Welcome back to another week of the Teaching Kids About Character series. This week’s topic, S is for Social, is a tough one to tackle.
About a month ago, I posted M is for Mellow as a guide to dealing with kids when they are upset. There was a lot of feedback on the post and most readers wanted more information about dealing with kids and aggression which just couldn’t be covered in that post.
Well, you asked and I researched! Today is a summary of what I have found that parenting experts who focus on positive discipline, advise when your child becomes aggressive.
Please keep in mind that everything I’m writing about today is based on responding to children when they’re upset in a proactive, positive way that does not involve any form of punishment. If you’re interested in learning more about this approach to parenting, be sure to check out our Positive Parenting Series.
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Before we start, I should mention that if you’re looking for ways to help your kids get along with other children, be sure to check out the F is for Friendly post where we discuss encouraging kindness, sharing and attentive listening.
Social. Socialized. Civilized. They all go together don’t they? They all refer to people “getting along” and being peaceful. It’s certainly not an easy task for human adults, much less children, as we’ve seen in the news lately.
Aggression is definitely one of those characteristics that is a part of being human, and yet we fight to regulate it from an early age.
After reading what all my favourite parenting experts had to say on the topic of child aggression, one thing seems clear. We can’t simply ignore it and hope it goes away as our kids get older.
Yes, it is a natural tendency for young children to become aggressive when they are upset, frustrated, and angry. It can even be considered typical during toddler and preschooler years.
But, it is up to the caring adults in the child’s life to teach them other ways to express themselves than through aggression towards others.
And I should clarify, when I’m talking about aggression, I’m referring not only to the obvious kicking, biting, hitting, spitting, scratching kind – but also to verbal aggression, “I hate you!” etc.
Without further adieu – here are 10 tips from positive parenting experts on helping your child when they become aggressive!
1. Recognize the REASONS for Aggression
According to Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves: Transforming parent-child relationships from reaction and struggle to freedom, power and joy, the primary emotion behind aggression is a feeling of helplessness.
If a child’s aggression is often directed towards you, Naomi suggests that you might be exercising too much control over your child, and the relationship would benefit from you giving your child more power through choice.
When a child is aggressing towards another child, it is likely that they are unable to express their feelings of helplessness to get what they want – and so they hit/push/kick/yell etc.
The key then becomes helping them express what they want without them having to do those things.
2. Accept the Feelings, NOT the Behaviours
According to Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, when kids are angry, the first thing we need to do is acknowledge their feelings.
It’s one of the best ways of diffusing negative emotions and it can be as simple as saying, “You look REALLY upset!” To learn even more about this simple skill and to find examples, read our B is for Behaved and M is for Mellow posts.
In an ideal world, we can catch our kids as they are getting upset, and acknowledge those upset feelings before aggression occurs. But it doesn’t always work that way, does it? So, what do we do if our child becomes aggressive?
3. Respond Firmly, and WITHOUT ANGER
According to Diana Loomans, author of What All Children Want Their Parents to Know: Twelve Keys to Successful Parenting, it is important to respond to anger and aggression in a caring, supportive way, instead of with more anger.
If we want our children to believe that we love them unconditionally, even when they are so upset that they have lost control over their body, we must approach their aggression in a way that won’t shame or punish them.
Instead, let’s try thinking of ourselves as a caring coach whose job it is to help our child calm down and learn how to behave according to our society’s social rules.
4. Tell Your Child to STOP and State Your “RULES”
Get to your child quickly and make it very clear with your voice and actions that the aggression must stop right away. Then state your “rule.”
For example, you could say something like, “Stop! We don’t hit/bite/kick/say hurtful words.”
5. Identify Your Child’s FEELINGS and then Clarify Your EXPECTATIONS
Remember – how you are saying these things is as important as what you are saying. Be firm, and show disapproval, but be on your child’s side.
Example: “I can see you are very angry/upset/frustrated, but I EXPECT you to use your WORDS to show that.”
6. Ask Your Child to PRACTISE Responding Appropriately
After you intervene, your child may be ready to use their words, or they may need more time.
To find out, ask something like, “Are you ready to use your words, or do you need some time to cool off?” (from Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic)
At this point, you can always turn to the child who was hurt and comfort them and make sure they are okay. It’s good for your child to see you offering empathy to the other child.
If your child is still actively trying to hurt you or another, they need some more time. You may need to restrain them and remove them from the situation, or remove others or yourself from your child’s personal space.
7. Allow Your Child to COOL OFF
Giving your child time to cool down and calm down is not rewarding your child’s behaviour, rather, it is allowing their brain to return to a calm state where they can once again think clearly and react without extreme emotion.
