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.

Why I Don’t Say I’m My Kids’ Friend

For very important anti-childist, anti-authoritarian reasons, many peaceful parents promote friendship between parents and children. Yet, I struggle with the concept of being in a friend relationship with my children for similar reasons why I don’t believe people who support marginalized communities can declare themselves allies. I can’t dictate to my children how they will regard me. I can demonstrate to them the qualities of friendship and how positive relationships work, but I will simultaneously be working out my anti-childist journey. While they remain children, there will be tension in the balance of power and fragile progress in my unlearning of childism. It’s not as simple as declaring myself their friend and then palling it up with them.

It’s up to my children to decide how they will characterize our relationship. I can provide many of the wonderful qualities of friendship like honesty, acceptance, and respect, but I am also responsible for teaching, guiding, and protecting. It’s… complicated. If they don’t view me as a friend, I’ll be ok.

Truth be told, I completely understand and agree with the reasoning behind why parents want to be friends with their kids. I don’t think it’s strange at all that adults and children enjoy friendship. Obviously, the content of such friendships is different from adult-adult friendships. For instance, we should never burden children with our adult worries. But, we already know that different friendships manifest in different ways. We have coworker friends that we go to lunch with but may never see outside the office. We have childhood friends who remain in our lives but at a distance. We have mom friends online who know our deepest, darkest secrets but whom we may never meet in person. Friendship is not a one size fits all scenario. Adult-child friendships are cool as long as there’s a high degree of propriety and a complete absence of abusive behavior. I hope someday to achieve the status of “friend” to my children and here’s why.

Friends are their own complete people first and foremost. It’s one thing to want to be close to another person and another to be codependent. Friends have their own separate identities, needs, and wants, and they have mutual respect of all these things.

Friends care and are invested in each other. Friendship involves a selflessness in that friends pay attention to each other and elevate each other’s needs.

Friends have integrity. They are trustworthy and dependable. They tell the truth, even when it’s unpleasant. And, they do these things with the intent to uplift and never to tear down.

Friends improve morale. Friends offer a self-esteem boost. It feels good when people want you around and even better when they go out of their way to seek you out. As social creatures, humans need friendships for our mental health and this aspect of friendship in no small way explains why.

Friends believe in each other. It is so important to have people in our lives who know us well and understand us. One of the most critical aspects of friendship is being trusted.

Friends forgive. All relationships experience decline and growth. When we mess up, we have to know that our friends love us enough to mend the bond and move forward even stronger than before.

Friends listen and support. Good friends know when they need to be quiet and listen intently. They empathize and seek to support their friends in the most helpful ways whether that means validating feelings or giving advice or even riding out to take care of business when the situation calls for it.

Friends give and take. Allowing for free flowing reciprocity is so important. Friends don’t need to keep score. They just need to provide whatever support is required and ask for what they themselves need. That’s how friends show up for each other in the good times and bad.

There isn’t a single thing in that list that doesn’t also apply to my hopes for parenthood. This is the type of parent I want to be, which means there must be room for friendship in my relationship with my children. How that will end up looking is anyone’s guess. It’s going to develop organically, fostered with love and intentionality. I will demonstrate friendship to my children whether or not they consider me their friend and, maybe in time, I’ll hear those sweet words “You’re my best friend, mommy.” What an awesome day that would be!

In Defense of Unlimited Screen Time

Did y’all see the study from November 2019 that found screen use greater than the amount recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics was associated with decreased microstructural organization and myelination of brain white matter tracts that support language and emergent literacy skills? Big yikes! Does that mean screens cause brain damage? That’s certainly a question I’ve seen floating around the internet. Parents are rightfully concerned about screen time when study after study shows these terrible outcomes.

There’s that 2013 literature review on screen time use in children under the age of three. Bad news.

And, that 2015 literature review on the effects of screen time on children’s sleep found. Terrible stuff.

And, that 2018 literature review on the physiological and psychological effects of screentime. You might as well just give up at this point.

And, that whole Research Roundup that seems to exist to fill parents with dread. Oh, the horror!

But, check this out.

The 2013 review found that there is very little research on infants and toddlers and that more research is needed to better understand the environmental, socio-cultural, and behavioral correlates for young children.

The 2015 review found that none of the studies they looked at from 1999-2014 could establish a causal connection, measurement errors of screen time exposure and sleep limited the outcomes of the studies, and factors like characteristics and content of screens was not well understood.

And, the 2018 review found that psychophysiological resilience in children requires the ability to focus, good social coping and attachment, and good physical health all of which could be impacted by “excessive” digital media use. They further recommend more research on duration, content, after-dark use, media type, and number of devices.

