It’s a stab to the heart… When your gently raised child starts biting, hitting, pushing and smacking. You always hear that children learn by watching their parents… but YOU do not bite, hit, push or smack, so why is your child? It’s baffling and it can become quite frustrating to deal with. Deep down in your heart, you know that you’re doing the right thing by being a gentle parent, but you seriously start questioning yourself and don’t know what to do.
To start, children are not naturally aggressive. Aggression is not just something a child needs to grow out of. Aggression does not just mean that a child hasn’t learned to empathize yet. When a child acts out in violence, it’s because of an unmet need, but please don’t feel bad about not meeting these needs, because they are needs that you may not know about yet.
Unmet needs of a child acting aggressive could be:
- Physical needs, such as for food, sleep, etc. (although we often think these are the unmet needs, they are usually not the root cause of aggression)
- Looking for meaningful connection from a parent or carer.
- Lack of knowledge or inability to understand a situation (causing frustration).
- Emotional Needs, or the need to cry, rage or have a tantrum to vent out frustrations.
What You Can Do
#1 Play lots of games and spend high-quality connection time.
Sitting down and reading books or playing with dolls or cars is great and it’s very important to get that physical closeness time, but it can take a LOT of doing these types of activities because they are fairly low calibre. If I do too many of these activities with my kids, I inevitably start feeling drained. The key to high quality connection time with kids, is that the play be high energy play! Anything that gets you laughing, or rolling on the ground, jumping, etc. is the best! Hide and Seek, Peek-a-Boo, chasing, pretending you are animals and so forth. Pillow fights are probably the best form of play when it comes to helping with aggression. And, I’m not talking about a normal pillow fight. A pillow fight in which you let your child knock you down. Since kids often get frustrated from always being told what to do, you can implement some power-reversal games.
Power reversal games are any games in which you let your child be the boss of you. I wrote a post on doing power reversal games when your child is defiant. What you will find is that you only have to do just a little of this high energy play to give long lasting results. Do at least a few minutes of this play a day, or once a week, do a nice big session of play and see the huge benefits you will reap.
#2 Exercise, Diet and Screens
How much exercise do they need? A lot. More than you can imagine. Ever wonder why they bounce all over the bed or the couch cushions? Yup, they’re looking for ways to burn off some steam. I live in a unit and have no yard. I need to take my kids out of the house at least twice a day for a big walk or hard core playing, otherwise the inevitable happens. If the weather is nasty, look for things to do in the house. Make an obstacle course, chase them around, let them climb up and down the stairs, etc. Find some way to get them moving!
While you don’t need to be frantic over their diet, do watch for foods that might trigger aggression. For example, my little one cannot handle raw cacao. Also, pay attention to their screen time. Under 2’s are recommended to have no screen time at all! While that may not be possible in your house, notice if they become more aggressive after screen time and take the appropriate action from there.
#3 Physically stop them from the aggressive act.
If a child is about to hit you, stop them! It’s ok to hold back that hand gently, but firmly. It’s ok to stick your finger in a child’s mouth to stop him or her from biting you. I’ve seen many a gentle mother quietly whimper as her child bites her, only to say later, “Let’s be gentle.” Saying “Be gentle“, is nice, but it doesn’t get to the root cause of the problem. You also don’t want to smack a child for being aggressive. A firm, but loving halt to the behavior is what is needed. Generally, you will see, that if you physically stop them from the aggressive act, and you get down on their level and say something like, “No, I won’t let you hit.” you might find that they cry. This is good! On to the next point.
#4 Let them have that temper tantrum!
This is probably the biggest and hardest point of all. Everything in our society is all about getting babies and children to stop crying. For most of us, our own crying has never been accepted by our parents or by our society. So, we pass on this fear of crying to our children. If a child is on the verge of a melt down, don’t distract him. If your child has been whining all day, you don’t have to keep trying to make her happy. You don’t have to redirect. You don’t have to give something for comfort, (like boob, bottle, dummy/pacifier) etc. Also, don’t punish, ignore or shut your child in the other room. Sit with your child. Be with their tears. Let your child know that you hear them and that you understand their frustrations. We do a great disservice to our children when we ignore their need to release their emotions through crying and temper tantrums.
If we constantly stop our children from emotionally releasing their anger, then their frustrations inevitably come bubbling up later, in the form of aggression. You will find that after a child has a big emotional release, in your loving presences, he or she will be much more peaceful and reasonable (or, they’ll fall asleep because they were tired in the first place). Children accumulate frustration and hurts on a day to day basis, so it’s important that we also let them release their emotions whenever it comes bubbling up.
#5 Watch for Control Patters
A control pattern is anything that a person does to suppress his or her emotions. In adults, it may be something like eating when we get upset, or checking Facebook when we get bored. In children, it can be looking for a boob/bottle, special blanket, dummy/pacifier, thumb to suck, etc. I see it especially with breastfed toddlers, who reach for the comfort of the boob every five minutes or whenever they become upset. Long term breastfeeding is important, but it should not replace the need for a child to have an emotional release. If you pay close attention to when your child reaches for their control pattern objects, you will notice that some (or most) of these times they are actually in need of an emotional release in the form of crying or a temper tantrum. It’s ok to gently say ‘no’ sometimes to these objects and support them if they cry afterwards.
If a child is always given their control object when they get upset, those emotions never really go away, and those same emotions can later come out in the form of aggression. It’s not to say you take your childs favorite things away from them and are mean about it. My 2 1/2 year old loves breastfeeding, and that’s fine. But, if she’s in need of an emotional release, I let her cry, rather than feed her. If you are uncomfortable with allowing your child to throw a temper tantrum, that’s very understandable. I wrote an article on why I love my kid’s temper tantrums here if you feel like you need more information in this area.
#6 Let them cry when they get hurt or frustrated.
I used to run to my kids every time they fell and scoop them up. Or, rush over if I heard they were getting frustrated. Now, I stand back a little. Do they really want me to pick them up or help them? If they ask for it, of course, I go. But, sometimes they don’t want me to pick them up or to help! Sometimes they just wanted to fully cry about it and then continue with their activity. I found that if I ‘came to the rescue‘ all the time, they would stop crying, but they would not have fully released their emotion and then later would not want to continue what they were doing. If I left them alone (standing near if they needed me) they would cry much harder and longer, but then would pick themselves up and continue figuring out what they were doing. I realized that by me trying to stop their crying, I was actually interfering with their natural learning process as well as interfering with their need to release their emotional frustration of the situation.
#7 Pay close attention to what triggers their aggression
Is it when you get on the phone or the computer? Is it when you’re talking to your friends and not paying attention to them? Is it when your energy is low and you are not feeling connection with them? Is it when they are frustrated or tired? Just knowing when they tend to act aggressive can help you take the appropriate action.
It’s impossible for a parent to meet every need of a child all of the time, no matter how much effort we put in. There are bound to be upsets and frustrations and we will not always be able to figure out exactly what is bothering our child. We also cannot implement the correct solution all the time. But with an understanding of where aggression comes from and ways you can deal with it, the frequency and intensity of aggressive acts will decrease dramatically. It’s important to get to the root cause of aggression in children. Although they may eventually ‘learn’ to not act aggressive, those emotions and frustrations are still carried around with them inside and can later manifest as other negative behaviors. Also remind yourself that you are doing a fantastic job, even if your child still does act out! It’s not an easy job to parent the way we do in relative isolation. So, be sure to take care of your needs for emotional release as well.
If you feel that you need further advice in regards to your aggressive child, I am a certified Aware Parent Instructor and am happy to set up a private consultation. Please send me a message.