Effective strategies

Effective strategies
In some children, aggressive behaviour is not physical in nature, but present in their words instead. For example, your child might say: “You’re not nice!” or “I don’t love you anymore!” Even if no physical harm is done, your child needs to understand that these words can hurt, too. You can help her understand the feeling that lies behind these words and find the right words to express her anger.

1. When your child behaves aggressively because she can’t control herself (reactive aggression), you can:

  • make your requests and instructions very specific. For example: “I’m asking you to put your toy away in the box now,” or, “It’s time for bed. Choose a teddy bear and a book before you get in.”
  • give her reference points to help situate her in time. You can use visual or auditory references to help: pictures, a clock or a timer. For example: “You can play for five more minutes, and then it’s time for your bath,” or, “I need to take care of your sister right now, but as soon as she’s down for her nap, we’ll play together.”
  • tell your child not only what isn’t but also what is allowed, to limit her sources of frustration. For example: “No, you can’t play in the cabinet under the sink; it’s too dangerous. But you can play with the plastic containers in this cabinet.”
  • give your child a place to go to blow off some steam, a place where she can jump, run, throw foam balls, etc. when she needs to release excess energy.

2. When the aggressive behaviour occurs because she lacks the means to express herself (proactive aggression), you can:

  • name or reflect the emotion you sense in your child: “You seem angry. It’s because you couldn’t get dressed by yourself, isn’t it?”
  • guide your child towards discovering an acceptable way of expressing what she wants: “How could you ask the next time? Do you want me to help you find the right words?”

3. To help your child understand the impact of her aggressive behaviour, you can:

  • use your child’s own experiences as a starting point to sensitize her to the consequences of her actions. For example, instead of saying: “Don’t throw the sand,” or “Don’t shove your friends,” say: “Remember when your friend pushed you? You fell and got hurt. Well, when you push your friend, the same thing can happen to her: she can get hurt!” She’ll understand this type of reasoning better.
  • teach her to respect her own belongings so that she will respect others’. Yes, it’s good that your daughter hangs up her coat in her closet. No, she’s not allowed to rip off her doll’s head. By teaching your child the value of her things, she’ll understand that she needs to take care of the things around her.
  • compare the belongings of others to her favourite object. This is a simple way to help your toddler respect the belongings of others and understand why some objects deserve special treatment. You can tell her: “Just like you don’t want us to play with your favourite toy, Grandma doesn’t want you to jump on her antique rocking chair.”
  • encourage your child to put words to her emotions. This can begin very early on, using drawings for example (an angry, happy or sad face, etc.). You can also talk to her about her emotions: “Tell me why you’re mad. You’re allowed to be mad, but you’re not allowed to bite me or to throw your toys.” Don’t hesitate to offer her plenty of praise each time she uses words to express her emotions instead of aggressive behaviour. You’re the most important person in your child’s life. Your compliments are the greatest gifts you can give her!

4. Providing consequences

  • Timeouts can be an effective strategy. You can use them after warning your child twice within a short span of time or when your child has done something you deem immediately unacceptable (hitting her sister, for example). The child must stay calm for a certain lapse of time in a location you have pre-determined (e.g. sitting on a chair or on the first step of the staircase). There’s one golden rule, however: one minute of timeout for each year of age. So a one-year-old will be in timeout for one minute; a two-year-old, two minutes, and so on. Avoid talking to or looking at your child during the timeout. It she doesn’t stay put, take her back to the timeout location and start the time over until she has remained still for the allotted time. It’s always a good idea to wait until she’s calm to explain the rule over to her and the reason for her timeout.
  • For children aged four or five years old, you can also resort to a method referred to as “reflection” or “isolation.” It involves separating the child from others and preventing her from social interaction for a given period. For example, you can ask your child to sit in a room where she’ll be alone. After her “reflection time,” it’s recommended to briefly explain to your child again why you isolated her to make sure she understands the situation. However, if she reacts very badly to this method (e.g.: starts throwing things, hits her head against the wals, etc.) try another strategy, such as encouraging her to repair her act (see below).
  • Encourage your child to repair her acts. This technique will help your child become more aware of the impact of her aggressive behaviour and encourage her to “repair” her negative acts. Regardless of her age, she could, for example: apologize, give a hug or a kiss to the child or adult she hurt, fix a toy that was broken during her tantrum, clean up a mess she made when she was behaving aggressively (e.g.: putting the soil back in a fallen flower pot, wiping up milk from a thrown glass). This strategy is generally effective for children who have uncontrollable tantrums when they’re in timeout or isolation. While they’re active, their excess energy is channelled into repairing their act.
  • Reassure your child. If your child is having a tantrum and risks hurting herself or another person, you can place your hands on her shoulders or arms to help her contain her anger and calm down. Speak to her with reassuring words: “I understand that you’re mad. We’ll let the mad go away a little so you feel better, okay?” You can also use concrete images such as a big grey storm cloud that makes way for a fluffy white one when the sun comes back out. This might help her better understand what’s going on inside her.
  • Remain attentive to her emotional needs. A toddler often expresses her dissatisfaction and need for affection through aggression. If you provide her with play times during which she can choose activities she likes and get positive attention, you’ll notice that her aggressive behaviour will diminish. These special moments will satisfy her need for attention.
Words that hurt
In some children, aggressive behaviour is not physical in nature, but present in their words instead. For example, your child might say: “You’re not nice!” or “I don’t love you anymore!” Even if no physical harm is done, your child needs to understand that these words can hurt, too. You can help her understand the feeling that lies behind these words and find the right words to express her anger. You might say instead: “You’re angry (or sad or disappointed) because you would’ve liked to have played longer with your friend. I understand, you can tell me.” Avoid answering her back in the same aggressive way (“I don’t love you anymore, either.”), as this could actually heighten her anxiety and make her doubt your love for her.

5. Ignoring to diminish anger

 “I tried several strategies with my daughter Nahla,” explains Sophie. “Timeouts didn’t really work because she would have a great time entertaining herself telling stories or singing. She never seemed to care when we imposed a consequence for bad behaviour. In the end, the strategy that has turned out to be the most effective when she has major tantrums—when she breaks things or empties a glass of water in her bed—has been to ignore her. When we pay little attention to her, it seems as though she realizes herself that what she’s doing is unacceptable, and she will come and apologize all by herself without having to be asked,” adds her mother.
This type of strategy, called “selective ignoring,” can be interesting to explore if your child has a tantrum that doesn’t involve aggressive behaviour directed towards another person or herself. By not paying any attention to her during this short period of misbehaviour, you may be able to diminish your child’s anger. If your child calms down on her own, always applaud her effort. She’ll understand that she gets attention when she reacts positively and not when she’s having a tantrum. If the tantrum deteriorates as you ignore her and she becomes physically aggressive, it’s recommended to provide a consequence based on the need you observe in your child: Does she need you to stop her action? Does she need to be reassured or supported in expressing her emotions? Does she need structure and guidance to find more acceptable behaviours?