It is not unusual for children to exhibit signs of aggression during stressful times. It is not unusual for them to exhibit these signs even when we're not aware of their stress. The most common occurances are when a new baby comes into the home, after a move and leading up to a move, starting daycare or school or other big changes in their lives such as a parent going back to work after being home, divorce or separation, etc. But these are not the only reasons that children lash out at others.
Some children have sensory issues and go into a panic mode when feeling cornered. Young children that bite often fall into this category. They are not "bad," they are just overstimulated or possibly are feeling cornered. I've seen many toddlers bite another child when they are literally up against a wall. When they do this, you can see the intensity in their body language and a wildness in their eyes. They are frightened and don't know how to keep themselves safe. If you have a "biter," it's important to notice what's happening around them and protect not only the opther children but your own child as well. When they hurt someone else, it is most often very sudden. Afterwards, they are confused and sad. They don't actually want to hurt their friends, but they are out of control of their emotions. Please don't tell them that they are bad, and don't yell at them or hit them. These are great ways to escalate the situation and cause more harm. There are so many great statements to use such as: "I can see you are feeling scared (angry, worried), but I don't want you to bite (hit, punch, kick) because that hurts people." "I can see that you feel sad about hurting your friend (brother, sister), is there anything you would like to say to them?" Insisting on an apology can be insignificant if your child is just repeating required words. They need to understand what they are saying and truly feel it.
When I worked in an alternative school, we would bring children together, face-to-face, and have them talk to each other with supervision. If one child hurt another, the offender would have to face the hurt child while they cried and then talk to them when they were finished. No one likes to see someone cry, especially if you have been the cause of that crying. It changes the situation from aggression into compassion. Saying the words "I'm sorry" doesn't always equal compassion. It's often an automatic response without any real remorse. But feeling the discomfort of facing a crying victim makes it all very real. Once everyone has calmed down, you can all work together to decide what happens next.
Then there are children who act out because they are facing tough (for them) issues. These children need to talk about what's going on in their lives. If they are resistant to talking, they can draw pictures. That often leads to some great conversations. We may think that our eldest child has accepted that new baby when suddenly, they throw a toy at him or her. They may start to give them a hug then suddenly, it's a choke hold. Again, they are not bad. They are showing you how upset they are with this new arrangement. Grab them up in a loving way, hugging and kissing them, showing them how much you love them and how important they are to you. Then talk to them about the inappropriate behavior. You can get them to realize how much they love their sibling and how much they are loved in return. When we punish this behavior, we help instill resentment. Suddenly, they are bad and the baby is the good one. That's not really the message we want to relay, is it? However, we do need to set limits and have concrete consequences. They did behave badly. Notice I said, "behave badly" not "are bad." There is a huge difference. Words are important, but so are actions. If your child bites or hits someone else, there needs to be an immediate consequence. Rather than saying, "You will be in a timeout." Try putting them in a timeout immediately. If they have had the opportunity to talk with the hurt child, ask what they think is an appropriate consequence. Children often surp[rise me with their sense of fairness even when it involoves giving themselves a consequence or punishment.
When we encounter these behaviors in older children, it's a much bigger problem. This is something that needs to be taken very seriously. What is going on in their lives that is making them act out in this way? Can you get them to talk about it? It may be harder for them to talk to you, but maybe a family friend or a professional can help out here. Some couselors get children to act out their problems with puppets. Some older children can write fictional stories or draw pictures, make comic books. People behave aggressively for reasons that we may or may not be aware of, but it's important that they not stuff those feelings inside where they can fester and become even bigger. If you are unable to listen without getting upset yourself, please ask for help. Sometimes, the best listeners are those that are outside of the situation. As in the paragraph above, there need to be strong, concrete consequences involved. With older children, it's even more important for them to be involved in that decision. Be careful, though. They will often give themselves much too harsh sentences out of their own guilt. You need to provide the balance.
We all feel shame or embarrassment when our children behave badly. We want them to be well-behaved, perfect kids. But, it doesn't always turn out that way, and it's not our faults. Our children are individuals and will react and behave in unique ways. They will keep growing and changing, facing new challenges. Who knows how they will meet those challenges. We just need to remember that they are inherently good and support them even during those uncomfortable times. I believe that everyone can be healed through love and understanding, as long as we don't ignore the issues.
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