When your kid lashes out at others

When your kid lashes out at others

First published in Nurture magazine


I was a bit shocked. My son had just angrily thrown part of his marble maze right at his friend. My image of him as a patient, co-operative child crumbled. There he was, bold as brass, chucking hard objects, and hurting his play mate. It took a moment longer than it should have, for me to do something.

Handling children’s aggression brings us some of the most challenging moments as a parent. It’s all too easy to respond with annoyance, or plain anger. It seems that a child’s hostility has a way of making us lose sight of their goodness. We forget that more than anything they want to fit in, to do the right thing, to love others and feel loved. It can be hard to remember that, even in these emotional moments, they are doing their very best. When their behaviour isn’t working, there are good reasons.

Children need connection as much as they need food, water and sleep. We know that without emotionally warm care, babies will literally die. Clinical Psychologist Robert Karen describes how in the post World War II orphanages, infants kept in the clinically clean hospitals and given good food, died in their droves; where as the orphans given to farming families thrived, despite the dirty, germ ridden environment. It was love that kept them alive and, loneliness that killed the hospital babies.

We can also notice the power of connection in more subtle ways, in our day to day lives with children. When children feel connected, they are delightful to be with. They can share their toys, wait their turn, be nice to their brother and so on. These are the beautiful moments of family life.

If we take a quick look at the brain, we can understand how this sense of connection works and, how it affects a child’s behaviour, sometimes causing them to lash out at others. There’s a small lump at the top of the spinal column, the brain stem. It’s responsible for bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing and the fight – flight – freeze response. If this part of the brain detects all is well, it lets the rest of the brain be in charge of our behaviour.

Covering the brain stem is the limbic brain, the social and emotional centre and the seat of long term memory. This part of the brain is particularly attuned to non verbal signals and is highly active in children. It acts like a radar, scanning the world and checking: “Are these people safe? Is someone looking out for me?” If the limbic brain detects all is well, then your child senses it’s safe to grow and learn.

When our children’s limbic brains are happy, they are able to use their thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is in charge of learning, attention span, short-term memory, impulse control and judgement. So when a child feels connected, they are able to think well. They are able to share their food, let their friend go first, play happily whilst you chat on the phone and so on.

But if the limbic brain senses lack of connection (danger) the thinking brain shuts down. There is virtually no activity in the prefrontal cortex when we’re overtaken by feelings. Children lose their ability to think in three ways: (i) they sense there is real immediate danger; (ii) they feel disconnected because we can’t pay them enough attention; or (iii) something reminds them of a difficult moment from the past (see Handling Aggression Part 1 for a detailed discussion on this). You could be offering them great connection, but they go into mind freeze because they are experiencing an emotional bad memory.

And when a child loses their sense of connection, their behaviour becomes rigid. We can’t save children from disconnection. It happens often, sometimes many times a day. And it’s in these moments that they might hit their friend, push their little sister, or throw things at you. We can, however, bring them relief by offering them the connection they need. If we come close to a child in those moments, they will laugh, cry or tantrum. And this is just what they need to do. The laughter, tears and rage are the body’s way of shedding emotional tension. When we let these emotions run their course, we notice that children are naturally sunny and loving afterwards. They’re able to think once more.

So when a child has just lashed out at another kid, it’s a big signal that they need help with their feelings. We need to stop the aggression. And we need to respond with as much warmth and kindness as we can. You can do this either playfully, as described in Handling Aggression: Setting Limits with the Vigorous Snuggle; or you can respond more seriously.

With a more serious move, you can come close, and physically stop the child doing more harm. If necessary you might need to gently hold their arm/leg to prevent further damage or get yourself in between the two children. Calling out, “stop that!” across a room rarely works as the child can’t think. Instead get near, stop the aggression and say kindly, “I’m not going to let you hit Sammy”. As you stay close they might struggle, laugh or cry. You stay listening to their upset and physically making sure they don’t hurt anyone or damage anything.

