When one’s child goes through a phase of being defiant, rebellious and aggressive, this understandably pushes a parent’s patience and tolerance to the limit! Parents are often baffled to see their otherwise bright, happy and caring child lashing out verbally or physically, to see them pushing or hitting, perhaps purposely and angrily throwing or breaking items or defiantly shouting at their parent and storming off.
Developing impulse control and emotional self-regulation skills is big work for children and takes a few years. It’s normal for young children to be anti-social, rebellious, defiant and even verbally aggressive at times and for neurotypical children up to the age of about six to also be physically aggressive at times. You can particularly expect an increase in defiance or aggression at times of extra stress relating to changes like a new sibling, moving house, change of caregiver, increased conflict amongst parents or starting school. But when a child’s defiant, destructive or aggressive behaviour becomes an ongoing issue, it’s important to look deeper into the difficult feelings and unmet needs that are likely driving their behaviour.
Children don't need us to accept all of their behaviour, healthy or unhealthy. They don't need to enrage us or overpower us, (that’s scary for a child of any age). They don’t need us to tiptoe around them avoiding the limits that might upset them. They need the limits that help to keep everyone safe. And they also need for us to accept and care about all of their feelings, the good and the bad, whether they’re happy, sad or mad. This is what allows them to feel safe and secure, to move through the difficult feelings that life brings. This is what enables them to care for other people’s feelings.
Children feel secure when we can maintain connection, warmth, empathy and support especially when we’re correcting them, setting limits or responding to situations where they act out aggressively.
Rather than just trying to stop them acting aggressively regardless of how they feel, ultimately we need to help them so that the urge to be aggressive decreases. Children act out in rage when their feelings overwhelm them. Unexpressed fear, insecurity and frustration tend to drive a child’s urge to be destructive or aggressive. Children don’t want to be violent; it’s scary for them when they lash out. But they struggle to self-regulate without our help. Sometimes this means physical intervention, while responding with as much calm confidence and empathy as we can muster when they do lash out. This is easier said than done, but once a parent sees the value of this approach, they are much more likely to be successful in managing their own anger and urge to be aggressive to their child in return.
Parents who practice intervening in a way that shows the child that they are being cared for EVEN when they lose control of their emotions and urges report that as their child learns to trust that their frustrations and struggles will be met with empathy, their tendency to be aggressive diminishes greatly and they start to seek their parent’s support rather than lash out. A big step!
When a child goes through a phase of hitting, you can say to her at a calm time, for instance; “it’s normal to feel like hurting when you’re angry. I know you know it’s not okay to hit. I want to help you when you get really frustrated.” It’s our understanding of how hard it is for them that’s going to help them dissolve their urge to hurt. They already know it’s not okay to hit. That’s not the information that helps them stop hitting or acting out. But showing our understanding of why they feel like hitting is the piece that reaches a child; that alleviates the feelings of shame, aloneness and fear of rejection that overwhelm them.
Many parents I’ve helped to gain control of their own tendency to hit or verbally attack their child have admitted that when they start to spin out, hitting or verbally attacking their child gives them some relief from their rising tide of rage, and that this relief can be quite addictive. Even though they feel awful for doing it, lashing out often snaps them out of total overwhelm. They know it’s wrong. Children usually know it’s wrong. Invariably, the adults who struggle with lashing out were themselves treated harshly as a child when they became upset. What adults and children need in developing healthier habits is support, empathy and understanding; as well as learning some healthy alternatives that will also bring them relief from their intense feelings.
”When children feel understood, their loneliness and hurt diminish. When children are understood, their love for their parent is deepened. A parent’s sympathy serves as emotional first aid for bruised feelings. When we genuinely acknowledge a child’s plight and voice her disappointment, she often gathers the strength to face reality.” ~ Haim Ginott, author of “Between Parent and Child”
Trust that your child’s doing their best. Assuming medical concerns and special needs are ruled out, you can be fairly certain that driving the anti-social behaviour are some uncomfortable feelings that the child’s unable to contain, probably unable to identify and clearly unable to express in a healthy way. Despite the best parenting in the world, children become overwhelmed and scared at times and sometimes those fears get stuck inside them. The moments when your child’s behaviour is at its worst are also the times when their most vulnerable sore feelings are closest to the surface.
