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 Helping Children with Aggression

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luckystar
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Number of posts : 93
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Registration date : 2008-09-25

PostSubject: Helping Children with Aggression   Thu 25 Sep - 9:31

This article from from Patty Wipfler at the Parenting Leadership Institute.

Has your child ever lashed out and hurt someone? Has she ever been attacked by another aggressive child? If your answer is "Yes," join the crowd! Almost all of us struggle with understanding and helping our children when they hurt others, and when they are hurt by other children. It's a shock to us the first time our sweet sons and daughters suddenly begin biting others, or begin throwing things at the new baby in the family. Here are some guiding principles for understanding our children's aggression, helping them relax again, and for helping the child who is hurt by another child.

First, it's important to understand that children don't want to attack others. They'd much rather play, experiment, and feel close and loved. They'd much rather be pleased with other children and feel a sense of belonging at home or at school or day care. When children do feel connected, relaxed, and loved, they are open to friendships and flexible in their play with other children.

It's when children have lost their sense of connection that they feel tense, frightened, or isolated. These are the times when they may lash out at other children, even children they are close to. The aggressive acts aren't premeditated, in fact, they aren't under the child's control at all. When a child loses her sense of connection, strong feelings overtake her behavior. On an ordinary three-year-old's morning, with typically loving and typically harried parents, the child's inner train of thought might go like this:

"Mommy's gone. She doesn't love me--she rushed me out of bed, ordered me around, and rushed me to school. She cooed at the baby, but she got mad at me. What am I going to do? I can't stand myself--my Mommy doesn't like me. Here comes Joey. He looks happy. I can't play! I feel desperate!" At this point, the child may lash out.

When children who are feeling connected are overtaken by feelings of isolation or desperation, they run for the nearest safe person and begin to cry or shriek in fear. They immediately begin to release the terrible feelings, trusting that they are safe from danger, and safe from criticism for expressing their feelings. At these times, children don't hurt anyone. They feel trusting enough to run for help. The crying and trembling and perspiring they do unties the knots of tension and restores their sense that they are OK. The adult who listens and allows the child to "fall apart" without becoming alarmed helps the child remember that there are people who care and can be trusted.

Children will lash out when they can't think, and can't run for help. What's confusing to parents, who are trying to show love and to guide them well, is that children don't seem tolook desperate when they are about to bite, push, or hit. They look like it's what they wanted to do. But children do give subtle signals that they feel too alone to function. If you watch carefully, you may see that a child's face goes impassive--acquiring a blank, passionless look--in the seconds before she lashes out. Fear and isolation take the life out of a child's expression. They don't look mad or frightened because they feel too far away to show anything on their faces. Fear robs children of their abilty to feel compassion, warmth, or trust. Their trusting nature isn't gone. It is covered by a crust of "no one knows me, no one cares about me."

Children get these feelings of isolation, no matter how loving and close we parents are. Some children have an abiding sense of fear and desperation that comes from circumstances beyond anyone's control. Fears are left by early medical crises that terrified the child about her own survival, by being given up for adoption by birth parents, by frightening experiences like parents fighting or a loved one going away. The day-to-day comings and goings of parents and caregivers, which a child can't understand in infancy, can also set in fears. These experiences leave a residue of feelings that can be erased by listening patiently to laughter, crying, trembling, perspiring, and struggling. They can't be erased by logic or facing "natural consequences," because the difficulty lies in a knot of intense feelings that defy logic and are out of the child's control.

To help a child who is sometimes aggressive, here are some simple steps you can follow that will, time by time, drain the upset that causes the aggression.

Observe. Under what conditions do the child's feelings overtake her? Is it when Mommy has been at a meeting the night before? After Mommy and Daddy have had an argument? During her little sister's time to nurse? When other children are crowding close to her? When playing with just one child? After being left to play with a sibling for 3 minutes? 5 minutes? 10 minutes? When wrestling and cuddling with Daddy or Mommy? Generally, you can come up with a good guess as to when your child might go "off track" and try to hurt.

Get someone to listen to you. In order to help your child, you need to reach for her--she's far away. Your heart will need to be warm. But our children's aggression kicks up lots of feelings--fears, angers, guilt--that freeze our warmth and make us likely to react in ways that frighten our child further. So find an understanding person who can listen to you talk at some length about how you feel about your child. Talk, and let your feelings show, until you can find your caring and hope that things can get better. It's good common sense to clear our own emotional decks before trying to help with anyone else's emotional clutter.

Give up the hope that, "this time it might not happen"! Mental preparation is important. If your child often bites you when you're doing rough and tumble play, then every time you play this way, expect biting to come up!

When the situation is ripe for an aggressive act, get close, and offer warmth and attention. Your child needs you close by to help her tackle her store of upset.

Intervene quickly and calmly to prevent her hand from landing in someone's hair, or her teeth from fastening onto you, or her fist from landing on her friend. Because she's not in control of her behavior, she needs you to keep her from hurting someone. You can say something like, "I can't let you hurt Jamal," or, "Oh, no, I don't think I want those teeth any closer," while holding her forehead a few inches above your shoulder.

