Making Sense of Aggression:
What’s Really Going On and How to Help
There are few things that concern parents quite as much as seeing aggressive behavior in their little ones does. I believe this is most likely because as caring parents we are heavily invested in wanting to raise children who are socially and emotionally responsible. When we see them acting out in ways that rub up against our hopes and expectations, we naturally become concerned.
One of the most important things to remember about behavior is that it gives us information about our child’s emotional development. It gives us clues as to where our support is needed. When we see disconcerting behavior and automatically label it as angerbeing directed towards something or someone, we are being distracted by the symptoms and lose sight of the root cause driving the action. What we are really observing is evidence of frustrationin the system. Something is not working for whoever it is displaying the aggressive behavior. When this happens to anyone, our children or to us, we get stuck in what Dr Gordon Neufeld refers to as ‘The Frustration Roundabout.’
When a child encounters an incident they find frustrating, the first thing that occurs to their brain to do is to try and change the situation. For example, we might have said ‘No’ to giving them another cookie. The child who really wants another cookie may feel compelled to move in to get us to change our mind. They know what they want and are driven to pursue it. This shouldn’t surprise us but all too often it does! Our child’s brain has locked onto the idea of getting another cookie and anything, or anyone, getting in their way will further fuel their frustration. The outward expression of this frustration will likely come across as untempered and volatile behavior, particularly in an immature child.
When we hold our ground, as being a responsible parent regularly requires us to do, and we continue to convey the message, ‘No, no more cookies today’ it will begin to occur to the child’s brain that they cannotget mommy or daddy to change their answer. Some children move more quickly than others to feeling their futility and relinquishing what they so desperately want. Young children tend to burst into tears of upset, or if they are older, they may instead let out a big sigh and shrug their shoulders as the disappointment of not getting their way sinks in. It’s in these moments that we might well struggle with our own feelings of discomfort as we have led our children to where they feel their passing sorrow. That’s not an easy place for most parents to be in.
If you have more than one child you’ve probably noticed that when confronted with limits and restrictions, not all children react in the same way. Some children move to tears quite quickly whereas others seem to resist feeling their sadness and their frustration erupts in volatile behaviors such as hitting, kicking, biting, spitting, screaming, harsh words or perhaps something else. While there are many forms of aggression, each one of them serves as an expressive reminder that our child is experiencing frustration because they couldn’t change the situation (by getting another cookie) or wasn’t changed by it (by feeling their sadness about not get a cookie).
More often than we maybe realize, we inadvertently move our children to aggression by not making it easy for them to have their tears. One of the most common reasons we try and shut down their tears is because of how they make us feel. We may feel saddened, guilty or perhaps even frustrated by their tears and so we try to make them stop as quickly as we can, either with distraction or by admonishing them for crying. Each time we do this we block the child from feeling their sadness and in so doing, we rob them of the opportunity to feel their sadness about that which they cannot change.
As parents we need to know and value the purpose of tears. Few people realize that tears of sadness signal the process of adaption taking place in the brain. The child who is able to feel their sadness around that which cannot be changed, is being changed by their experience. Therein lies the recipe for growing children into resilient adults. With each opportunity to feel their sadness, at the same time as being comforted in their upset, another layer of resilience is formed. As their parents we can help them to do this, but we need to understand what is happening for our child and how we can support them through the process.
The way through with a child who is displaying aggression is relatively simple, but not always easy! Aggressive behavior is a response to being frustrated and the child is being driven to act out on how they feel. They are responding to what isn’t working for them. Young children, or the immature, lack what’s called ‘brain integration’ which means they are not yet developed enough to feel their big feelings and simultaneously consider their actions. That’s why young children say what they think, and behave how they are feeling. They don’t yet have the capacity to think twice, or to consider the consequences of their behavior in order to reign themselves in at that very moment. They often know better than they do, which is true for anyone immature, regardless of their age.
