Tweeties Topics are written by Music Kids director and CSM instructor Margaret Dahlberg to support parents of young children in the Music Kids program. Music Kids is Chinook School of Music’s early childhood music program for ages six months to five years.
Aggressive behaviour in young children is a sensitive subject. Most parents have experienced the anguish that comes with watching their child harm another little one. This is especially challenging as it can be an emotionally charged issue for any adults in attendance, let alone the child in harm’s way. The good news is you are not alone. Every parent in the room will inevitably experience a similar moment, whether they have yet or not.
The child who is demonstrating the aggression is most likely not charged with the emotion one would expect. As a matter of fact, “aggression” is defined as “hostile or violent behavior or attitudes toward another; readiness to attack or confront”, therefore likely not an appropriate word. Most of the time, a child demonstrates said behaviour either to test boundaries to communicate their own negative feelings.
Still, aggressive behaviour is undesirable and action is required. Boundaries are essential for toddlers. Not only do they need them, they crave them. Our job as parents is to guide our children’s behaviour. We cannot control their every move, therefore our reaction following their actions is imperative. We cannot stop our children from hitting or pushing, however we must create a consequence to set the boundary and reinforce a message.
How to know when and how to intervene:
Harmful Physical contact is made.
You can sense discomfort from the other child or adults in the environment
Every adult can be different with the behaviour they tolerate
If you are sensing discomfort, there is likely some occurring. Do not analyze or question, simply act.
ANY Physical contact is made
Even affection is crossing into another child’s personal space. It is important to teach your child this boundary as well. In this case, you simply acknowledge “Hugging is nice. ______ may not want a hug. You can ask ______ if he/she wants a hug.”
When harmful contact is made, intervention is required no matter what the reason.
One effective strategy you may try:
Remain calm*, no matter how upset you are. This is imperative.
Gently remove the child from reach of the other child.
Remove yourselves from the environment.
Pick them up and carry them away from the action, calmly repeating the correction “We don’t (hit). Hitting is not ok. Let me take you over here for a moment.”
Before returning, repeat the rule. “Let’s go back now. Hitting is not ok.” Also let them know there will be a bigger consequence if they repeat the behaviour.
Know what the bigger consequence is.
It is important that you have thought this through and have a plan prior to witnessing the behaviour. For example:
First aggression: take them aside within the environment
Second aggression: take them out of the environment briefly
Third aggression: take them away from the environment for the day
It is a good idea to communicate this plan with all of the child’s caregivers so there is a consistent reaction from each person in charge. This will help reinforce your guidance with the child.
*Trying to remain calm is difficult. It is hard not to succumb to the fear that your child is ‘bad’ or never going to outgrow this behaviour. What almost every parent can tell you who has been through it is that your child is neither bad nor destined to be a bully. Most of the time it is simply a phase they will eventually outgrow. The secret to remaining calm is inquiry. Think of yourself as the detective or the observer to ascertain what is causing the behaviour:
If the child’s emotional state appears neutral or pleasant during the encounter, they are more likely testing.
Testing is a way of learning rules or seeking boundaries.
Children will constantly need to reinforce behaviour again and again, no matter how many times they’ve been told not to hit.
Every child responds differently to boundaries, some need very few and others crave many.
Testing is an effective method to receive attention from a caregiver.
If the child’s emotional state appears negative, then they are attempting to communicate something.
Ask yourself what happened immediately prior to the event
Consider external forces at work such as lack of sleep, teething, changes at home etc.
Children are very good at making their feelings known, it is our job to acknowledge these feelings despite HOW they show it.
If your child is in an aggressive phase, be watchful at all times for two reasons: first to teach the child, second to reassure others that you are considering the well-being of the environment (which is also an important lesson for your child to learn). Therefore, take the time to ask yourself this important question “do I have the energy and stamina for this today?” For if you are taking your child out into an environment in which there is potential undesirable behaviour, you must be ready to play the role of guide. Let’s be honest, this can be taxing and a lot of work. It takes energy and discipline to remain calm even more so than the physical act of intervening. Choose success to be your goal, thereby only exposing yourselves to the challenge of teaching your child when you are feeling up for it. If they could talk, they would tell you they’d rather spend time with you alone at home in a sense of well-being than out in the world in a state of stress.
Have questions? Feel free to e-mail CSM Music Kids director firstname.lastname@example.org.