Your child is playing soccer with some friends and all of a sudden you see him shove one of the other children to the ground and kick him.
You have taught him anger management techniques and you have seen him control his anger in the past so this takes you by surprise.
You run over to break up the commotion.
You say to your son, “That was really inappropriate. You know better than that. What’s gotten into you?”
Your son’s response is, “Well, he deserved it. He started the whole thing. He hit me first!”
You are taken aback and say, “No one deserves to be hurt. You need to apologize now or were leaving!”
Your son grunts under his breath, “I’m sorry.”
When your child seems to be deliberately mean to others, it’s not only embarrassing, it’s infuriating! You are understandably shocked and often become angry yourself.
Whenever you see aggressive behavior in children, control your anger and quickly ask yourself, “has my child mastered anger management and communication skills?
- If you answer “no,” read an article about children who are aggressive because they haven’t mastered anger management techniques, in “Can Child Development Stages Play A Part In Aggressive Behavior In Children? ”
- If you answer “yes,” this article is for you.
Why Would a Child Be Intentionally Aggressive?
More than sixty years ago, Rudolf Dreikurs, a student of Alfred Adler, identified “Four Goals of Misbehavior” that serves a purpose. In a nutshell, it says that all behavior is purpose-driven. When people try to meet their goals through positive behavior and it doesn’t work, they get discouraged and resort to negative behavior.
So the key to redirecting intentional aggressive behavior in children is to identify what benefit or goal it serves for them. Then redirect them by showing them how to meet that goal through positive behavior.
There are only four goals behind intentional aggressive behavior in children: Attention, Power, Revenge or has Given up trying more positive ways. (Note: Giving up misbehavior will always be passive, so it will never be the goal of intentionally aggressive behavior in children.
How Can I Respond to Aggressive Behavior in Children Without Being Aggressive Myself?
Just follow The Parent’s Toolshop®’s unique “Universal Blueprint® PASRR Effective Response Formula:”
Prevent the problem from starting or worsening. There are a lot parents can do to prevent and respond to aggressive behavior in children before or instead of discipline. See Part I for prevention tips.
When a problem arises, always start your response with one sentence that takes the next two steps:
Acknowledge the child’s feelings (to de-escalate the situation) and
Set limits or expresses your concerns. For example, “I can see you are really angry and hit that boy even though you know it’s not right to hit others.” For your second sentence …
Redirect intentional misbehavior based on the goal. Here is a list with the best tools for preventing and stopping aggressive behavior in children, based on their goal (listed above):
- If the purpose is attention, either remove the child from the situation or remove the attention from the situation. Interact as little as possible in the process of removing the child or the attention. Later (minutes or hours), suggest or use problem-solving (see below) to remind your child of more appropriate ways to get people’s attention.
- If the purpose is power, be aware of who the child is trying to control. If it’s the other child, you can say, “If you want to do things your way, tell him why and see if you can take turns.” Suggest the exact words instead of making vague statements like “be nice.”
If the child is trying to control your decisions by aggressively resisting, restate the choices within limits. Then point out that, “If you can’t decide without hurting, I’ll know you need to calm down before we discuss this further.” This can lead you into discipline. Remember, that the kind of control the child really wants is self-control or some control over the options.
- If the purpose is revenge, acknowledge the child’s hurt feelings without condoning the child’s actions. Say, “I can understand why that hurt your feelings.” Then use effective problem solving techniques (below) to brainstorm options if it happens again.
Always Redirect misbehavior before Revealing discipline or it will turn it into punishment and/or escalate the situation.
Reveal discipline that is not aggressive, which would turn it into punishment and model aggressive behavior. Read the article, “Punishing vs Disciplining Children” to learn the difference. When you state what the discipline will be or need to follow through, be very careful to use anger management techniques yourself and follow through calmly and firmly. You are the grown-up, so control yourself until you have a chance to dis-engage and calm down before disciplining children. Possible disciplines are:
- Use effective problem solving techniques to get agreements and build discipline into the plan. This option may take longer to use, but usually gets the best results. Even a three-year-old can do problem solving, in a condensed version. When both of you are clam, follow this formula:
- Listen to the child’s feelings first, “How do you feel when you lose your temper?” “How do you feel when your friends get hurt?”
- State your feelings: “I don’t like losing my temper, yelling, or seeing your friends treated meanly.” or “I have a concern about children getting hurt when another child gets angry.” Make this a short one-sentence statement, not a lecture. Quickly move to the next step.
- Brainstorm Options: “When you are angry, what do you think you can do?” Don’t evaluate any ideas yet. The ideas can be for more effective anger management techniques the child can use (See Part I for suggestions.) or how to response more appropriately.
- Evaluate the ideas. “Well, hitting is one option some people choose. What would happen if you hit him? How would you feel? How would he feel? How would the teacher feel?” If children don’t dismiss an inappropriate idea on their own, use a value statement like, “I don’t agree with hitting other people. What are some of your other ideas? Is there something else that might work better?”
- Decide on a plan and practice a few hypothetical situations. Use a code word or signal to remind the child of the agreement when you sense things heating up.
- Get an agreement for a trial period. Say, “So are you willing to try that for the next few weeks and see how it goes?” Usually if children think the plan isn’t written in stone they will be more willing to sincerely try it.
- Build in a consequence if the child breaks the agreement – Social outings are a special opportunity, so children must show that they can behave responsibly, even when they have a problem or get angry.
Tell your child, “If you show me you are not ready to work out your problems without hurting people I’ll know you need to take a break from socializing for awhile. I will give you one opportunity to change your behavior, then we will leave. If it comes to this, you can practice anger management techniques at home with us for a day or two, then have another chance to show me you can use them with other children. Do you understand?”
Don’t make the time period too long if it only happens infrequently. Always keep it reasonable. What your child needs is more practice, not punishment that increases his resentment even more.
- Show the child how to make amends. If a child hurts someone’s feelings or body, have the child make amends. Do not force the child to say “I’m sorry,” because that can lead to a power struggle. You want your child to take responsibility for the consequences of what he did, not get an easy excuse or cancellation of his responsibility by saying those two words insincerely. Instead, say you want him to “show he’s sorry.” That opens up all kinds of options, some of which will help him save face. For example:
- Tell him, “If you hurt someone, I expect you to at least check to make sure the other child is okay.”
- If it’s feelings he hurt, he can write an apology letter or do something nice for the person.
- He can say he’s sorry or hug him, if that is what he sincerely wants to do.
- If it is a body that’s hurt, the hurtful child needs to be involved in cleaning, getting ice, holding cloth, putting a bandage on, or helping with these things if he’s too young to do them by himself.
- If the child chooses not to do anything, then you know he’s not ready for social activities right now and can reveal the consequence mentioned above.
Lastly, remember Rudolf Dreikurs theory above? Amazingly, his theory has proven to be rock solid, as shown through hundreds of long-term research studies. As a result, nearly ever successful evidence-based parenting program will incorporate either Adler or Dreikurs’ teachings — including The Parent’s Toolshop®.
If you want more insights, information and practical tools and tips about misbehaviour, listen to a one-hour recording of a live teleseminar called, “Why Kids Misbehave — and What You Can Do to Prevent and Stop it.” Click here for a description or to order.
Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and hundreds of interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines. She is the author of the award-winning book The Parent’s Toolshop®, and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds, plus other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.
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