No Remorse for Aggressive Behavior

In this episode: Janet responds to an email from a parent whose 6-year-old boy has been hitting and pinching his younger sister and others, and she’s alarmed because he shows no remorse for his behavior. She says that she has tried to get her boy to talk about his feelings, but “he just shuts down and won’t talk to me.” She’s wondering how she might foster empathy in her son as well as encourage him to share his feelings.

Transcript of “No Remorse for Aggressive Behavior”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to a very detailed email from a mom who says she’s worried about her almost six-year-old son who hits and pinches his younger sister and other kids. What’s most disturbing to this mom is that her son doesn’t seem to show any remorse, and she’s alarmed that he can’t or won’t talk about his feelings.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi Janet, a long one here because I feel it necessary to give some backstory. My son is almost six and my daughter is four. They are best friends and love each other. I’m a teacher and have very strict discipline in my classroom. My husband is the opposite.

We’re finally finding some common ground, but now with my son, I feel that we’re picking up the pieces of having a pushover parent in his toddler years. He’s a very sensitive little guy and very, very sweet. But he’s also headstrong and stubborn.

The thing that’s worrying me the most is his hitting. I feel like most of the time I see you responding to questions about hitting with toddlers, but my guy is still hitting and pinching out of anger and frustration. I feel like part of this is his dad’s lack of response about it. He just says, “Hey buddy, that’s not nice” and goes about his business and then gets frustrated when it happens again.

I will admit that I also lose my cool and don’t respond with love and empathy, partially because of my frustration about my partner’s lack of response. I’m working hard on that, but I don’t think that’s everything.

He had three days of making great choices, and then today he pinched his sister’s friend. He got a five minute cool down time out. Yes, I know how you feel about time outs. And then he hit his sister about an hour later. After the second incident, I followed through with my threat to leave the play date and we went straight home. I feel good about that, but here’s the kicker. When we talk about the situation, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t feel sad about hurting them. He doesn’t feel sad about my disappointment or sadness. He doesn’t feel remorse.

Consistently, time and time again, he says, “It’s just fine” or “I don’t know. I don’t really care” or even “It made me feel better. I’m glad I hit her.” In fact, he struggles to talk about his feelings at all. When I brought this up to our couples counselor, who’s never met my son, she asked if I was suggesting that he’s a sociopath. I’m not.

But time and time again when I ask how he’s feeling, he’ll just say, “I’m not feeling anything” or “I feel fine.” I ask what his body feels like when he gets angry so he can understand the physical responses of anger. Nothing. When he’s sad, he just shuts down and won’t talk to me. I don’t know how to curtail the anger and hitting when he won’t acknowledge any feelings.

Please, how do I foster empathy in these moments when following his impulses makes him feel better? How do I get him to see that hitting will only end badly for him in the long run? I can’t possibly catch him before it happens because he reacts so quickly. How do I get him to talk about his feelings, and at what point should I be worried that an almost six-year-old doesn’t talk about his feelings?

Thank you so much for your time, Janet. Listening to your podcast always makes me feel like I can be the mom I truly want to be. And by the way, parenting is so much harder than teaching.”

Okay. I want to start out by going to the end of this note, this mother’s concern that her child doesn’t have remorse. What’s clear to me reading this is that this isn’t about remorse or his lack of empathy. It’s about him being in a defensive posture.

The responses that she mentions, “It’s just fine” or “I don’t know. I don’t really care,” he doesn’t feel safe to open up and share himself. He’s in a defensive mode. He feels attacked. He feels judged. He feels misunderstood. And he probably has some shame inside, because that’s the result of feeling blamed and not understood.

So I’m not saying this to make this parent feel guilty or bad. I’m just saying what I see here that could lead this parent to perceive her son in a very scary way. It’s frightening to think we have a child with no remorse, that actually thinks it feels good to hurt somebody else. That would be a really bad sign.

