Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org

The following is a sample chapter from our new book, Positive Parenting in Action: The How-To Guide for Putting Positive Parenting Principles into Action in Early Childhood


First, it is important to understand that children who are aggressive are children who are scared, hurt, or feeling disconnected. Small children with limited language and self-awareness lack the sophistication to tell us what is bothering them or maybe even know themselves. Aggression in older children can be a cover-up of those more vulnerable feelings, especially if they have not been taught how to express them appropriately.
I would like to also add that children under the age of 6 don’t yet have full access to higher brain functions which allow them to pause and reason. When a young child becomes scared or hurt or is feeling disconnected, they go into that ‘fight or flight’ mode, operating out of their brain stem, and have little control over their actions. It is for this reason that an aggressive child needs help, not punishment.

Scenario #1:
Your 3 year old has become aggressive toward her baby sister. She tries to hit her and push her over. You’re concerned she’s really going to hurt the baby. 

Behind the behavior: Jealousy, probably. It’s hard sharing mom and dad, especially when you used to have them all to yourself. She may fear being ‘replaced’ by the baby and doesn’t understand the demands put on the parents. From her perspective, nothing good has come of this new person entering the house.

1. Set a limit. (“I won’t let you hit.”)

2. Offer empathy and acceptance of her feelings. (“You are disappointed.”)
3. Let her discharge her feelings by crying with your comfort.

4. Help her explore ways to shift her mood.

To expand on this a bit, you will take her safely away from the baby, get down eye-level with her, and set the limit – “I won’t let you hit” (or push, or bite). It is important to acknowledge her feelings of anger or frustration or jealousy that caused her to hit. “You’re feeling upset at the baby. Are you upset that I was holding her?” or “She grabbed your toy and that made you angry.” Your child is hurting, even though she may look like she isn’t. She needs to know it’s safe to show her feelings. Tell her it’s OK to be angry, and it’s OK to cry, and that you will keep everyone safe. If she melts down in your arms, she is healing. Let her get her emotions out while you provide comfort. After the incident is over and everyone is calm, address the reason behind the behavior.

1. Spend special one-on-one time with each child. Let her pick the activity. Connect with her. She needs to know that she is still just as loved as before, even if you think she already knows.

2. Teach appropriate ways to handle anger. You can do this by talking it through, modeling it, role-playing, puppet shows, books, or stories.

3. Don’t punish her for hitting. At 3, remember she didn’t have the cognitive resources to stop and think about her actions logically. Teaching her how to handle her anger will serve her much better than punishing her for handling it wrong.
4. Read books to her about babies and about being a big sister. Scenario #2:
Your 19 month old is a biter. He has just bitten another child at a play date.

Behind the behavior: It depends on what was happening at the play date. It could be frustration, anger, hurt feelings, or fear. Toddlers, even very verbal ones, know many more words than they can say. When something triggers a primal emotion, they will have access to even fewer words. Because the mouth is central to learning at this age, biting is a common expression of discomfort.

ACTION:Remember the steps above. Remove your child to safety, make sure the child bitten is OK, and then set or reinforce your limit. “I won’t let you bite.” Validate his feelings; empathize with his upset. “You got mad because he took your truck. I see you’re mad, but it’s not OK to bite. Biting hurts.” Let your child express his emotion safely, and problem-solve later. The reason I suggest not talking about appropriate alternatives during the time it happens is because children do not take information in well ‘when they are in ‘fight or flight” mode or are upset. They are much more likely to learn and retain information when they are calm.

Don’t bite him to show him how it feels. You’d be surprised at how many parents would advise you to do this. Remember, you are the model for appropriate behavior!

Scenario #3:
You got a call from school. Your 6 year old son punched another student for calling him a bad name. 

Behind the behavior: Anger, obviously, and lack of ability to control his actions.

ACTION:While a 6 year old is getting better at managing his anger, this is sometimes hard for adults to do, so it isn’t surprising that a child hasn’t mastered this yet. When you pick him up from school, you’re going to have to control your own anger. Model! Reserve judgment and ask him what happened. Empathize with his hurt feelings at being called a name. It does hurt! Now, because this is not a toddler, you may be tempted to punish or give him a consequence, but that isn’t going to solve the problem or teach him how to handle a situation like this better the next time. It’s time to problem-solve. Let him do most of the problem-solving with your guidance as needed. You might ask:
1. How can you fix what you’ve done because the student you punched is hurt, too? If he doesn’t come up with an answer, offer a few alternatives, such as call and apologize or write an apology letter.

2. What can you do the next time you get called a name or there is a confrontation? Let him brainstorm. It’s good if he comes up with alternatives on his own. If he draws a blank, help him out. You may suggest he walk away, work it out with words, or get help from an adult if the situation requires it.

Aggressive behavior is very common in young children and peaks from ages 2-6. While this is a common phase kids go through, it is our responsibility to set appropriate limits and teach alternatives. Discipline is always about teaching them right, not punishing the wrong. With empathy and loving guidance, your child will learn appropriate ways to handle her emotions, and this phase will become a distant memory.

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Copyright 2012 by Rebecca Eanes and Laura Ling. All Rights Reserved.