It’s not unusual to see kids pushing or hitting over a “favorite” toy occasionally. But that’s not what we’re going to address here.
This article is for parents who see daily or weekly aggression in their children. It’s for when usual discipline methods just aren’t fixing the situation.
There are lots of ways to define the concept of “aggression.” But here I’m talking about hitting, biting, spitting, slapping, headbutting, or body blows. If these are regular occurrences in your home, I can help.
Aggression Is Their ‘Nuclear Option’
I call aggression a “nuclear option” for kids because it brings life to a screeching halt. It never gets ignored. Ever. Not by the victim, not by adults. Never.
And it shouldn’t. It’s like pulling the fire alarm. Time stops, and all available responders appear on the scene. If you’re thinking, “hmmmm… maybe that’s what they want,” you’re on the right track, Boss.
Yes, behavior is about communication and control. But it’s also just a habit.
I’ve written about the idea of kids carrying around a “backpack” with their learned behavior habits in it. When children have a need, they typically pull out the behavior that gets the need filled most easily. Sometimes they’ll try a new behavior they witness in others. If it works, they’ll add it to the backpack.
The more they use a behavior, and the more it works for them, the more space it takes up in the backpack. The habit deepens.
The way we, as caregivers, react and participate in these behaviors helps create the habit. I’m not saying your child’s aggression is your fault. I’m just saying if aggression is in his or her backpack, it’s serious business. And we have to look at how it got there.
What’s the NEED Behind Your Child’s Aggressive Behavior?
Before we can stop the aggression, we have to understand the unfulfilled need that’s causing it.
In behavior-speak we call this the function of the behavior (FOB). I’ve written an entire article on it here. It’s important stuff, so you might wanna read it if you’re trying to sort out a child’s aggression.
In my experience, the most common reasons kids hit are a lack of social and communication skills, combined with over-stimulation and/or a lack of impulse control.
Here are some typical scenarios:
- Communication. Some children lack the social language needed to work out disagreements and frustration. (Let’s be honest, that’s hard for some adults, too.) For these children, aggression may be an attempt to communicate something they can’t verbalize.
- Social Connection. This goes beyond just language. Many kids don’t have the social skills to initiate contact with other kids in a stimulating social environment (like recess or free play). As adults, we recognize hitting isn’t a good long-term strategy for positive social connection. But this isn’t always clear to a child who doesn’t know how to play. He’s frustrated, and hitting always gets attention and connection.
- Empowerment. Kids have precious little control over most aspects of their lives. A combination of sheer frustration and desperation can boil over into aggression. I see this particularly when older siblings are involved and there’s a power differential.
The Next Step: Meet the Need
The hard part is often figuring out the function of the behavior (FOB).
But once we’ve got a good hypothesis about what need the aggression is meeting, then we can try teaching a replacement behavior that meets the need.
Consider this: If I want to lose weight, I can’t just stop eating food. I have to replace unhealthy foods with healthier options (and fewer of them). It’s the same with children. We can’t just take away their means of communication. It’s our job as Boss Parents to teach them what appropriate behaviors will meet their needs and make their communication socially appropriate.
The first step is to brainstorm ways to help your kid meet his or her need without violence.
- If your child has a hard time joining other kids in play, some social skills instruction is in order. Give him some entry lines to use and practice scenarios with him.
- If your kid feels powerless to negotiate with an older sibling, introduce a structure for sharing. (I use the two-minute rule.) Teach him when it’s OK to ask you for help. (I’m a big fan of telling kids to work things out on their own, but we can only do that if we know they have the skills and structure for it. Otherwise we’re encouraging Lord-of-the-Flies stuff.)
- If you sense a lack of power and self-determination is causing your kid to lash out, take some deliberate steps to give him more control. Not sure where to start? Ask him. Maybe he needs his own space somewhere in the house where he can be left alone to unwind. Maybe he wants to give more input on some simple daily decisions. If so, you can create a rotation for allowing kids to make (relatively minor) decisions about TV shows or dinner choices. This is an area to be reasonable and empathetic. No, it’s probably not appropriate to let your kid choose his own bedtime, but there are probably ways to loosen the reins.
- If he’s just angry and lacks impulse control, give him concrete things he can do instead of hitting. Teach him to scream into a pillow or do some air-ninja kicks. It sounds nice to teach a kid to take deep breaths and count to 10. But if you’re dealing with serious aggression, the replacement behavior needs to be competitive with the aggression. It needs to match the energy. Over time, you may be able to replace punching pillows with less energetic things until your child is able to simply take deep, calming breaths.
