Does your child get aggressive when they are upset? Do they throw things, kick or hit you, spit or scream?
This is so tough! If you are like most parents, you respond by saying (or yelling!) “Stop hitting me!” or “No kicking!” or “I can listen to you when you stop screaming in my face.” Understandable responses- but you might actually be perpetuating the problem and making it worse. (watch the video version of this post here.)
Want to know why? Try this with me: Imagine you and your partner are at home in the kitchen. The phone rings and you answer. You get some horrible news- you’ve lost your job, or someone has died. You hang up and you are so upset you can’t speak. You look around you and pick up the closest thing- a glass bowl- and smash it on the floor. Or maybe you start wailing inconsolably.
How would you want your partner to respond? Maybe you would want your partner to say, “Oh you are so upset. What happened? Tell me about it.” Or maybe they would say nothing but come over and wrap you in their arms while you cried.
What if your partner said, “No throwing things!” Or, “I will listen to you when you stop screaming.”
Pretty awful, right?
That’s what we do to our children most of the time. We completely ignore the feeling that is underneath the aggression and we focus on their behaviour.
If we want to stop the aggression, we have to stop focussing on the aggressive behaviour and respond to our child’s feelings.
How do we do this?
1. Keep yourself safe and get calm.
Move out of kicking or throwing range, gently hold a child who is hitting. Regulate yourself so you can respond from a calm place. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that this is not an emergency! Your child is having a hard time, not giving you a hard time. (If you need some help with this? Check out my free How To Stop Yelling At Your Kids e-course.)
2. Respond to your child’s feelings with empathy.
Say, “Oh sweetie, you are so upset. I see you you. You are so mad at me right now. I hear you. I understand.” (if you know what the upset is about you could say, “You wanted… You wish…”)
The only way our child will calm down (or even want to calm down) is if they feel understood and their feelings are acknowledged.
If you only respond to the aggression, or tell them to calm down, you are showing them you don’t understand or accept their big feelings. It could even make the aggression escalate. If your partner said, “No throwing things!” it would likely make you want to throw more things.
3. Give them alternative ways to communicate.
Say this: “You are so upset that you are hitting/kicking/yelling. You don’t have to [insert aggressive behaviour here]. [Aggressive behaviour] hurts people. You can tell me how you feel and I will listen. I will always listen to your feelings and try to understand and help you.”
Coach your child to stomp their foot and say “I’m mad!” or something similar.
4. Teach them how to manage their big feelings.
Our children get aggressive as communication and because they don’t know how to manage their big feelings. They get overwhelmed and slip into the “fight” of fight/flight/freeze mode.
When we show them that we understand and offer to hold that space for them, we are actually helping them regulate (calm) their big feelings.
Over time, as we respond to the feelings that are driving the aggression, our child will learn to tolerate those big feelings. When we see the aggression as communication and give them alternative ways to be heard and understood, they don’t have to kick/hit/scream to show us how they feel.
What about the hitting/kicking/screaming?
Your child already knows that the rule is “No hitting/kicking/screaming.” If explaining the rules (or ‘consequences’, time-outs, yelling or ignoring) could stop aggression, it likely would have worked by now. If we don’t get to the root cause of the behaviour (those feelings!) nothing else will stop it.
When everyone is recovered, you can tell the story after: “You were so upset today. I told you you couldn’t watch another show and you got so mad you were trying to kick me! That was really hard, huh? No kicking though. You can always tell me how you feel and I will listen. I can’t let you watch another show but I can help you feel better.”
Your child probably needs to cry.
Underneath the anger are some really big feelings. They need to cry to help those feelings move through their bodies and help them to accept this hard thing that they are upset about. Gordon Neufeld calls this reaching the “tears of futility.” Your compassion and empathy, and ignoring the aggression just for the moment, will help them get there.
The only way to stop aggression is to respond to our child’s big feelings with compassion, show them we get the message, and be there to help them through the big feelings and calm themselves.
If you are ever in doubt of how to respond, picture yourself back in the kitchen, having just received that horrible news. In that moment you might do something you won’t be proud of later, but how would you like your partner to respond?
Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 10, 13, and 17). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah is an API certified parenting educator and is certified by Dr. Laura Markham as an Aha! Peaceful Parenting Coach. Find her at sarahrosensweet.com