So, how do we help our children when they are being aggressive? Firstly, we should acknowledge their upset as frustration. They are not rude, mean, or inconsiderate, they are feeling FRUSTRATED. “I can see you’re feeling really frustrated with your little brother right because he took away your toy.” “I’m sure you’re feeling really frustrated with me for saying no to one more cookie.” Acknowledging their frustration isn’t giving them permission to act out, it’s helping them to take up a relationship with how they are feeling…and that is a really crucial ability to develop when we are growing up. So many adults still don’t know what they are feeling, they just act out.
As Freud so wisely stated, ‘What we do not express we depress and then we get sick.’ Frustration is an emotion that needs to be expressed. We have to provide the support and structure for children to be able to express their frustration in ways that let it out but don’t hurt or damage anyone or anything in the process.
In order to lead your child, you must first learn to read your child. Watch them closely. How do they respond when they are starting to feel frustrated? What happens when they are driven to express their frustration? Be careful not to be distracted or derailed by their outward behavior, it is providing you with insightful clues as to where they need your help with their inner struggle to adapt. Expression is key to healthy development.As children grow up their outward expression of frustration becomes more controlled, not because we teach them self control, but because their brain has integrated. As human beings mature, we become capable of having our tears on the inside in the form of feelings of disappointment or futility and we no longer have to physically act out, or openly weep in response to every frustration in order move through it. Many adults are still ‘a work in progress’ in this developmental area.
As you now know, a significant part of our parental focus needs to be on understanding and providing a safe outlet for aggression, BUT another important piece to be aware of is the energy we bring to the interaction. Whilst it is natural and understandable that our own level of frustration rises as we witness our children’s struggle with their frustration, it’s up to us to keep ourselves in check. Understanding what’s going on for us emotionally is the just the beginning. Reminding ourselves in the incident that unleashing our own frustration will further alarm and frustrate our children will help us to temper our own reactions. It’s not always easy to act like an adult, but in our parent-child relationships it is essential that we dig deep and then rise to the occasion when our children need us most.
Trying to teach a lesson in the moment is never very productive because we are feeling emotionally rattled and so are our children. No one takes in much information when they are in this alarmed state, least of all children. Our desperate attempt to wedge in a lesson on acceptable behavior during the incident is wasted on them. It might make us feel like we are at least doing something, but you can be sure that very little is sinking in for the child. Our work is best done after the incident when our nerves and their upset has subsided and we have restored the heart connection between us. That’s when they will be ready to hear our words and take in our values and expectations.
So, what does this all mean for the parent who gets frustrated by their very frustrated child? Well, it may help to know that our emotional system functions in the same way as our children’s does. We also get frustrated when things are not working for us and we have to either change what’s not working, and if that’s not possible, we need to be changed by it…or else our frustration will be expressed as aggression. That being said, our children shouldn’t be on the receiving end of our day to day frustration or lack of integration, this is something we have to take responsibility for and work at managing. We need to be aware that we typically lose ‘our mix’ when we are tired, hungry, stressed, or under the influence. Given that any one of these conditions, or a combination thereof, describes the state of a typical parent, we have a lot we could focus our attention on. Simply by becoming more conscious of how we are feeling has the potential to shift how we respond to our children’s frustration almost instantaneously.
Parenting brings with it countless delights and challenges, often way beyond what we could ever have imagined. We expect to raise our children but along the way we find ourselves presented with many unanticipated opportunities for our own growth and development. From the moment we become parents and little eyes look to us for guidance and support, we begin to discover more about ourselves as we strive to become the parents we yearn to be for them. It’s in our open-hearted efforts that we find ourselves faced with a choice, to either seek to understand what’s driving behavior or to get stuck in fear trying to control it. Once we shift our focus from the distracting external behavior to instead supporting our children with their emotional development, we find our way though with them and often without expecting it, back to ourselves.
Bridgett Miller has a background in Education, Special Education and Psychology. She is an Authorized Facilitator of the Neufeld Institute and has over a decade of experience teaching preschool and kindergarten children. Bridgett is passionate about helping parents and educators make developmental sense of the children in their lives. She is the creator of https://www.facebook.com/look.with.love.bridgettand has a parent/educator consultation practice www.truegrowthconsulting.ca in Vancouver, Canada where she lives with her husband, children and two longhaired dachshunds.