by Todd Sarner, MA MFT. Director of Transformative Parenting
Aggression was showing up in many different ways in the Perry household. Ron and Sheila’s 3-year-old daughter Mya was not usually a source of worry, but some days when she felt really frustrated she would take things out on her mother. Sometimes she would hit her or kick her. A few times Mya bit her mother on the arm. Sheila was alarmed by this behavior and by the way she reacted to it—which included yelling at her daughter and sending her to her room.
Things were also difficult at times with their 6-year-old son, Jason. He would come home from school some days full of aggressive energy. Jason was more verbally than physically aggressive (calling people names and saying hurtful things) and would throw enormous tantrums. Sometimes, however, he would push his little sister around. For a little while, it seemed that giving Jason a time-out was helpful, but eventually that stopped working at all. In fact, it seemed to make things worse.
Sheila and Ron came to see me after attending a talk I made at Jason’s school. It was clear that they were really loving parents who were doing their best, but who were themselves incredibly frustrated. The situation with their children was taking a toll on them, individually and as a couple.
Aggression, in all its forms, is one of the most problematic behaviors for parents. It’s also one of the most difficult to write about in a short article. My goal here will be to help you better understand the origins of aggression, what we do as parents that makes it worse, and what you can do today to start lessening aggressive behavior in your child. This article is my way of explaining the developmental view of aggression as articulated by one of my main mentors, Dr. Gordon Neufeld (“Hold On to Your Kids”).
What do I mean by aggression? Aggression can show up in many ways, including hitting, biting, kicking, tantrums, passive aggressive behavior, yelling, and even depression.
The Roots of Aggression
To understand what to do about aggression, we must first understand where it comes from. The root of all aggression is frustration. There are hundreds of things that can frustrate your child, big and small. Examples are not being able to make something work, not being able to be with (mommy or daddy or grandma or best friend) whenever the child wants, not being able to make a little brother or sister go away, not being able to have whatever he wants whenever he wants it, and on and on. The main concept here is that aggression is the result of frustration that becomes too much for your child to bear.
The root of all frustration usually has to do with attachment. Attachment theory is the science of understanding how human beings value, above all else, being able to hold close and keep close to those to whom they are attached. Most of what causes frustration in children (and adults) is the inability, in any way, to feel close to the ones they love. The child who is frustrated by the presence of his or her little sister, for instance, is usually frustrated at seeing the little sister as somehow coming between himself and his attachment figure (in most cases, mom or dad).
It is important to understand that the younger or more sensitive your child, the more likely you are to see this frustration. For the young child, this is due to several factors. A child under 5 to 7 years old has not yet developed the ability to adapt to frustration, meaning his or her little brains don’t know how to process it. Simply being exposed to aggression can cause the young child to act aggressively. Another factor is that the younger child doesn’t yet have the ability to stay connected to you as consistently as an older child can. This can refer to a girl or a boy, but let’s say it’s a boy. He has less ability, for example, to feel connected to you while away from you. Separation from those we love is frustrating for all of us, but the young child has a harder time dealing with it. More difficulty connecting leads to more frustration which leads to more aggression. The preschool years are actually the most naturally aggressive years in a child’s development.
The sensitive child can be more prone to aggression, for some of the same reasons. His sensitivity can result in his being more easily wounded, more sensitive to disappointment and frustration. The sensitive child is more cautious about connecting deeply with others because it potentially sets him up to be hurt, so at times he may resist deeper connection.
Frustration usually, but not always, leads to aggression. So where else does it go? What can we do as parents to lessen the aggression? We’ll look at those questions in a moment, but first I want to address the things that we do that actually make the situation worse.
What Makes Aggression Issues Worse?
When you understand the roots of frustration from an attachment perspective, you understand that many of the parenting methods and techniques being forced upon today’s parents are making things much worse.