My One-Two Punch
Now, that we’ve discussed replacement behaviors, let’s talk about what to do when they don’t work.
What can you do right after your kid has been aggressive with you or someone else? Create an appropriate consequence.
A consequence (positive or punitive) is the thing that’s most likely to determine whether a behavior continues or ceases. It’s important to get this part right, and you can read more about it here.
In my experience, kids who are regularly aggressive toward adults or peers don’t give a crap about time-out. (Though toddlers can be an exception.) To really knock out aggression (ironic pun anyone?), I recommend rehearsal as a creative consequence. (Read about creative consequences here.)
Rehearsal is one of my all-time favorite behavior modification strategies because it accomplishes two things: It teaches kids a skill and, if you time it just right, it causes them significant inconvenience.
And by “significant inconvenience,” I mean it makes a lasting impression.
What Should My Kid Be Rehearsing?
To make a creative consequence out of rehearsal, make your child practice the replacement behavior.
For instance, If you’ve already decided your son needs to learn an appropriate way to ask for adult help, teach him exactly what to say or do. Then have him practice it over and over and over and over and over. And over. And over. (I discuss this technique in depth in the free Boss Parent Tips Course.)
If your daughter needs to practice screaming into a pillow or running into another room to be angry, have her do that over and over. That’s the rehearsal. And if she has to do it instead of having a play date, or screen time, that’s the “creative” consequence.
By using rehearsal like this, you’re not punishing your child for lacking a skill. Instead, he or she is experiencing a related consequence and receiving direct social skills instruction. The child is also getting your undivided attention during the rehearsal (a bonus).
What to Do with Yourself
At the moment of walking in on a situation where hitting has occurred, I recommend being “different” than you usually are.
If you are usually pretty loud, get serious and quiet. If you are pretty soft-spoken, get big and assertive. If hitting is the nuclear option for them, then we need to meet it with an energy that acknowledges it as such. This is not time for “business as usual.”
I have my own little thing I do when a kid hits me. It involves crazy eyes and speaking through my teeth. I don’t think I’ve had a kid hit me more than once, so I think it works.
I also have this speech (in crazy-eyes mode) where I say: “This will never happen again. You will never put your hands on me in this way again. You deserve to feel safe, and I deserve to feel safe. This is done.”
Of course this is a big, fat bluff, but it works.
The reason it works is because my kids know I don’t make big, fat bluffs. (Yep, life is complicated.) They also know how kick-ass I am at leveling creative consequences consistently, so they don’t want to test me. And if they did, I promise I’d have a big, fat, bummer of a creative consequence for them.
Keep in mind, Boss, that we are also role models in this moment. So don’t go all stark-raving psycho lunatic. Just shift your energy to something different than: “This is the last time I’m going to tell you to go brush your teeth!”
One Last Caveat
Timing rehearsals so they replace what would have been “fun time” or “free time” is what makes them feel like a consequence.
I get asked a lot about making a kid miss soccer practice or karate to “practice” replacement behaviors and make a strong impression. I usually say “no” to that, because we’re typically talking about a kid who struggles in some way with social skills or anxiety.
I generally don’t recommend taking kids out of activities that build them up and support self-confidence. (I DO recommend talking to their coach or sensei about the child’s struggles. It takes a village, and these folks often have influence with our kids that we don’t.)
Instead, I recommend taking away something like screen time. Your child will be no worse off, but he’s likely to be pissed off and inconvenienced, which is what we want.
Conversely, if he’s been amazing and using replacement behaviors, you can give him a few extra minutes of screen time as a reward. If aggression is a daily problem for your kid, consider using a daily incentive for safe hands. Then a bigger incentive for several consecutive days of safe choices.
It’s super important to reinforce and incentivize the behaviors we want, Boss!
Despite how it sometimes feels to us, kids don’t like being out of control. They don’t like engaging in antisocial behaviors (OK, teenagers often like making a point of this. But we’re talking about little kids here).
They want us to help them find another way as much as we want to have kids who don’t hit other kids. So if your kid is in a hitting place, take a step back. Take a deep breath and think about what deficit is supporting that behavior. Then move forward and give your kid the skills to do something better next time.
About the Author
Lisa King is the co-founder of Boss Parent. She also provides parents with in-person and remote child behavior consulting.