When a Child Is Aggressive

Blog Kathie Sarles

When a Child is Aggressive:
We all know the feeling. It comes upon us like a wave. Our body changes: the heart pounds, face flushes, words are lost and thinking is impaired. Are we angry, frustrated, embarrassed, anxious, or over stimulated? Does it matter? At that moment we are so overwhelmed and our bodies are so uncomfortable that we could just …… (spit,…bite, hit)?

Adults don’t often act upon their out of control feelings, but children do. We have coping mechanisms that help us relieve that feeling. We might walk away, take deep breaths, or talk to someone to help us calm down. We have learned that it is not socially acceptable to physically act out when we are feeling this way. Children are just learning these social norms. Children who have a delay or disability need even more time to learn.

In the early years, children have little control over their bodies. So when they feel overwhelmed and out of control, they act upon it. “Toddlers are people of extremes. A polite protest is not within their range of social response.” ( Miller, Karen. 1995). Once they act out physically, it feels good and it serves a purpose. It begins the calming process both internally, as the body regulates, and externally as the parent/ caregiver helps them by being attentive, (even negatively). Once reinforced, the action, (hitting, pinching, spitting), becomes a habit. It still feels good, but now it is less about the out of control feeling and more about getting the control of a situation. “These apparently aggressive behaviors do not start out aggressive. Over reaction sets a pattern rather than eliminates it.” (Brazleton, T. Barry, 1992)

First and foremost, we as parents need to be good observers. Can we help our child before his out of bounds feelings turn into negative actions? As the expert on your child, you are in the unique position to know when a challenge might become too much for your child to handle. Offering choices or preparing for the challenging activity might be all the help your child needs to be successful. Children need to feel in control and by offering choices the child gains some control back. No matter how much we use preventative measures, however, our child may one day lose control and employ one of these methods to communicate his displeasure. It is up to us to handle this anti- social action in a way to discourage it rather than encourage its frequent use. Yelling, hitting or punishing the child will give a great deal of attention to the child’s negative action and does not encourage the child to learn another way.
Here are a few specific ideas on how to help:

  • When your child hurts another person calmly remove him/her and say “hitting hurts”, or we don’t hit . Help the person who was hurt.
  • Remember the child does not get what he was after… toy, food or attention ….
  • You may need to ignore the child if attention is what he was after. (This is difficult but necessary if he has hurt someone to get what he wants).
  • If the child is trying to hit or hurt YOU to get out of doing something difficult, don’t let her hit you, stand up and move while saying, “hitting hurts I am not going to let you hit me”.

The Positive Parenting Blog www.postiveparentingsolutions.com suggests that you:
“Decide what YOU will do. Try as you might, you can’t “force” your child to NOT hit or bite. All you can do is decide what YOU will do when that happens. When your toddler hits or bites you, calmly put him down without eye contact and walk out of the room. This isn’t letting the child “get away” with the behavior; it’s creating a consequence that a young child can understand. The consequence is “when I hit or bite, mom goes away.”
Please don’t make your child apologize. You can model what you want your child to learn, “ I’m sorry that you hurt Johnny. I don’t like it when a friend gets hurt.” As the child matures he may be able to say it himself, but modeling is the best way to get him to understand. Empathy is a learned feeling.
On a final note, If your child is biting or pinching often and it seems to be happening without any provocation, it might be best to ask a professional about having an occupational therapy evaluation. Some children with a delay or disability have an sensory integration issue, which might be stimulating a need for these out of control behaviors. Other strategies might need to be employed if that is the case.