When children become violent or aggressive it can be alarming.
We are taught that violent outbursts are unacceptable, and naturally feel a responsibility to put an end to it. We have to keep people and property safe. We want to ensure that our children are respectable members of society.
A few commonly used methods for ending violent or aggressive upsets include:
- Punishment: “If you hit, you will be put in a time out”
- Educating and problem-solving: “When you hit someone it hurts them. How would you feel if someone hit you? How could you tell someone what you want without hitting them?”
- Blaming and shaming: “What is wrong with you?You should know better.”
While consequences and limits are important, they are not always helpful when emotions are high and the thinking/reasoning part of the brain is not engaged.
And these methods only serve to push the emotions causing the upset under the surface. Newsflash. They don't simply disappear.
Read on, and I'll share how I learned to respond rather than react when my son began hitting. You'll learn more about the Hand in Hand tool of Staylistening, why your child's upsets can get violent when you lean in to listen, and how you can respond in the moment and outside of it.
I used to think the most important thing was to stop hitting and aggression
I found Hand in Hand Parenting when my son was three. He had started hitting children in preschool, and I was worried. I felt embarrassed. The education and problem-solving strategies I was trying were mostly making his behavior worse, not better.
At the time I thought this behavior needed to be stopped. My alarm about his aggression created a dynamic between us that got in the way of my ability to help. He would hit and I would rush to his side in panic saying, “I can’t let you hit.”
At the time I thought the most important thing to do was to set a limit and redirect his behavior. That, above all, any violent behavior needed to be tamped down, immediately. He would sense my anger and frustration and… continue hitting.
In fact, he then began to hit me when I set limits.
The cycle just continued.
I now know that what was most needed in those moments was probably the farthest thing from what I was offering when I rushed to his side in panic.
Luckily, it is never too late to change the way we parent. It is never too late to do things differently. And so, I learned the Hand in Hand tools and using Staylistening and Playlistening began to build connection into our daily life. I also got a lot of practice setting warm limits and then Staylistening when the hitting appeared.. This allowed him to feel my warmth even as I was setting a limit around his behavior.
He stopped hitting other children. But his aggressive behavior didn’t just go away.
Instead, he reserved it for the times I set limits and then Staylistened. In fact, as I began to Staylisten more, his responses seemed wilder, more physical, and more angry.
I wondered how this could be?
I was, after all, bringing all my warmth and patience. Why did his anger and aggression seem worse? Why was he violent towards my kind response?
When children show you all their feelings
As instructor Heidi Granger explains in her post, How to Stay in Staylistening, “When we are able to set loving but firm limits for our children when they are off track, they will often show you the big feelings that are driving the unworkable behavior. If we are able to be present and listen to those big feelings without trying to “fix it”, the feelings will be released, and the cheerful and cooperative child that is underneath can shine through.”
I’ve found this to be true.
As I stuck with my son, I figured out how close to get, when to give him a little more space, and how to think the best of him as he showed me his worst. He started to use Staylistening to offload tension. Although he showed me violent behavior, inevitably, our Staylistening sessions ended in his return to a sunny and calm disposition.
Listening when Staylistening gets violent and intense
My trust in the tool grew. And I learned how to listen, even when my son’s reactions grew very intense.
One day, I could tell my boy was tightly wound and needed to offload his tension. For the previous couple of days he had been argumentative, resistant and started yelling whenever I set limits.
We had been sheltering in place for a couple of weeks during COVID, and he was getting more and more surly as we struggled to set limits around how much we would play with him.
It seemed as though if we weren’t playing with him every minute, he would explode in anger.
We had increased Special Time but when the time was over he would lash out in anger, sometimes hitting, sometimes throwing his body or things around.
On this particular morning when he woke, he was immediately demanding and uncooperative.
He wanted Special Time so we did some.
Afterward, when I had to go make breakfast, he began to whine and yell “NO!”. I stayed and listened and he cleared momentarily. When it came time to sit down to eat he yelled that I made the worst breakfast ever.
In a bid to get some laughter going, I picked up his plate and gave it a whiff. “Ewww! What in the world is this junk?!” I exclaimed.
He yelled for me to stop making jokes and begrudgingly grabbed his fork. He ate but clearly was not warming to my humor.
That rigidity told me he needed a limit.
Setting A Limit Unleashed the Fury
So when he discovered his favorite pants were in a room where his dad was sleeping, I set a limit and told him that he could wear a different pair.
