Curbing Aggression in Young Kids

Almost all children will go through periods where they lash out in some way and spitting, hitting, biting, and kicking seem to be the most common behaviors. What should you do when your child lets loose? It’s critical to understand what underlies the behavior. We could fancy ourselves investigators for this purpose. What precipitated the event? Here’s a list of replies your child might give you if they could.

  • I just felt like it.
  • I need your attention.
  • I need freedom. Give me space.
  • I’m tired.
  • I’m hungry.
  • It’s too noisy in here.
  • My sibling took my toy.
  • Stop touching me!
  • You’re not listening to me.
  • This is fun!
  • I’m frustrated.
  • Let me do it my way.
  • I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try.
  • I was curious what would happen.
  • I’m anxious.
  • My body doesn’t feel good.

Addressing Needs

Both my 2 year old and my 4 year old spit, hit, bite, and kick at one time or another, so I completely understand the frustration and that gut feeling of wanting to react in an unkind way. But stop! Stop for a minute and think about what’s happening. Let’s categorize the “whys” for greater understanding.

Attention

I need your attention.
You’re not listening to me.

Sadly, we’ve been conditioned to see children as annoyances who drain our time and our energy. We don’t want to “give in” when our kids express their need for our attention in undesirable ways. However, empathetic communication actually increases well-being. It’s not simply a way to meet our children’s needs. It also improves our relationship. If your child needs your attention, try a little active listening.

Some of the pitfalls I face when it comes to listening to my kids include thinking of something else while my child is communicating, trying to figure out what I’m going to say next, and attempting to manipulate the direction of the conversation. If you’re anything like me, one or more of those statements might resonate.

Professional communicator and educator, Julian Treasure, recommends a four-step approach to listen with investment:

  1. Receive: Absorb what the child is telling you
  2. Appreciate: Pause and think
  3. Summarize: Paraphrase what you’ve understood
  4. Ask: Learn more

If you know your child needs your attention, give it freely. Silence those harmful voices telling you not to spoil your child. You cannot spoil a child with love and affection. Quite the contrary, kids who are perceived as spoiled tend to be those children who have a) not had their boundaries respected so they react with belligerence or b) not been given enough attention and therefore do not trust that their needs will be met.

Boundaries

I need freedom. Give me space.
My sibling took my toy.
Stop touching me!
Let me do it my way.

In our childist culture, it’s easy to get caught up in “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” thinking when it comes to children. We’ve got to work toward flipping that perspective around and radically respecting our children’s autonomy.

Years ago, sexuality educator, Deanne Carson, made headlines when she advocated for asking infants if it was ok to give them a diaper change. She acknowledged that they wouldn’t be able to consent, but said that asking for consent and pausing to acknowledge them lets children know that their response matters.

I fully admit that I scoffed at her comments at the time, even though I was already three years into my Peaceful Parenting journey, as I was sorely lacking an understanding of childism.

Yes, you can let your baby know you’re about to change their diaper. Consent does start from birth and it never ends. We must prioritize navigating our children’s demands for bodily autonomy and their health-related needs. It’s not easy or simple, but it’s our responsibility.

If you know your child is enforcing a boundary, respect it. Bottom line. For guidance on helping siblings through the tough task of sharing/turn-taking, check out this article.

Discomfort

I’m tired.
I’m hungry.
It’s too noisy in here.
I’m anxious.
My body doesn’t feel good.
I’m frustrated.

Discomfort shows up physically and mentally. Both are completely real and valid. In our culture, we tend to tell children how they’re feeling. We dismiss skinned knees with “You’re ok” and toileting urgency with “You just went!” Children are too often forced into the constraints of our schedules and whims, and it’s not ok. Kids deserve for their needs to be met. Where the dominant culture tells us that our children are manipulatinrg us, it is incumbent upon us as Peaceful Parents to reject that perspective wholesale. If our children need to use the bathroom, they will. If they feel sick, we listen. If they are anxious, we soothe.

And, a note to those who fear all this responsiveness will lead to spoiling children. It won’t, but as we get into more complex needs, our responses may need to evolve. All children need accomodations, some more than others. Autistic Mama wrote a fantastic piece called Are You Accommodating or Coddling Your Autistic Child and really it applies to all children. In it, she explains:

The line between accommodating and coddling boils down to one specific question.

What is the Goal?
You have to ask yourself, what is the goal here?

Let me give you an example…

Let’s say your child has a history assignment and is supposed to write two paragraphs on the civil war.

What is the goal of this assignment?

To prove knowledge of history.

Now any tool or strategy that doesn’t take away from that goal is an accommodation, not coddling.

So typing instead of writing? Accommodation.

Verbally sharing knowledge of the civil war? Accommodation.

Writing a list of civil war facts instead of using paragraphs? Accommodation.

Because the goal of the assignment is a knowledge of history, not the way it’s shared.

