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 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 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? Want to continue the conversation? Join my Peaceful Parenting Facebook group or book a free 20 minute consult with me.
Sarah Rosensweet is a certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 15, 18, and 21). Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to, “We’ve got this!”
Read more at: www.sarahrosensweet.com
Please tell me what to do when my seven years old say bad word to me. I talked with him his talking was not good. I took away his iPad sometimes for one day But it doesn’t work. I encourage him for get the prize if he talks politely , he is get better but not really. Please guide me .
Oh I’m sorry that sounds hard! Your son needs help with his big feelings. Taking away his iPad won’t help him with that! Here is alink that you might find helpful as a jumping off point xx http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/positive-discipline/use-positive-discipline
My 8 year old has sever meltdowns she tells, swears, throws things at me and pushes and pulls on me to hurt me. I find myself in a fear for myself and my 6 year old who has to witness these meltdowns. How do I keep myself safe whilst trying to calm her, holding her kindly isn’t an option she hates being touched when she’s angry. Please help me with a phrase I can use I don’t know what else to do.
I wonder why Sarah Rosensweet hasn’t responded to this one. Is it too difficult to answer?
Ok I’ve done all these things and DOESN’T work. He still continues to do the same behavior over and over. I’ll struggle with him for HOURS. PLEASE offer some insight and advice. I’m at my wits end.
hi! This sounds so tough. I would a- talk to your child’s dr to see if maybe something else is going on b- check out the work of Tosha Schore. Here specialty is boys and aggression. Hang in there and good luck xx
Hey I’m sorry! That sounds so hard. Have you tried the advice I recommend in the post? It sounds like your 8 YO does not feel heard or understood. If that’s not true and you are using all the peaceful parenting tools, and your 8 YO is still having meltdowns like this, you might look into any other underlying causes. It’s possible she is neurodivergent (autistic, ADHD, sensory challenges) and her nervous system needs extra or different support.
In terms of your 6 YO, perhaps have a backup plan for a special toy or a show she can do in her room while you are helping her sister.
Good luck <3
I could use an answer to that I’m bruised all over it looks like my husband beat me
I am so sorry! That sounds terrible. I did answer Candice’s question- look below 🙂
You may need to get some help. Hang in there! xx
What do you do when your child doesn’t even know why he’s behaving this way? For example, seemingly out of nowhere my 3 year old will intentionally run right into his 1 year old brother and knock him down. When I ask him why he did that, he gives me an answer that doesn’t really relate to the question. I don’t think he understands the question “why”. He is already very verbal for his age, but the why question is a hard one for him. And I don’t think he understands jealousy either. What would you say in this situation?
That is really hard! And I am not at al surprised he can’t answer “why”- he doesn’t understand it himself! You can respond to what is driving his behaviour- his jealousy of his brother- by trying to make sure he gets 1×1 time with you, that you can help him with his feelings (“it’s so hard to share me, isn’t it?) Good luck! xx
Check out these blog posts:
Hi seven year old. Get so mad, he cry with it. Yelling, saying bad words want to fight me and his dad. He his medicine for his ADHD which I think it does not work. He do this in school to this started acting out about 3 weeks. What to do I get scared want to call the cops.
Hey Nichole, that sounds so hard! You might want to check out LivesInTheBalance.org.
There is lots of support there and ideas for what to do.
Hi! How do I calm down my 3 year old who is pitching a fit everytime she is told no? I have tried holding her, and being the calming influence. This does not work for her. She does not want to be held or calmly talked to. Instead she screams more.
hi Donielle, That sounds tough! Maybe try not holding her and just being with her and empathizing while she screams? You could also ask her when she’s calm what she’d like you to do 🙂 Good luck! This too shall pass! xx
My daughter (youngest of 3) has been spoiled by grandma all before attending school. Now she is in Pre-K and is struggling. She screams at her teachers, hits them, throws things. I’m a teacher at her school, so I get to see/hear the intensity of it. I’m trying to find the best way to deal with it. At home I can be calm and patient and loving for hours and she will continue the behavior, but the second “loud-mommy” comes out, she responds. I hate this and want to break it! Any help?