Some kids need space on their own to cool down, and some need hugs. Some need to do an activity. Experiment to find out what your child needs by offering them different activities to help them calm down.
The Kim’s Counseling Corner website has 50 Activities and Games for Dealing with Anger and it’s well worth the read if you’re struggling to find a way to help your child calm down. Also Lemon Lime Adventures has a terrific article with ideas for helping an angry child calm down.
Okay – now let’s assume that your child is once again breathing normally, their body has relaxed, and they are able to talk with a normal voice (these are the things I tell my son that I’m looking for so I know he’s calmed down).
Now is a good time for them to once again return to the target of their aggression and practise appropriately expressing their needs and feelings. Before you do, though, it’s important to chat about feelings.
8. Talk About Everyone’s FEELINGS
Now is a good time, if you haven’t already, to really show your child some empathy and to encourage them to tell you how they feel. For younger children, you can have them draw how they feel (from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen).
It’s easy to say something like, “You were really upset a few minutes ago with me because you wanted to stay at the park and I said we had to go. I could tell that you were so frustrated that you didn’t know what else to do except hit/bite/call names. Did I get it right – is that how you felt? Is that what you wanted?” (Keep it simpler for toddlers!)
Hopefully, your child will be able to either agree with what you said, or tell you what they were really experiencing. Or you may just have to keep guessing for a bit until you get it right!
Pam Leo, author of Connection Parenting: Parenting Through Connection Instead of Coercion, Through Love Instead of Fear, talks about how hurtful kids are “hurt-filled.”
She suggests holding the aggressive child and saying something like, “Can you tell me what is hurting you that made you hurt that other child? I know you wouldn’t hurt someone unless something was hurting you.”
If your child has hurt you – it’s easy to say something like, “When you hit me, that really hurt and made me feel sad.”
If they hurt another child, you can tell your child how their actions probably affected that other child. “When you pushed Johnny over, he felt scared and upset too.“
For even more ideas on ways to teach your child to empathize, read our E is for Empathy post.
9. Give Your Child the WORDS to Express Himself/Herself APPROPRIATELY
Once the feelings are all out on the table, it’s time to teach your child how you want them to behave.
You could say something like, “Let’s go and tell Johnny (or whoever the victim of the aggression was) what you WANT and tell them how you FEEL with your WORDS.” (from Raising Your Spirited Child)
Kids need a lot of good modelling in this area. If they’re not sure what to say, you can gently suggest a few things.
Judy Arnall, author of Discipline Without Distress suggests teaching kids to use “I statements” which are just sentences that begin with, “I.”
For example, you could suggest your child say something like, “I was upset that you took my toy and I wasn’t done playing with it yet.” Some other good I-statements to teach your child are:
I need more space.
I want that toy.
I don’t like that.
If your child is still too young to express themselves verbally, you can speak for them and model what you’d like them to say eventually themselves. The child who was hurt will hear it and feel better, and your child will benefit from hearing their thoughts expressed as well.
Read this post to find even more ways to teach your child to be ASSERTIVE with their speech: Teaching Kids About Their Assertive SUPER POWERS!
10. Consider Asking Your Child to MAKE AMENDS With the Victim
I wrote in detail about the concept of teaching your child to make “amends” when they have hurt someone else, in the post E is for Empathy.
In short, after your child has expressed their feelings and what they want, it’s important for them to try to make things better with the victim of their aggression.
I don’t believe in forcing children to make apologies, and neither do a couple other of my favourite parenting experts, Alfie Kohn and Barbara Coloroso. Making amends is not about forcing your child to apologize – it’s about actively trying to make things right.
However, if your child hurts another child, you can apologize to that child on your child’s behalf so that they come to understand what’s appropriate. Also, you can ask them to do something to “make the situation better.”
When I ask my son to make amends, he often decides to give a hug or bring someone a gift if he has hurt their feelings or hurt them. Sometimes he gives an apology.
I think the important part is that your child decides how to make amends, and that they really feel sorry and are not just rhyming off some meaningless words – right?
And that brings us to the end of S is for Social. If you are looking for a great kids’ book to use to talk to your child about their temper, be sure to check out Sam’s Pet Temper by Sangeeta Bhadra.
This humourous story follows a boy named Sam who has difficulty controlling his temper. When Sam’s temper gets out of control, it becomes a being of its own! Throughout the book, Sam gradually learns how to control his “pet” temper by using some fantastic strategies that you might use with your child too!
To keep following our alphabetic journey, make sure to visit our Teaching Kids About Character page to find all our posts.
To peaceful kids,
A big thanks to the PODcast blog for the inspiration for this series! Please check out their photographic alphabetic journey!