Monday, November 7, 2011

On Naturally Disciplining an "Aggressive" Child

A is just over 27 months old. He is fiercely independent, even with things that surpass his technical abilities, proud of his knowledge, and incredibly funny when he wants to be. He is very hands-on, and, like his older brother, has a rapidly expanding vocabulary of words he manages to use properly (even if they aren't the most appropriate words for a child his age).

He is also very, very aggressive.

In this respect, he is nothing like G. G was a relatively quiet, laid-back baby who grew up a lover, not a fighter. He never particularly hit, bit, kicked, or scratched. He never did anything worse than head butt Hubby in the groin on more than one occasion, but even then it was always on accident. We always wondered how we would handle these far more physically painful expressions of emotion when they came about, but they just.. Didn't. He never acted out in that way, so when A came along and almost immediately began expressing frustration and anger via violence and aggression, we were at a loss. Of course, we were in a difficult situation; G had reacted to time out and even spankings by modifying his behavior. In retrospect, forcing our child through isolation and physical punishment wasn't a good idea, nor was it probably very helpful for his long term development, but it had WORKED. A doesn't respond to those things. Time out causes him to scream and cry crocodile tears until he's out again, and spanking doesn't do anything but hurt him. We attempt to model the idea of behavior modification we'd like to see; that is, when G does something we don't approve of or that isn't okay, we talk to him about it: what he did, why it isn't all right, what the consequences of doing it again are. That typically does it for him. But he's four, in school, and deals with challenges like this all the time. He's used to reasoning through his responses to things, even though he still has the emotional response of a preschooler on most occasions. He throws his fits, he overreacts, he becomes overstimulated and needs to be taken aside and allowed to calm down. But he never, never did this.

So now, months and months into dealing with this reaction from A, we are stumped. Where do we go from here? What's the appropriate thing to do? Natural parenting guides, magazines, and blogs all seem to recommend the same thing: taking a "time in" with our children in a quiet, comfy corner where they can have our presence if they choose, where they can cuddle with lovies and read and play quietly until they feel calm and more ready to be a part of the larger group or activity again. The point, of course, being not to isolate them but to offer the OPTION of stepping aside and collecting themselves again, providing comfort and guidance while not necessarily punishing them for bad behavior - just allowing them to calm down after we have done the same. They say we ought to laugh off the situation, make our children laugh too so they feel as though we're reconnecting to them - the general premise of the entire situation being that the child is acting out because they feel emotionally disconnected from their parents or caregivers - and that once they are calmer, we can try to talk to them about the problem.

But none of these sites seem to recommend what to do with physically inappropriate behavior such as aggression, that's actually causing harm to someone else. There seem to be no real recommendations for what to do with an aggressive child, how to react, how to deal with when they hurt you, or another child (like a sibling). It's as if it's assumed that a "naturally" raised child won't be aggressive. I have seen over and over again the idea of "bringing them in close" or "holding" - that is to say, taking them and putting them on your lap, and not allowing them to get down until they are calmer. I know my sister in law, the beautiful and wonderful K does this, and it has worked for her kids, but when we tried it with G it never seemed to work. I made the attempt a few times more recently when he was not necessarily violent, but was being frustrated (like right before dinner, when he was incredibly hungry) and after some time he finally did calm down. A, on the other hand, seems to have no concept of this activity, and I have to wonder if this is an appropriate measure to take with a toddler instead of a preschooler. A preschooler, after all, will hear and understand what's being said, and fully comprehend the concept, thus enabling him or her to calm down faster. I've found a barrier that exists between a parent and a toddler, one that (to me) makes the "holding" technique less than functional.

The problem, of course, is that I can't imagine what my two year old is thinking. I can judge, to some degree, his reactions - but if this is something that ends up being physically traumatizing for him, can I continue to justify using it? How many times after using it should he begin to react in what I consider to be a more appropriate manner? How many times using it is "too many" to believe that it wasn't effective? These are questions that I'm not finding answers to. But I think that something has to change, because nothing else is working!

(By the way, a big "congrats" to me for passing 100 posts!)

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