Few things are more vexing than when children are physically aggressive: hitting, kicking, pushing, biting, pinching. Many parents I work with worry that this kind of behavior signals a lack of empathy. One dad recently wondered about something that is perplexing to many parents: "How could we—such loving, peaceful people—have created a kid who can be so hurtful?”
At the same time, parents fear the consequences for their child: Will she be seen as a bully? Will other children not want to play with him? Will she get kicked out of preschool? And for themselves: Will I be alienated from the other parents who judge me because of my child’s behavior?
These are all very natural concerns which understandably trigger intense reactions. In an effort to eliminate these aggressive behaviors, most parents become harsh and punitive. They shame: “What is wrong with you? Why would you want to hurt your friend?” They use threats and punishment: “No TV time for the rest of the week if you hit again!” Or, instill fear: “No one will ever want to play with you if you hurt them.”
The problem with these tactics is that while they may seem logical from an adult perspective—that they should motivate a child to stop the behaviors—they often backfire for several reasons:
When children feel shamed, they shut down. Their brains get flooded with negative emotion. When they are in "red zone"—their minds and bodies are out of control—they can’t take in any lesson you are trying to impart. Further, it is during the first five years that children are developing their sense of self—what kind of person they are—which is deeply affected by the messages they get from those around them. If a child is repeatedly told that there is something wrong with her, that she is an aggressive, violent, or “mean” person, she internalizes these messages. They become part of her personal narrative which she then acts on—the old self-fulfilling prophecy at work.
Young children don’t have the self-control necessary to stop themselves from acting on their impulses. They are not being aggressive on purpose. This can be confusing to parents who don’t see other children the same age acting out with their bodies. So they assume that their child is making a conscious choice to be harmful. But there are several important factors to keep in mind that make it more likely that a child will act aggressively:
Temperament. Children who have a high activity level and are more excitable and physical by nature are more likely to have a harder time with impulse control.
Sensory system. For example, children who are very sensitive to, and uncomfortable with, people entering their physical space may bite to keep others at bay. Children who are “sensory seekers”—who crave sensory input—may love the sensation of crashing into or pushing things with great force, including people. Simply telling a child to stop hitting/biting/pushing is unlikely to work as the drive to meet this sensory need is so strong that it supersedes his ability to use his brain to make a better decision. (To learn more about the impact of sensory processing on children’s behavior, check out this blog.)
Context. Any major change, especially one that is particularly difficult or painful—such as a separation, loss or witnessing a traumatic event—can lead to an increase in aggressive behavior. Recently, I met with a family whose four-year-old had seen a tree fall on their neighbor’s car during a major storm. She became extremely fearful of going outside and also started to hit and bite—new behaviors for her. Young children’s brains are still in the early stages of development. The “downstairs” brain, that puts us into flight, fight or freeze mode when experiencing stress, is much more likely to drive children’s behavior than the “upstairs” brain (the prefrontal cortex) which enables us to think about our feelings and experiences and manage how best to deal with these emotions. When children have experienced a highly stressful event, their psychic energy is diverted to cope with the big, confusing feelings that have gotten triggered and they are less able to calm themselves and self-regulate.
What are effective ways to respond to aggressive behavior?
Implement an approach based on teaching, not punishing. I suggest the following steps:
1. Stop the behavior while calmly and matter-of-factly stating the limit: “We don’t hit/bite/pinch. People have feelings and I know you don't mean to be hurtful. I am going to help your body get back in control and help you be safe.” Then do what you need to do to stop the aggressive behavior. You might have to hold your child in a bear hug or place him in a safe space (see below.) To ensure you can maintain control outside the home, I recommend bringing a stroller with you whenever possible so, if necessary, you can secure your child and keep everyone safe. Or, you may have to carry your child, kicking and screaming, to the car to get him into his car seat to go home. Ideally, you would implement this calmly to lower the intensity level and show your child that you are in control. As you are securing your child, in a quiet voice you might repeat a mantra, such as: “You are having a hard time. I know you don’t mean to be hurtful. Your mind and body are just out of control. I will keep you safe.” As noted above, avoid using shaming language such as "violent" or "mean". Instead, stick to objectively describing your child's actions.
2. Offer an acceptable way for your child to get the physical need met. If the behavior is driven by a sensory need, no amount of telling a child to stop a behavior is likely to be successful. The physical drive will supersede any ability to use his thinking brain to exercise impulse control. What does work and what children need are acceptable alternatives: “If you need to hit, here’s an object that doesn’t have feelings that you can hit.” It can be very helpful to create a bin of objects that your child can safely squeeze, hit, kick, bite, etc., such as squishy balls, larger foam balls, Chewlery necklaces to bite, Play-Doh or slime, and weighted balls. Many kids I work with also find it very soothing to burrow themselves beneath couch cushions. This site has a lot of great sensory tools you might want to check out.