We can empower our children to solve their own problems by showing them how to be problem-solvers from a young age. We can teach our children to ask for what they need and demonstrate that their needs matter by obliging their requests. As they get older, we can empower them to seek reasonable accommodations in a variety of environments by considering what needs they must have met in order to succeed and to advocate for themselves.

I would be remiss not to mention one thing here of great importance to the Autistic community. AUTISTIC PEOPLE ARE NOT INHERENTLY VIOLENT. Violence is not a criteria for diagnosis. So many people ponder why it seems like Autistic children tend toward aggression. Well, imagine having to endure all the little things you dislike (flavors, sounds, textures, etc.) all the time and then being treated as though you’re a burden for asking for it to stop. You might be driven to aggression as well. It’s hard being Autistic in a world that isn’t made for you. Meet the needs of Autistic kids and you’ll see a drastic decline in any aggression.

If you know your child is uncomfortable, try to help relieve that discomfort. Some children are unable to clear saliva and may spit or drool as a result. This happened to my son before we had his tongue tie revised. If your child is anxious, try these measures. Whatever is going wrong, seek out a solution to support your child rather than punishing them.

Play

This is fun!
I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try.
I was curious what would happen.
I just felt like it.

Our children’s top job is to learn through play. We must leave some room for childlikeness, even when it comes to things that are as upsetting as aggression. As strange as it might seem to us, children do many things because they’re testing out how their bodies move and what effect they can have on their environment.

If you know your child is playing, try directing their play into a form that is more conducive to your family’s lifestyle. Getting down on the ground to wriggle around kicking can be fun. Just make sure the goal truly is play or your actions could come across as mocking.

Tips for Interrupting Aggression

  • Respond Gently. First and foremost, try not to meet force with force. Understand that children start out several steps ahead of us in terms of emoting because of their stage of brain development. The calmer we are, the better we can respond. And, if you need to physically stop your child from harming you, use the least force you possibly can.
  • State Your Boundary. Let your child know your expectation in clear, unambiguous terms. Try “I know you want to hit me because you’re angry. I can’t let you” or “I won’t let you hurt me.”
  • Engage the Three Rs. When you need to engage with a dysregulated child, remember to Regulate, Relate, and Reason. For many children, just acknowledging and empathizing alone will resolve the aggression, so that you can work toward meeting the need.
  • Give Your Child an Alternative. Understand that there are two types of aggression: the type you can mediate, like hitting and the type you can’t, like spitting. You can stop a child from hitting, biting, and throwing. You can’t stop a child from spitting, peeing, or pooping. In all cases, it’s crucial to address the underlying need, but you may also be able to introduce an alternative such as giving a child a chewie to chomp in place of spitting or even a towel to spit into. Whatever alternative you choose must be desirable to your child and easy to access when the need calls.
  • Resolve the Underlying Need. I cannot stress enough how important this one is. You’ve got to figure out what’s going wrong for your child and help them fix the problem. Recently, my son was pushing my daughter down over and over while I was out of the room. I could hear it, but I didn’t know what was happening. So, I walked in to observe and I saw that she kept standing too close to him as he was building a train out of blocks. He would ignore it for a while and then push her down. Then, she’d cry and he would destroy his train in response to the sound of her wails. The solution was simple. Help the kids regulate and then invite my daughter to help me in the other room.
  • Give Children the Words. Kids do not instinctively know how to ask for what they need. I hear a lot of parents telling children to “Use your words.” Let me tell you how very unhelpful that is! Parents, please use YOUR words. Give your child the language they should use to have their needs met, even if you have to do it over and over and even if you have to ask questions to get there. The more you model how to use language under stress, the more capable your children will be in following suit.
  • Avoid Confusing Messaging. While you’re giving your child the words, remember that children think in very concrete terms. There’s a series of books by Elizabeth Verdick called the Best Behavior Series and it includes such titles as Teeth Are Not for Biting, Feet Are Not For Kicking, and Voices are Not For Yelling. Read those titles again… carefully. How do we chew our food without biting? How do we swim without kicking? And how to we call out for help without yelling? It’s not logical, so it’s not going to make a lot of sense to a child. Kids might learn in spite of these messages, but it’s best to avoid them if possible.
  • Consider an Assessment. If your child’s aggression doesn’t seem to be manageable using any of the tips above, consider that something deeper may be going on and that you might not have all the information you need to meet their needs. Put aside concerns about stigma and work with a professional to help you and your child understand what’s happening.

ABA Treats a Problem Your Child Doesn’t Have

ABA is an extremely sensitive topic. You may experience intense emotions as you read this piece. I ask that you read through the post in its entirety before you make a final decision on what your perspective will be. If you need clarification, please ask. If you disagree, I’d appreciate your feedback.

It has taken me months to prepare this post for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve been coming to terms with my own very late autism diagnosis. I’m one of the fortunate people who wasn’t subjected to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, but so many Autistic people are not so lucky. I write this post for them and for all the children now and in the future who will undergo this very painful experience.

