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This is the 3rd post in my Positive Parenting In Action series. The last post was in regard to tantrums. Today, I’m going to address a very common and concerning issue for parents – aggressive behavior – and how to handle this aggression the Positive Parenting way.

First, it is important to understand that children who are aggressive are children who are scared, hurt, or feeling disconnected. Aggression is a cover-up of those more vulnerable feelings. Hand in Hand Parenting has written a wonderful article about this, which you can read here. This article notes:

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. Children get these feelings of isolation, no matter how loving and close we parents are. Don’t blame, shame, or punish. These actions further frighten children, and further isolate them. They add to the load of hurt that makes children aggressive.

I would like to also add that, going back to our brain science, 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.

Dr. Laura Markham of AhaParenting offers this advice to a mom whose toddler is hitting her.

1. Set a limit (“We don’t 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.

You can print this and hang it up if you’d like, because these are the basic steps we’ll follow in handling aggression.

Let’s get right into the scenarios.

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.

Reason behind the behavior: Jealousy, probably. It’s hard sharing mom and dad, especially when you used to have them all to yourself.

:ACTION: Follow the above list.
1. Set a limit. (“We don’t 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 – we don’t 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 okay to be angry, and its okay 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.

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.

“Punishment is not actually an enforcement of the limits. That’s our rationalization for punishing, because we’re frustrated that he isn’t respecting our limits. Punishment is actually retaliation, and retaliation always sabotages your relationship with your child (or anyone else.)” – Dr. Laura Markham.

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 the baby and about being a big sister. For a list of such books, click here.

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.

:ACTION: Remember the steps above. Remove your little biter to safety, make sure the child bitten is okay, and then set or reinforce your limit. “We don’t bite.” Validate his feelings, empathize with his upset. “You got mad because he took your truck. I see you’re mad, but we don’t 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. For more on toddler biting, read this article at TEACH Through Love.

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 8-year-old son punched another student for calling him a bad name.

Reason behind the behavior: Anger, obviously. Lack of ability to control his actions.

:ACTION: We’re not dealing with a toddler or preschooler now. An 8 year old should have access to those higher brain functions. In other words, he should have been able to pause and think about his actions. This is sometimes hard for adults to do, however, 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 an older child, 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. Remember the problem-solving post? 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, get help from an adult if the situation requires it.

I’d like to leave you with one more wonderful piece of advice from Laura Markham, Ph.D. She left this response on PPTB for a mother whose 3 year old was acting aggressively, and it is a wonderful connecting game to play with children to get rid of those nasty feelings underneath that cause aggression.

Children who act aggressively are always acting out of fear. Your 3 year old is afraid. Maybe she’s afraid that he’s loved more? In that case, I would address that fear directly and try to heal it.

For instance, play this game with her every single day for the next week, to let her giggle off her fear and convince her you adore her. Every day, spend 20 minutes playing the bumbler as you chase her, hug, kiss, let her get away and repeat again and again: “I need my 3 year old fix….You can’t get away…I have to hug you and cover you with kisses….oh, no, you got away…I’m coming after you….I just have to kiss you more and hug you more….You’re too fast for me….But I’ll never give up…I love you too much…I got you….Now I’ll kiss your toes….Oh, no, you’re too strong for me…But I will always want more 3 year old hugs….”

This kind of game accomplishes at least 3 wonderful things:

1. Giggling discharges the same stress hormones as crying or tantrumming and thus makes kids happier and less stressed, thus less likely to “act out” aggressively.

2. Kids are less aggressive and more cooperative when they have a daily chance to vent.

3. This game also deepens your relationship with your daughter and convinces her on a deep level that she is truly loved, dissolving her fears and allowing her to be generous to her brother.

That generosity is what makes your daughter care about the natural consequence of hurting her brother, and gives her the competing impulse of empathy to control her aggression.

Make sense? There are, of course, many ways to address your three year old’s big feelings, but I love this game. I have never seen a child who did not respond to it. — Laura

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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  • Cassi Posted 15 July 2011 22:50

    I've really enjoyed reading this blog – so informative and thought-provoking.

    I have a question, and it might not totally relate to this post. I have a two-year old who is not necessarily aggressive, but sometimes thinks it's funny to hit or kick. In particular, he will do this to our small dog. The dog is not aggressive at all and will run away, so my son thinks it's a great game. I just don't know how to address it well because there's not an underlying emotion there, like you talked about in this article. And I'm not sure what logical consequence would work.

