You arrive to pick up your child from day care, and the teacher pulls you aside and tells you there is a problem. Your adorable,
loving child became aggressive and bit another child. Or your sweet, precious daughter starts hitting her little brother. Or your happy, playful child begins to be bossy and beat up his cousins at a family gathering.
What do you do?
First of all, recognize that an aggressive child is actually a frightened child. Children are much happier when they are getting along with others and playing as a member of a group. Something has happened to trigger an aggressive child into a place where they are scared and lashing out. Their frontal cortex has shut down, and they are using only their “fight, flight, or freeze” brain.
Aggressive children are not thinking rationally. It does not do any good to try to reason with them. “Logical Consequences,” such as biting or hitting them back, does not work. The only thing that works is to hold the child, and reassure them that they are safe, and that you will not let bad things happen to them. Hold them close and help them name their feelings. “Are you frightened because daddy left you here and you don’t know if he is coming back?” “Is it too noisy in here?” “Were you upset when you thought the other children did not want to play with you?” If the child is too upset to listen or answer, just rock them back and forth and repeat again and again: “I’ve got you. It’s ok. You’re safe.”
Talk about it later. At a later time, when everyone is calm, bring up the situation again, perhaps in a playful way. “Wow, you were really angry when I picked you up from day care today. Can you show me that angry face again?” Gently involve the child in conversation to see if you can figure out what was driving the anger. If the child does not want to talk about it, respect the request. Showing that you are willing to discuss big feelings without judgment is enough.
Be careful that no one begins to label your child. Your child is not a “Biter” or an “Aggressive Child.” Children of all ages are trying to figure out who they are. To be told that they are a certain way, especially when it is repeated by several people, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The younger that they take on a characteristic that they believe they have, the harder it is to deal with it as they grow older.