Dealing with aggressive out bursts between children tends to be messy business: you have two upset kids on your hands. Both have big feelings that need listening to. Unfortunately, there’s no neat and tidy way to manage this, you just do your best. As long as no-one is seriously hurt, you can choose one child to pour your attention onto. If a child is being aggressive you really need to move in quickly and stop that first off, so they’re often the one to focus on. You can acknowledge the pain of the other child, “I’ll be with you soon”, and let them snuggle up to you, as you as you focus on the angry child.  Or you can try being with both, switching your attention from one to another. If one child runs off, you can stay with the child nearby until they’re done with their upset, and then go and find the other child to offer them the connection they need. They may well tell you to go away, but really deep down they want you nearby (I think we can all recall moments like that). You can say, “I’d like to stay close just now, I know things are hard”, and stay near and listen as they show you their feelings.

Of course listening to our children’s upsets, stirs up big feelings inside of us. It helps a great deal, not only to have a clear plan about how you’d like to handle such tricky moments, but also to build emotional support for yourself. Being a parent is deeply emotional work. It can help enormously to find a good listener who can be with you as you talk about: what get stirs up in you when your kids fight; how your parents handled sibling conflict; how you wish things could be different; how you wish you knew what to do. An amazing thing happens when we can find a warm, accepting listener who refrains from giving us advice: we feel heard and supported; we feel safe to show our inner feelings. When we’re able to gather that kind of support, we find we can be patient with our children, even in their aggressive moments. We can remember that they are doing their best.

Children feel terrible when they hurt others. Sometimes they have a hardened look of “I don’t care” but underneath they’re suffering. We all want to feel close and loved, we all want to be warm and loving. We don’t need to add to a child’s isolation by blaming, lecturing or being cross. I think it’s helpful to say something like “I’m sorry I didn’t get here in time, I know Frankie didn’t want to hurt you. I wish I’d got here in time to stop it” And of course that is all true, we do wish we’d spotted the tell tale signs, and that we’d offered up the connection needed sooner.

So back to the moment when my son lashed out: his friend had accidentally knocked over his marble maze. This had happened many times before, and usually he’d handle it pretty well. But this time was different. I don’t know for sure whether he had lost his sense of connection to me, or whether this had tripped up an emotional memory. And in a way, it didn’t really matter, what I needed to do was move in and warmly stop the aggression. Even though I had a plan in my head, about how to connectedly handle such a situation, it still took me several moments to let the shock in me subside and find my warmth inside. I got close to my son, swiftly grasped the hand holding another marble track piece. I had to get myself sideways onto him, as I was holding his 3 week old baby brother in a sling across the other side. Looking softly into his eyes, I said gently, “no, I’m not going to let you throw that”. He immediately got cross, thrashing his arm.

It was all a bit chaotic, but I managed to keep calm enough, despite worrying a little about how this was for the baby, feeling a little upset myself at seeing my son so enraged. But I was pleased and confident that he was doing just what he needed to do: releasing the stuck feelings inside. So I stayed close, listening as he struggled and eventually started crying. I didn’t say much as he let out the knot of tension inside. I just kept my warm attention shining on him as he sobbed. In the meantime, his friend had run to his own mother. My baby started crying. I took turns reassuring the baby, “it’s all okay”, then switching my attention back to my eldest. I listened to them in tandem, not ideal, but the best I could do.

It took quite some time for my son to calm, but when he did he was much, much more relaxed. I think, had I hurried him out of his feelings he would still have carried some tension inside and I would have seen more unworkable behaviour from him that playdate. As it was, he played well with his friend, and from that day on, he was noticeably more at ease than he had been since the birth of his baby brother. It was like he’d shed a load of pressure and fear that had been getting in the way of life.

Some children get into a rigid pattern of lashing out at others, repeatedly hitting, pinching, kicking playmates and siblings. These kids need lots of help to shift the frozen feelings inside. They need us to build up their sense of emotional safety; to anticipate when they’re likely to lash out; and have us watch over them, ready to listen to feelings when they pour out. Over time we can help such children become relaxed and easy going with others. I highly recommend Hand in Hand Parenting’s “No More Hitting!” course that has helped many parents through the steps needed to help a child stuck in a pattern of aggression.

Robert Karen “Becoming Attached” 1994
Brain structure and function information from various sources including Dan Siegel’s books on interpersonal neurobiology e.g. Parenting from the Inside; also courses and books by Bruce Perry, Trauma expert