5 Things to Do With Aggressive Children

Positive guidance and discipline are not taught in schools. They’re rarely even subjects taught exclusively to teachers in college. They are touched upon in certain child development classes but almost never offered as a single course. To be clear, “positive guidance” means teaching a child how to process information and become more self aware. “Discipline” means to remove a child from a situation where he or she may hurt himself/herself or others, take time to calm down and self soothe, then move into the guidance phase with communication that leads to understanding. In this post we will use “Bobby” as an example and you will notice that he is not removed from the situation. Instead, the child he hurts is removed. The reason for this is because aggressive children will often run, kick, hit or scream if touched or forcibly removed; therefore, it is often safer and more fruitful to remove the other child and return to the aggressive child which ensures that the hurt child is cared for and the aggressive child has a moment to calm down. Using these 5 tips gives aggressive children what they really want – safe ways to channel their aggression and a developing sense self control; therefore, the behaviors don’t need to be addressed very often because they simply disappear as the child learns to meet his or her own needs and becomes more self aware.

Here are the Top 5 Positive Guidance and Discipline Techniques that have been proven to work with aggressive children.

  1. Observe

Whether you’re a busy parent or a swamped teacher, taking time to just observe a child helps to understand the child. Aggressive children have a lot of energy and rarely want to be in trouble but often seem to cause trouble. The idea that an aggressive child is trying to “cause” trouble is an illusion. To cut through that illusion we need a diamond. Observation is that diamond. The most common reason that children “act out” aggressively is because they feel like they have no control over their world or their world is in chaos so they create “chaos”, which gives them a feeling of control. It’s a false sense of control, though, so parents and teacher can give them true control by teaching them to meet their own needs and be aware of their own behaviors.

First, watch the child doing something aggressive that isn’t directly harming another person or animal. It could be just casually watching from the kitchen window or purposefully sitting down with a pen and paper and documenting everything that happens for ten or fifteen minutes. Make mental or, even better, written notes detailing what happened just before the aggression, during the aggression and after the aggression. For example, while Mom is folding laundry and watching him through her bedroom window, five year old Bobby is playing in the yard. He picks up a stick and starts whacking a tree trunk then the branches, the ground and then his toy truck. He then throws the stick down, picks up his truck, climbs a small dirt hill and throws the truck off the hill. His little sister runs into the yard and he runs down the hill and knocks her over. She cries and he runs away. It all happens in a less than two minutes. A newly aware parent, the mom moves outside, helps the little sister to calm down, ensuring that she’s not physically hurt, but what does she do with Bobby? Typically, she would spend the next ten minutes chasing after him while he laughed and ran away. When she finally caught up to him she would yell and he would be punished, possibly spanked. She’s aware, however, that this happens over and over again, so she’s taken some mental notes this time. She remembers that Bobby began by hitting the tree, then the truck, then throwing the truck and running into his sister. She knows that it was impulsive and not on purpose and she knows that chasing him down will only lead to chasing him around and higher blood pressure. She needs a change of plan and here’s her new plan of action.

2.  Adjust

First, she’s going to adjust her view of what just happened. Instead of seeing Bobby as an aggressor and the little sister as a victim she’s going to see Bobby as “impulsive” and the sister as an innocent bystander. Next, she’s going to remove the little sister from the environment and get her involved in something and then she’s going to go out, pick up the stick and start hitting the tree with it until she knows she’s gained Bobby’s attention. Then, instead of accusing him of something that he already knows that he did wrong, she’s going to ask him something like, “Hey, Bobby, is this your stick?” The stick was not involved in hurting his sister so she uses it to gain his attention. This type of response sometimes confuses a child at first but they will usually respond slowly, often wordlessly. Mother is adjusting her actions. “This is a nice stick! I bet we could play baseball with it!” This is the beginning stage of redirection – planting the seed. “Is there a ball around here that we could use?” Bobby finds a ball and brings it over. Mom is getting Bobby to come to her in a non-threatening way and, once the child is used to non-threatening approaches to discipline, this step becomes unnecessary because the parent will just ask the child to come and talk and the child comes willingly since there is nothing to fight, run from or fear so those responses are not being triggered in the brain.