Reach for her with eye contact, a warm voice, and physical contact. She is far away, trapped in a knot of feelings, and she needs some sign that it's safe to show you what those feelings are. It's better not to move her away, or to get busy talking to her. The busier you are "fixing" the scene, the less safety she can feel. You can say things like, "I know you don't feel good," "I'm right here and I'll keep things safe for you," "Something's not right. Can you tell me about it?" "No one's mad at you. Can you look over here to see that I love you?"

Don't expect your child to be reasonable. She is feeling badly, you're telling her it's OK to feel, so she probably won't explain anything or use words to tell you how she feels. It's a mistake to expect children to verbalize their feelings while they're releasing them. Just let her writhe with upset, cry, and struggle. If she tries to hurt you, gently keep yourself safe by parrying her blows or using gentle restraint. Keep trying to let her know you care about her. The combination of you keeping things safe and you caring will let her cry long and hard about how awful she feels. When she's finished, she will feel reasonable, close to you, and relaxed.

Don't lecture or explain. Children know right from wrong. And they can't process your logic while they are wild with feelings. When they've blasted the feelings away, their own inner logic will be operating again, and they won't need you to tell them that you don't hit babies, or that biting hurts. Hitting or hurting will be the farthest thing from their minds

What if you get there too late, and your child has already hurt someone?
Make things safe immediately. Take away the toys being thrown, or get the child's hand to release her sister's hair.

Don't blame, shame, or punish. These actions further frighten children, and further isolate them. They add to the load of hurt that makes children aggressive.

Decide who you are going to listen to first. Both the aggressor and the victim need your help. If you always spend your warm attention on the victim, the aggressor's problems don't get addressed, so it might make sense to decide to go to the aggressor as often as you go to the victim. Of course, the victim needs someone to check the damage done, and some warmth and caring. If it's the aggressor you are going to put first, you can tell the child who was hurt, "I'm sorry, love. I know that hurt. I'm going to spend a minute here with you, and that won't be enough, but I need to see Molly and help her--she must be pretty upset to do this to you. I'll be back." You also can keep the crying child close to you while you attend to the aggressor child, although it's harder to keep thinking straight.

Remember that children who hurt others didn't want to do it. They feel guilty and even more separate than before. Guilt erases people's ability to look like they care--no one looks more impassive than a child who has just hurt someone. The "I don't care" look is acutally a cover--underneath, the child is heartbroken that she was left so alone and got so desperate.

Make generous contact. It helps children's guilt lift if you apologize for not having kept things safe. You can say, "I'm sorry I didn't see that you were upset with Ginger. It's my job to make sure things are safe. I know you didn't want to hurt her." It also helps to let the child know that the child she hurt will be OK. "Ginger is crying hard--her head hurts--but she'll be OK."

If you child can cry or tantrum at this point, healing has begun. Listen. Sometimes, your presence breaks the crust of isolation and the bad feelings can release. The feelings that pour out are the root cause of the problem, and your child is unburdening herself, with your help. Let her feel intensely for as long as it takes. She'll decide when she's done enough.

Often, a child who has hurt someone can't feel anything. The feelings of guilt button a child up tight. She doesn't feel safe at all. Your best course of action is to make contact with her by spending some moments--perhaps five or ten--paying attention and doing what she wants to do. This isn't rewarding your child for "bad" behavior. It's "thawing her out," helping your child recover her sense that you care. Without that sense, she can't function reasonably. But playtime with her won't heal the wounds she carries that drive her nuts. You'll need to wait for a little upset she brings up, like not being able to find her favorite toy, or you cutting her toast into squares instead of triangles. This little upset provides a back door into the tensions that have been dogging her. Listen. This is the crying she couldn't do earlier, when she was too afraid she was "bad."

Encourage her to come to you when she's upset. Children don't do this easily when they carry a big knot of tension, but offering the idea that you want her to ask for help indicates the direction things will go in over time, after many cries have released some of her fears.

Spend playtime with her and elicit laughter when you can. Connecting with a warm adult in play can be a powerful means of keeping her sense of closeness alive. It's that sense that will keep her on a good track with her friends and siblings.

Patty Wipfler was born, raised and educated in California, graduating from Occidental College in 1968, and is the mother of two sons. The focus of her work since 1974 has been teaching basic listening, parenting, and leadership skills to parents. She directed The School, a non-profit parent co-operative preschool in Palo Alto, and later directed Neighborhood Infant Toddler Center for Palo Alto Community Child Care. She has led over 370 residential weekend workshops for families and for leaders of parents in every part of the U.S. and in 23 other countries. In 1989, she founded the Parents Leadership Institute (PLI), a non-profit organization that she now directs. She has written 12 booklets, produced 2 videotapes and several audiotapes, and has written numerous articles for PLI on the principles and benefits of listening parent-to-parent and parent-to-child, and on leading Parent Resource Groups.
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