  • Laura Posted 16 July 2011 3:57

    Cassie, "logical consequence" is the PC term for punishment. Your son shouldn't be punished for kicking the dog. A limit should be set, without a doubt, but punishing him for it will most likely cause him to kick *more* because he will blame the dog for his discomfort.

    We went through exactly the same phase, only we have a German Shepherd. We also had been teaching her 'gentle' since she could sit up. She knew gentle and could be so sweet with him. Then she could turn around and bat him in a blink of the eye.

    We weren't worried about him holding his own, but we kept them separated during the worst of the phase. He's part of the family, too, though, so usually we just had him lie on the other side of the room and prevent her from going over.

    There IS an underlying emotion – fun and curiosity. They're still a bit too young to understand that the dogs don't really like their behavior, in part because it's so entertaining for them. My daughter still likes cats and smaller dogs because they are so much more reactive than ours.

    Our solution for the problem has been separation, guidance, supervision, and patience. She doesn't have any negative associations with him because we punished her for her normal development. (In fact, your son might be aggressive towards the dog in part because he's the only thing smaller than him, if he's regularly punished.)

  • RE Posted 16 July 2011 8:17

    Hi Cassie. I'm glad you like the blog. 🙂

    In this case, I would follow the same guidelines in the post, but let me expand.

    I'd first set the limit. "We don't kick the dog. It gives the dog an owie! Do you want to kick a ball instead?"

    You'll still want to offer empathy for his feelings, even though they're not aggressive or bad feelings. He needs to know that you understand WHY he kicked the dog. You might say "You think its a game to kick the dog. You like to play with her (or him). But kicking hurts the dog, so its not a game."

    If get upset about your limit, empathize with his upset, like you would normally.

    Then talk to him about how to appropriately play with the dog and about what he may kick.

    However, at 2, he's not going to be able to always remember this and refrain from kicking the dog, so its going to be a lot of repetition (and watching him around the dog) 😉

  • amelia222 Posted 17 July 2011 13:59

    I love this article! My two year old has finally started to end her hitting phase now that she can communicate more with words. She still thinks it is fun to kick us or throw things at the cats but your suggestions in the previous comments will really help us too, thank you.

  • RE Posted 20 July 2011 16:22

    You're welcome, Amelia. My 2 year old is just coming out this phase as well. Thankfully. LOL.

  • Nellie Posted 21 August 2011 17:48

    I was wondering if, after setting the "We don't hit" limit (one of our totally ignored family rules), the child hits again. What steps would you take? I've been devoutly reading this blog and Dr. Markhams for over a year. My son is just shy of 5 and still reeling with terrible fear of my husband leaving (for deployments and underways). Daily we deal with "Daddy are you coming home?" It's heart-wrenching. When my son feels threatened, he'll hit my husband. My husband will state "We don't hit" and then usually asks what he can do for our son to help him. Today, my son just hit again and sometimes just gets so angry we're both baffled, annoyed, and quite frankly, tired of the behavior (that's gotten significantly better in a year).
    Empathy and acceptance are offered, more anger ensues, we try to shift the mood while still having other boys to tend to. Some times this all works, but, like today, my husband was just annoyed and walked away (a Daddy time out), and my son threw a fit.
    What else can we do?

  • Becky Posted 22 August 2011 6:06

    Nellie, because I'm not a professional, I like to defer big advice to the them. Have you seen this article by Dr. Laura? I hope you find it helpful.


  • Anonymous Posted 3 October 2011 9:11

    I'd add to this instead of saying "we don't hit" frame your request to what you want. "Be gentle" and showing what gentle is.

  • Camilla Posted 29 February 2012 7:06

    yes, I agree with @comingalive. Children's minds focus on the latter part of the information being recieved. Ergo, "We don't hit."-hit. "We don't run."-run.

    Many times, a child's behavior is an opportunity to teach. They don't know what else they can do.


  • Ashleigh Gademer Posted 29 January 2013 10:16

    My 19mth old will be very violent sometimes. Especially with me. Today he hit me on the side of the head with a large truck. His father sat him on the couch for time out while he tended to me. We then proceeded to put him down for a nap, as it was near that time anyways.

    I've started to do timeouts for his tantrums, but sometimes his violent behavior is too much for me. I just don't know how to handle it! Sometimes it seems as if he wants to hit me if he doesn't get his way. I'm not sure why. What is the best way to handle this?

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