Bobby brings the ball over and Mom says, “I want to play ball with you but first, I noticed that you got really excited and knocked your little sister over. Did you mean to hurt her or were you trying to play?” Bobby shrugs and looks down. The “wording” is very important because the mother is recognizing what happened and giving Bobby choices about how to frame his own action and accept responsibility for what happened. “It looked like you got overly excited. I remember that I accidentally knocked you over in the kitchen the other day when I was cooking and didn’t see you standing behind me. Remember that?” Bobby looks up, he’s willing to make eye contact now, and nods. The mother has touched on two very important things by using that one simple example. First, she’s letting him know that she makes mistakes, too. Second, she’s presenting a situation in which he can use “cognitive” empathy. Briefly, there are two basic types of empathy, “cognitive” and “affective”. Cognitive empathy comes from having experienced something similar. Affective empathy is being able to feel someone’s feelings. It’s much easier for small children (especially aggressive children) to use cognitive empathy right away and learn affective empathy over time, especially if empathy is a new concept in the family or classroom dynamic. So, the mother asks, “Well, do you remember what I said when I accidentally knocked you over?” Bobby nods and says, “Sorry.” Mom responds, “Yes. I said that so that you knew that I didn’t mean to knock you over and didn’t want you to get hurt. Do you remember me asking if you were okay?” “Yeah.” Bobby nods again. “So, did you do that with your sister? Does she know that it was an accident and you didn’t mean to hurt her?” He looks down again and shakes his head, mumbling, “No.” “I know that we haven’t worked on this before but I’m trying some new things and maybe we can try them together. Can you go talk to your sister like I talked to you and make sure that she’s okay?” Bobby shrugs. “Would you like me to go with you?” Mom asks this because children need support, especially when they’re trying something new. He nods and they go into the house together, find the sister and he shyly says, “Sorry.” Mom, instead of directing him loudly, kneels down and whispers in his ear, “Is she okay?” Kneeling and whispering a question saves the child from embarrassment and eliminates the feeling of being forced, coerced or told what to do. Children often know, subconsciously what is right but just need to be taught how to make it happen. Bobby then asks, “Are you okay?” Little sister nods. Now, Mom must follow through with the redirection by watering that little seed she’d planted earlier.

3.  Redirect

“You did it. Ready to go hit that ball, Bobby?” Bobby runs outside. He’s ready! Note here that the mother didn’t praise him. Instead, she simply recognized that he did what was difficult, what needed to be done and what was helpful by saying, “You did it.” Children intuitively know that praise is a judgment and can easily turn to blame while recognition is a form of honesty and respect. Mom follows at her own pace and finds Bobby outside, ball in hand. Mom is moving slowly and calmly on purpose. “Hey, Bobby, before we get started can I ask you something?” Bobby nods. “Can you please use this stick and any other stick you find just for games like baseball or for digging or things like that so that you don’t accidentally hurt someone?” Bobby agrees. “Sounds good. Now, do you want to hit first or be the pitcher?”

This type of guidance and discipline is highly effective and gets easier and easier over time as children develop self awareness and feel recognized and respected instead of praised and blamed. The language used by the parent, the view that he or she takes of the situation and the child almost always changes the outcome of similar events in the future.

In this example, the mother adjusts her view to see that Bobby needs to develop impulse control and empathy, not to be punished, and needs to be told what “to do” with the stick instead of what “not to do. We often tell children what not to do and forget to teach them what to do; therefore, they continue to be aware of what not to do and subconsciously repeat that action. Once they learn what to do, they often subconsciously repeat that appropriate action. Bobby’s aggression with the stick led to his accidental aggression with the little sister. His mother taught him language to use and actions to take when he does something impulsively (like knocking down his sister) and creates a situation that he didn’t mean to create so that, in the future, he has the tools to deal with those situations in a healthy way. His mom also redirected his action into an appropriate use of the stick and then went on to teach him how to throw the ball up and hit it himself so that he wasn’t dependent on her. Taking it one step further, she could punch a hole in a tennis ball, put a rope through it and then hang it from a tree limb at his level. Bobby would probably never hit the tree again because he had a more lively target in the tennis ball and could hit it all day without ever getting into trouble. The mother, having observed and acted in a timely manner, can now learn to be consistent.