He burst into tears, yelling, “WHY?! WHY can’t we get them? I want my pants! NOW!!! You’re always the boss of me!!!”
He started yelling words I couldn’t quite understand. He got a foam block from his room and threw it at me, and then threw himself on his bed.
I slowly moved closer to the bed but didn’t put my hands on him.
I did not correct or admonish him for throwing the block, but I moved it in front of me and kept it as a buffer if I needed it.
He came toward me to make contact and I put the block between us, blocking his arm as it reached to hit me.
I moved slowly, held the foam block between us, and gently said “Nope” to his physical advance.
His words became violent and aggressive.
He yelled “I HATE YOU! I’m going to KILL YOU! I’m going to CHOP YOUR HEAD OFF!”
He yelled, he threw his body around on the ground in front of me and said “I JUST WANT TO BE ALONE. EVERYONE GETS ALONE TIME BUT ME!”
I stayed close and listened but didn’t say anything. He kept asking why I wouldn’t leave and after a couple times I told him “I’m not going to leave you, sweetie. Later, if you like, I’d be happy to give you some alone time.”
He screamed about the injustice of this and I listened without responding. I remember thinking, “He is doing just what he needs to right now. I’ve got this. I am happy to listen.”
He screamed “WHY aren’t you SAYING ANYTHING?!?”
I just listened and after a couple times I told him, “Sweetie, I don’t think I have anything to say that would be useful right now.”
He cried some more, writhing around and then began to calm. After a couple minutes he was still. It was as though a switch flipped. He got up from the bed and put on a knight costume, then walked back over to the bed where I was sitting and sat on my lap.
He gently brushed my hair from my face, looked straight in my eyes and said, “Mama, I love you.”
My sweet child had returned.
His behavior was a signal he needed me
We went and played outside together and had a really calm day.
Episodes of anger like these are not socially acceptable, although they are not abnormal.
When children are overwhelmed and need our help, no amount of punishment, education or blame is helpful. They are simply not in the right mind required for taking direction and understanding consequences.
This is what Dr. Dan Siegel refers to as having a flipped lid.
I now know that what was driving my son’s hitting and violent behavior were a response to his own feelings of overwhelm and fear.
His behavior was his signal to me that he needed me.
He needed to anchor to a stable adult.
An adult who was not afraid of his behavior and who knew he was good.
Within our brain lies a group of interconnected structures known as the limbic system. This area of the brain is always busy scanning the environment to determine if it is safe, or if we should fight, flee or freeze. When we become afraid, our limbic system essentially takes over, disengaging other areas within the brain, notably the prefrontal cortex, which are responsible for thinking, planning and understanding consequences.
This means that an off track or afraid child cannot think well.
Trying to reason, appeal or negotiate when our children are showing aggression will be an uphill, and likely futile, battle. This part of our brain that can think, plan, and understand consequences is simply not engaged. It’s actually closed for business.
Instead, we can take some of that effort and turn it toward getting support for ourselves. Then we can be better able and willing to connect with our children in these moments. And, day by day, you build daily connection into your relationship.
5 things to know about Staylistening when it gets violent or aggressive
- Staylistening to a violent, belligerent child can be, understandably, very triggering for parents. For this reason, it is essential that parents seek support, ideally through a Listening Partner or a class or support group.
This way of listening is emotionally taxing. It brings up feelings for us that need to be given space, outside of our relationship with our children. Don't put it off. You very much need and deserve the same attention and listening that you are giving your child. In fact, you will find it so much easier to Staylisten when you have this support in place.
- Experiment with how close you come to your child.
Every child is different and every scenario is different. When he was young, it was important that I stay right next to my son to prevent him from hurting himself. As he has gotten older, I have started to experiment with distance, sometimes being a little further from him even as I stay close and warm.
This seems to help his sense of autonomy and uphold my value to be near as he works on big feelings.
- Staylistening doesn’t always result in an immediately sunny disposition in our children.
There is no pass or fail in Staylistening. And your child won't end every single Staylistening session feeling happy. Sometimes we don’t have the time they need to work through their feelings, and sometimes it takes them a few sessions to offload what they need to. This is all ok.
Children work at their own pace, in whatever way is best for them. We can trust that they know how to heal their hurts and be ready for some more Staylistening to come.