In fact, there’s a 2015 literature review on the association of parental influences with physical activity and screen time among young children found that there is a causal connection between the parents’ physical activity and screen use and that of the children. It should come as no surprise that the behavior of parents directly influences the behavior of their children.

And, that first study I mentioned? The one from 2019 about how screens change the brains of little kids? If you look a little deeper, you’ll see that the sample size is both small and homogenous and that the survey and testing scores used in the study did not meet the threshold for statistical significance when income was included in the model. Those details change the story a bit.

Minding the Nuance

The reality is that there is valuable research happening, but we simply don’t understand what’s really going on. That’s why the pediatric organizations that exist to protect our kids are sounding the alarm. They’re saying look at all this data we’re seeing! Something is happening. Pay attention. So, if your family’s lifestyle flows better without any screens, by all means, do what works for you. This post is for those of you who want to incorporate screens without fear.

There are some things we can discern intuitively about screen use.

  • It can be distracting. Background sounds from a TV at low volume add static to the environment where infants and toddlers play. A measurable impact has been found on the ability of very small children to develop play skills naturally when TVs are used as noise fillers.
  • It can signal trouble. While we don’t know that screens cause depression, we do know that children who watch a lot of TV often have clinical depression that necessitates medication. So, it’s worth paying attention to what your kids are doing, so that you can intervene if necessary.
  • It can replace other healthful behaviors. A child who is watching TV or playing video games is not outside running around. And, a child who is watching TV or playing video games is not telling you about the troubles they’re having.

Now, something that doesn’t get enough air time in these discussions is the economics of restriction. Essentially, by restricting a thing, we increase its value. As explained by Pam Sorooshian, unschooler extraordinaire,

When you only allow a limited amount of TV, then the marginal utility of a little more tv is high and every other option looks like a poor one, comparatively. Watching more TV becomes the focus of the person’s thinking, since the marginal utility is so high. Relax the constraints and, after a period of adjustment and experimentation to determine accurate marginal utilities, the focus on TV will disappear and it will become just another option.

The more you restrict, the more they’ll crave screens. It can feel uncomfortable to loosen the reins and it’s pretty likely your child will consume seemingly impossible amounts of flickering deliciousness at first. But, over time, and in the presence of intentional investment in your child’s needs and wants, screens will lose their luster and become just another activity.

If you’ve been restricting your child’s screen time, because you wanted to do the best possible thing for them or because you felt their screen use was getting out of control, it’s ok. You’re not alone. Not by any means. Just know there is an approach to screen use that is responsible and respectful, whenever you’re ready.

Anti-Childist Screen Use Monitoring

One of the things about the furor over screens that particularly bothers me is the emphasis on cognition and school performance. We’re encouraged to limit our children to a screen schedule of our making, so they can possibly do better in school at some point in the future. But why? Why is academic success the measure of a good life? Why are we not prioritizing our children’s ability to regulate their own behaviors and activities by giving them ownership over the way they choose to spend their time?

We can trust our children to make good decisions when we set them up for success. In our house, I try to limit my compulsion to set rules for everyone. Whenever my kids want to watch TV, I’m ok with it. They have free access to their tablets to use as they wish. But, I also create an environment where they don’t have any desire to obsessively consume that visual stimulation. We spend lots of time outside. We read. We do chores. We play, craft, and bake together. When I see one of my kids struggling to transition from screens to another activity, I intervene. When that happens, it means there’s something deeper going on that needs to be addressed. It doesn’t mean I need to arbitrarily limit screen time. I have some guidelines for my family in the back of my mind to help ensure that I’m providing the most effective mix of activities and the best possible education around the use of screens.

  • Be Intentional. Consider using screens on purpose. That means avoiding the use of TVs as background noise and trying not to hand your kids screens to keep them occupied. Instead, let your children decide when they want to use screens and for how long. And, have them choose one screen at a time. In general, our TV doesn’t get turned on until 3 PM, if at all. There’s too much other fun stuff to do.
  • Be Interactive. Studies show that children can learn a great deal from interactive touchscreens when their parents help them and reinforce what they’re learning.
  • Be Wise. Particularly when it comes to older kids, parents need to prepare children for the risks of predators and dangerous malware. Talk to your kids about these dangers and make a plan together for how to stay safe.
  • Choose Educational Content. Programs like Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger provide important information and skills to little kids, especially when families reinforce in daily life what the kids are learning online.
  • Eat Without Distraction. One rule we do have is that our dining table is a toy-free, screen-free space when we’re having a meal. It’s a matter of mutual respect and consideration. Family meals are sacred in my house. They’re one of the few opportunities we have to get together and chat over one of the most fundamental human activities.
  • Get Plenty of Fresh Air and Exercise. Getting outside is so important for every member of the family, but especially children. They need lots and lots of movement throughout the day to improve focus, digestion, motor skills, and sleep. Rather than restricting screens, think about encouraging more movement for balance.
  • Practice Good Sleep Hygiene. The so-called warnings about blue light got a little kick in the pants this year. A study challenged the idea that blue light impacts circadian rhythms. We don’t actually know if blue light is a problem. What we do know is that stimulation of any kind interrupts our sleep cycle. In our house, all screens and radios go off at 6:30 pm. That’s our family time and we cherish the ability to interact with each other without distraction. For a great night’s sleep, keep your kids’ room very dark, relatively cool (65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit), and comfortably quiet.