4.  Be Timely & Consistent

Acting in a timely manner is critical to positive guidance and discipline. Bobby’s actions needed to be dealt with but timely doesn’t mean “knee jerk”. It means before anything else happens or as soon as is safely and humanly possible. It means stop washing the dishes or working on a project and address the issue ASAP.   It means calmly inviting the child over to talk. Aggressive children, especially those who are used to being punished, have little or no fear of being punished so aggressive action on the part of the parent is futile. They respond much more actively and sincerely when a parent is calm and understanding. The aggression in this scenario was dealt with quickly and it was accidental. Let’s take a look at another scenario where the aggression is much more intentional.

The next day, Bobby comes home from school, looks at his mom, then pushes his little sister down to the ground and laughs at her. When changing guidance and discipline tactics in school or at home, it is common for a child to act out in this way, purposefully, to test the adult’s ability to be consistent. If the adult acts consistently, it gives the child a sense of security. If the adult does not act consistently then the child sees the adult as “weak” and it makes the child insecure. So, Bobby has pushed his sister and laughed at her. Mom can do one of many things. She can ignore it, which would not be consistent with her words the day before of trying to do things differently (and a child WILL remember those words) or she can fall back on what she knows and yell and punish him or she can use her new skills. Stay calm. Model the behavior she taught him the day before and ask the sister if she’s okay. Take care of her first and then address the situation with Bobby. Being consistent, Mom removes sister from the environment then calmly finds Bobby. He has planted himself in front of the T.V. so Mom plants herself in front of the T.V., too and asks, “What’re you watching?” “Cartoons.” He answers. “Oh. Well, I’m going to mute this for a second so we can talk.” Notice that she’s not asking. She’s just letting him know what’s coming next so that he’s aware. We all want to be aware. She mutes the T.V. and continues with the same language as the day before, “Bobby, I noticed that you pushed your sister down and then laughed at her. Yesterday I know that it was an accident but today was on purpose so I’m wondering what you were trying to get from that. Can you tell me what you wanted to get out of pushing your sister?” Bobby shrugs. “I know that in the past I would yell at you and I’m trying not to do that now but I need your help.” Asking the child for help like this is a form of honesty. Parents really do need help, understanding and cooperation for a family to function. “So, it’s obvious that you’re getting attention from that but is this the kind of attention that you want? Do you want me to mute the T.V. and then talk about your behavior and how your sister feels?” Bobby shakes his head. “What would you rather have happen when you come home from school?” “Watch T.V. and have a snack.” He says. “I hear you. I’d like that, too. We can try again tomorrow. Today, however, your sister has been hurt on purpose so there must be some kind of consequence.” This is a perfect time for the parent to discuss two very common sense but rarely discussed types of consequences. Positive and negative consequences. Whenever possible, parents can point out and use natural consequences. They’re much easier to understand and more effective than punishment. “So, Bobby, the consequence of coming home and helping or hugging your sister or even just not pushing her is that you get to watch T.V. and have a snack. What do you think the consequence for pushing her down should be?” “Watch T.V. and have a snack.” He says smartly. Mom stays consistent, however, and responds by asking, “So, if she pushes you down she should get to watch T.V and have a snack?” This makes Bobby frown and think. “No.” “Okay, then what would her consequence be for pushing you down?” “I don’t know. A spanking.” Mom takes a calming breath and says, “We’re not spanking anymore so we’re going to use time out when you need to calm down and talking when you’re calm. You’re calm right now so we’re going to continue to talk until you do something to help instead of hurt. What can you do to help?” Bobby sighs and says, “Apologize.” “Do you think that will help or hurt?” “Help.” “Okay, try it and let’s see what happens.” “I don’t want to. I just want to watch T.V.” Bobby starts getting upset now. This is a critical moment. Thinking back to the yard incident, Mom remembers that the aggression built up quickly so she needs to employ a calming strategy. Understanding is a very effective way to calm children down. “I understand that you want to do that and I also want you to do that so do what you need to do now and you can watch T.V. right after words. Do you want me to go with you again?” Notice that she’s being consistent in language and actions. The situation is different but her words and actions are similar. She’s being understanding, not treating him like a criminal and asking if he wants her support. She’s remembering that she’s a parent, the child’s first teacher, and not a police officer. He nods and they go off to apologize then get a snack together, all three of them. Mom has been consistent and Bobby is starting to understand that she’s going to be firm.