At the start, I have to make clear that I am not a professional. I’m an Autistic mom of an Autistic child, and I have been in the position of deciding whether or not to put my child into ABA therapy.

I also need my fellow parents to know that I am not condemning you if you’ve chosen ABA therapy. It is the gold standard “treatment” for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it’s covered by insurance, and it certainly seems to work. Unless you’ve been exposed to Autistic adults and our position on ABA, there’s little reason for you to be concerned. I hope you will hear what we have to say and consider whether you want to continue down this path.

Autism Isn’t a Behavior Disorder

So, why treat it with compliance-based training? Autism is a completely natural, neurological variant. It is only disabling in cultures where Autistic people are not included and embraced.

Autistic brains perceive and process the world differently from allistic brains. But, we are fundamentally human beings, like everyone else, with the same emotions and responses to stimuli. If you hear a loud noise, do you not cover your ears? That’s not considered odd at all, right? So, why would it be odd for an Autistic person to do the same? Sure, it might be accompanied by humming and rocking, because stimming is so comforting to us, but we’re doing the same thing you do to reduce the strain of overstimulation. When allistic children relieve intense stress by cutting, we don’t send them to compliance-based training to try and coerce them to stop. We get them into helpful therapies to give them back control and provide relief that doesn’t harm, thereby addressing the problem rather than the behavior. And, that’s what Autistic kids need: acknowledgement that behavior is communication and relief from the underlying problem.

A History of ABA Therapy

Back in the 1970s, UCLA psychologist, Ole Ivar Lovaas, participated in the development of a therapy that promised to alter “deviant” behavior. His involvement in the Feminine Boy Project offered him an opportunity to engage in a form of behaviorism soon-to-be-called conversion therapy wherein gay men would theoretically be converted to heterosexuality. He also used this new therapy in his work with Autistic children.

Conversion therapy for homosexual people has since fallen out of favor, for obvious and good reason. However, Autistic children are still subjected to the same behaviorism that we’ve deemed unacceptable for use on other human beings. The reason? It was the same back then as it is now. In the words of Lovaas himself, ABA therapy can make Autistic kids “indistinguishable from their normal friends.” Unfortunately, that so-called progress comes at the price of an uptick in PTSD and suicide among Autistic people. I’m sure you can understand how devastating it is to go through life feeling that the person you genuinely are simply isn’t enough for the people who say they love you. Now, before you decide that my criticism is unfounded, let me make it abundantly clear that Lovaas was a pretty despicable fellow:

Modern ABA might look gentler on the surface; however, at its core, it starts with the assumption that Autistic people are broken and wrong, and it seeks to make our behavior more comfortable for allistic people.

Autistic Perspectives on ABA

Amythest Schaber is an Autistic artist, writer, public speaker, and advocate. Her series, Ask an Autistic, tackles a great many topics that have proved helpful to her many allistic followers. In this episode, she explains what ABA is from her perspective.

The following list includes links to other Autistic writers and advocates, as well as allies, who explain why ABA should be avoided:

Finally, this post from the Non-Binary Intersectionalist (and I must give tremendous credit to this page for the wealth of resources I’ve been able to provide in this post!) describes a recent interaction with a young child in ABA therapy:

If you’re interested in reading some personal accounts of ABA therapy, I encourage you to check out this post on Stop ABA, Support Autistics. If you still aren’t convinced that ABA therapy is harmful, read this post.

What’s the Alternative to ABA Therapy?

To answer this question, we have to consider what well-meaning parents intend to happen when they put their children into ABA therapy. Some of the most common reasons I’ve seen are 1) to help the child be more independent, 2) to help the child navigate society more easily, and 3) to protect the child from danger. There are many, many more reasons of course! These are simply the top three as I’ve understood them.

I imagine you won’t be very surprised to learn that the best alternative to ABA therapy, in my experience and in accordance with my values, is Peaceful Parenting.

Peaceful Parenting achieves each of the three aims I mentioned by instilling self-sufficiency, self-assurance, and boundary recognition in children, as well as improving emotional development and self-regulation, one interaction at a time. Peaceful Parenting does not require thousands upon thousands of dollars or 40+ hours a week of therapy. For symptomatic concerns, there are other wonderful therapies like speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. These therapies can help discover and meet needs that parents may not fully understand. And, much like taking an ESL class, they help Autistic kids learn a different culture without coercion.

Autistic kids deserve the same gentle treatment as any other child. If you wouldn’t put your neurotypical child into ABA therapy, there’s no need to put your Autistic child into ABA therapy. If you’d consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (sidenote: CBT and ABA are not the same) to help your neurotypical child handle the stresses of life, offer the same to your Autistic child. Figuring out how best to support a child – any child – can be complicated. But treating our children with the same responsive gentleness, regardless of neurology, need not be the least bit complicated.

