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As a clinical psychologist, published author, and mother to two cheeky young children, I get it. I’ve spent YEARS researching and filtering through the noise online, so you don’t have to.
One of my most asked questions is how to handle aggressive behaviors.
Whether that’s hitting, biting, kicking, scratching, pinching, I’ll spill the tea on how to handle these behaviors. So don’t worry, I’ve got you.
Keep in mind, I’m talking about younger kids – think infancy to age 5 – especially toddlers and preschoolers.
We’re going to dive into common reasons little ones get aggressive in the first place and then what you can do in those moments to help them and help yourself through these times of stress.
Because let’s keep it real. It’s stressful, right? It’s stressful when our kid gets aggressive towards us. There’s no way around that.
Nothing is more triggering than when your kid – out of frustration – lashes out at you and hurts your body. You immediately go into defense mode, and you may want to meet that aggression with aggression.
I get that this is triggering, and it triggers our stress response.
So I want to break down the common reasons why children get aggressive in the first place.
What I want you to keep in mind is, especially with your child’s developing brain, they are easily emotionally flooded.
The part of their brain (their frontal cortex) that’s involved in rational thought, problem-solving, logical thinking, all that higher-order thinking is still developing. It takes until they’re young adults – like age 25 or even later – for this higher-order brain to fully develop.
So you have to look at your two-year-old, three-year-old, four-year-old as having an immature brain.
What happens is when they’re met with frustration where they’re not allowed to do what they want to do, they’re going to have big feelings. Whether somebody doesn’t want to give them a toy, or you set a boundary and you’re like, “Not right now, sweetie. We’re not going to have candy before dinner.”
Also, they don’t have a lot of the skills to sit back and say, “Okay, what am I feeling right now? Okay, I’m feeling sad. Let me solve the problem.” And then they don’t have that communication to say, “Hey, Mom, I’m feeling sad right now. I need a hug, okay?”
That’s way over their head. And we can’t expect them at these younger ages to do that unless they’ve had a lot of practice.
Emotional regulation takes a lot of practice. This is a skill that needs time to develop, like any other skill like walking, talking, potty training. It takes time to develop that skill.
It also takes a lot of modeling and a lot of patience (let’s be real).
A common reason why kids lash out in anger is because of unmet needs. Maybe they’re…
When they get aggressive and they get dysregulated, you’re going to want to go down this list. If you need to, keep track of each of these to make it easier to remember.
The other thing is they’re emotionally flooded and frustrated. And commonly children lash out since they need to exert that energy.
That doesn’t mean we don’t want to work with them on finding other ways to handle that aggressive behavior. This means we give them a little grace for the way they act and not take it so personally.
If we view aggressive behaviors with our adult brain, then it’s easy to get ticked off and respond in anger because we’re viewing that behavior as threatening, as manipulative, as your child exerting power over you, and you need to exert your power and get your authority back.
If you’re running into these misconceptions, it’s very easy to get ticked off. Am I right?
And trust me, I’ve been there too.
The first thing you’re going to want to do is to regulate your body.
Again, because aggression is so triggering, you’re going to need to take a step back.
If you’re finding yourself wanting to meet that anger with anger, that’s your sign.
Whatever you want to say or need to say during those moments, say them to yourself so that you don’t take it personally and you don’t react out of anger.
The second thing you want to do is you want to validate the feeling while redirecting the behavior.
It’s like a one-swoop action. You can say something like, “Ah, I see you want to hit. I see you’re angry right now. It’s okay to be angry, but I can’t let you hit me. Our bodies are not for hurting. That hurts my body. I can’t let you do that,” while you have your hand out if they’re coming to swing at you or somebody else.
You always have yYou always have your hand out in a very calm, matter-of-fact. “Whoop, I’m that calm, confident leader. I’m coming in,” while taking deep breaths and saying your mantras.
Suppressed emotions don’t go away. All they do is get expressed in other ways, and commonly for young kids, they get expressed through other misbehavior. So you want to take this a step further by giving them healthy options to release their feelings.
There are many things you can do at these moments. Every kid is going to be a bit different. What may work today might not tomorrow, so you’re going to have to do some trial and error.
Give them some options because, even if those options don’t work, what you’re telling your child is that it’s okay to feel these feelings.
Tell your children that. “Feelings come and go, and it’s okay to get angry. It’s okay to get sad. Let’s find a healthy way to get that feeling out, okay?”
And you want to help walk them through this. “It’s okay. Let me help you get that energy out because I know you’re feeling frustrated. Let’s get that out, bud.”
And it’s that subtle energy of, “Look, I’m not intimidated by your big feelings. I’m not taking them personally. It’s not about me, it’s about you getting emotionally flooded, so I’m going to help you with that, bud. Here we go. This is what we’re going to do, okay?”
And if during that process they get aggressive towards you, do the same process. “I can’t let you hit. Bodies are not for hitting. That hurts my body. Let’s keep pounding that Play-Doh, okay? Let’s keep kicking that ball.”
And then you want to praise them for doing that.
Keep it light, keep it positive. Be their anchor. Be the calm presence they need.
We have to help them – it’s called co-regulate – before they can learn how to regulate on their own.
A lot of this process needs to be walked through.
Suppressed feelings don’t go away. Telling your child, “Don’t hit me! Stop that! Knock it off, you’re being bad. Go to your room!” doesn’t help them.
Now they’ve learned, “Wow, it’s a scary place to have big feelings. And now I’m all alone in my big feelings, and I’m bad for having my feelings.”
And that’s not what we want to teach them because they’re going to grow up and be adults and they’re going to have big feelings. It’s the human experience to have big feelings and pain.
We all experience pain, and you want to give your child that gift of being able to walk through life and handle the pain that inevitably will come.
Leave me a comment below about your own experiences or questions you have. I’d love to hear from you.
Rooting for you,
P.S. Want more help? Check out my free discipline workshop, How to Get Your Kids to Listen Without Yelling, for a deeper dive into discipline and setting consequences with intention and respect.
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As a clinical psychologist, published author, and mother to three young children, I get it. I’ve spent YEARS researching and filtering through the noise online, so you don’t have to.