Hi Stephanie- That sounds so hard but it doesn’t sound to me like it’s because she was spoiled by her grandma. I wonder if she has some anxiety> Check out this article- the FIGHT response can come out of even a fear of her own big feelings (for example when something doesn’t go the way she wants it to) not just classic anxiety. And maybe when ‘loud mommy’ comes out it just shuts down her response. I hope this is helpful- let me know what you think
Hey I recently drop my son off at daycare early in the morning. When I left the teacher told me he was kicking and screaming and spit in her. Also he pulled a little girls hair..can u please give me some feedback
I’m so sorry to hear that! It sounds like he really didn’t want you to leave. SOmetimes when kids are afraid (separation anxiety) they can have a “fight” response. How can you make him feel more secure? You might try some of these suggestions: http://macnamara.ca/portfolio/info-graphic-when-saying-goodbye-is-hard-20-ways-to-bridge-the-daytime-separation/
Good luck! xx
My child screams blood murder, punches and kicks, he bites, any thing he can do he will do. He normally does this when we tell him he can’t do something. We have tried everything and nothing is working. Please tell me what we can do for our child.
Have you tried the suggestions in the article? You might also find some help in this article. Hang in there! xx https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-or-aggression-children/
Hello Brionna. I am in the same boat. I have a 3 year old who gets upset over everything she doesn’t get to have her way and her first response is always screaming, hitting and throwing whatever is around her. I do my best to be patient and try several ways to make it better but I see no end to this. I am really worried if this is ever going to change or not. if you find anything that works for you, please let me know.
My almost 2 year old daughter (she turns 2 the 12th.) Has been waking up (whether at night) or in the morning (like she did this morning, 5 minutes ago which is why I’m now writing this) screaming, crying and angry. I tried to console her (she can’t outright tell me what’s wrong she is just learning/trying to copy words) but, it’s been happening a lot. And I’m getting scared. I get frustrated too because I’ll try to console her and it seems to just make her more upset and she seems frustrated. But the crying seems like she’s scared ?? She pulled my hair and when my sister came in to try to help she tried to kick her. She kept on crying and then reached out to her aunt and went with her now she’s calm in her room with her. Please help me. What might this be? As a mom you don’t want to think horrible things, but ur mind also races with a million different reasons as to why she might be acting this way.
Me and her father are seperated, since March of this year. We co-parent, we don’t fight in front of her. Haven’t in a long time. (Reasons why we’re not together is because we did argue a lot) but she stays 2 days with me and 2 days with him. There’s never been a problem with this. She’s used to it at this point she loves being with both of us, so idk if that has to do with it. When she is with him I’m always calling and checking in. He sends me pictures and videos all the time of her. And I do to him when she’s with me. Because we like knowing she is okay. But this has been happening for about 2 weeks now and I’m scared. I’m not
Gonna lie. I’m scared and frustrated
It sounds like it could be night terrors? Google it and see what you think.
It sounds to me like you are dealing with the separation really well so it doesn’t seem to me this has anything to do with it. Maybe it’s a developmental leap, maybe it’s part of her frustration over not being able to express herself?
Or maybe just “2”!
Regardless, as much as you can continue to comfort her and give her lots of opportunities to laugh and cry, that will help! You might check out this blog post- https://www.sarahrosensweet.com/emotional-backpack/
Hang in there, mama!!
My son is a tough one. I have tried talking to him calmly and bringing to light emotions he is feeling and he just responds with more aggression. Most recently he’s started screaming and hitting. We are at a loss.
That sounds very hard! It also sounds like something is going on with him if this is a shift. I’m sorry I can’t add more without more information. YOu might post about it in more detail in my free Facebook group- https://www.facebook.com/groups/peacefulparentingfreegroup
I need help!! Having trouble with my 3 year old he’s the oldest in the house he has a two year old brother and a 4 month old brother he’s a great kid his teachers love him he’s very smart but the biggest problem is his random outbursts if he doesn’t like something he just looses his cool or if what’s us do do something for him and we are not understanding what he wants he just losses it again he starts screaming as if gd forbid someone is hurting him I don’t no what to do it’s getting scary and I don’t want him to hurt himself!
Aw I’m sorry! Sounds like he is having a tough time with two little brothers.
This article might help-
And this one-
Hang in there!
Hi there I have a 4 yo and everytime she can’t get what she wants ie; cookie,tablet,right away she runs away screaming no and kicking if she’s laying down or sitting on couch,she also seems to get worse the more I talk or try to explain almost as if she checks out?when I talk to her calmly she says NO and screams she will be 5 in July I’ve raised 4 children this doesnt seem normal?