So the first thing that I want to do here is help this parent shift that perspective. That’s not what we’re looking at here at all. We’re looking at a scared, uncomfortable guy that’s shutting down when he’s confronted. How can we help him to open up and share about his feelings?

He has to feel accepted first. He has to feel that emotional space and that unconditional acceptance coming from his parents to even get close to being able to articulate his feelings. I think we can all relate to this. I can certainly relate to this myself.

An example I think I shared in the past is the way I feel when I make a mistake in my car. Let’s say I cut somebody off or maybe I didn’t see them in that lane and I start to go in, and then I see them at the last second. This happened to me recently with someone on a motorcycle. They were completely in my blind spot. I looked and I still didn’t see them, and I started to go into the lane and, yikes, I felt terrible. But the person on the bike giving me a dirty look of anger didn’t leave space for me to want to express an apology. It made me want to close off and hold onto myself. And I obviously felt misunderstood and blamed.

Another example: We have a dog that we adopted a little over a year ago, and he’s a very sweet, sweet puppy, so excited to meet every person and every dog. But he’s rather large. We were on this part of the beach one day where dogs are mostly allowed to be able to run. It was soon after we had adopted him, so it was all very new to him. And he went running up to a toddler to say hello, and the toddler saw him and freaked out and started crying.

And the grandmother was there of the child, and she was so angry with me. She was seething. And I could feel her anger. I wanted to apologize, but I couldn’t right then. It took me a little bit of time to kind of breathe. And this is me as an adult, not a six-year-old child. It took me a moment to compose myself while she was berating me.

And I think the first thing I said was kind of defensive ’cause she said, “He’s a little child.” And I said, “This is just a puppy, and he was just trying to say hi.” And then it didn’t go well from there. But I finally got it together to say, “I’m really sorry.” And then I saw her kind of nod and accept that and melt a little.

But what I’m saying is that I could feel those defenses in me go up, and I really kind of had to push through a wall to be able to be in a place where I could apologize. It felt like I had to have all this strong intention overcoming my feelings. And young children don’t have that very often.

So that’s why I think she’s seeing this seeming lack of remorse.

Now, how can we help him to be a guy who can share his feelings and can express empathy towards others? We can help him by giving him what he needs to feel safe, protection from himself when he’s acting out by hitting and pinching and expressing his anger and frustration that way.

And not so much empathy on these parents’ part in that moment, because that is really asking the impossible of us, to feel empathy towards a child who is being aggressive with other children or with us. But he does need our acceptance that he feels like doing those things.

It’s normal to have those impulses to lash out when we’re feeling frustrated or angry or uncomfortable in some way. There’s nothing wrong with having that impulse. As mature people, we learn not to act on it. It’s harder for a young child, even at almost six years old. It’s hard to have that kind of self-control. And the more stress a child feels, the less chance they will be able to control these impulses.

The good news is that we have a lot of power to change this. Children really just need somebody that understands them, somebody that’s always on their side, both parents, ideally. But one will open a big space in that door that he’s shutting and give him the room to share himself.

It takes a lot of vulnerability to apologize or to admit, “I shouldn’t have done that. My anger got the better of me.” Takes a lot of comfort and space and acceptance. So that’s what I recommend for responding to him, to see it right at the outset, stop him so that it doesn’t go on too far, and to say, “Oops, I can’t let you do that.”

That might mean physically blocking him. It might mean steering him towards you. Do this with confident momentum. Do this with acceptance of him, being on his side and being protective, caring about him, not angry with him.

This also comes from understanding that children don’t want to be doing this. They don’t want to be the bad kid doing bad things. We need to help save him from himself and not let him go there. And shaming him out of it will not work. It just creates more discomfort and, therefore, more uncomfortable behavior.

So what he’s getting now are two different kinds of more rejecting responses. He’s getting his dad who kind of brushes him off and tells him he’s not nice. Even saying the behavior is not nice to a child feels like you’re saying, “You’re not nice,” because children know the behavior is not nice. They don’t really need that reminder, especially at age six.