In this TED Talk, Dr. Amy Laurent explains why Autistic people need support in developing emotional skills, not behavior management:

Learn about the SCERTS Model by clicking here

ABA therapy is simply incompatible with Peaceful Parenting. The entire concept hinges on the adult therapist’s ability to coerce a child into compliance by withholding beloved objects and activities until the child “earns” them by obeying the therapist. ABA therapy discourages children from saying “no.” It does nothing to meet underlying, unmet needs and, instead, attempts to force children to ignore those needs while behaving as though the needs do not exist.

If you are a Peaceful Parent who is alarmed by what you’ve read, please know you and your child are enough just as you are. Your connection with your child is the key to comfort and growth. All children want to be heard and understood. Your job, then, is to learn how your child communicates and become conversant in their preferred language. Trust yourself. Trust your child. And, when you need help, find people who are willing to do the hard work of figuring out why your child is suffering and then find ways to relieve that suffering by way of accommodations and modifications. For instance, if your child hits himself in the head in the presence of very bright lights, the remedy is simple. Turn the lights down or off. When you start to see remedies everywhere, the rest falls right into place.

My son was diagnosed with ASD, Level 2 (since autism is diagnosed by how burdensome we are to allistic people, which is unfortunate) which means the expectation is that he will have far more additional needs as he grows up than an allistic child might. Considering the dire prognoses presented in medical literature, one might expect my son to barely function in the broader culture. In fact, many people do. But, let me tell you a story.

Recently, I took both of my kids to the gym for the first time ever. My gym has free childcare which makes my life so much simpler. So, here you have a young, Autistic boy who has never set foot in this new place and finds himself face to face with brand new sounds and smells that he’s never experienced. He’s led into a small room with an abundance of toys, all bright and mishmashed, and he sees two complete strangers sitting there smiling at him. What does the boy do?

Well, he finds a stand-up racing track and begins racing little cars. He listens attentively to the caregivers, and he has a relaxed smile on his face when it’s time to go home. No meltdowns. No shutdowns. No stimming. No fear. And, the reason? He’s been the recipient of Peaceful Parenting from the day he was born. Peaceful Dad and I are firmly connected with him, so he feels safe. We do not punish or reward him, so he doesn’t feel coerced. We are honest with him and prepare him for new experiences, so he doesn’t feel caught off-guard. We treat him like any other deeply loved person and include him in all our activities, so he has plenty of other experiences to draw from when encountering something new. And he knows that, if it’s ever too much for him, we will respect his needs and find the exit as quickly as we can.

On the way to the gym, I explained in great detail what he could expect. His communication is primarily gestural and minimally verbal, so it’s not as though he could tell me in words that he understood. However, his reaction to the new experience said it all.

No Autistic child is the same and your child may not be able to handle a new experience at a gym like what I’ve described. That’s totally normal and ok. There are going to be things your child can do that mine can’t. Again, all Autistic people are different from one another. The key is learning what exactly that means for your child and filling in every single crevice in your child’s heart that is aching for your love and attention.

That includes Autistic children who exhibit self-destructive and violent behavior. Remember, all behavior is communication. If a child, any child, is lashing out, something is wrong that the child can’t overcome. Our goal as parents has to be to investigate the underlying cause of our children’s challenging behavior and help to relieve any stressors we discover.

You Want Action Steps? We’ve Got Actions Steps.

You’ll find this to be a very short section, because I’m directing you to the single most helpful post I’ve ever read on helping Autistic kids as a parent. For concrete, comprehensive details on what you can do for your Autistic child without the use of any ABA whatsoever, please read If Not ABA, Then What at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. The recommendations there will support what you are already doing as a Peaceful Parent.

Careful! ABA Ideology Can Wriggle Into Other Therapies

If you’ve gotten this far, I want to make sure you know that ABA ideology has infiltrated all aspects of the way professionals care for Autistic people. Plus, because ABA is so profitable, some professionals use ABA codes to bill insurance even while they claim they aren’t practicing “traditional” ABA. However, don’t be fooled! If it’s called ABA, it is ABA. And, even if it’s not called ABA, the professional could be using ABA tactics to pressure your child into making advances. It can all be very confusing. An excellent post by Autistic Mama describes the red flags that should send you running for the door if you see them in any therapy your child undergoes. Please visit her post directly for a full explanation of each red flag.

  1. Observation is Not Allowed
  2. Indefinite Therapy
  3. Extreme Hours
  4. No Stimming Allowed
  5. Requires Eye Contact
  6. Excessive Reliance on Token Systems and Edibles
  7. Rigid Approach or Refusing to Make Basic Accommodations
  8. Focus on Outward Behaviors, Rather than Functional Skills
  9. Expecting Kids to Perform on Command, Regardless of How Difficult Something is or Where the Child is at Emotionally
  10. Moving too Fast or Not Breaking Down Tasks into Manageable Pieces
  11. Learned Skills Don’t Transfer
  12. Focus on Compliance
  13. Focus on Verbal Communication
  14. Punishment of Any Kind
  15. Presumes Incompetence

You Are a Good Parent

Any parent who would go to the ends of the Earth, at any expense, for their child has earned that title. Please know my intention is not to attack you, though I understand why such an impact could result. You may be thinking that your child’s ABA looks nothing like what I’ve described or that your child loves their ABA therapist. I’m not here to argue or to condemn you. I ask only that you carefully consider the history of ABA, its inherent weaknesses, and the voices of Autistic adults urging caution.

