If you think about it, toddlers can actually be really violent. I once read they commit an act of aggression about every 20 minutes if you include hitting, biting, pushing, and throwing toys. It makes sense when you consider they lack the language skills needed to communicate their desires. In addition to that, children have few coping and problem-solving skills and their ability to emotionally regulate has not yet been honed.
While most kids will outgrow their aggression, some kids seem to struggle well past when we would expect. And their aggressive demeanour makes them more likely to struggle socially, which compounds matters.
Adults simply deem angry kids’ behaviour as inappropriate and yell “Just stop it!” thinking that will make a difference, but when the child doesn’t listen, the parents wind up angry themselves. If we grown-ups can’t even control our anger, how do we expect our children to?
Feeling defeated and discouraged at dealing with an aggressive child, parents or teachers are likely to start tossing around terms like "conduct disorder" and "oppositional defiant." Our worries continue to grow as we think, “If they are this angry now, what will they be like when they are older?” In desperation, we try something besides yelling, such as putting them on a behavioural program of sticker charts. We promise them a reward of more TV time, for example, if they can control themselves for a week, only to have them repeatedly fail. Now they are angry at themselves, too. We have to stop this approach.
What if, instead, we move out of our adult-centric perspective and try stepping into the shoes of the child to see life from their viewpoint? What if we challenged ourselves to ask the question, “What fact would have to be true in order for this behaviour to make sense, enough sense to do it repeatedly?"
I suggest we find some compassion and empathy in understanding the child’s perspective when they are raging. In fact, this is exactly the first step taken by trained hostage negotiators. And let’s face it, if you have an aggressive angry child you probably do feel like a hostage to their explosive behaviours.
Hostage negotiators befriend and listen to the hostage-taker. They don’t try to tell them they are crazy, or why they are wrong. Like a therapist, they are trained in building a relationship and understanding the suffering of the other person. Parents need to learn this same skill, too. A strong understanding and accepting relationship with ones’ parents is therapeutic.
So let's try to get inside the anger mechanism of children and see it from the inside out for a change. For this, I like to refer parents to the model proposed by Aaron Beck, the creator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). Beck helps us understand that the events we experience in life are neither good nor bad, and should be seen as stimulus in our environment. Examples of experiences in a child’s life might be that someone snuck ahead of them in line for the water fountain, or the teacher scolded only them for throwing snow balls when everyone was doing it.
These events are called “the activating event” or a trigger. The event itself is not the issue per se, but rather it’s the next step in the cognitive process that matters most. It’s the interpretation the child makes of the event that matters.
What story do they tell themselves about the fact that someone budded in line? If they think, “I guess my classmate is pretty thirsty," they're likely to remain calm. But if they tell themselves that budding in line is unfair, then yes, those thoughts will probably make them angry. Once angered, the child dmight fight back by pushing or kicking.
Sadly, the kicking, angry child will probably be sent to the principal's office for being aggressive and told, “Don’t do that again." We know that won’t really help. Instead what would be more helpful is to focus on the child's perception and offer the suggestion, “Don’t think that storyline again." Except, of course, it isn't that easy either. But it does show us a new focus and perspective to work from — it allows us to be helpful in new ways.
The best approach is to help the child regain their calm and then when they are able and willing, have them re-tell you what they experienced and how they interpreted the events. Help identify the irrational, biased, exaggerated and contorted thinking. Some parents or teachers can find these, but often it takes some time and professional assistance.
To help the child see a new perspective, propose that some rules can be broken occasionally, or if they are broken remind your child that it’s a little problem, not a catastrophe. Start a conversation about other rules that are occasionally broken or ask what the world would be like if no one every broke rules. That would mean Mom could never let the child stay up past their bedtime — not even on Halloween. Or the child would have to go to school every day even if they had the flu and were throwing up. No, that would be silly!
If your child is struggling with their anger and you want to take a crack at really trying to understand their experience of the world, here are some things to keep an eye on, but don’t use them as a replacement for getting help.
- Someone invading their space
- Someone taking their possessions
- Confusion over rules that are not enforced consistently
- Feeling a sibling is preferred
- Feeling misunderstood and/or not heard
- Being controlled or ordered around by others
- Feeling inadequate, ashamed and/or embarrassed
- Feelings of anxiety