d watch the water go into a whirlpool: my getting to hug hug hug her … but this morning we ended up snuggling in bed for a while. You have calmed me down so much that I am deeply involved in her day to day on a new level from babyhood.

    Thank you so much!

    1. Update: she totally snuggled in her towel on my lap after bath! It was glorious! A bit later, she had a crying fit because I turned down the bed and she had wanted to do that. I stopped trying to make my point and just saw this beautiful child crying and my face softened, my arms went out and she came to me. I rubbed her back and let her cry. Then, she said, Can we have a Do-Over?

      Thrilled! I ask for this when I have screwed up. We had a do-over, I let her do the bed, and today, journaling, upon reflection, I realize I am going to say this to her today: About the bed last night, it would be helpful to tell you my side of the story and then we can find a way to work it out together.

      We had a do-over, but she never fully understood she had me standing in the middle of the room waiting to get onto the bed: I usually close shades, turn down bed and wait there while she picks books. She took my job 🙂

      I am sure she did this because she really loves to do what I do, but I didn’t want to stand there AND I didn’t want to give up my job…I like preparing the room for bed. So, I have to seriously think about whether or not I am going to give the bed turning to her: I want to be true to myself…a battle last night right at bedtime wasn’t the time.

      I will say this, I have to search your site for boundaries posts: she is asking me to know what they are by her testing. I am so grateful, as I am ready to work on this part of my life. Once I know what I want, then I will be able to allow her strong feelings of protest—but, sadly, I had been taught to be either dominant or a doormat. She’s helping me find my true center.

      Also, she got crumbs on the couch and I was mad. Was so taken off guard I acted like my mother (dialed back A LOT, though)….TODAY, I am going to take her hands, speak directly to her and say, We had a mouse in our house….would you like to help us not have that happen again?

      Correct me if I am wrong, but I really think she does things she knows “shouldn’t” be done, because she wants to know, ‘And will you still love me when I do this?…this?…how about this???’ Because of course she knows about crumbs. Also, she said, “but do you still love me?” And I said, even though I was so mad inside, “My love for you never ends or goes away…” and she said,

      “Really?!”

      I stayed casual, ‘Yep. My love for you only grows, never ends.’

      THIS is why I scour your site regularly: I had an idea in my head of what it meant to be a parent and it was EXTREMELY narrowly focused—and full of traps, because I kept imitating my mother, rather than be present.

      I was rarely respected and I am now learning how to be respectful. You are helping me in many areas of my life, not just raising my beautiful, always loved, daughter. I am getting better and better at seeing the ‘crumbs’ for what they are: nothing to do with crumbs on the couch, but another request for affirmation of my never-ending, bottomless love and respect for my daughter. I don’t have to yell about the crumbs to get help with keeping the house mouse free. I can be real in my frustration and worries…but I told her she was rude for doing that….I need to not open my mouth when I am mad. Period. And I have to let her know she is forgiven…I never was and this builds the shame.

      Thanks, Janet.

      1. Wow! I never realized I wrote such long posts! Well, short upupdate: daughter spilled dog treats all over room…I was calm, casual and we cleaned it up together. It was fun, once I stepped out of AH!

        I was busy with mouse guy and thought she was still occupied ….babysitter during appts next time…

  4. Hi Janet, our family needs help. I have a 4 year old son and a 2.5 year old daughter and I am expecting my third in 2.5months time. For the most part we have a very loving, gentle and respectful house- until the screaming starts. My very bright, very articulate daughter will all of a sudden erupt with very little warning into an incredibly high volume, ear splitting screaming tantrum for up to an hour at times. I am a SAHM and I know that these usually occur around her becoming hungry or tired. I try to keep to a very strict routine and ensure I have snacks with me at all times, but when I’m making dinner and she’s demanding snack food immediately, inevitably a scream fest will ensue. I offer her fruit and ask her to use her words while she waits for the dinner to cook but often even by that point she is beyond listening. There is absolutely no getting through to her when she starts, she will scream so loud you can’t even get through to acknowledge her feelings or give options such as helping prepare the food etc.

    It’s the same at bedtimes, particularly when my husband tries to help put them to bed so I can have a seat downstairs. She will scream and scream that she wants me and only me, she won’t let him help and tries to run down the stairs at every opportunity. I sit downstairs and leave him to try to talk to her, as I don’t want to step on his toes when he’s parenting. He starts off very well and tries his best, distractions, humour, acknowledging her frustrations etc. but somehow it always turns into a battle of wills which she wins hands down (she would scream for hours and hurt herself if I didn’t step in). He repeatedly tells her to stop screaming and that she’s upsetting everyone, which is something I don’t agree with as I don’t think it’s healthy for her to be shamed for her behaviour. I inevitably have to intervene as I can tell the situation is getting out of hand.

    When I go up, she will quickly calm down and settle and I am able to talk with her and let her know that that noisy behaviour is not acceptable and that daddy was only trying to help. She will then say without prompting that she wants to give Daddy a cuddle and say sorry for her screaming.

    How do we move on from these explosive tantrums and how can I better equip my husband to deal with the behaviour, since he is undoubtedly going to have to take over a bit more once the baby is born.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this.

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