When your child shows you he’s scared by lashing out, he is asking for your help. The behavior he uses as his flare isn’t his choice, it’s a distress signal, saying, “I’m in trouble here!” It’s time to connect!
If we can see our child as scared and hurt, we can offer connection.
My son is 3-1/2 years old. Lately, his behavior had become what I would call outrageous. He was hitting other children, as well as hitting me, causing disruptions in play with them, and generally making life in his play groups and at home quite difficult. He never seemed to be reasonable about anything. He was having temper tantrums all the time, hitting me, lashing out. Everything seemed to be directed at me. I didn’t like him anymore. And I felt guilty about it.
In a Hand in Hand parenting class, I brought this difficulty up, and heard the viewpoint that children’s aggressive behavior can often be caused by fears that they carry that they don’t know how to manage. I was asked whether he had experienced any early trauma, such as a difficult birth, medical procedures, or sudden separations in infancy. It was a surprising question, and my answer was yes, he’d had a very long and difficult birth. He was three weeks late, and I spent 3 days in the hospital being induced. I pushed for 4 hours before he was finally born, and there were signs of fetal distress. It was very hard for both of us. The thought that he might have fears that originated in these experiences hadn’t occurred to me.
The suggestion I took home with me was based on the observation that children release fears in laughter, as well as in crying and struggling and perspiring through a “meltdown.” It was suggested that my husband and I wrestle with our son, or have a big,silly, pillow fight. We should let him be vigorous and victorious in the play, let him be the “winner” during most of it, but that we should put up a good enough contest that he could laugh and laugh some more during the play. A further idea was to keep an eye out for any small excuse he might come upon as a reason to have a big cry after this kind of play, to finish relieving himself of the tight feelings that were making him aggressive with us and other children.
These suggestions worked wonderfully! The next day, after dinner, I decided to leave the dishes and the housework, and my husband and I got down on the floor and had a big pillow fight and wrestling time with our son. He LOVED it! He laughed and laughed and was very excited to play long and hard with us. We did this for two nights in a row, and already, his behavior began to smooth out somewhat.
The day after the second big play “session” we did, he was trying to kick a ball in the air, and began getting very frustrated. He began talking harshly to himself, “I can’t kick this ball right! There, I did it wrong again! Why can’t I ever kick the ball right?! What’s the matter with me!”
I thought, “Here are the tight feelings, coming to the surface. He’s being so critical of himself.” So I moved toward him and paid close attention, and he went into a major tantrum. I have usually tried to set limits with him around tantrums, or have done time outs, or gotten angry. This time, I stayed with him, got close, and he really came undone. He tried to hit me and kick me, crying and thrashing all the while. I hung in through this physical attack part, and after awhile, he sat on my lap and sobbed hard for about half an hour.
As he cried, I kept thinking to myself, “This is not about kicking the ball. This is much bigger than that.” Sometimes he would push me away, and then cry harder. I stayed with him and kept offering closeness. After awhile, I thought maybe he had cried enough, so I got him a drink of water, and he pulled out of it. He was very tired, though.
Since that big cry, he’s been more loving, more physically affectionate, and more verbal. He is a changed child. It’s easy to love him again–I feel like I got my son back. He’s not finished working on these feelings, but I’ve made a commitment to spend more time with him playing so he can laugh, and listening to his feelings, and to leave some of my tasks undone if I have to. The results of listening are so rewarding!
~ a Hand in Hand Parenting mom