When Your Child Is Aggressive or Scared (page 5)
Q. I read your article on Biting, Pushing and Pulling Hair, and I had a question. My daughter is 19mths old and is very aggressive at daycare. She pinches at home once in awhile, but normally is well behaved. What can I do for her at home?
Good question! Here’s what I think you can try.
Any child who hits or hurts other children does this because she’s sitting on top feelings of fear. Hidden fears tighten a child, so that she has little flexibility around others: sharing may be hard, following what others ask her to do might be hard, noticing what other children want to do is hard. Her mind is spending lots of energy trying to keep one step ahead of some underlying sense of insecurity. She may keep herself “busy” with toys or with physical activity, but when she gets close to another child, she can’t help but show that not all is well on the inside. She doesn’t feel connected.
Toddlers rarely get to show all the feelings they have about separating from their Mommies and Daddies in the morning to go to day care, and I would venture to guess that the fear that drives her aggression is connected somehow to being there without you. It’s fine for children to be cared for by other generous, loving adults, and great for them to have the opportunity to build relationships with other children. But to make best use of those opportunities, they need someone to listen to their feelings about being there without you. The day care workers aren’t usually set up to do the extended listening it takes to help a child release her fears. But you can do it!
First, set up Special Time—a time when you’ll warmly, attentively do whatever she wants to do, all the while staying close to her so she can feel your approval—before you head off to day care. This will mean that you need to start your morning routine earlier! You want her to go to day care feeling as connected to you as possible. Spending several Special Times on a weekend, and again on Monday morning, for instance, will give her more of the safety she needs to show you the feelings she’s trying so hard to manage. Stay connected as you transport her to day care, use lots of eye contact, snuggle games, and such. Then, play with her there for five or ten minutes.
When you say goodbye, watch for signs that her feelings are rising. Go very slowly. You want to give her a chance to be upset that you’re leaving her. We’ve found that if an aggressive child can have a really good cry about Mommy or Daddy leaving, that child is far less likely to be hard on other children during the day. Someone has listened to how they feel inside, they have felt that caring, and their little bundle of fears and sadness is smaller than it was.
When she begins to cry because you are going, stop and get down with her, but don’t let her bury her head or her body in your arms so that the feelings go away. Let her get close, but gently pull her a few inches from full-on clasp-and-grasp, and invite her to look at you. It’s fine if she doesn’t manage to make eye contact, but keep offering. Keep your gaze warm and available. It helps her to keep feeling her fears and working them through.
You can tell her that you’ll come back, and that you’ll always come back for her. You can tell her she’s safe with her teachers. You can tell her you love her. But don’t forget to listen, just listen. She needs you to receive her passionate message: she’s saying some version of, “I love you and I don’t know if I can survive without you here!” Listen well. Hold her. And when her feelings subside a little, you can ask her, “Are you ready to say good bye?” If not, she’ll cry or fight again.
Most likely the first time you do this, she will cry hard, and probably fight hard too, for a good long time. That’s what it takes to offload fear. She may or may not be able to finish her upset before you have to go: it’s a good idea to plan on an hour of listening the first time you do this. And it’s also wise to let the childcare staff know what you’ll be doing, and why, and to take her out to the doorstep of the center for the extended fireworks, so that her friends inside don’t get too ruffled.
When she’s finished, and says you can go, or when you have to finally get to work, say goodbye and put her in the arms of a caregiver. Pick the warmest person there. She needs warmth. She needs connection.
You may also notice times at home when she glues herself to you, and doesn’t want to be with anyone else. You can do the same kind of goodbye at home, allowing her to cry hard about your desire to walk into the kitchen or to take a shower. A friend, your partner, or a sitter can open their arms to her, and you can keep pointing her in the direction of staying with them while she cries. Keep reminding her that you’re on your way to go to wash the dishes or shower, and that you’ll come back to her. She’ll cry as long as she needs to.
This process allows her mind to do what it was designed to do: to get rid of fear and grief, so life is easier and other people don’t look like a threat.
Depending on her early experience and the depth of worries she carries, it might take her anywhere from a week to several months of regular cries to finish offloading the feelings behind her aggression. No one can predict how much listening time you’ll need to invest. What we can tell you is that listening to your daughter will help her immensely, and that having a chance to cry things through will change her behavior at school. If a caregiver can come and spend a few moments inviting her in to play (but not insisting—simply offering warm connection), this will help her to connect with the caregivers there and ease her fears more quickly. She will reject that person while she’s crying, but will gravitate to whoever did listen and connect later on during the day.
Don’t worry if it looks like she has “regressed” after her first big cry. She will likely go from being aggressive to showing that she’s sad and afraid. It’s progress to get those feelings out into the open, rather than held tightly inside, where they cause trouble with other children.
Toddlers usually pinch or bite at home with their parents when they feel close and safe, such as during a good snuggle, or a playful, cuddly wrestle. You can hold the hand that pinched, and say lightly, “Na, Na, Naaaaa,” then nuzzle her, offering more warmth but a limit. Hold her hand so she can’t pinch, but continue to nuzzle and be affectionate. She needs the warmth of connection with you in order to offload her fears. If she wants to work on her fears at that time, she’ll either laugh and want to play a game with you, pretending to try to pinch, so you can stop her warmly, or she will become agitated and try to get away. Keep her close, offer eye contact, and tell her you want to stay with her. The fears will rise, and make her feisty, wiggly, and determined to get away. Stay close, keep her from hurting you, and let her cry and fight.
When children release fear, they may kick, thrash, arch their backs, shut their eyes tight, scream, and feel like they’re not going to survive for another minute in your arms. They may perspire or tremble, or both. That feeling—worry about survival—is being healed as you allow her to fight hard in your arms. Don’t fight back. Just tell your daughter that she is safe with you. You are watching over her. You won’t let anything harmful happen to her. As she cries and feels panicky and desperate, she’s creating room for future relaxation and connection. The fears release. The connection you offer flows in. Not until she’s done and relaxed will you see that she absorbed the connection you offered. It’s a transformation that is quite amazing to see. You might want to get a set of our booklets, Listening to Children, so you have a fuller set of information to help you partner with your daughter to ease her fears. Here’s a link to a story of one child whose biting at day care ceased, thanks to good thinking from the caregivers and the parent:
Let us know what happens!
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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