Stepping ForwardChildren acting out aggressively can be emotional for everyone in the family. But mindful parenting techniques may help.

On a sunny day, you find yourself seated on a park bench watching your toddler run around and chase a new friend. As you sit chatting with the child’s mother, a sudden piercing cry interrupts your conversation. Both of you race toward the sounds of angry sobs, only to find your little one flailing arms and fists in the face of the other child. Embarrassed and angry, you physically scoop your child up while profusely apologizing to the other parent. For parents of children with aggressive tendencies, this is a common occurrence. While some think that behaviors like hitting and bullying are just a phase that children eventually grow out of, current research shows otherwise. Today, we know that patterns of aggression become habitual by the age of eight. What are some of the causes of child aggression or negative self-talk? How can mindful parenting techniques help children learn to better understand and manage their emotions and behaviors?

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recognizes a number of triggers for aggressive behaviors in youngsters:

Physical, mental, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect in the household. Even if the child is not the target of the abuse, they still suffer ill effects just by being a witness.

Violence in the community. Economically disadvantaged areas have higher incidence of drugs, violence and other behaviors. Children who witness these things on a regular basis are more likely to act out themselves.

Bullying. Being the target of a bully’s aggression can bring out the same behaviors in victimized youngsters.

Drugs or alcohol. Evidence shows that many children start abusing substances around the age of 12 or 13.

However, substance abuse can start much earlier and contribute to a number of mental health problems. Conditions like ADHD, autism and sensory processing disorder that make it difficult for children to communicate clearly can also contribute to violent behavior. In these cases, it is usually simple frustration that fuels the outbursts. Little ones with limited verbal skills can also become aggressive when their words fail them.

Emotional Assessment for Aggressive Children

When faced with an aggressive outburst, a parent’s first reaction is to simply make it stop. However, helping your child to understand, verbalize and logically evaluate their emotions is the best way to short-circuit intense moments and keep them from coming back.

  • Take the child to a calm, quiet place, and give him or her time to physically relax.
  • Get in a position where you can maintain good eye contact, then talk through the incident with your child. Ask open-ended questions to get to the core of the problem.
  • If your child has limited verbal ability, help him or her find the words to express what they’re feeling. A visual aid, like a facial expressions chart, can guide confused kids in the right direction.
  • It’s important to withhold judgment during your conversation. Use your empathy and compassion to try to see things from your child’s point of view.
  • Once the problem has been discovered, brainstorm some alternatives to violence with your child. For older children, it is often helpful to write them down for future reference.
  • Set clear behavioral expectations to decrease confusion and eliminate the need to physically strike out when frustration hits. Punishments rarely work with aggressive children. Instead, these can be seen as an attack that can make them even angrier. Gentle, consistent and loving communication is the best defense against habitual aggression.

Family Games to Fight Aggression

Children learn best through play. Use their natural tendencies to teach them how to avoid the need for violent outbursts.

  • Have everyone draw a picture of all the important people in their lives. Draw lines between each face to represent how these people are connected to you. Then each family member tells a story of who the people are and why they are important in their lives. This simple game helps parents get to know the people in their children’s lives and how they affect their emotional health.
  • Charades is another game that prioritizes communication. However, players need to use nonverbal clues to come up with the right answers. This simple game teaches little ones how to better understand nonverbal communication, which is helpful in situations where words don’t always work.
  • Remember the Telephone Game? This classic instruction in the power of second-hand information also helps little ones understand how rumors can quickly get out of hand. Children who are victims of bullies often find these games enlightening and can use the lessons learned to combat harmful rumors and verbal bullying. Essentially, any game that prioritizes words over actions can help aggressive youngsters expand their verbal skills. This helps them find other ways to express their unpleasant emotions without using their hands.

Anthony Cupo is a Trained Mindfulness Facilitator (TMF) from the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He is a co-owner of Stepping Forward Counseling Center, LLC and has been meditating for over 30 years.

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