Responding to aggression
This week, I’m going to answer a few of the questions that you’ve been sending in, They’re great and it’s been helpful to know what you’re wrestling with.
The ones I'm going to answer today are around aggression in kids. So I thought it could be useful to look at this across a variety of ages. We'll look at
Toddlers being aggressive toward their siblings
Children being rough with friends
Aggression in children is common
1. Toddler Clashes:
The first one is from a couple who have a child who has started biting. In the case of this child, and in fact as is often the case, there was a newborn and the older child had begun being a little aggressive.
Well, first to say, this is pretty common. But it still needs dealing with and preferably when they’re still small rather than when they’re bigger than you.
Let’s look at this with the soft love, strong love approach:
On the soft side. This little one is quite likely confused and fearful. Biting and aggression is an amygdaline reaction. That’s the fight or flight part of the brain kicking in and overriding logic and rationale. When there’s an oversized reaction involved you know that the amygdala is taking over. When the amygdala takes over, there’s fear in the mix.
In this case possibly fear of being undervalued, overlooked or displaced: feelings of rejection
Not that you are rejecting your child of course, but their amygdala might think so in those moments so it comes out to defend.
So it’s worth considering what you’ve put in place for the toddler to reassure them of your love and commitment at this time.
Words are helpful, but TIME is what they’ll be looking for here. Consider making some time for the toddler or older child with mum and/or with dad.
They never need loads. It doesn’t have to be a day at the farm park. It can be a trip to the park, playing a game in a different room. Time in the garden together or popping out to get a drink or treat. Scheduling a few of these in will send the message to your child that they are still important to you and that you still value time alone with them.
On the strong love side, the issue needs tackling.
If you’ve listened to a few of the early podcasts you’ll be familiar with the expression
I manage me
You manage you
So what you say in these circumstances will denote who’s managing who.
"You can’t do that to the baby." (or anyone)
...is not managing you it's an attempt to manage them.
And the reality is
They can do that to the baby, clearly, because they just did.
"We don’t bite, hit, pinch," or what ever they have done
Is another common one.
...I get that you’re putting a value across.
But once again, the ‘we’ isn’t strictly true because
Whilst you might not hit, punch or bite
They clearly do because they just did.
Another common one is
eg. "You need to be kind to the baby."
We’ll, that’s definitely managing them :)
And from their perspective, they actually don’t feel the need at all
So, what does that leave us with?
I think a clear "I" message is helpful here
And then a consequence
What's an "I" message? It's when the sentence subject is "I" or "me" instead of the easier default - "you"
It really upsets me when the baby gets hurt
I need to make sure all my children are safe
But, I hear you say "That won't work."
I would counter that no sentence will be particularly effective on it's own.
It's about the process.
And what happens next...
The process is;
we say what our feelings are
followed by our value
followed by our action
The message they will receive is:
This is the effect it has on me
And this is what Mum/Dad needs to do for our family
And this is what’s going to happen when I make that choice
Your feelings: It really upsets me when the baby gets hurt (or your own "I" message)
Your value: I need to make sure all my children are safe
Your action: pick them up, gently and remove them from the room.
Not a fan of the naughty step!
Removing them is not to be confused with the naughty step
There are more connected ways to separate a child from a situation.
The naughty step has a label attached.
Labels bring about shame
children aren't naughty
A child can make a poor choice
It doesn’t make them a naughty child
they just make poor choices sometimes
a step can’t be naughty
The point is there is a world of difference between evicting a child to a place alone in the house
Taking a child to a space and giving them a choice.
The former is disempowering
The latter is empowering
Let's go back to removing the child.
I know for many parents they’re so keen to keep connection that they sometimes undervalue their own authority and worry that they'll damage the child's feelings or lose their connection when they lose their favour.
Authority isn’t lording it over someone or even taking the child’s value away. It’s not aggressive, violent or even unfair.
It can be gently done.
If we don’t stand up for our home values
Our home values won’t stand up!
So, take the child (possibly wriggling and screaming at this point or at least having some sort of lung work out) and using gentle words, take them to their room or a space in the house where they can make a choice. Possibly not a public space like the stairs.
Let them know that you’d love them to come back into the kitchen or lounge or wherever you were,
I’ve had a chance to calm down and get over what just happened and
When they feel able to be gentle and kind (or words of your choice there)
Then, let them know that you’re sure something felt unfair for them
"I’d like to talk about that later, if you’d like to."
...."I love you and I’m looking forward to you coming back." or words to that effect.
Is it time consuming? Yes
Is it hard? Yes,
It’s even courageous because you’re putting the choice back with them.
Empowered children need choices.
