Having a child that demonstrates physically aggressive behavior when you are a parent that teaches otherwise is like a blindsided punch, and it hits right where it hurts most: our big 'ol hearts.
As a mama, I've personally lived the reality of this one, and I've had so many parents reaching out for support on this subject that I know I'm not alone here. Neither are you.
Neurodevelopmentally speaking, it's typical for young kids to have just a little gray area between calm, cool and collected and and upset, but it's really tough when your child's version of upset is likened to a child warrior.
It was a kick in the head when my young child began demonstrating aggressive behavior despite the fact I take great care to avoid physical aggression in our home and teach otherwise.
I used my occupational therapy experience and my yoga practice wisdom to make as many mindful adjustments I could to our family environment and our daily schedule. This lessened the aggressive behavior significantly and brought it to a place where we could all manage it with healthy coping techniques, but the initial impulse toward aggression didn't and still hasn't completely disappeared. And that's okay.
Some sun salutations and mindfulness practice helped me feel okay with the fact that I can't completely control every environment, how my daughter feels in her body and how she reacts to everything. That's her work to do for herself and her path to walk.
Offering her healthy coping strategies and calm support while also being okay about not "fixing" her every struggle is my work and my journey to travel. Maybe it's yours, too.
If so, I want to share my short-list of mind & body strategy favs with you 'cause I love to share good stuff that helps our kiddos feel good in their own skin. Also, we could use a little more kindness and supportive community on this journey of raising kids in today's world. I'll do my best to pull my own weight in this effort.
These suggestions are from my field of expertise, but I'm not an expert for your child. You are. Honor what works best for you and your own family, and take what I have here and modify it in whatever way feels most well aligned with your parenting philosophies and practical everyday life.
Now, let's tackle aggression with some brain and body techniques!
Consider that aggression is a type of self-soothing (albeit, an unhealthy one).
Aggression is generally a self-protective response by kids who are, for any myriad of reasons, feeling uncomfortable in their own minds and/or bodies.
Don't be fooled by a child's tough facade. A child showing aggression is a child that's struggling inside.
From a sensory processing lens, the body movement and sensory information provided by bitting, hitting, pushing, pulling or scratching is technically joint compression and joint traction as well as muscle stretching and contraction.
This input to the joints and muscles can essentially help move the feelings out and regulate inner struggle.
Unless they've been taught to have other healthier physical outlets, kids take easiest and simplest route to feel better in the moment, which may unfortunately be to karate chop the nearest living being. That's not gonna bode well for them on down the line.
To develop a child's emotional intelligence and coping techniques beyond instant reflexive karate chop reaction, we have to teach them how to shift what they are already doing (hitting, biting, pushing, pulling, scratching, etc) into something that is more acceptable, but still offers the same physical sensation.
Allow a physical release of some kind that is similar to the physical aggression they tend toward.
Once they have that physical release, they need a few supportive techniques to shift out of an emotional overwhelm and get to a better place for making decisions.
First, offer a physical release:
Offer a physical alternative to hitting, biting, hair pulling, scratching, etc. If it's acceptable to you, let your child physically resist you in a way that doesn't hurt you.
Here's the how-to:
He can squeeze you with his whole hand. Not a twisty-arm-burn or a nails digging into your skin kind of squeeze, but a whole palm squeeze that just gives you a little "deep tissue massage" while he's at it (Bonus! Free deep tissue massage! You're welcome.)
To try it, have your child place his whole palm around your forearm or around two fingers of your hand. Heck, even his arms around your thigh or both of his arms around your hips will work. Now allow him to squeeze you with all his might. That outta do it. Try it. It doesn't hurt.
The trick is, you need to practice this strategy ahead of time with your kids when they are feeling happy and in a calm state of mind. Practice several times in advance and show them how they can squeeze you or physically resist you the next time they get the urge to go all ninja on you in the grocery store. Then in the moment remind them with a few words, "You may squeeze me like we practiced."
As an alternative, see my picture below? Have your child push her whole body into you as hard as she can. "Push me!" I offer up my palms as I step in between karate kids. The transformation is instantaneous.
How offering a physical release works for me: My kiddo transitioned to this strategy within a few tries and has needed to do it less and less the older she gets and the more we practice it. If she gets very overwhelmed and tries to scratch and pinch me or someone else (her old standby), I will get down BELOW her eye level and tell her in a calm, quiet voice, "You may squeeze me if it helps you feel better. You may not hurt me. I wouldn't let anyone hurt you, and I won't let anyone hurt me, either."
That's what works for me and mine, and it's the easiest and least socially awkward to do when we are out in public so it's generally our default strategy.
Sometimes she gets tired of the same old, same old so I mix it up and offer her the chance to try to push me over from my back (I resist, of course) or to try to push into my palms with all her might.
Just so you know, this is how I get my resistance training and keep my muscles from going to mush during parenthood. Kidding (not kidding).