The number one recommended form of discipline being taught to modern parents is giving time-outs. If what I am saying is true—that the root cause of aggression is frustration and the root cause of frustration is attachment needs—then what sense does it make to give children more separation when they are already frustrated? Yes, sometimes tempers reach such heights that we need to take a breather and collect ourselves so that we can act effectively with our kids, but it is important that children don’t feel that we can’t tolerate their presence or that we want them to go away.
We must understand that most of the parenting tricks and techniques we are sold by “experts” (or were subjected to as children ourselves) are based on using separation against a child—using the principles of attachment in a harmful way. These may work at first, but they stop working over time and can lead to disruption in the connection between our child and us. With the aggressive child, it can also lead to much more frustration. This child learns over time that being connected to another person leads to trouble.
Understanding how these dynamics work is important for many reasons, as you can see. Another reason is that when we identify a child with his anger (see him only as angry or aggressive) and we don’t see what’s really going on—that he is simply frustrated and needs our help with it—we fundamentally misunderstand what is going on and successful intervention becomes almost impossible.
What Can You Do to Lessen Your Child’s Aggression?
Now that you understand more about what is behind your child’s aggressive behavior, you have a way to figure out what to do. You must utilize the power of attachment for your child’s benefit, not use it against him.
The place to start here, and for most behavior issues, is to focus on deepening your connection with your child. Spend more time focusing not on behavior, but on strengthening your bond. This can seem counterintuitive to some parents in a culture that teaches us that we must immediately jump on a child’s behaviors so that we can extinguish them at once; but that philosophy is getting parents (and their children) nowhere. For the time being, let go of any need to control your child’s behavior and just focus on understanding his frustrations and needs. What he needs more than anything is you.
Providing for your child’s greatest need, the need for connection, does not mean that you set no boundaries or limits with behavior. In fact, the child’s need for these things is also great. Even the most connected parents have children who get frustrated. This is just part of life, and the way parents can best help their children process frustration is to set firm but loving boundaries with them. What this means is that we set very clear and consistent boundaries with our children, but that we also make sure we communicate to them (in our words and in our actions) that we understand their frustration and we are still connected to them no matter what their behavior.
When we set firm but loving boundaries for our children, it helps them understand and accept their own frustration. When children (and adults) come to accept the things they cannot change, we call this adaptive behavior—one of the most important necessities of human growth. When we accept these things, really fully accept them in our heads and in our hearts, this is often marked by tears. It’s good to think of tears as the body’s way of flushing out frustration, so we’re no longer holding it inside where it has the potential to be expressed as aggression.
When parents come to me, on the phone or in person, to get answers on issues of aggression, one of the first questions I ask them is, “Does your child get his tears out?” By that, I don’t mean yelling and screaming tears. I mean the tears that you have after you really let it all out. These tears are best facilitated by firm and loving boundaries.
I should probably mention that sometimes tears are not enough. Sometimes when your child is really full of frustration, there are a couple more things you should keep in mind. First, sometimes a child is so full of frustration we need to help lessen the main sources of frustration so that he can process it. For instance, if playing with a certain friend leads to a lot of frustration with your child, maybe you need to suspend those play dates for a while and let him spend that time with you instead.
Sometimes when your child is very full of frustration, he needs to get it out in more physical ways. Giving your child healthy examples of how to express frustration and aggression can be a gift that all too many children don’t get. In our home, this means we have a “frustration bag” (a child’s punching bag that came with boxing gloves) that our son pulls out of the closet when he is frustrated and needs to get some of this energy out. It also means that I regularly play-wrestle with him to help him get some of it out. This varies from child-to-child; you will need to figure out what helps with yours. The good news is that children usually give us clues (your child is always kicking? Help him “get out his kicks” in some way; don’t invite him to punch something).
The most important things when it comes to dealing with aggression in a child, according to Gordon Neufeld, are not letting his behavior disrupt the connection between you and not taking it personally. He is just frustrated and he needs your help.
“I admit that I don’t always handle my children’s aggression very well, but don’t I have to address this behavior immediately and forcefully so they learn it’s not OK?”