They may well try to follow you out of the room
Which is when you might need to keep putting them back and reminding them that you need a couple of minutes also.
At this point you might want to choose to use a timer and depending on their age set it for a few minutes.
Then, the choice is theirs if they feel ready to rejoin you when the timer has gone off.
Try, whilst being gentle, not to labour the process, because if it’s a cry for attention, the longer the process takes you the more attention they are gaining from you.
Why is that different to the naughty step?
It has choices
It has no labels
It’s affirming of their feelings
You own your own need for space
Valuing yourself and your need to recover is really important too.
Because if you want them to be respectful now and in their teen years, then you need to model self-respect.
It’s firm, but it’s kind
You keep your connection in place
You don’t shame them.
But they know how it’s going to work out for them next time they choose aggression.
2. Friend Clashes
Let’s move on to when they’re a little bigger. They wanted the toy or something a friend was playing with or has taken off them.
Maybe this is in a setting with friends somewhere, or in time, at a playgroup.
It's worth saying at this point that all sorts of things can be going on before your child choses an aggressive response, can't it? - they might be responding to unfairness or unkind words, so I'm sure you'll be looking out for whether a child has been provoked, whether there has been a bit of cunning or cutting words from the other child.
But in the name of tackling aggressive actions, the response is similar:
scoop them up
let them know that you understand they’re upset, but that you need to chat with them.
Take them to a place away from people (it’s so embarrassing being addressed in front of others)
Let them know people (there other child and possibly the other parent) need a little time to recover from what just happened.
If it’s safe, leave them and return to the group as we talked about in the first instance.
If it’s someone else’s house and unfamiliar and they’re very young, it will feel strange for them to be standing there alone, so you may need to stand with them.
Let them know you just need some time to recover, otherwise this is negative attention.
In either case,
Return to what happned later and let them know you’d like to understand.
Often snuggling up at bedtime can be a good moment for this, but if they share a room, perhaps create another space to do that.
They may choose not to. Remember, you’re setting culture here, not just tryingfor an immediate outcome.
The message is
I care how you felt
If you don’t want to tell me now, I’ll leave it open for you to talk to me at another point if you want to.
They may well feel aggrieved and have something they need to air.
If we don’t give them that opportunity, they will start to bottle things.
Listening and understanding doesn’t mean you need to agree, it just means hearing and affirming their feelings in the situation and holding back your take on it until they have processed how they feel. After that is the time to say how it looked from your angle and what values you are upholding, if that feels necessary.
Don’t worry if a two year old isn’t familiar with the word 'values', we don’t have to water everything down. They’ll get used to the language because you use it. After all, we speak in full sentences to babies, it’s how they learn to talk.
If you feel there’s an ongoing issue
Make some time outside the issues or heats-of-moment and talk to them generally about how you feel about aggression.
This is a good time to mention creating a value sheet...
Putting time aside as a family and talking about values
How we treat each other
What atmosphere we want in our home
What we do for each other
It’s a great thing to have on your fridge and then when you’re chatting about tricky moments, you have a shared value to refer to.
3. Sibling Clashes
So what about that scenario where one sibling hurts another? That can happen when they’re very small, but it can equally happen when they’re bigger...and even bigger. So putting the values in place and the consequences now will make things easier later.
The automatic reaction is often to turn to the child who has done the deed and tell them what we think!
However, it’s helpful to rewire this automatic reaction and turn the fuss on the one who’s sustained the injury.
Negative attention is still attention, so if a child using aggression attracts all the attention, the chances are they’ll do it again.
When you’ve attended to the child who was bitten or pushed or whatever the deed, then you can turn to the one who did the deed and remove them.
This is not punishment
Remember, you’re not punishing them. You’re making your family space safe.
When you protect the family from that child's aggression you are also sending the message to him or her that you will protect them too. It conveys their worth as well as the one being protected. Now or in later years, they will know it is ok to protect yourself from verbal or physical issues.
But also, remember after the heat of the moment to stand back a little and see if that child is getting the time with a parent that they need in order to thrive.
I mentioned in an earlier podcast that I used to have 40 minutes once a month with each child at our local TGi Friday. There are better places, I grant you. But it’s local and easy to get to and feels like a totally different space to home.
A park, café or a walk around the block is just as good. As long as it’s intentional time. Chats on the way to the shops are fine, but they’re not picking a child out of the family and saying, 'I want to spend time with you.'
Anger isn't a wrong emotion, in fact, children need to know that it is a healthy emotion. What we do with it is the key.
Next week we'll move on to teen aggression and back chat. And although I'll be focussing on the teen years, the principles apply across the years.
Do pop over the podcast. You can hear all about the above content here