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.

We Don’t Really Want to Force Our Kids to Share

Do we? As upstanding citizens and caring humans, most of us feel compelled by empathy to help others who don’t have what they need. We offer our money to organizations that provide supplies and services. We offer our time volunteering to feed people. We value the act of giving freely of ourselves, so… we turn around and teach our kids to share through force? Wait a minute. What is the message we’re sending versus the message we’re intending to send?

If you look up the word “sharing,” you’ll see definitions that involve portioning and joint use of an item. When we tell our children to share a toy, unless both children are playing with a toy at the same time, they are cannot share the toy. We share food when we split it among our family members. We share a couch when we sit together to watch a movie. Sharing is an essential exercise we all must do to survive. We teach our children to share of themselves when we model intentional generosity. It takes very little effort to teach children how to share if we are willing to orient ourselves toward inclusion and restoration. They witness sharing when we leave tips for people who provide us a service. They see it when we move to make room for someone on a bus. They recognize it when a community comes together to set aside land to build homes for people who have none. Sharing is an invitation and a kindness. And, for many of us, sharing is a fundamental component of social justice. When we don’t share, people suffer. In some cases, we have to enact laws to mitigate the harm caused by people who refuse to share, particularly when that refusal is based on unjust discrimination.

Many of us say we want our children to learn to share when what we really mean is that we want them to learn to take turns with other children. Turn-taking is tough! It’s not something that comes naturally to a small child. Yet, we can find ourselves pushing a child too hard to do something that they are not developmentally able to accomplish within the strict confines of our directives. And, there is a significant cost to coercing a child into an action. In 2014, the multidisciplinary journal of Development and Psychopathology published an article that looked at the links between early coercion and later behavioral problems. The researchers followed an ethnically diverse sample of 731 children from ages 2-5 to discover the effect of their parents’ methods in enforcing discipline. What they found was that coercive interactions between caregivers and children amplified the children’s noncompliance and escalated both oppositional and aggressive behavior even into later childhood. Meaning, when we coerce our children, we effectively encourage them to resist rather than to cooperate. So, what do we do instead?

In my house, one of our cherished guidelines is receiving consent. My children (currently 4 and 2) understand, through modeling, that we don’t snatch items away from each other. Adults and children alike enjoy the security of knowing that their claim to an item will be honored to the extent possible. Here’s how Peaceful Dad and I make it happen.

Ownership

When one child receives a gift, we encourage that child to store the gift away from main areas if they don’t want their sibling or other children playing with it. When they’re ready to enter it into circulation, since new toys do lose their luster over time, turn-taking guidelines will apply.

Turns

Whomever has possession of a toy retains possession of it for as long as they wish, with one major caveat. Turns do not last overnight. So, the next day, the other sibling will have “first dibs” on that toy should they want to play with it. A “turn” lasts as long as the child is actively playing with a toy. We don’t do toy hoarding here. One toy at a time. Once the child moves onto another toy, the toy left behind is up for grabs.

Waiting

When one sibling takes an interest in a toy that the other sibling is playing with, we sportscast. “Brother, looks like Sister wants a turn when you’ve finished playing.” We also engage with the child who is waiting by empathizing, “You really want to play with that toy! After Brother’s turn, it will be your turn” and encourage the child to choose another activity. And, then we move on. The goal is to empower the children to establish boundaries and use words to indicate their intention.

Intervention

There are rare times in our house that fights break out over toys. It’s always unrelated to the toy though. Our children generally choose to play together and cooperate unless something is wrong, so when we intervene, we follow our trusty Three Rs. Once the household is calm again, we sportscast, “It was Brother’s turn before. Brother, would you still like to play with the toy?” And, then everything starts again.

Sharing

We’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences with turn-taking. Sharing is a little more difficult here. There’s a particular riding toy that my children try to ride together. At first, it’s adorable, but after a while, they often start pushing and shoving. When that happens, we intervene with the Three Rs and do our best to let them work it out.

Fighting

Every now and then, a fight will break out that gets reactivated even after we’ve worked through the Three Rs. When this happens, we do intervene, usually by leading both children to another activity. I’ve noticed with my young kids that the cure for fights is playtime outside. I can understand how frustrating it is to be on top of each other in a small space for too long. They need a chance to stretch their legs and fill their lungs with air. We go outside at least once a day anyway, but on the more difficult days, we’ll spend extra time in nature. I admit that my patience grows short on those days and my own attitude exacerbates an already volatile situation. So, fair warning, if your kids are fighting, check yourself too.

Outside the Home

When we’re away from home, playing with other children, we respect the rules of the space. I let my kids know that we are not at home and these toys do not belong to us. I employ more redirection in these instances. For example, I might say, “Brother, looks like your friend would like a turn.” I might escalate to something like “five more minutes and let’s go find something else to play with” if my son isn’t showing signs of readiness. The younger the child, the harder this is, I’ve found. But, talking your child through the hardship helps, no matter how old they are.

I can understand that all of this may seem preposterous given what you may have witnessed in your own home, but hear me out. Encouraging consent and self-advocacy gives children tools that will last a lifetime. Helping them wait lets them know they aren’t alone and that you understand them. Giving children authority to take temporary ownership of a toy empowers the child in a world that is incredibly disempowering to children. And, you might discover what I have. When I take a step back, my kids work a lot of things out on their own. For instance, my son will negotiate for a toy! He’ll bring my daughter a toy he knows she loves in exchange for a turn with the toy she’s playing with. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But, by and large, my kids tend toward willingly giving up their toys to their sibling, because they know the choice is completely theirs. Have faith in your kids. They may surprise you!