It is fine to communicate to your child that aggression is not OK, especially when he is hurting another person; but too often the child gets the message that he is not OK with you (not just his behavior) and that the relationship is in jeopardy. Your child is frustrated and overwhelmed and doesn’t know how to handle his feelings. Just telling him to stop it doesn’t help. Shaming him or using separation against him makes it worse. When your child is so frustrated that he is erupting into aggression, it is not the time to “teach him a lesson”. He is not open to a lesson. What I am suggesting is that we take a more proactive stance and try to lessen his frustration before it turns to anger, and that we show him over time what he can do to work through his feelings in a more positive way.
“But what about when my child hits a sibling or a friend?”
Obviously, this is not something anyone ever wants to happen and, again, it’s fine to make clear to your child that this behavior is not OK. But most important in the moment is to take control of the situation. Make sure the hurt child is all right, make apologies if necessary, and don’t try to teach a lesson in the moment. Wait until things have calmed down and then discuss it with your child, being careful not to shame him. When you are connected, he will hear you. The younger the child is, the more you have to be in control of the situation. Aggression won’t happen nearly as much if you act proactively.
Back to the Perry’s
Ron and Sheila were able to transform the aggression problems in their household in just a few weeks. Some change happened almost immediately.
When they came in, we spent a few sessions talking about the fundamentals of attachment and parenting practices that were relationship-friendly. I helped them see that this was the all-important first step—that we had to shift the culture of their home (which too often included separation-based discipline and unhelpful parental reactions).
Part of this was helping them arrange “special times” that they could each spend with each of their children. This helped deepen the individual relationships and lessen sibling rivalry and aggression in general.
Then we spent a couple weeks talking about limit setting in a loving and firm way. This had been a challenge for both parents. They tried to make things work for their kids, tried to make them happy and avoid conflict, but when the children ended up “acting out” anyway, they would get angry and resentful.
We set up individual strategies for helping each child with aggression issues, and Ron and Sheila were thrilled at the changes they saw. Not only did the aggression lessen considerably, but they also felt more confident as parents and less reactive.
Aggression can be a difficult dynamic for parents to work with. It can trigger our own frustrations, make us worry, and cause social concerns and fears. Aggression in children should not be seen as a horrible behavior to be snuffed out as soon as possible through any means necessary, but as a symptom of a relationship issue and of our children’s inability to know how to process their difficult feelings in a positive way. It is our responsibility and duty as parents to help our children navigate this. If we don’t, who will?
Seeing aggression through a developmental lens and understanding a child as frustrated, not as “bad,” and not identifying him with his behavior, should fundamentally change how we see and react to the difficult situations.
Most importantly, we should not make things worse by letting our connection to our child be lost in the moment or by giving him more frustration (by way of separation—time outs, 1-2-3 magic, etc).
The key to helping our children adapt to frustration is to help them have their tears and by being firm and loving with limits.
Some Next Steps
1) Start with the fundamentals. If your child often acts aggressively, concentrate on lessening some of his frustration if possible and concentrating on deepening your relationship. Spend more time with him and back away from separation based discipline. See increasing your child’s sense of connection and security as your main goal.
2) When there is a difficult incident, you can name the behavior as “not OK” as long as you make sure you are also communication that your relationship still IS OK. “We’ll talk about this later, but it will be OK. I love you.” Do not try to teach the child a lesson in the moment. Take control of the situation now and teach your lesson later when you’re on firmer ground.
3) Work on setting limits with your child that are firm but loving. One without the other might not work.
About the author
Todd Sarner, MA, MFT, is a licensed psychotherapist and Director of Transformative Parenting, a Parent Consulting and Education practice in Northern California. He does individualized consultations with parents in person and on the phone as well as conducting live and online parenting classes and courses. Todd was one of the first interns in Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s professional training program and was an original Faculty Member of the Neufeld Institute. You can reach Todd at (415) 289-6515 or email@example.com. His website is: www.transformativeparenting.com