When Hands get Aggressive

big handsA reader asks, “What to do when your kid hurts one of his friends and the parent calls you.  My six-year-old son laid hands on one of his best friends, choking her around the neck when she didn’t want to give him something that he wanted.”  She reports that there was another incident of pulling a child hard by the hands, and another of grabbing a child’s cheeks and scratching.  The mom notes that her child immediately felt bad, and she wants to know how to talk to her kid, and to the other parent.

An overall approach that we might take is to think as deeply as we can about this, and any other parenting situation, and then work as practically as we can.  We start by wondering why the child acts out?  A few hypothetical reasons might include:  low self-esteem (remember, people who feel good about themselves are kind); poor frustration tolerance, anger management or impulse control; lack of social awareness and empathy.

Let’s start with empathy—the ability to truly understand that the other has feelings, and what it must feel like, not just to be choked, but to feel pressured to give something up that they too want to keep, is something that begins to emerge after a long period of pre-empathy (where kids truly cannot grasp the concept of the other person’s experience).  Empathy tends to develop around six, give or take, so this child is ripe for learning it.

A great way to encourage empathy is to role-play the situation and have the child be the girl who didn’t want to give up something.  Let the boy feel, and argue why, that it isn’t fair to be asked to give up something you too wish to keep.  This works to teach empathy much more effectively than does our mere explanation that the other kid has feelings too.

Next is impulse control.  Talk about re-visiting the incident in super-slow motion.  See if the child can locate that moment when his hands just started to reach for her.  This is where he must learn to read his own anger cues and intervene with himself.  Rather than telling him to just not be aggressive, tell him to shove his hands in his pockets right when he starts to feel frustrated or angry.  A positive directive (i.e. “do this”) is easier for children to follow than a negative (“don’t do that”).  He will notice that he cannot choke, hit or scratch with his hands in his pockets.  This positive action leads to successful restraint, and to self-esteem. 

His rising self-esteem will be reflected in his improved behavior, and his improving impulse control and empathy will elevate his self-esteem.  When he gets things right, notice and say, “I hope you’re feeling good about yourself,” or “I hope you feel proud of yourself.”  This emphasizes self-monitoring, an inner center of power and control, and it further enhances positive self-esteem.

It is important to be aware that these upsetting incidents are teachable moments.  We want to differentiate inappropriate behavior from the notion that we think that the child himself or herself is “bad.” 

Consequences are important, and they should be “logical” and primarily meant to teach rather than wound.  In “real life,” if you are mean to your friends they don’t want to hang out with you.  Therefore a “cool-down” can be logical and useful.  Also “cool-down” is a better term for a “time-out” because it offers an instruction of what to do (calm down), rather than the notion that the child has been plucked out of time and is in limbo until the parents decide that the child is real again.

Keep in mind that the self is the bowl, and so there is no solid self-esteem until there is a reasonably solid self.  We are the catch-basin for the spill-over of anger, shame and confusion from our children until they grow solid enough to hold their own negative feelings.  Our task is to be the bowl, and this brings us to talking to the other parent.

We can acknowledge that this was wrong, and validate the other child’s hurt.  We can say that we have spoken with our child and have a plan to change the negative behavior.  We can encourage our child to write a card or drawing of apology, and this validates the other kid’s experience and helps create a venue of damage-repair for the child who aggressed.

It is important to be self-aware as parents.  Is our self-esteem good?  If not, we can work to build it by reminding ourselves that we are good enough.  If we don’t believe this, then believe it for the sake of our kids.  In this way our kids can help us grow.  Through these awkward and upsetting moments, parenting turns out to be a path to healing, and to Good Feelings That Last.

Let’s dedicate today to non-violence in the service of all of our children.

Be the change.  The kids will follow suit.

Namaste, Bruce

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3 Responses to “When Hands get Aggressive”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    What a nice and helpful posting!

    Thanks Bruce!

  2. melissa Says:

    What do you do when it’s a two year old that is extremely aggressive – hitting, biting, choking, etc?

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      With a two-year-old a nice thing to try is redirecting their little hands, showing how to softly touch faces, offering paper to tear and appropriate objects to bite. Brief cool-downs can work, as well as actively reinforcing (praising, noticing, engaging) when they show non-aggressive behaviors. And while “terrible twos” has nice alliteration, three is even more challenging—so hang in!

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