Village Members Resource: Meeting Aggression with Connection Resource Kit contains videos, audios, text and more to guide parents in putting these theories into practice in a range of different situations.
When a child carries a backlog of unresolved emotions, they tend to have a low tolerance to stress and even small requests, challenges or obstacles can feel overwhelming to them. They may be happily playing one minute and suddenly a small disappointment sparks a strong reaction. The feelings beneath a particular act of aggression may stem from past experiences and may be completely unrelated to the current situation that triggered the reaction. As difficult as it is for parents, it’s exactly this tendency to over-react that is the external indicator of a child’s internal conflict that needs to be addressed. Ultimately, they need to see that we’re genuinely willing to remain patient as they work to offload all the big feelings that have previously built up.
Your child needs you to help them change rather than demand they change. An aggressive child is a stressed child. Aggression is the behaviour that generally elicits the least care and empathy from adults, but sadly it’s when they need our sensitivity the most. If we could respond to very out of balance behaviour with some of the same qualities that we respond to physical illness, we’d live in a society where emotional instability in families is much less of a problem.
Instead of dreading the next act of aggression or destruction, be ready to embrace the opportunity to help relieve your child of some of the underlying feelings that are making things feel so hard for them. Yes I realize this may be a complete 180 degree turnaround in attitude, but it’s one that can lift you out of feeling powerless and at the mercy of your child’s outbursts while relieving your child of feeling like she’s all alone with her big feelings.
The next time your child goes to lash out, rather than calling out verbal instructions from across the room, swoop in as fast as you can with the awareness and acceptance that he’s unable to stop when you ask him to stop. A child lashing out is caught in the grip of a rising tide of intense feelings that they simply can’t contain or control. Come down to his level, help him to stop lashing out verbally or physically by expressing your limit as gently as you can, while placing your hands on his body in a warm and affectionate way and truly connect, aiming to diffuse his anger and fear. You might need to take his hands, restraining him as gently as possible and say “I’m not going to let you break anything”, or “I can’t let you hurt your little brother.” This kind of expression is much less threatening than words like “don’t you dare”, “stop doing that right now.”
If they don’t get it out, they will act it out. You can tell your child that you want to help her get her frustrations out of her body. Talking to young children about feelings "in their body" helps them identify and name those feelings. As well as encouraging cries, you might offer her an alternative like tearing up an old magazine or stomping her feet or growling or screaming into a cushion. What you say isn’t as important as how you say it. When our children interpret our limits and guidance as loving leadership, care and support, it's much easier for them to assimilate the limits and the positive expectations and much easier to calm down, return to reason and willingly cooperate.
There’s much that you can do to diminish the pressure on an already stressed child:
- Develop self-regulation, mindfulness and self-care skills that enable you to hold strong and steady during emotional storms, hence modelling the same.
- Increase moments of connection, warmth and humour to deepen their sense of safety and security and alleviate fears of disconnection.
- Give reassurances, choices, advance warnings and explanations to help them deal with the stress that limits bring.
- Listen in a way that invites them to talk, share, vent and cry; showing that you value them pouring out the upsets that otherwise weigh them down. Aggression is a cry out to offload tensions and feel heard.
- Commit to not lose your cool when your child loses theirs. Expecting a child to calm down while we criticism them is like sending them outside to play while restraining them.
Be assured that when their difficult feelings start to dissipate, your child can again feel comfortable and at peace in their own body, mind and heart.
