Working with Aggressive Behavior

Photo (C) Penny Mathews 2006

When my son started preschool he came home using aggressive words and behaviors I had never seen in him before.  He started talking about killing people, shooting, stabbing and “fire shooters”.  Even though I knew he didn’t understand the meaning of the words he used, it was upsetting.  He also began hitting and pushing his twin sister almost daily and kicking me during conflicts.  I thought I’d lost my sweet boy to the realities of the outside world and wasn’t sure how to deal with it.

After getting listening time and support for the situation, I realized my son was picking up these behaviors from the other boy in his class.  More importantly, I came to realize that the aggression shown by both boys was covering up fear and that there were ways for me to help my son off-load this fear, and return him to the gentle boy I knew.

I began to keep a closer eye on his playing – waiting for the moment he showed aggression.  When it occurred, I made a point to turn any aggressive moves into opportunities for playful contact with him.  I focused on the places where he laughed and would repeat what had caused the laughter.  For instance, he repeatedly told me he was going to “die me”(meaning kill).  When he said that I replied with a twinkle in my eye, “If you’re going to “die” me, then I’m just going to have to…have to…have to…kiss you!”  Then I would proceed to do just that, which caused him to laugh and laugh.  I also used “I’m going to have to lick you,” and “I’m going to have to hug you.”

After many days of this, I set a limit with him about something seemingly unrelated.  I told him he could not have more snack. When I remained firm in my response, he started to cry and tantrum.  I sat down with him, offering him eye contact and warmth.  He had a huge cry which included a couple blows to my head and my hair getting pulled.  The cry ended with him repeatedly saying that he didn’t want me to leave, which I understood to be an expression of feelings he carried from the past as the current situation did not include my going anywhere.  He also hugged me over and over.

A few days later I noticed there had been no aggressive behavior since the day of the big cry.  I realized that I had “warmed” him up with all the play with laughter which led the way for him to have the big cry.  I was amazed at the transformation in him.

During the time this cry occurred, school was on break.  He continued to behave at home without aggression, but upon returning to school, it resumed.  So once again I started to bring laughter and connection to his aggressive behavior.  This time I used fewer words and more physical responses.  For example, when he tried repeatedly to kick me I would cross one leg of his over the other and say, “Uh, oh I better tie up the horse.”  He found this hilarious.

Many days later we were decorating our house for Halloween when my son took a giant spider and began hitting his sister on the head with it.  I moved in quickly and physically stopped him from the action saying, “I can’t let you do that.”  He began to cry, and as I held him he shook, sweated and thrashed.  The fear looked even stronger than the first cry, and he ended the session again by saying that he didn’t want me to leave. It might be useful to add here that my kids spent three weeks in the hospital when they were born and therefore had an intense early experience of separation from me. When the cry was over we returned to decorating, and my son played a game with his sister where the spider kissed her.  Again, I was absolutely amazed by the change in him…and the fact that it occurred not by focusing on changing his behavior but by bringing connection, laughter and listening to a place that was stuck in fear.

– Alaiya Aguilar, Hand in Hand Instructor in California

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0 thoughts on “Working with Aggressive Behavior”

  1. I find this article very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing.
    The focus on interaction, and connection is fascinating to me. I have attended one class of hand in hand parenting, and I just enrolled to one other.
    I have tried this technique *with my limited knowledge* with my daughter since she is 3 months old, and I think it works wonders. Even though I am not a “staylistening” parent (i need to learn more about your techniques) I apply your principles in my interaction with her in many occasions, when she is fussy or cranky, some listening and connection set the mood for a wonderful day and night!.

    I grew up in a different culture, where listening to children is not an existing practice, and I am very thankful of having gotten to know your approach.
    Thank you again.

  2. Dear Alaiya

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us.
    Indeed, it has opnened my eyes on certain situations which I did not know how to react.
    Thank you

  3. Interesting stuff. I have been working with this approach myself, with our now 23 month old daughter. It feels right on many levels. She has begun biting and pushing other kids, and what I am being challenged by (as well as that in itself) is that the parents of the other children involved want to see more severe ‘consequences’ for her, rather than those of connection and discovery I have been employing. They want to see scolding, I gather… a very very clear ‘NO’ communicated to my daughter. SO how to be balancing the needs of the children and the needs of the parents… clear / direct approach of ‘NO’ communication, with the listening / connection / transformation approach.

  4. Thank you so much for this article. My son who is nearly 4 and my 2.5 year old daughter physically fight a lot. It is usually the 2.5yr old that starts the aggressive behaviour. I have been exhausted trying to manage them and have found myself shouting a lot.
    I have the Hand in Hand books but it has been some time since I have read them. It has just reminded me to take the time again to be more connected and to use a little patience, love and support to help my children through whatever is troubling them and causing this aggression.
    Parenting is such a hard job.
    Thank you for sharing

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