She says his dad’s lack of response…  He just says, “Hey buddy, that’s not nice.” He goes about his business. So he’s not seeing him. He’s not seeing a guy here that is saying, “Hey, I’m acting out.” And then she says he gets frustrated when it happens again.

Right. So that’s like when we’re trying to give somebody a message, Hey, I’m here and I’m not pleased with something that’s going on or I have a feeling. We say that, but the person isn’t willing to see us and get our message. So we have to do it again, right? We have to say, “Hey,” and sometimes we’ll do it again in a stronger way or a different way. Hey, can you just see me? Can you notice me? What am I saying here? That’s why it continues.

And then getting the frustration from his dad is, again, kind of a rejecting response. You’re just being a jerk. There’s something wrong with you. Why are you acting that way? Shutting the door on him, without meaning to, I realize. But that’s how this feels to a child. He gets an angry door slam on him, instead of an open door with curiosity, “Hey, what’s up? You know you’re not supposed to do that. What’s going on? You feel like hitting?” Openness, curiosity, acceptance.

Not letting him hit. You can have your hand up very effectively, blocking that, holding his wrist, whatever you need to do that’s as minimal as possible to show you’re on top of this, you’re not intimidated by his feelings. Just that willingness to see him, to get his message and to help protect him from himself and protect you from being hurt. So that’s what would help from this dad if he’s willing to do that.

And then from his mom, she says she admits she loses her cool and she doesn’t respond with love and empathy. So those are the messages he’s gotten, You’re bad. There’s something wrong with you. I don’t like the way you’re behaving, slam the door.

Again, I know these parents don’t mean to be doing this at all. But then they want to be able to open that door and have him talk about it and feel remorse. He can’t. It’s impossible ’cause they slammed the door.

So he needs the same thing, ideally, from his mother as his father — that she sees him, she doesn’t judge: whoa. You’re six years old now. You shouldn’t be doing this anymore, because that’s why this is perpetuated. This has continued because of the way that it’s been handled, because of the messages he’s gotten that were discomforting messages. He just needs someone to see him cry out with these behaviors and take care of him, stop him, love him, accept him, don’t let him go there, because you love him, and you accept that, again, the impulse is natural, normal, healthy, nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to feel bad about.

So it sounds like this mom has tried to shift her approach. But then the way that she describes this incident with his sister’s friend, she says he had three days of making great choices and then today he pinched his sister’s friend. So he got punished for that. The time out is another rejection of him. And then he hit his sister about an hour later.

“After the second incident, I followed through with my threat to leave the play date, and we went straight home.” So even there, the threat to leave the play date… we don’t threaten from a place of caring about him. I see you’re having a hard time. I’m here to protect you from yourself.

It’s actually an aggressive thing to threaten. We threaten out of anger, and I think maybe she thought that after she threatened that he would snap into shape. But threatening just made him feel more ill at ease.

Instead, what would help is if she noticed herself, Oops. This may be going into an unhealthy direction. I’m going to stop this guy.

I don’t know that I would necessarily say anything to him more than realize myself that we may need to go home because he may not be able to be here right now for whatever reason.

But if she did feel like she needed to say something, I would say something like, “Wow. You know I don’t want you to do that, so what’s up? Can you handle being here? If you feel like hurting, can you let me know so I can help you?” Something like that that’s on his side, on his team, not slamming doors.

And then she may have to decide, “You know what? We’re going to go home.” And that would be taken by her son in a very different way than the threat and the, it sounds like, frustrated, angry, disappointed parent. The disappointed parent made him feel defensive.

So then she says, “I feel good about that, but here’s the kicker. When we talk about the situation, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t feel sad.” Again, I could be wrong but it doesn’t sound like where this parent is coming from is a real place of being open to exploring with her son and trying to figure out what’s going on. It sounds like this may have been a frustrated, “What’s the matter with you? Why did you do that?” type of questioning. Again, I could be wrong but that’s what I’m sensing.