After a physical release use any of these:
Find a calm space. This can be an already established space in your home environment that has little visual, auditory or tactile information (like a tent or corner under the stairs), it can be going with your child outdoors for some fresh air or it can be just moving the child away from sight, sound and touch of whatever or whomever set your child's engine to overheat.
If you are in a store, a car or out in the community, moving outside or away from a crowd can be your calm space.
Cool them off. Figuratively speaking, anger and aggression are often correlated with heat and fiery metaphors. So what simmers heat down and puts out a fire? Cold and water!
You can use cool temperature and/or water as a sensory strategy to shift the mind's focus.
Have you ever splashed cold water on your face when waking up? For many, doing so helps the brain transition from a sleepy state to a more awake state. As long as your child doesn't have an aversion to it, cool temperatures can help a child's brain transition from aggression to a calmer state, too.
You can use this strategy preventatively or after the physical release. You might want to offer your child a glass of cold water to drink, a cold pack from the freezer or a cold teething ring for biting if they are younger. I really love to offer a cup of ice chips for crunching, which offers both calming joint compression of the jaw and the distraction of the cold at the same time, or a popsicle (we use homemade frozen smoothie popsicles) that both provides a soothing cool temp and something to lick or bite. A two-for-one!
Stop and smell the essential oils. I began to use the olfactory sense (the sense of smell) in my yoga classes to help kids maintain focus and attention because research indicates beneficial and almost immediate effects of specific essential oils on mood, attention and stress.
Preliminary studies demonstrate that lemon essential oil can help improve mood, reduce stress (by playing a role in lowing stress hormones in the body) and also help shift the brain from a groggy state to a more awake state.
As I started to use a few drops of essential oils on cotton balls and presented them to the kids to smell for 2-3 deep breaths, I began to see increased ability to focus and attend during meditation, and the kids would often smile and say "Mmmmmm!" and be more engaged in what I was asking them to do. Smelling is fun, after all!
The benefits of offering yummy smells is actually twofold: both for the mental shift smells can elicit, but also because intentionally smelling something facilitates a deep breathing pattern, and deep breathing can help kids come out of fight or flight faster.
How to: Take an essential oil your child confirms he or she loves. The scent can be any pure essential oil (which you can buy at some holistic grocery stores or online for around $5), but after trying many different scents, the most popular ones with the kids in my classes are peppermint, and lemon (these are hands down the favorite two), cinnamon, lavender and orange essential oils. Place a few drops of your child's favorite (every kid has a different preference, be sure to test it out first) on a cotton ball. Put the cotton ball in a ziplock bag to have on hand when needed.
Allow your child to have this smell available to help cool down after an aggressive moment and help shift state of mind. Just a few deep breaths in through the nose can helps shift how your child is feeling!
Don't overdo it. Essential oils are pretty powerful, and too much of a good thing can be overwhelming to the sensory system. A few deep breaths is all that is needed to help your child shift mentally.
Get outside, and keep moving and playing!
Period. Simple as that. Movement helps release overwhelming emotion or overstimulation of sensory input.
Naturally, I like to get my kiddos outside for some yoga or a swing in the hammock, but any movement that your child likes to do will help.
Generally, nature is soothing and calming to the nervous system. Let 'em outside as much as you can, and allow some free play so they can unwind from daily strssors!
For the adult to implement:
I feel determined to add in this section on how to support the adult, because a child's emotions and reactions are so intricately tied into the adult's emotions and vice versa. I know this one for myself, but also from a decade's worth of families with whom I've worked and helped facilitate change. We are all so intricately connected, and we can absolutely facilitate positive shifts in others just by positively supporting ourselves.
It's essential you do whatever you need to do to stay (or try to stay) regulated for yourself. I know, easier said than done, right? Don't worry, you don't have to be perfect at it. You just have to try.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
You've got this.
Use a sensory strategy for yourself! Stretch or do 10 little jumps in place, go outside, smell the cotton ball of oil you were saving for your child, or take a sip of cold lemon water. Decide ahead of time what works for you to keep yourself calm and make a plan to try it out next time.
How it might look in real life: For me, I find that keeping a pair of noise decreasing earmuffs handy (ear plugs don't quite do the trick) lowers the volume level enough so I can hear myself think and stay sane when my child is being a--well, a child.
Plus, no matter how many times I've used them I always feel ridiculous in them, which also shifts my emotion from feeling too upset.
My kids actually think I look pretty funny in them, too, and sometimes just me putting them on makes them pause a midst the chaos, which is enough to redirect aggression.
Go ahead, giggle at my unconventional angle. It is pretty funny, honestly. So funny it keeps me laughing when I might otherwise be throwing my own tantrum.
Like many parents, you may shrug it off and tell me noise doesn't bother you. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Noise doesn't bother me, either. Unless it's my kiddo's voice in pain, struggle, anger or worse: both of my girls in a tangle with each other. Then I'm a triggered mama that can't quite think as straight as I'd like.
