What to Do When a Child is Aggressive

So four year old Johnney and Eric are building together. Eric moves one of Johnney’s blocks when Johnney had it in the perfect place and Johnney gets mad. Johnney yells “no!” and hits Eric.

This is a common scenario that plays out on playdates, between siblings and in preschools most every day. As a parent or teacher it can be hard to know the best ways to follow up in the moment and encourage better behaviors moving forward.

Part One: Discipline In the Moment
I tend to start with a little attention to the victim first. In this case I would turn to Eric and say something along the lines of “I am so sorry, Are you okay?” I am not saying gush and comfort in a big way as you don’t want to encourage the victim role, just momentary attention to check in and be sure they are okay. The point is to avoid giving intial attention to the child being aggressive.

As a teacher entering into the discipline process, you might start with brief empathy to Johnney “I know you are angry, you were building that,” or positive intent “You really wanted the blocks the way you had them.” When it seems appropriate, and in this case it would, you can help the child find better words to express himself. Again briefly, you might say “Johnney, next time you can say ‘Eric, don’t move that.’ or you can ask me for help.” The next step is a logical consequence for the aggressive behavior. This might be having Johnney leave the block area for the morning for hitting his friend. A logical consequence is meant to curb the behavior moving forward.

As a parent, I tend to think the discipline process works in the reverse when there is a aggressive behavior.  When a child hits their sibling or a friend on a playdate I would start the discipline with that logical negative consequence.  Once served, I’d work my way back through the empathy or positive intent, back through a conversation about choices.  The reason is I want this to register differently to the child than discipline for other behaviors.  If in response to other behaviors, you work in order from I messages and empathy to ending with consequence language, it may help to limit the aggressive behavior by starting with the consequence.

Here is a link to previous blog posts that go into more detail about the Steps of Positive Discipline: https://parentingbydrrene.com/?s=steps.

In addition to the steps, it can also be helpful to include other-oriented consequences.  This would be saying things like “Look how sad your friend is. He doesn’t like getting hit.”  This is meant to help your child realize the impact their behavior has on other people.

Part Two: Coaching Out of the Moment
When you have to discipline a behavior often, part of the answer is in coaching the wanted behavior. This can be done a bit in the moment but is more effective to coach when all is well. Coaching includes:

  • Reading Children’s Storybooks – This includes No More Hitting for Little Hamster by and Hands are Not for Hitting by
  • Telling Your Own Stories – If you’re creative make up your own stories about how to be gentle and why.
  • Asking Hypotheticals – This is asking your child “what if” questions related to the behavior of concern.  In this case that might be asking “what if you and a friend were playing cars and your friend took a car you were playing with, what would you do?”  Follow that with a conversation about their answers and best ways to react.
  • Role Playing – When things go poorly, go back and role play the situation with your child striving for better outcomes.
  • Puppet Shows – This  is a lot like role playing but may capture the child’s attention in a bigger way.  Again, focus on positive behaviors and outcomes.
  • Drawing Pictures of It Going Well – If your child likes art, this may be another way to coach behaviors.  Draw pictures of it going well or make cartoons of their scenarios.

Yes, all of this takes time and effort.  Yes, all if this tends to be more helpful than discipline alone.

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