So yeah, now she’s putting him on the spot. “How do you feel about that?”

“It’s just fine,” “I don’t know. I don’t really care,” or even “It made me feel better.”

He’s got the grenade out right there.

“I’m glad I hit her.”

I don’t believe that. I don’t think it made him feel better. I don’t think any of this makes him feel good at all.

She says, “He struggles to talk about his feelings at all.” Right. That’s because he feels he’s on the stand in the courtroom being drilled and he feels he has to defend himself, rather than having his mother or father or both of them being really curious about what’s going on that makes their wonderful, adorable, very, very sweet guy feel like attacking. What is that discomfort in there?

This is a delicate process, helping a child to open up and talk about feelings.

This mother says, “He doesn’t feel sad about my disappointment or sadness.”

So I would consider why she is disappointed and sad. Because she’s expecting him to not have these impulses, and she’s sad when he does? But the truth is he has these impulses. He just does. And it’s something to be interested in, but not something to blame him for. We can’t help our impulses.

And at age six, we still have a hard time not following them, especially again if we’re stressed, we feel alone, we feel judged, we feel shamed, we feel anger, we feel uncomfortable inside ourselves.

So she says, “How do I foster empathy in these moments when following his impulses makes him feel better?”

We foster empathy by modeling and having empathy. That’s the simple answer to all of this, not necessarily a lot of empathy in those moments but having an overall view guided by empathy, by wanting to understand, wanting to relate to, be close to, open up to.

She says, “How do I get him to see that hitting will only end bad for him in the long run?”

It’s already ended really badly for him. It’s already taken him in a direction that feels really, really bad to him. So I don’t think that’s a lesson that she needs to teach him. The truth is, it’s so bad for him that he’s shutting down. So he knows that.

She says, “I can’t possibly catch him before it happens because he reacts so quickly.”

Right. Sometimes, it’ll be after the fact. But we’ll be there to stop the next one, or we’ll receive that in a way that’s like, “Oops. I really wish I could have helped you there and stopped you. And I want to know what’s going on, what makes you want to do that.” Just a moment of openness on our part, being on his side.

“How do I get him to talk about his feelings?”

That’s a long road of trust and empathy for him, being on his side so that he can trust enough to even check in with his feelings and go there. Right now, it’s like this really dark place. He doesn’t even want to go there and know what his feelings are. It’s so muddled and dark and judged and yucky. Helping him feel like it’s not yucky, it’s normal, all of it’s normal, will help him talk about his feelings.

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.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

(Photo by the wonderful Sara Prince!)

2 Comments

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

  1. Hi Janet I just want to thank you I tried your approach with my son who was at one point very aggressive with his baby brother. Over time he actually would tell me that I can’t leave the baby alone with him because he feels like he can’t help hitting him. He also can tell me if he felt angry or sad. This was very very rare and now it’s pretty much disappeared and left with the excited rough play which I’m trying to learn to deal with myself (instead of no! Get off him! I’m not very good at redirecting his hands and helping him renengage). We went from full on kicking in the chest at times to now no overt aggression. I had to explain to my husband so so many times that shouting / or lecturing was making it worse. At least we have seen the outcomes of all different approaches now.

    Sometimes it concerned my husband when son used to laugh when being told off for hitting. I said he’s just really uncomfortable not that he doesn’t feel bad.

  2. Thanks for such thoughtful advice, this all makes perfect sense but for me is soooo difficult not to judge and not to feel resentful , I have been a respectful parent for years but as my six year old gets older it becomes so hard to have empathy. I think it’s a case of self awareness, our own expectations and even memory of our own childhoods. I know the way I should behave in those situations, but in those moments I can’t help it but feel so angry at myself as well and compare him to other children that seem so in control. I ask myself is this normal? what did I do wrong? This podcast really helped me to see that I’m not alone, respectful parenting for me is getting harder…

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