Aggression: Why Children Lash Out and What To Do

By Genevieve Simperingham

When one’s child goes through a phase of being defiant, rebellious and aggressive, this can really push a parent’s patience and tolerance to the limit. Parents are often baffled to see their otherwise bright, happy and caring child lashing out verbally or physically, to see them pushing or hitting, perhaps purposely and angrily throwing or breaking items or defiantly shouting at their parent and storming off.

Developing impulse control and emotional self-regulation skills is big work for children and takes a few years. It’s normal for young children to be anti-social, rebellious, defiant and even verbally aggressive at times and for children up to the age of about six to also be physically aggressive at times. You can particularly expect an increase in defiance or aggression at times of extra stress relating to changes like a new sibling, moving house, change of caregiver, increased conflict amongst parents or starting school. But when a child’s defiant, destructive or aggressive behaviour becomes an ongoing issue, it’s important to look deeper into the difficult feelings and unmet needs that are likely driving their behaviour.

Children don’t need us to accept all of their behaviour, healthy or unhealthy. They don’t want or need to enrage us or overpower us, (that’s scary for a child of any age). They don’t need us to tiptoe around them avoiding the limits that might upset them. They need the limits that help to keep everyone safe. And they also need for us to accept and care about all of their feelings, the good and the bad, whether they’re happy, sad or mad. This is what allows them to feel safe and secure, to move through the difficult feelings that life brings. This is what enables them to care for other people’s feelings. And to truly put this into action, we need to maintain connection, warmth, empathy and support especially when we’re correcting them, setting limits or responding to situations where they act out aggressively.

Rather than just trying to make them stop acting aggressively regardless of how they feel, ultimately we need to help them so that the urge to be aggressive happens much less. Children act out in rage when their feelings overwhelm them. Unexpressed fear, insecurity and frustration tend to drive a child’s urge to be destructive or aggressive. Children don’t want to be violent; it’s scary for them when they lash out. But they can’t self-regulate without our help, which often entails physical intervention, while responding with as much calm confidence and empathy as we can muster when they do lash out. This is easier said than done, but once a parent sees the value of this approach, they are much more likely to be successful in managing their own anger and urge to be aggressive to their child in return. Parents who put this approach into practice report that as their child learns to trust that their frustrations and struggles will be met with empathy, their tendency to be aggressive diminishes greatly and they start to seek their parent’s support rather than lash out. A big step!

When a child goes through a phase of hitting, you can say to her, for instance: “It’s normal to feel like hurting when you’re angry. I know you know it’s not OK to hit. I want to help you when you get really frustrated.” It’s our understanding of how hard it is for them that’s going to help them dissolve their urge to hurt. They already know it’s not OK to hit. That’s not the information that helps them stop hitting. But showing our understanding of why they feel like hitting is the piece that reaches a child; that alleviates the feelings of shame, aloneness and fear of rejection that overwhelm them.

Many parents I’ve helped to gain control of their own tendency to hit or verbally attack their child have admitted that when they start to spin out, hitting or verbally attacking their child gives them some relief from their rising tide of rage, and that this relief can be quite addictive. They know it’s wrong. Children know it’s wrong. Invariably, the adults who struggle with lashing out were themselves treated harshly as a child when they became upset. What adults and children need in developing healthier habits is support, empathy and understanding; as well as learning some healthy alternatives that will also bring them relief from their intense feelings.

“When children feel understood, their loneliness and hurt diminish. When children are understood, their love for their parent is deepened. A parent’s sympathy serves as emotional first aid for bruised feelings. When we genuinely acknowledge a child’s plight and voice her disappointment, she often gathers the strength to face reality.” ~ Haim Ginott, author of “Between Parent and Child”

Trust that your child’s doing their best. Assuming medical concerns and special needs are ruled out, you can be fairly certain that driving the anti-social behaviour are some uncomfortable feelings that the child’s unable to contain, probably unable to identify and clearly unable to express in a healthy way. Despite the best parenting in the world, children become overwhelmed and scared at times and sometimes those fears get stuck inside them. The moments when your child’s behaviour is at its worst are also the times when their most vulnerable sore feelings are closest to the surface.

When a child carries a backlog of unresolved emotions, they tend to have a low tolerance to stress and even small requests, challenges or obstacles can feel overwhelming to them. They may be happily playing one minute and suddenly a small disappointment sparks a strong reaction. The feelings beneath a particular act of aggression may stem from past experiences and may be completely unrelated to the current situation that triggered the reaction. As difficult as it is for parents, it’s exactly this tendency to overreact that is the external indicator of a child’s internal conflict that needs to be addressed. Ultimately, they need to see that we’re genuinely willing to remain patient as they work to offload all the big feelings that have previously built up.

Your child needs you to help them change rather than demand they change. An aggressive child is a stressed child, but aggression is the behaviour that generally elicits the least care and empathy from adults, but sadly it’s when they need our sensitivity the most. If we could respond to very out of balance behaviour with some of the same qualities that we respond to physical illness, we’d live in a society where emotional instability in families is much less of a problem.

Instead of dreading the next act of aggression or destruction, be ready to embrace the opportunity to help relieve your child of some of the underlying feelings that are making things feel so hard for them. Yes I realize this may be a complete 180 degree turnaround in attitude, but it’s one that can lift you out of feeling powerless and at the mercy of your child’s outbursts while relieving your child of feeling like she’s all alone with her big feelings.

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