Connect with kids' feelings first, then change aggressive behavior

The first step parents should take to correct a child's aggressive reactions during playtime is to connect with their feelings, not punish them. Then you can address their specific inappropriate behavior.

Jim Barcus/The Kansas City Star/AP
When addressing children's aggressive playtime behavior, parents must first connect with their child's feelings before they look at specific actions and reactions. In April, five-year-old Emma Knutter pushed Leonard Strobe, also 5, on a merry go round at Penguin Park on in Kansas City, Mo.

Q. My daughter turns five next month. I would describe her as an intense, spirited child. We attend a playtime twice a month with kids from birth to five years old. When we are around toddlers, my daughter often responds to them with pushing or hitting. Typically when another child has taken something from her. I wouldn't describe her as aggressive - just that she doesn't know how else to handle it. When we've talked about it, she says they don't respond to her words -- like if another child takes a toy she has and she asks for it back.

Recently the playtime facilitator approached me and said a couple of other parents were concerned about their children's safety around my child. If pushing or hitting occurs, the facilitator wants me to say, "That is not acceptable. We need to leave." The facilitator also recommended time-outs, which I don't like because they escalate her emotions and don't give my daughter a chance to try another approach.

Here is what I have been doing...
I have been trying to get her to say what happened or why she is upset, acknowledge if her behavior was inappropriate, brainstorm what she could have done differently, and help her figure out how to help the other child. For instance, "Pushing is not acceptable. What else could you have done to get your chair back when that boy sat in it?" She will eventually solve it. She can be intensely emotional with outbursts that include yelling, stomping or hitting herself. So I have been trying to help her learn to identify her feelings and how to calm down. My goal is to get her to calm down enough to figure out how to handle it differently whether that takes 20 seconds or 20 minutes. I do this by getting her to talk about what happened, take deep breaths or offer her a hug. I feel like this is working - she rarely hits herself anymore, the over-the-top outbursts are fewer and she calms down quicker.
My question is -- by not punishing her for the pushing or hitting or by giving her attention through it all, am I inadvertently reinforcing the behavior?
A. No, you are not reinforcing the behavior. Punishing her in any way WOULD be reinforcing the behavior. I think you are doing well and be sure you are validating how she feels. Instead of going right to the inappropriate behavior or asking her why she is upset, first name her feelings and let her know she is normal for having them. Try something like, "That must feel very unfair to you. You left your chair expecting to go back to it, and there was someone else in it." This is a comforting statement. So you connect. Connection to the feelings is the most important step and the foundation of any behavior correction. Perhaps in this case, just acknowledge how unfair it must feel (this way she comes to you with her feelings, instead of acting them out on whoever) before asking her what else she could do.

When she goes up to another child and hits or shoves, pick her up, take her to another room or outside, and very neutrally go through the same process. After her feelings are acknowledged, you can add, "I know you know it's not okay to hit. What else do you think you could do?" Then ask her if she's ready to go back in or leave. She gets the message that hitting is not the way but that she is not bad for wanting what she wants. When you sense that her intensity is building, I think it would be more helpful to her to say, "We need to go now." Then do all your work with her when you are home and she is calm. Nothing effective can be accomplished in the middle of a meltdown. Some of her intense reactions might be compounded by her embarrassment that she can't get it together in front of all the other children.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Bonnie Harris blogs at Connective Parenting.

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