A Thank You to All My Fellow Autistic Adults

This post wouldn’t have been possible without the labor of my fellow Autistics. You are so incredibly valuable and I appreciate you more than I can express. I have learned from you and I’ve been able to offer my son a better life because of you. Thank you!

And, reader, thank you for listening.

Update (February 10, 2020): After I published this piece, it came to my attention that Alfie Kohn recently published an outstanding piece regarding new research into ABA. It’s well worth a read!

I Nearly Dialed 9-1-1

Whenever I’ve been out with my two kids, and we return home, I like to give my son a little freedom to make his way into the house. He enjoys the outdoors and has certain spots he likes to check to see if any animals have appeared. In particular, he’s always on the hunt for frogs and rabbits. After all, we’re in a semi-rural location with some land and lots of places to explore.

Today, just after noon, we returned from some errands. I took LL from her carseat and set her on my hip before picking up the myriad bags I needed to take inside. I hollered for BB to come along so we could eat our lunch. He scampered up behind me and I heard his heavy footfall on the porch behind me. I rounded the corner and made it to the door. Once inside, I set LL down to play and put all my bags on a shelving unit near our front door. I couldn’t have been inside more than one minute, but I couldn’t hear BB anymore.

I stepped back outside and looked around. Didn’t see him. I walked back to the parking area. Not there either. As LL watched from the living room window, I walked around looking in all of his usual haunts. When I couldn’t find him there, I went back up to the front of the house and looked around. Still didn’t see him. I started to get concerned. I went back to the parking area and walked down to the street level. I looked up one side of the sidewalk and down the other. I peered across the way to a park we frequent. Still no sign. I was getting frantic at this point. I started calling his name in that scary broken voice of panic. Nothing.

My mind was swimming. What if he got too close to the road and someone had picked him up? But, how? He was out there for no more than a minute and he had been on the porch. Where could he be? I walked back up to the front of the house still calling even more terrified. I started to walk to a small man-made pond near the house when I saw him. He was running toward me happily yelling “VULTURE!!” He had gone down near the water feature to look at a volt of vultures that had been sunning themselves along a wrought iron fence surrounding the water. But, because of the topography of the land, I couldn’t see him from the house.

He hadn’t done anything wrong per se. He was in a location we visit often together. He hadn’t gone past the “line” which is a joint in the concrete of our parking area beyond which is a busy state highway. He is very good about stopping at the line and never crosses it without an adult present. He also knew from experience that I curtail his adventures for a while when he ignores a safety limit. Whenever that happens, I hold his hand all the way into the house to make sure he’s ok. It takes time for me to trust in his judgment again.

But, this time, he followed the rules. All except for announcing himself or coming to me when I called. However, thinking back, it was probably a very short amount of time between when I first started calling and when he showed up. It just felt like an eternity when I thought I’d lost him.

This is where it gets really tough. How do I give him freedom to learn to be responsible and protect his safety at the same time? I’ve been thinking about the situation all day since it happened and I realized that my next step is to set a firmer boundary on the side of my house near the water feature. He needs a physical marker to know where to stop. I also need to work on having him respond or return when I call.

But, what I will not do is punish him for being a kid who respects the rules we already have in place. Even though my mommy heart was gripped with terror, I know he needs opportunities like this one to know he can always run back home and be accepted even when he hears that fear and upset in my voice.

Dysregulation and Grounding

No, not that kind of grounding! We don’t do punishments around here. By special request, I am dropping a note to provide some definitions in my own words for those who are wondering. I use the terms dysregulation and grounding, in a variety of forms, to describe some of the important steps in the process of developing self-regulation.

Definitions

  • Self-regulation: the state of being in physiological and psychological balance without external influence. Please note that self-regulation does not mean self-control. Self-regulation develops as a child builds skills to become more able to manage stress in healthy ways. Self-control means arbitrary self-inhibition whether or not the child is handling stressors in a healthy way.
  • Dysregulation: an inability to sustain physiological or psychological balance due to unmanageable stressors.
  • Meltdown: a vigorous, externalized, emotional eruption.
  • Shutdown: self-protective, internalized isolation.
  • Grounding: the process of bringing oneself back into self-regulation.

Explanation

Many of you may already be familiar with the concepts of meltdowns and shutdowns as they apply to neurodivergent children. Kids on the autism spectrum are at an especially heightened risk of experiencing these very upsetting, very natural responses to living in a world in which they have to work every waking hour to operate within the confines of what neurotypical people consider “normal.” Anecdotally, I’ve found that autistic kids are more able to function in neurotypical cultures when they have autistic adults guiding them. They’re less likely to meltdown or shutdown, probably because the autistic adults can better predict stressors and teach the kids how to avoid or work through them.

