How to react when a child is violent?

On Babble I found this interesting article about a 3 years old violent behavior with his parents, and their attempt at solving the issue with spanking… and how it failed miserably.

“Jillian, if you don’t go to bed, I will spank you.” The words slip past my lips before my groggy brain gets a chance to okay them, but there they are. I know she heard me, because she kicks me again, this time rather close to the groin. She thinks I’m bluffing. I think I’m bluffing, but now I have put spanking on the table. If I back down now, she will forever know I am nothing but bluster and empty threats. I grab her arm and lift her to her feet.

“Okay, then,” I say directly into her wild eyes, “Are you going to bed or not?” She shakes her head like she’s trying to shake it right off her shoulders. My voice rises. “Jillian. Will. You. Go. To. Bed?!”

She spits a raspberry at me.


She blows harder, the spit sprays all over my face. My hand has already begun to swing, as if to say, “I’ll take it from here.” It gathers speed in its wide, arcing journey to Jillian’s behind. There it connects with a hearty slap!

My eyes dart to Jillian’s, which have stopped bouncing. Her head is no longer a blur. Now she looks me back in the eye. Oh my god, I think, what have I done?

Then . . . she laughs. Throws her head back, and gives a throaty laugh. I don’t think she’s laughing at the weakness of my spank. I am a reasonably strong man capable of delivering a strong blow. She’s laughing because she is frigging nuts. (Cole Gamble, January 3, 2008, Babble online magazine)

When I read this article, two things really hit me hard:

  • These parents had these serious problems with their child for quite a while now, and yet all they could think of was how to handle “discipline”. They kept calling it a “behavior” problem.  It seems it never occurred to them that it might be because the child has a deeper problem – a cause to her behavior – that wasn’t yet been addressed
  • The parents never challenged their own parenting.  The author acknowledges the fact that spanking is counter-productive, but they could only think of strategies implicating power struggles and punishment.

Yet, these kind of problems with a 3 years old are quite easy to handle once you have had a parenting workshop.  And indeed, you can’t solve them with spanking – nor time out or any punishment for that matter.  (Not that solving it with punishment is desirable even when it “works”, considering the major side effects it has on the parent-child relationships and on a child’s self esteem).

The solution lies in switching gear from the confrontation mode to the listening mode.

Stop the threats,  take a deep breath until you feel calm again.  Then, lower yourself until you are at your child’s height.  Lock your eyes into her eyes,  make a warm smile, nod a little, touch her lightly and say something loving and tender that she can relate to, such as: “Hey, I see you are quite upset…”.  All of this is called “collecting the child”, it allows the connection to be restored and draws the child’s attention to the parent, better than any punishment, yelling or spanking will ever do.   Once the parent has the child’s full attention, you can now start what child counselors name “active listening”.   Try to identify the problem, how she feels, the emotion that she feels, and name it: “You seem REALLY angry right now.  “.  As she respond, reflect back the emotion she might be feeling.  If she hits you more, continue: “You are THAT mad? Here, take this pillow and show me how mad you are on it.”  (or give her a pen and pad and tell her: “Show me on this paper how MAD you are at me.”).  This gives the child other ways to diffuse her anger and it teaches her to use words and communicate in other ways than hitting.  There is no point lecturing her until she can hear you, and she cannot hear you until she feels YOU heard her.

Continue doing this until she calms down.  Then continue reflecting back her communication. Now the goal is to go fishing for the root of the problem.  She might say: “I don’t want to go to kindergarten!”  then you reflect it back, but you try to guess what it really means for her: “You REALLY don’t like to go away from me and mom, do you?” and she will correct if you didn’t hit the spot. You will know when you have found the root cause, because she will be really relieved, will cry or hug you, or will be really demonstrative.  Now you know the WHY.    The next step is to address the why. Explain why.  Reassure her.  Find creative ways to address her underlying need.

Finally, the fourth and last step is to teach her about the hitting.  You can only do this now that she is calm and that her root problem was addressed.  “You know honey, you did hurt me earlier.. it’s not very nice.  I understand why you did it. But next time, instead, try to TELL me okay?” (and proceed with teaching words for emotions: this should be done with little games everyday, such as showing her cartoon faces with different emotions and asking her to name them).

Children want to be listened and understood.   They have these strong feelings, because their maturity level does not yet allow them to feel mixed feelings – they do not know temperence.  Yet, they don’t have any outlet for their anger and, until they are taught to do so, have no other ways to express their anger than yelling and hitting.

Let’s teach them other ways.

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