Like many parents, when I first became a mom, I was hypervigilant about everything. I stressed myself out trying to do everything by the book, until life taught me that wisdom beats out perfection every time. If you want your children to enjoy screens, let them. Formulate some guidelines for yourself and conduct self-checks to make sure your guidelines are working. Talk with your kids about your concerns. Let them know your values and also that you trust them to know what their minds and bodies need. As new evidence emerges, we’ll be in a great position to shift some of our guidelines to better support our children’s development. Screens are ok, y’all. Promise!

Do the Least Harm

As parents, we will harm our children in some way. It’s the nature of genuine relationships to expand and contract in closeness, to struggle in balancing boundaries, and to waver between selfishness and selflessness. Committing to do the least harm requires that we spend much time considering the impacts of our actions, which is what makes peaceful parenting so challenging for many of us. Reacting is easy. Thoughtfully responding to our children gets exhausting fast, even for those of us who have been doing it for a long while.

This past week, a reply to one of my Facebook posts got me thinking about my own inclination toward defensiveness around my parenting choices. I had posted a meme that compared two ways to speak gently with a child who doesn’t want to take a nap. A reader remarked that a third potential solution was to allow children to choose for themselves when they want to sleep. Gasp! I was poised to explain why their solution couldn’t work for me rather than admitting their suggestion was the gentler, more respectful approach. My childist reaction was to defend my situation whereas the anti-childist response was to simply sit with the suggestion, however uncomfortable it was.

You see, I’ve battled lifelong insomnia. Aside from medication, nothing helps. It is just one of the many symptoms of autism that I experience. My daughter appears to have the same issue with insomnia, which may or may not be a prelude to a future autism diagnosis. She can stay up for an impossible amount of time considering she’s only two. When she decides to sleep, she crashes and you can’t wake her up until she’s ready. Even then, she doesn’t sleep for long. And, we can’t leave her alone when she’s awake or she will tear the house apart. I mean, she will literally peel the paint from the walls. So someone has to stay up with her. And, that someone is always me. So my best solution has been to try to keep her on the same schedule as my son. To do that, though, I have to lie down with her every time she goes to sleep. Sometimes, she plays as we cuddle. Sometimes, she thrashes angrily because she’s so overtired. And, sometimes, I can’t get her to sleep no matter what I do and I have to get up with her to play for a while.

As she gets older, I can teach her some of the skills I’ve learned in my four decades on this planet. The reality is that she needs sleep, but she struggles to get an adequate amount. My solution to impose a schedule is not the ideal option for me as a peaceful parent. My preference will always be to give my children autonomy over their lives.

And, that’s what this reader was offering… an opportunity to make a better choice. I often hear people say things like, “every child is different,” implying that parents should have free license to use whatever approaches we deem necessary. I disagree. While every child is different, children have a right to be free from coercion, punishment, and violence. It is never okay to yell at or hit a child. And it’s not okay to pressure children to bend to the will of an adult. I can’t excuse the childism that influences the way I interact with my kids and neither should you. Our goal must be to reject childism and to choose to be anti-childist.

Ultimately, my anti-childist decision was to like react this reader’s nap alternative and withhold my defensive reaction. Other readers needed to know the clearly anti-childist solution and I needed the reminder. It’s not really about naptime at all. It’s about investigating and diminishing the adult-centric way we address the challenges our children experience.

When we are deciding how we will approach these challenges, there are some questions we need to ask ourselves and wrestle with:

What does my child need?

What do I need?

How can I address both our needs while respecting my child’s autonomy?

Are there alternatives I haven’t tried because they’re inconvenient?

How is childism affecting the decision I’m about to make?

How might this decision harm my child?

How might this decision harm our relationship?

As we seek to do the least harm, we will be challenged by people who have better solutions than the ones we’ve been using. Instead of explaining why we can’t choose the anti-childist option, let’s look for ways to incorporate those better solutions into our approaches. In doing so, our anti-childist orientation will grow and mature with the help of our partners, our children, and our peaceful parenting community.