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Positive Parenting: Responding with Equanimity to Aggressive Behaviours

by Admin

Our Spring 2024 Issue is out now! The theme of this magazine is Equanimity. Pick up your copy at a health store near you or subscribe to have the magazine delivered to your door each season https://www.positivelife.ie/subscribe/

…By responding with equanimity, warmth and loving limits, we can change the world one aggressive interaction at a time.

It can seem, reading the daily news, that extreme acts of violence, hatred, retaliation and aggression are spiralling out of control in our world. While we may watch the world news in horror and hopelessness, those of us who are parents will know
even the sweetest of children can lash out aggressively when you least expect it. If you’ve ever found yourself wincing with embarrassment at the local playgroup after your child has grabbed another’s hair or bitten someone or found your frustration skyrocketing when your sweet daughter has shoved her little brother hard – again – you are not alone. You’re not a bad parent when your child acts out aggressively, and nor are they bad children.

Responding with equanimity to your child in the face of aggressive behaviours can restore hope to your home, and this hope can spiral out to the wider world. It can help to remember that an aggressive child is, at base, a frightened one. Often the fears that make a child act out in “fight” mode (rather than flight or freeze) got stuck in their limbic brain, the seat of long-term memory, some time back and didn’t get processed at the time. That same strong impulse can flare up again when anything in the present triggers an implicit memory. Patty Wipfler, Founder at Hand in Hand Parenting, says: “A child can’t tell you: I feel afraid for my life just like when I got stuck in the birth canal for three hours. She will simply show panic or outrage whenever another child crowds too close to her. She won’t say: I feel scared, the same way I did when I cut my head badly last year. But when you try to help her with a simple scraped knee, she’ll kick you and demand that you leave her alone”.

How, as a parent, can you address such behaviour with equanimity and model a way out of the aggression?

Here are some essential first-aid steps to take:

1. First, start with yourself.  When our children are aggressive, it triggers a whirlwind of emotions in us. Take time out to talk to another adult who can listen to your feelings for a time without advice or judgment. It is this that will allow you to act on the next few suggestions rather than react towards your child. Say all the outrageous things you’d like to say to your child, but know that it will only fuel the fires of anger in you both. Shake a pillow or push hard on a wall; let all your own frustrations out with the help of a good, non-judgemental adult listener.

2. Observe your child: When does aggressive behaviour tend to happen? With a sibling when they are alone together in another room? When you have been away at meetings or travelling? Allow yourself a few days to observe your child, and this will give you a good idea of what the triggers are for them.

3. Do a ‘friendly patrol’: Stay close by when something might happen. Say your child is at playgroup, and it’s usually a struggle over toys that leads to aggression. When the expected behaviour begins, move in quickly and calmly, physically preventing the fist to land or the teeth from biting.

4. Reach out and connect: Let your childknow, through tone of voice, warm eye contact and gentle but clear limits that it is safe enough for all those big feelings to now come out.

Remember, they can’t reason with you right now; they are flooded by their limbic brain, but you might want to let them know you are fully there for them: “I know you don’t feel good,” “I’m right here, and I’ll keep things safe for you,” “It looks like things are hard right now”. Don’t fight fire with fire. Parents, we each hold the future of our world in our hands and together, by responding with equanimity, warmth and loving limits, we can change the world one aggressive interaction at a time.
Dealing with aggression in our children is hard; it will trigger strong feelings in us, and this short article will only scrape the surface. Contact Hand in Hand Parenting (handinhandparenting. org) for more support, ideas and practical help. Let’s change the world and point it in the direction of peace and equanimity, one parent at a time.

Anna Cole, PhD is a certified Hand in Hand Parenting Instructor and Regional Lead in the UK/Ireland. She is a writer and participatory action researcher. She runs classes both in-person and online, gives talks and runs workshops for individuals, families, communities and organisations. For more information, contact anna@handinhandparenting.org

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