One day when my daughter was five, she arrived at the dinner table and despite the fact that she loved her food, before I knew it, she hit the plate with full force sending it flying. The plate smashed to the floor, food went everywhere and my daughter flung herself onto the floor enraged and out of control. I was shocked and had no idea what had caused the upset but her actions were clear evidence that she was intensely distressed. I moved towards her expressing my sympathy for her distress with my arms outstretched. She initially growled at me “NO!” to which I responded, “it’s okay honey, I’m looking after you, everything’s just all too hard for you right now isn’t it.” She cried and raged a bit more, then jumped into my arms collapsing into big deep releasing cries. I could feel her tensions melting away. “That’s it my girl, have a big cry.”
It’s time enough to talk with a child about what they could do differently next time when they’ve returned to a calm state and can reason again. It’s also time enough to deal with the destruction when a child’s emotional state is again regulated (yes I know this can be very hard, but if you can do this, you’re much less likely to have more of the same behaviour). Launching into talking about cleaning up while a child is still distressed is premature and would show that the parent is more concerned about the state of the floor than the child’s state of being. When caused accidently, it’s totally appropriate to say “oh dear, that’s a big mess, come on I’ll help you clean it up now”. But when a problem is the result of upset feelings, it’s best, if at all possible, to prioritize caring for those feelings.
Later that day, it all came out about how scared and overwhelmed my girl had been feeling in her class, how she’d felt like running out of the class. Yet, had I asked her in the heat of the moment about what was causing her upset, it’s unlikely she would have been unable to identify or express and the pressure to reason and explain would have likely escalated her distress.
The last thing that a child who is unable to contain their anger needs is to feel shamed, scorned or rejected. These tend to be the feelings that overwhelm the child in the first place. Some classic statements to avoid that further intensify a child’s negative feelings about themselves and their world and result in increased aggression: “you should be ashamed of yourself”, “I’m so disappointed in you”, “you should know better than to act like that”, “the world doesn’t revolve around you, you know”, “you’re not going to get away with acting like that in this family”, “are you happy now that you’ve made your sister cry”, “why can’t you be more like your sister”, “go to your room and come back when you’re ready to be a part of this family”.
Warm connection, quality time together, play and laughter are great ways to help children resolve and dissolve difficult feelings. When a child goes through a phase of defiance and aggression, tensions and power struggles can dominate the parent child relationship. Turning up the dial on fun and humour can be hugely relieving and fun!
It's very challenging for parents to stay in their calm confident adult (as opposed to their hurt child state) when their child becomes reactive. Parents feel powerless, embarrassed, they can feel like they’re failing or their child is failing, they often become enraged. Adopting this approach of maintaining empathy when expressing limits or responding to aggression is the most effective way of addressing the problem at it’s source. When a parent supports their child to release their pent up fears and frustrations through talking, crying or harmlessly venting, they help to dissipate their urge to be aggressive. Especially, if ruptures (emotional disconnection) have happened during times of conflict, the child needs to regain feelings of acceptance and unconditional love during times of conflict.
Children who act aggressively need to be brought back into the family’s circle of love, belonging and security, they need and deserve to be reached in the heart, children always do. ~
Written by Genevieve Simperingham; founder of the Peaceful Parent Institute, parent coach, educator and holistic counsellor
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You might also find these resources to be helpful:
The audio download of the Teleseminar "Getting back on track - Why we explode and what to do" by Genevieve and Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand Parenting.
The article on the same subject "Why we explode and how to prevent it?" which discusses why parents are inclines to lose their cool and ways to prevent yelling at their child.
Genevieve's Stress Relief for Parents CD (also available on MP3) is a great resource for parents aiming to reduce the stress levels for themselves and their child. It offers a simple guided relaxation, guaranteed to relieve some tension and great for children trying to settle at bedtime, as well as lots of useful information about the parent's journey of self-healing and equips you with self-regulation skills to help you manage your own frustration and stress.
What Causes Violence? by Aletha Solter PhD, psychologist and author of four parenting books