5.  Be Firm & Flexible

The ability to be firm is also quite important. One can start out very firm and get softer over time but starting out soft and then trying to get firm later is confusing and difficult for children. To be clear, firm does not mean cruel or mean. It means that the parent will follow through with whatever consequences have been set. Period. If the consequence is no T.V. and snack then there will be no T.V. and snack. It’s also important to remember that that is not a natural consequence and must have an end. The child must know what the end will be so the parent must make that clear. “You can watch T.V. and have your snack after you clean up your mess and we’ve talked about what you can do differently next time.” Or, “You can have a snack after you apologize but T.V. is off limits until tomorrow.” Or whatever consequences have been set into place. The parent must be firm and consistent, yet remain flexible. Around five years old children can begin to comprehend consequences, especially natural consequences like, “If you hit your friends then they won’t want to play with you. Do you want to hit them or play with them?” So, that is a good time to begin setting agreed upon consequences with your child or children. “Bobby, I see that you understand consequences. So, what do you think the consequence should be for hitting?” Begin by setting consequences for two or three dangerous or very inappropriate behaviors and be very consistent with the follow-up conversations. Hitting, yelling, throwing and pushing are very common behaviors that can be used. Mom might ask, “Okay, Bobby, so what is the consequence for pushing?” “No T.V. for a month.” Mom knows that this is unrealistic but also a step forward because he’s agreeing to set consequences so she can respond, “A month is a long time but I agree that not watching T.V. can be a consequence. How about no T.V. for that day and making sure that the person is okay and then apologizing.” Setting a consequence like that is consistent with things that the mom and Bobby have already experienced so he’ll be able to understand the reality of that consequence. Mom, however, must understand a little more. It’s important for parents to understand that consequences must change and grow along with children. What’s appropriate for a three year old is not appropriate or effective for a seven year old; therefore, rules and consequences must be flexible.

Not being able to watch T.V. and have a snack after school might work for a while but Bobby will soon grow and learn and may find other interests. When he no longer cares if he watches T.V. after school or not then it’s time to sit down and say, “Bobby, I can see that you’re getting older and smarter and don’t care about watching T.V. after school. You also don’t push your sister like you used to and that’s a big step forward.” Note here that Mom is recognizing his growth as a person. “I’ve also noticed that you’re hiding her stuff from her on purpose and then laughing when she gets upset because she can’t find it so I think we need a new consequence. Do you have any ideas on what that consequence should be?’ He will have ideas and Mom will guide him to what’s appropriate until they agree. This method of guidance and discipline gives the child a voice and a sense of control over their own lives. It also gives the parent a chance to be a teacher instead of police officer and alleviates the tension that can come from constantly policing children. Children quickly gain awareness of their own actions and begin to develop more self control and lose their impulsive behaviors through the building of self awareness. It’s highly effective, makes life easier over time and creates a healthy, respectful environment.

Remember, positive guidance and discipline require five things: observation, adjusting of view points, redirection, being timely and consistent, and being firm and flexible. These things are not put onto the children but are the responsibilities of the adults. It takes a little more time at first. If it’s new to a family it may take a family discussion and the adult saying something like, “I’d made mistakes in the past but I’m learning some new things and we’re going to do this as a family but I really need your help to do it.” Teachers can do this as well. The caregiver must learn to stop whatever he or she is doing and attend to the guidance and discipline matters first (whenever it’s safe), whether or not it’s convenient. It will take some extra time and patience at first but will pay off over time by eliminating fear and disrespect and replacing that with understanding and respect. The children will become more “interdependent” instead of “co-dependent” or completely detached and “independent”, which will allow trust to be built between children and caregivers. Trust, combined with the children’s’ abilities to meet their own needs, solve their own problems and be self aware, gives the caregivers more free time and a greater feeling of being able to relax as the children progress and develop in healthy ways.


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