When a child—even a small child—melts down and becomes aggressive, he can pose a serious risk to himself and others, including you and your other children.
It’s not uncommon for kids who have trouble handling their emotions to lose control and direct their distress at a parent, screaming and cursing, throwing dangerous objects, or hitting and biting. It can be scary, stressful experience for you and your child, too. Children often feel sorry after they’ve worn themselves out and calmed down. So what are you to do?
What Does the Behavior Mean?
Behavior is communication. A child who is so overwhelmed that he is lashing out is a distressed child. He doesn’t have the skill to manage his feelings and express them in a more mature way. He may lack language skills, impulse control or problem-solving abilities.
Sometimes parents see this kind of behavior as manipulative. But kids who lash out are usually unable to handle frustration or anger in a more effective way—say, by talking and figuring out how to achieve what they want.
How you react when a child lashes out has an effect on whether he will continue to respond to distress in the same way, or learn better ways to handle feelings so they don’t become overwhelming.
Faced with a raging child, it’s easy to feel out of control and find yourself yelling at him. But when you shout, you have less chance of reaching him. Yelling back will only make him more aggressive and defiant. As hard as it may be, if you can stay calm and in control of your own emotions, you can be a model for your child and teach him to do the same thing.
Responding to the Behavior
Despite the temptation, don’t give in. Don’t encourage him to continue this behavior by agreeing to what he wants in order to make it stop.
The first rule in handling nonviolent outbursts is to ignore them as often as possible, since even negative attention, like telling the child to stop, can be encouraging. But when a child is getting physical, ignoring is not recommended since it can result in harm to others as well as your child.
In this situation, Dr. Vasco Lopes, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, advises putting the child in a safe place that does not give him access to you or any other potential rewards.
If the child is young (usually 7 or younger), try placing him in a time-out chair. If he won’t stay in the chair, take him to a backup area where he can calm down on his own without anyone else in the room. Again, for this approach to work there shouldn’t be any toys or games in the area that might make it rewarding.
Your child should stay in that room for one minute, and must be calm before he is allowed out. Then he should come back to the chair for time-out. “What this does is gives your child an immediate and consistent consequence for his aggression and it removes all access to reinforcing things in his environment,” explains Dr. Lopes.
If you have an older child who is being aggressive and you aren’t able to carry him into an isolated area to calm down, Dr. Lopes advises removing yourself from his vicinity. This ensures that he is not getting any attention or reinforcement from you and keeps you safe. In extreme instances, it may be necessary to call 911 to ensure your safety and his.
Positive Steps to Better Behavior
Using the time-out approach helps a child learn to calm down. But it’s also important to help him learn to express his feelings in a more mature and safer way.
- Praise appropriate behavior. When he has calmed down, praise him for pulling himself together. And when he does try to express his feelings verbally, and calmly, or try to find a compromise on an area of disagreement, praise him for those efforts.
- Help him practice problem-solving skills. Choose a time when your child is not upset to help him try out strategies for communicating his feelings. You can work together to come up with solutions to conflicts before they escalate into aggressive outbursts. Ask him how he feels, and how he thinks you might solve a problem together.
- Avoid triggers. Dr. Lopes says most kids who have frequent meltdowns do it at very predictable times, like homework time, bedtime, or when it’s time to stop playing, whether it’s Legos or the Xbox. The trigger is usually being asked to do something they don’t like, or to stop doing something they do like. Time warnings (“we’re going in 10 minutes”), breaking tasks down into one-step directions (“first, put on your shoes”), and preparing your child for situations (“please ask to be excused before you leave Grandma’s table”) can all help avoid meltdowns.
Help With Behavioral Techniques
If your child is doing a lot of lashing out—enough that it is frequently frightening you and disrupting your family—it’s important to get some professional help. There may be an underlying condition, such as ADHD or anxiety, which is causing the behavior. Treatment might help. There also are good behavioral therapies that can help you and your child get past the aggression, relieve your stress and improve your relationship.
It can be challenging work for parents to learn how to handle an aggressive child with behavioral approaches. But for many kids it can make a big difference. If you are confident, calm and consistent, you can be successful in helping your child develop the skills needed to regulate his or her own behavior.