Hands down, these earmuffs were the best $21 parenthood investment I've ever made. But don't worry, I don't take the earmuffs out of the house, and I wouldn't expect you to, either.
When I'm out in the community, I tend to do things like chew gum or suck on a mint to help stay calm (chewing and sucking are calming sensory strategies to many people).
Find your mantra: Thanks to some really lovely lessons from my yoga teachers, I also keep a mantra going in my head that correlates to my breathing.
When I'm feeling myself fire up, I focus on my exhale. I imagine literally breathing out any tension or frustration in my body that doesn't serve the situation, and I keep the mantra going in my mind "I choose to let go of what doesn't serve me," which is the long version of my mantra. In the moment I shorten it to "let it go," and then promptly and involuntarily start thinking the lyrics of the Frozen tune of the same title, so that isn't always a perfect outcome, but it does work.
This breathing mantra helps me remember to take deeper breaths, too, which is every bit as good for calming an edgy nervous system as anything else.
But that's me. What words resonate with you to keep you even-keeled? Determine them and use them.
Visualize the emotional stability you want for yourself:
My Austin-based colleague who is an incredibly talented parenting specialist, Bethany Prescott, once offered up a wonderful visualization I use quite a bit because I really respond well to imagery.
Bethany offered the suggestion to imagine that my child is out (safely) floating on a raft in the Ocean of BIG Emotion. She's tethered by rope to me, her anchor on the shore. It's my job to stay rooted and strong in the earth on the beach. If I choose to let myself uproot and get pulled into the water, I will be swept away by currents of emotions, too. Essentially we will both be carried away by the waves of our feelings if I uproot, but if I can stay anchored, she can pull herself in to me and find solid ground and even keel.
It's a lovely metaphor for how kids co-regulate off of a parent's emotions (they totally do), and I use imagery like that for myself pretty often. The more I practice, the better the imagery works.
But you don't have to use that example. Just think of one thing that represents even keel and consistency to you (the sun always shining, a tree that is rooted deeply into the ground, etc.) and use imagery that supports your own journey.
Imagine you have the ability to have that kind of always sustaining stability until one day you realize you actually do.
Practice gratitude for your child's gentle moments: If we label our kids as aggressive, that can become the expectation and a self-narrative for them, even if that's not our intention.
How we see our kids directly affects the expectations we place on them and the way we interact with them and thus, how they behave.
If you struggle with a child that demonstrates aggression, begin a daily practice of naming 5 moments that day when your child demonstrated a behavior that was gentle, calm or heartwarming. Even small things like: "my child smiled kindly at a friend" count toward this practice.
It doesn't have to be some world-saving effort, it just needs to be an increased awareness of their small, everyday gentle actions. The more you focus on your child's gentle, regulated moments, the more you are going to discover his growing abilities to be gentle and self-regulated, and you'll begin to notice strengths you may have overlooked without this practice.
It's amazing the relationship transformation you'll receive from just this practice alone!
Mindfully reflect as a collaborative team: After the fact, you can do a few things to reflect on what happened and how you might go about things differently next time. Make a plan when your child is feeling happy. Draw out the steps of the plan together.
Don't skip this piece. It's a crucial one, as it puts you and the child on the same team, and it teaches kids how to build problem solving skills they will need for life.
Be mindful of the kind of aggressive behavior your child is doing because it give you clues as to what movement will calm your child.
For instance, if you child bites others, he or she might be calmed by chewing gum or biting on a chew bracelet or a water bottle spout. If your child is hitting, she might be calmed by deep pressure into her hands and arms (like pushing against a wall or an adult body). If your child is kicking, he might be calmed by jumping or stomping hard or pressing his legs firmly into a cushion or pillow. Use this information to create your awesome plan together.
Big Picture Considerations:
There is always a bigger picture to aggression. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some other things to consider are: Diet and nutrition, sleep, being overscheduled or overstimulated by the environment, toxins or irritants in the environment and not receiving the physical activity and free play the individual needs on a daily basis. Simple changes to sleep, schedules, environmental factors or diet can really make an enormous difference.
So tell me, friends what are some brain and body strategies that have worked for you? Lemme know in the comments below! I read and appreciate every single one!
I hope this information has served you or someone you love. As always, I am so grateful for your time and attention that is focused on supporting the next generation to grow into themselves in a healthy way! Onward and upward with this Mindfulness and Movement movement, y'all!
If you'd like more free information on how to help your child move in a way that supports his or her individual needs, sign up for your FREE E-book HERE, and you'll also be notified by email when I post a new blog post!
Lindsey Lieneck, MS, OTR, RYT, is owner of Yogapeutics in Austin, TX where she has developed the Yogapeutics Aerial Yoga & Mindfulness curriculum for kids. She teaches classes, consults with parents & schools and educates other professionals on the Yogapeutics curriculum. Read more about Lindsey HERE.
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