But, it’s not just neurodivergent kids who respond to stress by melting down or shutting down. Neurotypical kids do it too because, well, they are kids. Up to around age 25, we humans are pretty unskilled in the process of understanding ourselves and negotiating appropriate behavior. Meltdowns and shutdowns occur when children reach a point at which they are overloaded and unable to function. The source could be overstimulation, hunger, exhaustion, or any number of major crises that a child cannot overcome alone.

Signs

Learning the signs of dysregulation isn’t an exact science. Caregivers should have a sense of what’s typical for a child in a given situation and, when things start to escalate, that’s when you know it’s time to act. Unfortunately, because of the way many of us view childlike behavior, it can be easy to brush off signs of dysregulation as a child just being obnoxious. However, behavior is always communication. A child may not be able to explain what’s happening, but their behavior can reveal the truth. Understand that dysregulation is never a choice. If you see any of these signs, or any suggestion that something is up with your child, take action.

Possible Signs of Impending Dysregulation
This list is not exhaustive.

  • Increasing hyperactivity
  • Increasing vocalizations (talking, humming, other sounds, etc.)
  • Increasing destructiveness
  • Whimpering/crying/whining
  • Aggressiveness/anger
  • Unusually avoidant behavior
  • Unexplained mood swings

Intervention

When a child begins to dysregulate, we adults can help. We can guide our child toward grounding by gently offering techniques that soothe at a time when our kids can no longer reason through to a solution. We become their calm. Be sure to choose interventions you know your child enjoys and ask first. Consent is crucial to ensure your child feels as calm and peaceful as possible.

Possible Grounding Interventions
This list is not exhaustive.

It’s easiest to decide what might work best for an individual child if we can figure out what’s wrong to begin with. If my child is just completely overwhelmed and unresponsive to conversation, my go to is always a hug, and then we might move onto other things. If I can see that my child is getting very sleepy, I try to create a calming environment and a place to rest (usually a nap on the couch if it’s during the day). If I can see that my child is starting to physically push people around, I look for ways to introduce heavy work. My response depends on putting together all the other observations I’ve already made leading up to the crisis.

Dysregulation isn’t bad. It’s a natural response that children have no control over. It’s our job as the reasonable adults we are to show our kids how best to cope and get back to a balanced position.

Inherited Frustration: How One Family Found Peace After Crisis

Following my post yesterday, I received an extraordinary message from a mom who had a story to tell about her family’s journey from authoritarianism to foster parenting to Peaceful Parenting. With her permission, I am so grateful to be able to share her story here.

I have enjoyed reading these posts on positive parenting and today’s post really resonates with me and within my family dynamics. My husband and I are both in our later 40s, and when we met, I was divorced and had a two-year-old daughter. By this time, I was co-parenting quite nicely with my ex-husband. (There was certainly an adjustment period to that though). 😬 And I had also been doing Foster Care with “High Risk” teens for 6 years at the time. (I hate that term. Always have. But the reasoning for that is because most…not all…had come into foster care due to some kind of neglect/abuse parental death or other forms of trauma). In order for my husband to move in and join our Family (anyone living in the household had to do the same) a background check, several interviews with workers along with parenting classes needed to be taken through our state.

He was in the military, had never been married or lived with anyone and had no Children of his own. He knew from the beginning (once we were serious) that my ex-husband was a very active father. The two of them had many conversations about our daughter. Although he was about to become a very important part in her life, they wanted to work together in helping raise her and they both made a conscience effort to do so. (The same happened with our daughter’s new step momma. So, she ended up with 4 parents that love her).

In Foster Parenting classes they give many conflict resolution techniques, teach about the importance of respecting and fostering the needs of each individual child, working alongside their parents (if they were trying to reintegrate…most teens were in independent living, so reintegration wasn’t common) in partnership parenting in order to help that process, and help the family and children succeed when they went back to their family or eventually moved out on their own. We were taught what normal age appropriate behavior looked like, and were encouraged to have honest and open dialogue with the children about their thoughts, feelings, emotions and needs. There was absolutely NO corporal punishment of any kind allowed or involved by state law. (As it should be). Since I was a foster parent before we had a child of our own, that’s also how we raised our child. “Peaceful Parenting” probably before the term was even coined. Lol

Anyway, our families live in different states, and I knew the first time I met his family that my daughter and I were valued and loved. This started even before we met them actually! They included us and my foster children in every aspect they could! He and I had both been raised in the Christian Faith, and many other aspects of our childhood were the same. Going to church every Sunday (or anytime there was a function) and our families socialized with other families in our Churches. It was just part of our daily lives growing up. The one difference there was that his parents were fundamentalist (meaning “old school” or law oriented) and mine were not and were/are very grace (new testament) oriented. That’s rather important in this long story. Lol.

