On a sunny, beautiful morning, Mariah was on the floor, in a pile of tears. Her little hands stretched wide reaching desperately for Jenny. More accurately, reaching for the apple and egg in Jenny’s hands. Because for Mariah, in that moment, only those two play food items were the right ones. All other toys in our beautifully stocked play area we’re just not what Mariah wanted. Mariah was so upset by this situation, she had resorted to crying and flailing her legs. Jenny was unphased by the tears. Soon Mariah stood up, walked over to Jenny and tried to kick her.
Mariah and Jenny are three and four years old. Playgroup isn’t always easy for them. Mariah in particular tends to get angry quickly when things don’t go exactly her way. Jamie, Mariah’s mom shared that she often isn’t sure how to help her daughter with all her frustration, anger and aggression.
“When I try to talk to her, she melts down into a pile of tears. She kicks me. Kicks her friends. I feel embarrassed about it,so we typically just leave the park or playgroup and go home. But the next time we are back in the same boat. To be honest, I feel lost and even angry about it.”
Aggression in the Early Years
Aggression and “acting out” in early childhood is often a top concern for many parents. And while parents often feel confident that they should do something to help their child, what that something should be, isn’t always clear.
“I know I want to teach Jenny not to snatch toys away and especially not to hit her friends if she gets angry. I tell her to stop when I see her do it. I warn her that if she does it again, she will have to sit in time out. She does it anyways.Leaving doesn’t change anything, neither does time out. I don’t know how to manage this anymore.”
Stopping behaviors like hitting and biting are a great idea. It’s very important to help children manage their feelings and choices. The missing piece of the puzzle, what is even more important than just stopping the biting and hitting, is to help children find new and better ways to express what they are feeling.
Did you know you can shape your child’s responses to overwhelming events through your parenting style? When you can calmly help your child understand and manage anger, frustration and fear, you are actively helping your child develop important skills.
Understanding The Feelings Behind Aggressive Behaviors
Aggression in the early years is not a sign of a bad child. Or bad parenting. Aggression (hitting, biting, shoving, screaming) are all signs a child is in need of guidance. Because children don’t act out aggressively unless they are distressed. (Distress to a child often looks like nothing to us – such as when Mariah couldn’t have that playfood. To us, not a big deal, to Mariah however, really big, big deal!)
Common causes for aggressive behaviors in the early years are related to feelings of frustration, upset, sadness or anxiety. Before your child hits or bites, she is likely to experience a mix of emotions. Emotions that are too difficult to handle in a rational way. Children’s brains are still immature, the part of the brain that controls these outbursts and reactions is still very much under construction. By no fault of their own, children are prone to reacting impulsively, especially in an emotionally charged situation. Grabbing, hitting, biting, kicking can happen quite unexpectedly.
Self-Regulation: The Nitty Gritty Behind A Calm or Aggressive Response
A common underlying cause of aggressive behavior in children under the age of ten is related to fear and an inability to self-regulate. Self-regulation means having the ability to monitor and control our own thoughts, behaviors and respond appropriately to each situation. Like asking for toys instead of snatching them away or melting into a pile on the floor like Mariah did.
How parents self-regulate and communicate with their children builds a path for the development of a child’s own self regulation skills as well. Your interactions with your child while they are acting out actually can have a great impact on your child’s long term well-being. Because you have the opportunity to help her learn how to self-regulate.
How you can Teach Your Child To Better Manage Anger, Aggression & Frustration
- Prepare yourself, prepare your child: Chances are you can pin-point some of the situations that make it more likely for your child to act out. Ask yourself “What can I do to help my child manage this event well?” Or “What signs will I be looking out for so I can help my child sooner than later?”
With the right mindset, you can keep yourself calm and ready to interact in a warm and helpful way. Strive to not blame yourself or your child but to understand the situation and be ready to offer guidance in a calm and confident way. Remember it takes the same and often less effort to be pro-active about guidance than to have to reactively fix a situation that has escalated.
- Encourage Self-Regulation with Empathy, Validation and Emotional Release: Hitting and biting as mentioned above are signs of emotional overload and missing self-regulation skills. We get to be role models and guides in these early years to help our children learn better ways to cope and express themselves.
