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5 Techniques to Deal with an Aggressive, Tantrum-y Child

Almost a month ago, I wrote about my son’s latest violent phase — aggression has been a part of his personality from the start, but recently he had taken to hitting my wife and I when confronted with the slightest frustration, especially when he didn’t get what he wanted.

My post brought me emails from some readers, people writing to say that they’ve experienced the same problem with their children. A couple came from parents of kids with some form of autism, which Felix has not been diagnosed with. Rather, he seems to have a low tolerance for any kind of irritation, anxiety when things don’t go his way or he can’t call the shots, and a strong temper. He’s a powerful personality, and my wife and I have always been convinced that when he harnesses some of this intense energy, he’ll make a commanding presence. Already it’s possible to see how kids flock to him, even though he sometimes upsets them with his behavior.

Today I’m following up with good news, as after a lot of honest talk and planning, we have developed some techniques and approaches that have already yielded positive changes in his behavior. Of course, the real success story here is Felix himself, who at almost four years old is developing greater awareness of himself and how his actions affect other people. Could be that even if my wife and I did nothing different, he would have passed through this latest phase quicker than the previous ones. But click on to find a few of the things we did to help encourage him…

  • You’re not helpless dealing with an aggressive child! 1 of 6
    firstslide

    Click on to find some tips and techniques that might help...

  • Teach appropriate ways to get out the anger. 2 of 6
    runaway

    "Phooey!" Felix now says when he's angry, and he flips his hands toward the sky like he's throwing away a piece of trash, or lobbing a fireball at someone. "Phooey, phooey, phooey!!" My wife taught him that when he's feeling so upset he just has to do something, this is an appropriate thing to do.

     

    Felix taught himself about flubbing his lips, which is a bit grosser, because he gets covered in spit. But that's a small thing compared to a punching, kicking, screaming juggernaut of fury. So we don't get on his back about it, we let it go. And...

     

  • Stay calm and positive in the face of the tantrum. 3 of 6
    calm

    This is so hard to do, but it really is essential. If you scream and yell back, then things just get worse. I definitely have the stern dad voice that I adopt when Felix is acting naughty, and if he talks back to me, I turn up the volume and speak over him. Sometimes this works, and he backs down, and it also is my natural response to his misbehaving. I haven't changed this. But as soon as I see him getting whipped up into a frenzy, I pull back. He's not going to hear me when he's having a tantrum, and if I yell at him I'll only make him angrier, and more scared, and therefore more likely to lose control of himself.

     

    Instead, I try to recognize the signs of his approaching tantrum and let that calm me down. I speak soft. I encourage instead of threaten, and focus on rewards and not punishments. This doesn't always work, but it goes a long way toward helping, and even if Felix does lose his temper, at least I'm not having a tantrum too!  

  • When the going gets rough, take a break. 4 of 6
    timeout

    The other day, Felix scratched my wife hard on her leg because she was heading to take a shower and he wanted her to keep playing. Later that week, while flailing about in a tantrum, he knocked a magnet off the refrigerator that came a hairsbreadth from landing in my eye. In both cases, we were hopping mad, in pain, and feeling the panic of having an out-of-control little terror on our our hands. And you know what we did? Walked away and locked ourselves in the bathroom, taking a parenting time out.

     

    This works because Felix is old enough to be by himself — a couple of years ago, for instance, we couldn't have done this, though putting your child in the crib might help. A minute or two of space and a lot of deep breaths helped us calm down, and Felix too. He was still crying and wailing, sure, but the quick hot violence had subsided, he wanted only a hug. And we did too.

     

    Take yourself out of the picture, and turn a violent tantrum into a weep-fest. Then, when the tears dry, talk out the problem.

  • Devise a concrete reward system for good behavior. 5 of 6
    proud chart

    We stuck a piece of paper to the refrigerator and made a chart titled "We're Proud of Felix." Every instance of Felix working hard to turn crazed into calm, or being extremely helpful, or playing independently without needing us to sit next to him — whenever he was behaving like a calm, contributing member of the family, a "big boy" — we drew a star on the chart. When he earned ten stars, he could watch a movie. (He chose Toy Story. Duh.)

     

    The stars were nothing we could take away, they were given as rewards and displayed where he could see them. They also weren't something we pushed too hard. Sometimes we hung them out as carrots — "if you can play on your own while Daddy cooks dinner, you might get a star" — but most of the time we surprised him with it. "You were such a big help shopping today, and waited so patiently in line. I'm proud of you, and am giving you a star."

     

    He's come to love that chart, which is concrete, visible evidence of what a great kid he can be.

  • Make concessions when you can. 6 of 6
    concessions

    I'm still co-sleeping with Felix, though almost every night I ask if he wants me to join him later in bed or not. His usual answer? "When I'm a big boy I'll sleep by myself, but I like sleeping with Daddy."

     

    Ok, then. When it comes time for me to say goodnight, I slink into bed next to him, though of course I'd love to stay in my own bed, with my wife. He does need comfort — waking in the middle of the night to ask for a cuddle, or screaming with fear from a bad dream — so for now, if my being in bed with him helps, then so be it.

     

    Ideally he would like us to stroke his back while he falls asleep, but here we compromise. I sit outside of his room doing work or catching up on emails while he drifts off. Again, this isn't ideal, but what's the big deal? These little things help him a lot.  

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