In the 70s it was a very common “idea” that children were to be seen and not heard. Spanking (or BEYOND spanking) was never questioned. It was usually the “go-to” form of discipline. Spank first…ask questions or talk about it later (if at all). And for those of us who were involved in church (remember…that’s who all the families socialized with so it’s really all we knew) “spare the rod, spoil the child” was preached. Without any further advice or explanation that the term was actually about the shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd’s staff (rod) was used to GUIDE the sheep in the right direction in order to keep them safe…not to physically punish the sheep for “misbehaving”.

In my family, I recall being spanked as a child a few times. My mom was the “disciplinarian” of the family, but neither of them were “yellers” and she usually just talked to us if there were issues. The few times I did get spanked, she still talked and validated our feelings…but AFTER the spanking. Lol. I never have felt any anger or resentment towards her, and in truth I probably would have been the same way with my children if it hadn’t been for the parenting classes I took. It’s just how I thought it was “done”.

In my husband’s family, (he also went to private schools his entire life) getting spanked with a paddle both at home and even through high school IN the school with family members present sometimes to watch…is just how it was “done”. Not only was it acceptable…it was encouraged. The last paddling my husband remembers was at 17. (It’s called a paddling because it’s a literal paddle board). In both cases our parents absolutely believed they were doing the right thing both socially, and in the eyes of “God”. Who was and continues to be a major part in all of our lives. (My husband and I are now both Grace oriented). 😮

And in both of our cases, our parents absolutely love their children with everything in them. And that love is returned.

My husband was medically discharged shortly after we got together, and we soon found out that he has PTSD. He’s always been one to “react” to stress or certain situations in a negative way. It’s usually by yelling, “demanding” that one “complies without question” (that was partially because of the military) and generally the “just do as I say” without questioning why that certain behavior or situation was even happening. “I’m the boss…you will listen” type thing.

I’ve always been really good at setting boundaries and bringing issues up as they were happening, and I stick to those boundaries while trying to figure out the reasoning behind “it” whatever it is. I was the one that helped our older children with any major issues. If there was a high stress situation happening, I took care of it, while he would exit the room and entered again when things calmed down. I was the “defense” person trying to stop escalation before it happened. In those times of stress, many times things would escalate very quickly and extremely irrationally. Sometimes on the verge of emotional/verbal abuse towards me. For those of you who are familiar with PTSD, this is a fairly common thing. That said, PTSD is a reason…not an excuse (There’s a difference). Nobody is responsible for trauma that’s been inflicted onto them or mental illness. NOBODY. (I suffer with depression and anxiety). But it is our “responsibility” to recognize, take responsibility for and to learn to change patterns of behavior that are harmful to others.

After our second child came unexpectedly in our 40s, (we had been out of FC for several years at this point. Our last children went to college, and had started families of their own) and things went really well until our son started becoming an independent little human. When he started getting into things, walking, talking and all that comes with growing up (Our son is high needs. He has ADHD, sensory issues and is in the evaluation process for autism. Life with a high needs child can be challenging on top of typical everyday growing up that all children go through) so those “high stress” incidents started happening more and more out of frustration.

One day in a high stress situation, he snapped. There was screaming and no rational thinking process in sight. And this happened in front of our son. It was one thing for me…an adult who can speak for myself and has extensive knowledge in how to de-escalate/manage certain behaviors…but it’s entirely different when a child is subjected to that kind of behavior…if its intentional or not. So, I made the decision that day and told him that if this behavior continued, I would divorce him and would do WHATEVER it took to protect our son. Protect him from thinking this was “normal”. Protect him from thinking that this is how we treat those that we love etc. Abuse is abuse…if its intentional or not.

My husband knew that wasn’t a threat. It wasn’t just some kind of manipulation to get him to stop. He knew I was absolutely serious because of my boundary setting and following through. Thankfully he took me seriously and chose to do whatever it took to LEARN different behavior.

So, for the past several years I’ve witnessed him researching developmental stages and age appropriate behavior in children. I’ve seen him take charge of his mental health and seek out different strategies on how to unpack issues in his own life, and learn how to cope in productive ways. I had bought an extensive online course on Positive Parenting, and he took the time to go through all of it. (Sometimes more than once). I’ve witnessed our family becoming a cohesive unit that tackles challenges together. There’s no more “running defense” on my end. I’ve witnessed the relationship between son and father go from frustration and overwhelming…to a relationship of understanding and peace. Naturally there are still challenges and high stress situations…there always will be. That’s life. But life looks and IS so much better for all of us now.

So, I completely understood what was written here in this post. Going against what we knew as “normal” and learning a different way to handle issues within the family unit…and hopefully our children won’t have to “reprogram” themselves later in life like we’ve done. Has it been easy? Absolutely 100% no. Was it worth it? Absolutely 100% yes!! ♡ So thank you for sharing this with us so we don’t feel so alone in our parenting journey.

