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My Child is Hitting, Biting, Pushing - Helping Children with Aggression

by Patty Wipfler, published on the Hand in Hand parenting site

Editor's note: we would love to hear your feelings and thoughts about this approach. This article is not intended to provide you with advice about your child or individual circumstances but we hope it will give you ideas to help. If you have concerns about your child's emotional wellbeing, we recommend you seek advice from a qualified health professional. Sometimes aggression in children is caused by an underlying disability or illness. If you have serious concerns about your child's aggressive behaviour, it is important to seek comprehensive medical and psychological advice.

Has Your Child Ever Hurt Anyone?

Has your child ever lashed out and hurt someone? Has another aggressive child ever bothered him? If your answer is yes, join the crowd! Almost all of us struggle with understanding and helping our children when they hurt others, and when they are hurt by other children. It's a shock to us the first time our sweet sons and daughters suddenly bite someone, or throw something at the new baby in the family. Here are some guiding principles for understanding and relieving children's aggression, so they can relax and enjoy their friends and siblings.

First, it's important to understand that children don't want to attack others. They'd much rather have fun and feel safe and loved. They play well when they feel connected.

But when children lose their sense of connection, they feel tense, frightened, or isolated. In this 'emotional emergency', they may lash out at other children. Children don’t intend to be mean. In fact, acts of aggression aren't under the child's control.

For instance, on an ordinary morning at daycare, a child’s inner voice of emotion might be saying:

    Mummy's gone. She doesn't like me - she rushed me out of bed and ordered me to eat my breakfast. She cooed at the baby, but she doesn’t like me. I feel awful. Here comes Joey. He looks happy. How come he gets to feel happy?

The child is loved. She has good parents. But, feeling disconnected and alone, she may lash out.

If a Child Feels Safe, She Will Show How She Feels.

When it feels safe enough to show their feelings, children who feel upset don't hurt anyone. They feel a bond with their parent or caregiver, and run to the nearest loved one for help. They cry, and release the knot of fear and grief they feel. The adult who listens and allows the child to 'fall apart' gives the child a huge gift - enough caring and love to allow her to heal from the feelings that make life hard for her.

If a Child Doesn’t Feel Safe, She May Signal for Help by Becoming Aggressive.


The child who lashes out feels sad, frightened, or alone. She doesn't look frightened when she is about to bite, push, or hit. But her fears are at the heart of the problem. Fear robs a child of her ability to feel that she cares about others. Her trusting nature is crusted with feelings: “No one understands me; no one cares about me.” If you watch carefully, you will see that this kind of feeling drains a child's face of flexibility and sparkle in the seconds before she lashes out.

Children get these feelings of isolation, no matter how loving and close we parents are. Some children are only occasionally frightened and aggressive. Other children have an abiding sense of fear and desperation that comes from circumstances beyond anyone's control. Children acquire fears from a difficult birth, medical treatments, family tensions, the unhappiness of others around them, and from the absence of loved ones. Any frightening time in a child’s past can create a tendency toward aggression.

Parents and Caregivers Have the Power to Help an Aggressive Child.

A child’s aggression can't be erased by reasoning, Time Out, or enforcing 'logical consequences.' The knot of intense feelings inside the child isn’t touched by rewards or punishment. A child’s behaviour is out of her control, once she begins to feel disconnected.

Step one in helping a child is to stop the aggressive behaviour by moving close and offering a warm connection. Then, listening helps heal the hurt. The child will either laugh or cry, and might tremble, perspire, or struggle mightily. The adult provides a safe connection and the time the child needs to release the fear she feels. The crying and physical struggling and perspiring she does get her limbic system - the part of her brain that sounds emotional alarms when she feels frightened - back in working order by providing an outlet for those unmanageable feelings.

Here are some simple steps you can follow to help a child who becomes aggressive. These measures will, over time, drain the feelings that cause the aggression, and will help the child feel closer to you and much more flexible in her play with other children.

Know Yourself and Your Child

Ask someone to listen to you while you talk about the feelings you have about the child’s aggression. Hurtful behaviour kicks up lots of feelings - fear, anger, guilt - that freeze our warmth and make us react in ways that frighten our child further. Talking to a good listener, and offloading your own feelings, will prepare you to help your child.

Observe

Under what conditions do the child's fears overtake her?