When expression becomes aggression…
Unfortunately there’s no such thing as anger-management classes for pre-schoolers – and you’ll find that not a day goes by without them reaching Mach 4 on the rage and frustration scale.
A lot of the time this kind of aggression isn’t deliberate – it’s often your child’s way of asserting himself if he can’t find the right words to say how he’s feeling or what he wants. And anger is fine: we’re all entitled to feel it if things don’t go our way. But anger is a feeling, while aggression is a behaviour – and your child has to learn that he can’t use it to solve his problems. You need to guide him in learning how to manage his emotions, control his impulses and express his anger with words. Follow these tips…
1. Help him work out what he’s feeling
After your child has calmed down from a tantrum, gently talk him through it. Ask him what was bothering him and why: “Did you think I wasn’t listening to you?” Dr Sal Severe, psychologist and author of How to Behave so your Preschooler Will Too, points out that, like adults, young children have a variety of feelings: “They need to be taught how to label and manage those feelings, especially anger.”
In order to do this your child needs an emotion vocabulary – and you can provide that by asking questions such as, “Were you angry?”, “Did you feel sad?”, “Were you frightened?”
2. Teach him to empathise
Young children often pay little mind to the effect their behaviour might have on everyone else. If your child hits, bites or kicks, get down to his level and calmly ask him how he would feel if someone did that to him. Prompt him to give it some thought by saying things like, “If your sister kicked you like that it would hurt you and make you cry.”
If your child doesn’t have the verbal skills to assert himself in a non-violent way, then teach him. Kids love pretend play and you can use that to teach them how to react to the things that tend to trigger their rage. Role-play a situation that would normally have your child going into meltdown and work out how he can resolve it without his fists and feet flying.
Offer him verbal alternatives to his rage: “Maybe you could have said this. Why don’t you try that next time?” If trouble is brewing, remind him by saying, “Use your words, Tom” – and be sure to praise him when he does, perhaps via a Reward Chart with a happy face for every day he doesn’t hit or by saying something like, “I’m so happy you didn’t lose your temper when Alex was playing with your toys.”
5. Teach him how to calm down, not up
Dr Sal Severe recommends deep breathing as an easy technique young children can use to defuse anger and Supernanny has also used this method. He suggests showing your child what to do by placing your hand on your chest and getting him to do the same while taking in two deep breaths. The hand on the chest serves a handy visual cue that you can use to remind your child to take a step back from what’s bothering him: just do it if you see him start to get frustrated.
Sometimes young children need it spelled out so they can see how their behaviour relates back to Mum and Dad pulling them up all the time. Your child reacts aggressively when you try to enforce rules and limits – so he gets told off. Explain to him in simple terms the connection between those two events: “Jack, being told off makes you cranky. But if you keep hitting and biting, I’m going to keep telling you off. If you stop doing it then I won’t tell you off.”
Children who see aggressive or violent behaviour played out on the TV screen or in computer games tend to be more aggressive when they play. “If your child is consistently aggressive, limit his exposure to it in the media,” advises Sal Severe. “If he does see it on TV, explain that hitting isn’t a nice way to act and doesn‘t solve problems. Reinforce the message by choosing storybooks and TV shows that promote kindness.”
8. Operate a zero-tolerance policy
Do not tolerate aggressive behaviour at all, in any way, shape or form. As with every other aspect of parenting, consistency is key. The only way to stop your child from being aggressive is to make a House Rule that aggression is not acceptable.
If you’re in the habit of smacking your child in the heat of the moment , you need to express your own frustration more constructively. “Smacking in anger teaches children to strike out when they’re angry,” says Sal Severe. “Seeing that you don’t exercise self-control when you’re angry makes them think they don’t have to either.”
If you go off like a rocket at the slightest thing, it’s likely your child will too. “Your children learn to manage their anger by watching the way you manage your own,” cautions Dr Sal Severe. “It’s a sobering thought, but anger habits are learned.”
The irony is that an aggressive child can often be a major trigger for parents to explode, but try not to let your own anger build up. “Deal with it as soon as possible, using a calm voice to express how you feel rather than yelling,” says Sal Severe. “It’ll have way more impact. And just as you expect your child to apologise for bad behaviour, get into the habit of apologising to him if you lose your temper inappropriately.”
If your child’s aggressive behaviour is disrupting your home and putting family members or others at risk, and he reacts explosively to even the mildest discipline techniques, speak to your GP or Health Visitor. She may be able to refer you to a child psychologist or counsellor who can teach you new ways of interacting with your child that will help you manage his anger more effectively.