BB Just Bolted Into the Road!

We were at the supermarket when it happened. LL is home with Peaceful Dad, and I had BB with me. It was an ideal opportunity to let him participate in the shopping process.

I had him holding onto the cart handle with me as we cruised through the store. I pointed out the groceries we needed and told him how many to pick up. He counted along as he picked up each item, “one, two,” which is pretty incredible considering he was barely speaking just one year ago. We arrived at self-checkout where he scanned the items and slipped them into bags (almost entirely) by himself.

Uh oh. There was a twinkle in his eye. My body instinctively started toward him even before I registered what was happening. He ran. When autistic kids do it, professionals call it elopement. Whatever you call it, it’s terrifying watching your child run toward danger.

I knew I had left behind all my groceries, my phone (with credit cards), and my car keys, but I didn’t care in that moment. It was all replaceable. I ran. I yelled, “stop!” I clapped my hands to get him attention. All to no avail. Everyone at the store entrance stared at me with surprised expressions. They were frozen. A store employee yelled “hey!” and a man in the crosswalk area spun around and grabbed BB, letting his own cart continue careening through the lot. I caught up a moment later and took BB’s hand. I thanked the man and calmly started back as he looked on with a stunned expression. He had enforced a limit and, in the process, showed BB that bolting is not acceptable.

I saw everyone watching me and I knew they were waiting to see what I would do. Would I be a proper southern mom and whoop him right there in front of God and everyone or would I be “that mom” who didn’t know how to discipline her child? I could have explained loudly, “He’s autistic and he bolts sometimes!” But, I make an effort not to reveal aspects of his identity he hasn’t consented to me sharing, and I’m actively working to destigmatize autism. Neurotypical kids bolt too. It’s kid behavior and I want folks to be understanding of children. I didn’t explain anything. I simply let the “thank you” stand.

We walked back into the store and completed our transaction while I told BB that running into the street is dangerous and that he’d scared me. I told him that I’d keep him safe next time by using our wrist tether. Prevention is key when it comes to childlike behavior.

But that doesn’t mean it’ll be this way forever. We’ll try again and he may still bolt. It’s ok. These instances are decreasing in frequency as he gets older. If you have a bolter too, I get it. Gentleness is for runners just like it’s for kids who reliably stick right next to you.

I will continue to teach my son how to walk safely next to me with and without the tether. I’ll ignore all the moms online who crassly liken tethers and harnesses to dogs on leashes. I’ll thank the strangers who step in to help when we need it. And, I’ll know I’m doing my best.

You are too.

When Friday Turns Fractious

Fridays are always difficult in our house. Both of my children begin to give way to the stresses of the week past and, right around 4:00 PM on any given Friday, they crumble. Today was no different. As I attempted to fold mountains of laundry, my children both stopped playing to find me. Right in front of me, Baby Bear (BB) pushed Little Lamb (LL) to the floor with dramatic flourish. She immediately began to scream and wail. BB, having very little sensory tolerance for the sounds of his sister’s cries, ran out of the room and began pushing items from whatever surface he could find right onto the floor. It had happened so fast that I hadn’t had time to intervene. Impossibly, only a few moments had passed and yet parts of the house were already wrecked.

There’s no question how much havoc dysregulated children can wreak in seconds, but what caused this outburst? Well, we had reached the inevitable point of After-School Restraint Collapse, or in this case, After-A-Full-Week-of-School Restraint Collapse. This very real, very difficult phenomenon is the answer to the question of why children can behave so wonderfully in school only to come home and lose control. It’s difficult for us adults to manage a busy schedule and come home to more responsibilities. We don’t always handle it in the best way either. Children, especially small ones, have ever so much less ability to self-regulate than we do. So, when they reach their safe haven, all of that tension bubbles to the surface, and it has to go somewhere.

I soothed LL who had developed the hiccups from crying so intensely and, when she felt better, I let her lounge on my bed so I could go find BB. I had to address his violence toward his baby sister. I brought him back into the bedroom, as he had cooled off in the interim. I asked him if he needed a hug and he did. He began to cry. The stress must have been unbearable. When he stopped crying, I lifted him onto the bed so we could be level and I said to him, “You were really upset early when you pushed sister. You’ve had a long week at school and you needed to push something to feel better, right?”

He began to cry again, but this time, he angrily yanked my glasses off my face and threw them to the ground. I picked them up and put them on and, again, asked if he needed a hug. He did. So, I hugged him tightly for a long while and told him I loved him. When he was relaxed, I pointed to LL and told him that it hurt her when she got pushed to the ground. I asked him how he could help her now that he was feeling better. So, he slid off the bed, went around to her, and laid his face against her arm. It was only for a moment and then he ran off, but it was an act of love. For the rest of the night until bedtime, he remained dysregulated, but he didn’t push LL again. And, yes, he willingly helped me pick up some of the items he had upset.