Naughty or Aggressive ?
When I was a preschool teacher, all the ‘naughty’ children were put in my class! And I loved to have them, because I would try and solve the mystery of each child’s ‘naughtiness’. Today ‘naughty’ children are called ‘aggressive’. Any child is labeled aggressive, if the child cannot sit straight while you are telling a story- aggressive! If the child cannot share- aggressive! If the child pushes someone in the park- aggressive!
It is important that parents and teachers understand child development because then they would know what behavior is age appropriate and what needs to be looked into for modification. For example when children in the ages of 2 to 4 years push someone, it is because they lack impulse control and cannot wait for their turn. By age 5 children have learnt social manners and have an understanding of ‘not to hurt others’. So when a 3 year old pushes we need to handle it differently, from when a 5 year old or an 8 year old pushes.
Children get aggressive for many reasons, but the two most important reasons are lack of attention and too much attention. When a child feels ignored a child usually reacts aggressively. When a child is spoilt, then the child wants attention all the time and when that attention is divided or late in coming the child reacts aggressively. It important for adults to make a distinction between the two as the first one needs love and the second one needs firmness.
Signs of aggression-
· inability or disinterest in activities and people
· not looking at you when you talk to them
Acts of aggression-
· shouting, screaming.
· Pushing others.
· Hitting and harming others or oneself.
· Running around, jumping, swinging things, throwing things.
We had a child in one of our schools that would come to the class and climb the shelves and sit there. No amount of cajoling would bring him down. If brought down the child would walk around hitting and punching other children. Sometimes we would feel he is better off on the shelf! But then other children want to sit on the shelf, so this had to be sorted. We asked the teacher to start shadowing the child by holding his hand and gently pulling him away when he would try to reach for another child. Everyday as he would enter the class the teacher would greet him and take him aside and high five him, and reaffirming about 2 important rules- “we don’t sit on the shelf and we don’t hurt others”. Then she would follow him around by holding his hand. At the end of the day she would tell him what he did well and where he can be better. The child was 3 years old. After 15 days of this, slowly she did not have to hold his hand, she involved him in activities like helping pick up toys or take things from one side of the class to the other. But she noticed that every time his father came to drop him (which was once in 15 days) the child would be too aggressive on those days. Then we found the cause, the father before dropping him would say, ‘don’t be naughty in school or I will not take you out’. We realized that the father was giving negative reinforcement and so we spoke to the father to change his words to , ‘ have fun in school and I will pick you up after school, daddy loves you’
The aggression stopped and the child is well settled now.
Here are some pointers to monitor and change aggressive behavior
1. From when did these start? A new baby? A change in the family? A new teacher? Too many milestones together? - like toilet training, eating on their own, brushing their teeth, going to daycare. If too many emotionally draining milestones were clubbed together then the child will naturally always feel overwhelmed and thus may resort to aggressive behavior often from stress.
2. How did you handle the first aggression and how are you handling it now? Most parents handle the first few aggressions with ease, by either being kind to the child or laughing it off, but as the frequency increases they tend to change and it is this change that frustrates the child. So be consistent in your way of handling every aggression and meltdown.
3. Is the child aggressive only with you or with everyone? This can be because of three reasons-
a. You may not be giving her choices and so she wants her way – power struggle. So give some choices, like for choosing clothes to wear, the closet is off limits but put three dresses on the bed and have her choose what to wear, this will help you ‘maintain control’ and also give the child the required choice to feel independent and in control.
b. Mothers usually like to maintain a routine that is good for children but others may not be so strict with her so she perceives you as the ‘only’ person who ‘makes’ her do things. So talk to the other family members to maintain some consistency.
c. You may unknowingly not be paying her attention when ‘she’ wants. So analyze and work on it. Remember for children even negative attention is good.
4. Check how much time you spend with her, is it enough? Kids need 20 minutes of our undivided attention (at least 6 times a day!) but sometimes we end up being on the phone or checking mails or cooking when we are supposed to be giving them our undivided attention.
5. Do you communicate or instruct? Check your conversations throughout the day are they more instructions and questions? Then you need to give her more time to talk and communicate.
6. If you find that nothing works and your child is just a ‘drama queen’ or ‘meltdown king’ then refrain from labeling them as such. Because when you call them by these names you are opening them up to ridicule and confusing them, which adds more fuel to their already fragile emotions.
9 ways to handle aggressive behavior-
1. Walking away does not help as it teaches your child that when someone is upset, walk away.
2. So during an aggressive tantrum or a meltdown just sit there quietly till it wears out, or give your child a tight hug and keep hugging till she quiets down. Say words like, ‘There, there, I understand’ or just a simple ‘hmmm.’ Ensure that your child is not going to hurt herself or others, if you think she will then just hold her tightly from behind, close to your body.
3. Reasoning with them during an aggressive meltdown is foolish because during aggressive behavior the pre frontal cortex or the thinking brain has shut down and the primitive brain has taken over which has only 4 responses, fight, flight, flock or freeze. Talk to them and reason with them afterwards or when you are having a happy moment with them.
4. If your child has the aggressive meltdown at a public place then just ride it out with a smile on your face for that irritating passerby who glares at you just shrug your shoulder and say, ‘ Bear with it dear, remember this planet also has kids’. Don’t look embarrassed, as that is the fuel to your toddlers’ public aggression.
5. Do not lose your temper, aggression does not respond to anger. Do not lock the child, threaten, or tease the child about the behavior.
6. If the child is being physical, hold the child firmly so the child cannot hurt itself or others.
7. If the child is screaming and shouting, stand there, ignore and look firmly at the child, till the child stops, or else pick up the child from behind and take the child to another room.
8. Once the child has calmed down, sit with the child, put your arm around the child, and ask the child what went wrong? how can you help?
9. Make rules for the child, an agreement between you, and the child about what is not acceptable and compliment the child when it achieves it. Change will be slow but with consistency and persistence it happens.
Remember not to focus on the aggressive behavior but to focus on the cause of the aggressive behavior.
Dr. Swati Popat Vats