3. If your child is spiraling out of control and can’t choose an alternative, as long as he is not being destructive, and doesn’t need to be physically contained, move on. Let him know that when he’s done being upset he can try again—to go back to what was happening before the incident, if that’s possible, or to start something new. "When you are calm, we can give the puzzle another try." Or, "When you are calm, I would love to have a helper in the kitchen. I need a strong guy like you to help mash the potatoes." The idea is to show him with your actions that you are not angry and that you are still loving and connected. You have done your job which is to set the limit; you have stopped the harmful behavior. Remember, you are teaching, not punishing. If you get angry, you are more likely to intensify the interaction and make it less likely that your child will calm down and be able to learn from the experience.
4. If your child is being destructive, put him in a safe space. When your child is being destructive and you cannot help him get back in control, it is essential to have a safe, loving place he can go that has boundaries—meaning he can’t exit it on his own. This prevents the unpleasant back-and-forth that ensues when kids keep coming out of a safe space before they are calm. It is ideal to include your child in designing the space, giving him choices of acceptable items that can be included, such as stuffed animals, squishy/stress balls, cozy pillows, and books. Putting a kids’ tent in the space can be very effective as it feels snuggly and comforting to children, especially when they are unraveling.
When you assess that a break is needed, introduce it calmly and sensitively. Even if you are holding your child out at arm’s length to avoid his kicking, hitting or biting, as calmly as possible, take him to his break place. Keep language to a minimum – remember, kids can’t process more input when they are in the “red zone.” Perhaps just whisper, “You’re really upset and are having a hard time controlling your body. I am going to be a helper and take you to your safe space to take a break.” Let your child know that you are eager to help him problem-solve and get back to playing when he is calm.
Be sure to have appropriate expectations for what the break will accomplish. Young children do not yet have the ability to reflect on their actions and behavior on their own without help from a caring adult. This means that the goal of taking a break is not self-reflection: “Gee, I wonder why I let my emotions get the best of me — I really shouldn’t have thrown that train at Henry’s head” is beyond toddlers and even preschoolers (not to mention many adults!). The goal is to provide a quiet place where your child can move from a state of high agitation and upset to a sense of calm. The break offers the space for both parent and child to regroup. No learning takes place when children are in an agitated, emotionally flooded state.
Many parents I have worked with initially feel uncomfortable with the idea of securing a child in a space. At a gut level, it feels rejecting and mean. They have also read or been told that time-outs are destructive and that only time-ins (when you stay with your child no matter what) are loving. But having spent hundreds of hours observing children during epic meltdowns, it is abundantly clear that the tense, aggressive, back-and-forth (physical and emotional) that often ensues when children are out of control—kicking, hitting, spitting, clawing at parents—is much more harmful than providing children (and parents!) some space in a safe and loving way. Further, for many children I work with, having a parent in the room with them during the break is a stimulant which makes it harder for them to calm down. Separations aren’t inherently or automatically harmful to young children. It’s all in the way it is executed. When providing the break is framed and approached sensitively and supportively—not punitively—it is caring, not callous.
5. Problem solve once your child is calm. Problem-solving can happen only once your child is calm. Her brain cannot take in any information when she is in the “red zone”—when her mind and body are completely out of control. When the storm has subsided, comment on what a great job she did calming herself down, no matter how long it took. Then tell the story of what happened. “You were really mad when mommy wouldn’t let you have TV time this morning before school. You lost control and threw the remote at me. You didn’t mean to hurt me—when you are upset your body takes over. I am going to help you learn to control your body—that’s my job. What are some ideas you have?” Listen to her ideas and share yours. Include in this discussion the creation of the safe space and have her help you create it so she experiences that this is not punishment—it is a tool for helping her get back in control.
When to Seek Professional Help
Aggressive behavior is expected to some degree in early childhood given the lack of impulse control in children, especially under age five. The issue is the intensity and frequency of the behaviors. If the behavior is interfering in a child’s functioning—her ability to learn, explore, and engage in a healthy way at home and in the outside world, for example at childcare or preschool—it is time to consider seeking professional help. Talk to your child’s health care provider or contact a child development specialist to do further evaluation, if necessary, to root out the underlying cause of the behaviors and to provide you with the tools and support to manage these challenging moments