It sounds like she has some big feelings that she hasn’t been able to get out!
Check out this post-
What is your theory about addressing spoiled children? I have a feeling that’s our issue. Our 5 year old daughter doesn’t stop playing when you tell her, she violates personal boundaries (touching, bathroom, etc), she ignores a lot of heat we say, and is starting to have trouble at school touching while playing and not stopping when the other kids ask her to. It feels like she’s controlling us and doesn’t respect us. Thank you for any guidance you have.!
That doesn’t sound spoiled to me. That sounds like a child who needs some support to meet your expectations. For example, when you ask her to stop playing you might have to do something like make it fun or give her some connection. It also could be that she has some sensory challenges (sensory seeking) and a chat with an occupational therapist might help. Good luck!!
My girlfriend has a seven year old daughter. From what I’ve been told she uses volume and screaming to get what she wants. She will growl, try and hit, bite curse.. if you try to get her to talk about it she screams louder. Our neighbors have started to complain and one of those has bird that screams all day. Punishment does not work and only the threat of her going to live with her father gets her somewhat quieter. My girlfriend is at the point of a nervous breakdown, my daughters don’t want to come visit… help
I think if you will try the strategies in this post it will really help you. Punishment will only make things worse. She needs to know she is “heard” so she can stop screaming. Sounds like she is in distress.
Great article, thank you. How do we know when it’s not normal and need more help? My 4 year old has always been on the aggressive side and lately she is starting to do more concerning things such as chasing me with a (blunt) knife) or throwing rocks at me when she’s not happy about something. I will try to remember exactly what you recommend here but I’m wondering if she needs to see a specialist? I’m worried she will actually hurt me one day…
If you respond to the feelings under her aggression and help her with them, you should see the behaviour subside <3 If you practice peaceful parenting consistently for 3 months and don't see any improvement, it might be time to speak to your doctor. I hope that helps xx
My child is 3, and as of lately his aggression is out of control. He woke up form another night terror and was just screaming for his dad, he wouldn’t stop for two hours. I did the mad thing, then as of today the calming response, nothing is working. He is always screaming and demanding his father to be near him or sit with him. Last night we went out to dinner (we never go out because of his big feelings) we had to leave he park and didnt want to go he got so bad he hit and kicked my face when i put him in the car, the the screaming went on for another few hours. I am at a loss and he has always been a different and needy child, he stopped talking right when he started and has speak therapy for a year and it really helped him control himself. The constant screaming for his father is driving dad insane and he has a harder tie showing empathy so i help him alot but im up right now at 1 am because he woke up screaming and then went to screaming about his toy we took away and just now fell asleep, he is refusing to eat which make him more angry….. I am lost, please any advice on how to at least try something, everyday is getting worse and me and dad are loosing our minds. please and thank you
Hi Veronica, That sounds incredibly difficult. Have you spoken to your family doctor? Are there other things going on? New baby? Move? Does his dad give him time to just connect? Please feel free to book a free short consult with me. Hang in there! https://book-with-sarah-rosensweet.as.me/schedule.php
Hey there . I need a help ! I am mum of triplets years old . All of them are autistic. One of them Ollie he got really bad anger issue. He constantly screaming and crying and kicking and throwing things . Could you please tell me how to help him to understand him . I’m loosing my cool constantly. And I have no idea what to do
Boys are 4 years old
Oh I am so sorry! That sounds incredibly hard. You might find some good support in this facebook group- https://www.facebook.com/groups/199323440844846
Hang in there! xx
Hi Sara I’m having a hard time with my son he’s 6, he doesn’t like going to school he is very sensitive and if someone raises their voice or since they have quiet time at school they ask him to put his head down on the table for quiet time he doesn’t like that. He’s just having a hard time at school since it is very different environment then at home, he will cry before I walk him to school then when I get there he does not want to go so he will start crying more heavily and then I try to encourage him to go and he starts screaming and crying so I pick him up and He starts yelling some more I just feel really embarrassed I don’t know what to do I could just imagine what the teachers think of me carying my crying son to school while he freaks out, how do I calm him down and show him that school is not a scary place?
aw I am so sorry! You might want to check out this post- https://www.sarahrosensweet.com/sleep-anxiety/ it sounds like your son has some separation anxiety. On top of that maybe school doesn’t feel like a safe place. I hope the teacher might be more gentle if you talk to them? Good luck <3