When your child lashes out, has a meltdown or otherwise has an aggressive outburst strive to confidently stop the unnecessary behavior but don’t forget to address feelings. Once the storm has passed, listen to your child and her needs. Take the time to let your child feel and process a full range of feelings. This is so important to the development of self-regulation. Research shows that a warm and responsive parenting style, one that allows a full expression of feelings, helps children better develop self-regulation skills. Such a supportive parenting style also offers long term benefits to a child’s overall psychological well-being (Kim, 2012 / Carmody 2015).
- Play: For the toddlers as well as for the preschoolers, having an outlet for their frustration, anger or upset is all very important. From roughhousing to playing chase or pillow fights; games that actively allow children to release energy all help prevent biting, hitting and other aggression from building up. Active play such as tumbling, rough housing, and chasing (without any aggressive intent) actually helps children learn skills related to working out conflicts with their peers. Through play children also re-fill their need to feel closely connected to you, which again strengthens your bond and ability to offer guidance.
- Focus on a CAN DO plan: It’s tempting to ask children to behave well. But this can back fire. Lectures like “we are going to playgroup, you have to be nice. don’t hit anyone. Don’t yell. Don’t take stuff.” while very well intended, put the focus on the exact behaviors you are not looking for. A great alternative is to focus on a CAN DO plan. It might sound something like:
You CAN come to me if you need help sharing.
You CAN tell the teacher if you need help.
You CAN come to me if you feel upset.
We CAN take a break together if you need me.
If your can do plan is positive and free of punishments, your child will feel safe coming to you when her feelings are overwhelming and in turn you will be able to offer guidance to get your child back on track.
- Use Alternatives To Traditional Discipline
Young children can’t comprehend the rationale for punishments. They trust you to help them, to keep them safe. It’s startling and scary to a child who is already feeling overwhelmed with emotions to be sent to sit alone or to have a favorite toy taken away.While it’s important to catch and limit hitting, biting and other unnecessary behaviors, choosing alternatives to traditional discipline are more likely to help your child understand and manage his emotions. We now know from years and years of research that children learn well when they trust their caregiver, and when they feel safe. Even more so when they are given the space to learn from mistakes.
We can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. – Pam Leo
When children choose aggression to communicate unmet needs and difficult feelings and we choose to punish them, we are ignoring the very root of the problem. Only stopping the behavior, without actually teaching the child how to manage what they feel, is like pretending you don’t have a flat tire when you really do. Yes you will keep rolling forward but it will be a very bumpy ride and not good for the car.
Helpful Alternatives To Punishment For Aggressive Behaviors:
- Calm Down Plan: Teach your child what to do and where to go when they feel overwhelmed.
- Taking a Time In: Sit with your child and listen to them and help them figure out what will help them choose differently.
- Breathing Games: Teach your child how to take calming breaths such as being a bunny or big lion to release stress. Such games can be done for fun and then called upon when your child has overwhelming feelings.
- Making pictures: “How big is your anger” and “How big is your Fear” pictures are often helpful for children to start talking about what they are feeling and how they can choose to change their behavior
- Having A Wheel of Choice: In Positive Discipline (by Jane Nelsen D.Ed.) there is a tool called Wheel of Choice in which you can put pictures of things your child can do when angry instead of hitting or biting, such as hugging a teddy bear, talking with mom, or squishing play-dough.
Biting and hitting are often present in early childhood. Although many parents feel overwhelmed, worried and sometimes embarrassed by such behaviors, for children managing such strong emotions is really a learning process. Just like learning to walk, drink from an open cup, holding a spoon or riding a bicycle, to overcome those impulsive, at times aggressive responses takes time, practice and above all loving guidance from you.
Peace & Be Well,
Ariadne Brill is an internationally known parenting educator. She has a B.S. in Communication, is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, and continues to advance her studies in child development, psychology and family counseling. As a mother to three children, Ariadne understands firsthand the everyday challenges and joys of parenting. She is the founder of Positive Parenting Connection and author of Twelve Alternatives to Time Out: Connected Discipline Tools for Raising Cooperative Children.