How I Respond Calmly When My Child is Aggressive

Upset, aggressive girl

A Guest Post by Emilie Leeks

We all have hurts, stresses and upsets stored in our limbic (emotional) brain, and our bodies know just what to do to release those hard feelings – if we let them!

Tears and laughter are two of the best ways we can do this. Who doesn’t feel better after a good laugh or cry, after all? But what do we do when our angry child struggles to laugh or cry in moments of upset? How do we listen to aggression, and help our children to release those feelings that are clogging up their good thinking?

How Aggression Can Look for Us

Our middle child, who is six years old, occasionally cries, but more often the tears turn to aggression in the moment when she’s really bothered by something.

It starts with some minor off-track behaviours, often a bit of rigidity – maybe one of her brothers has touched something of hers and she reacts with more feeling than you might expect – and then we know she’s holding something in and needs our help. From experience, we know we will need to get some extra attention coming her way soon, by increasing Special Time, or maybe playing  rough and tumble games—anything to build up our connection a little more. But right in the moment we might set a warm limit around a particular incident, to give her something to push against and help her release something of what’s bothering her.

I like to make sure that I am well resourced if possible in those moments, as I know I might well be listening for a long while after setting a limit!

If I don’t feel I have it in me to support her through the feelings, I might try to distract with a snack or a story or something until I am ready, and that’s ok too. It really only delays the inevitable meltdown, but if I can’t manage it in the moment, it’s ok to put it off.

When I set a limit, things often start quite slowly, with her maybe pulling an angry face at me, almost growling, or perhaps pushing out a bit at me. But as I continue to hold the limit, it feels like she gets very defensive. It’s like she knows the hard feelings are coming, and she really really doesn’t want to have to feel them.

I feel like she holds back a lot from the feelings, and lashes so that she doesn’t have to feel the big emotions she is carrying. Much like many of us as adults in fact!

I think of it like when you’ve had some sad news and you tell a friend at work. You know when they put a hand on your arm and say “I’m so sorry that’s happened,” And you say, “Don’t be too nice – I’ll cry!” because you’re at work and you don’t want to cry right then?!

I feel like that with our daughter. Like she’s saying “Don’t bring that warmth and empathy to me – eurgh, you might make me have to feel all this stuff and it’s big and scary and aaaagggghhhhh!!’”

How Big Feelings Play Out in Big Actions

Big feelings are very scary for all of us sometimes, and we all have our ways of avoiding them when we don’t want to go there.

Hers is pushing us away.

She might start to hit or kick out, or push against me hard. Scratching is a favourite so I have to be on the lookout for that too. I do my best not to let her hurt me, as she will feel even worse if she does manage to land a punch, which is certainly not my aim. If she does manage to get me (infrequent – I’m ninja-quick these days, and give 110% of my attention when I’m listening if at all possible!), I try not to make a big deal of it because I don’t want her to add a layer of shame to whatever else is bothering her. I know she’s not deliberately trying to hurt me, it’s that she’s not thinking straight right in that moment.

She will tell me to go away and push against me. I hold a warm limit that I’m going to stay with her to keep her and others safe, but I will move back a bit to see if that helps her feel more safety.

My aim is to find that sweet spot where I am close enough that she feels my warm attention, to trigger a release of emotions, but not so far away that she manages to shut down altogether. What I usually find though these days is that she will stay near me and keep coming for me even if I move away. That tells me that she does want me close, but that she isn’t able to tell me that right then and there.

What I Do When She Says “Go Away”

She will push and kick at me (I’m blocking the blows!) and say “Go away, go away, I don’t want you here.” Anything I do now is wrong – if I move, if I don’t move, if I pass what she asks for (tissues, water…), if I don’t pass what she asks for. I have learnt that none of these many many requests fulfil her, so I am much more confident to warmly hold limits like “We’ll get your water/tissue soon,” even if she does end up wiping her nose on my sleeve!

This does help to move her along towards the feelings, because then she has yet another thing to rail about against me!

Turning Aggression Around with Play

Sometimes I don’t get the balance right—and it really is a balance—of shutting her down or tipping her into a useful emotional release. And that’s ok, because all I can do is to try and maintain warmth, and remember that she’s doing her best and that she’ll get through it.

But I did have a useful experience recently which seemed to be very successful.

And all it was, was reminding myself to delight in my daughter.

Yup. Delight in her. Delight in the fact that she was coming at me like a raging bull. Delight in the fact that I love her so much, I couldn’t possibly love her any more than I do. Delight in the fact that she was expressing herself in the only way she knew how right there and then.

I can’t always do it! 

Listening Partnerships have been my starting point and mainstay as I work to find the calm I will need in these challenging situations. Other tools like self reflection through reading, meditation, and writing, have also paved the way for more acceptance of what is, in any given moment.

But this word ‘delight’, on this particular occasion, was ringing in my ears. And I know my face showed it, I could feel it. As she ran at me, I was able to marvel in her strength. I was able to feel pleased with myself for reacting in a way that has historically been so unfamiliar to me.

I was able to just be in that moment, and not try to make it any different from what it was.

The attacks became coordinated, well placed kicks – I held up my arm and they landed, one by one, on my forearm. It didn’t hurt – it felt like she was just practising karate or something along those lines.

In my delight I mentioned this, and she was ecstatic – she decided it was a karate practice, and the blows fell hard and fast and with perfect placement, but now it was with a smile.

My delight was mirrored in her face!

Then she stopped kicking out, so I pretended to reach out and try to sort of karate chop her with my hand – she ran, delighted.

Two Against One: Why I Play To Lose

And suddenly, instead of being a master fighter, she was a nimble speedster – there was no way my karate hands were going to chop her as she sped by in great glee. Her younger brother wanted to join in—and she let him!—and suddenly they are speeding from ‘safe zone’ to ‘safe zone’ (their rules of course), and I was just that bit too slow to catch them. I made it harder for my daughter as she’s the oldest, and pulled back a bit for our younger one. Suddenly, we are having a fantastic time.

Shortly afterwards the two of them begin to play happily under a parachute, trying to creep up on poor defenceless mummy and surprise her – which of course they did, every time!

And in the evening when I headed off to do some work?

Tears at last – thanks to the safety and connection we had built up earlier that day, I’m sure.

Handling Aggression is Hard but Worthwhile

When we know a little bit about how the brain works, and about how well it can shed feelings and emotions through tears and laughter, we can will them to revel in either. It can be confusing when they don’t quite get there.

I have been working on this area for the last few years with our oldest child, who is autistic: he used to be very aggressive when upset, and never cried, and I had to put a lot of time into thinking/talking/feeling whatever I needed to through this time. But using the Hand in Hand Parenting tools – both Listening Partnerships for myself, and the four tools we use with children – have meant we now regularly experience tears with him, and rarely get the levels of aggression that we used to.

Now that we are finding our daughter going through a bit of a ‘stuck’ stage in terms of emotional release, and getting stuck in aggression, I have so much faith that using the tools will help her through it.

I hope this helps you too, if you are in a similar place.

Get tips to stop your child’s aggressive behavior

Not sure how to set limits with a child that has aggressive behavior? Try this

meet the instructor

Emilie Leeks lives in Berkshire, UK with her husband and three children. She is a certified Hand in Hand Instructor with additional experience in speech, language and communication issues.

This post was originally published on Emilie’s blog Journeys-in-Parenting. You can also contact Emilie through her Facebook page.

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