Elle and Abigail talk about Staylistening surprises and the times things don't go as planned in this podcast.
- If your child’s violent or aggressive behavior catches you in a moment when you are triggered, you can calmly tell them that you would like to stay and listen, but that you need to go drink some water/go to the bathroom. Go into the bathroom and splash water on your face, text a Listening Partner, breathe.
- If your own anger is difficult to manage in these types of episodes, you also can proactively prepare them for how you will extract and care for yourself in those situations. At a calmer moment, when you are feeling connected with your child, you can tell them that sometimes you might need to go to your room and have a few minutes alone to let off steam.
“Sometimes I have feelings inside my body that I need to take care of. When that happens, this is what I’m going to do. Can I show you?”
Tell them that you will go into your room and close the door. Then lightheartedly and with silliness, you might bang on the bed, yodel loudly into a pillow, push against a wall and grunt. Get laughter going if you can.
Later, when you notice yourself pushed to the limit in the face of their wild and aggressive behavior, you can go do what you’ve shown them.
Staylistening In Public
I find it much easier to keep these intense Staylistening sessions reserved for when we are in the privacy of our own home. For this reason, I make it a priority to give Special Time before we leave because I find that helps. You can read more here about how that added burst of connection can help.
But sometimes Staylistening in public can’t be avoided. Your child’s feelings just bubble up and can’t wait to be heard. If we are out in public and my son becomes aggressive, I do my best to calmly remove him from the public space. I’ll pick him up, or lead him to our car, or someplace private, like a bathroom. I have even just gone home.
Although it can be hard to make this mental shift, I have learned that dropping my agenda of what “needs” to be done, or what I “should” do in favor of responding in the moment helps me to be able to listen.
There are times though, where a child can’t be moved. Maybe they are too heavy now, or flailing too hard. These times, you may decide that all you can do is to listen.
What about everyone else? A useful comment tucked away can help you handle onlookers or potential advisors. They seem to have a double benefit. When you say them confidently, you almost give permission for others not to get involved. They can see you have a system and a way of handling things.
Having these phrases also helps you to refocus your attention back to your child, with warmth and care.
In this post, about handling tantrums in public, Hand in Hand Parenting’s founder Patty Wipfler, shares these simple phrases you can try:
““We seem to be having technical difficulties.”
“My daughter really knows how to wail.”
“It’s that kind of a day.”
“After he’s finished, it’s my turn.”
You can experiment with what works for you. Some parents even use their Listening Time to practice saying them ahead of time.
And then, other times, you will decide that you cannot Staylisten. Maybe the situation just doesn’t allow it. Maybe there is no private space you can go. Maybe your attention HAS to be elsewhere. Maybe you know you just don’t have what it takes to listen well.
These are the times when you will permit the extra cookie or say yes to your child wanting a screen, even if you normally wouldn't. Even if you know this boundary-pushing is the effect of your child needing to Staylisten.
And it is ok to do this.
Do not feel bad. Or like you are failing. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It means you have tuned into the situation and evaluated what can and can’t be done. That’s brilliant parenting. (There may be times too when you give your child what they demand without realising these things. That’s OK too. It’s all a work in progress!).
But, one thing you should know is that while you are putting off a Staylistening, you are not avoiding it. You can be sure that the feelings prompting your child’s behavior do not simply go. Giving the cookie does not melt the feelings.
All you are doing is holding the feelings off until a time you are better suited to listening to them.
Knowing What Triggers You Will Help You Too
Talking about your experiences with a Listening Partner can help you begin to notice your own triggers, limits, and feelings around your children's more violent behavior, and tend to them, thereby freeing up a little space in yourself to listen to your own children.
Here are a few questions you might explore in your Listening Time to help:
- What would your parents have done had you acted aggressively or angrily toward them?
- What do you really want to say or do when your child is aggressive, angry and wild as you listen?
- What are you most afraid of or overwhelmed by when your child is angry or aggressive?
It is a big leap to adopt the belief that our children are good and that their violence or aggression is them asking for our help.
When we can move beyond this mindset and see these behaviors as a call for our warmth and attention, you’ll find it easier to respond rather than react.
And you will see change. You’ll recognise your child’s need to be heard. You’ll take things less personally. You’ll know when you can listen well, and when you may need to put things off.
And when you choose to Staylisten and things get intense, you will be able to maintain your warmth and calm more easily.