A few weeks ago my daughter had to go to the doctor to get a blood test. A receptionist came to hold her arm as the doctor took the blood. He kept telling my daughter how ‘good’ and ‘strong’ she was because she didn’t cry.
All the while I was looking at her face and seeing the fear, confusion and pain she was feeling. I knew that she wasn’t keeping quiet because she was ‘strong’ but because she was too scared to express herself. I also knew that those cries that we weren’t hearing in the doctor’s surgery were going to come out later.
A week or so passed and my daughter started randomly just coming up to me and pushing me. It happened a few times before I thought ”this is different.” She’s been through a few aggressive phases, which I’ve always been able to help her out of thanks to Hand in Hand Parenting. Where had this one come from?
Then one day we were playing doctor, and she started pinching me and telling me it wouldn’t hurt. Suddenly I realised where the pushing had come from. This was her way of telling me about the fear and upset she’d experienced in the doctor’s surgery.
In all the parenting information out there, we hear a lot about setting firm limits so our children learn right or wrong, about using time out, or teaching consequences. However as much as children need limits (set in a compassionate way) they also need us to look a little deeper at the real reasons behind their behaviour.
Thirty years ago Patty Wipfler, the founder of Hand in Hand parenting made a revolutionary discovery. Guess what? Our children are born, naturally good, loving and co-operative, they don’t want to hurt each other, fight or have trouble sharing. It’s just that sometimes their hurt feelings get in the way.
When children experience hurt or upset, they need to process the fear and helplessness they feel. They have a natural healing process for doing so. When children cry stress hormones are released through the tears. Laughter, and connection, also play an important part.
Nowadays Patty Wipfler’s discovery is supported by the latest brain science. When children get upset, or disconnected their limbic system – the emotional part of the brain senses an ’emotional emergency.’ In those moments the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for rational behaviour, and reasoning, just can’t function well. In these emotional moments they lack the ability to control their behaviour. When children are upset they literally forget that it’s wrong to hit, or to snatch toys from another child.
This is the real reason behind children’s ‘misbehaviour.’ The hurt feelings that get in the way of their thinking. It’s why time out and giving consequences are ineffective because they don’t get to the root cause.
Toddler aggression, or sharing struggles are often thought of as being normal developmental phases that we can simply wait for our children to grow out of. However this actually does our children a great disservice. My daughter pushing me wasn’t simply ‘normal.’ It was part of her way of telling me, ”hey, I got hurt, and I’m not thinking well now. I need to tell you a story about what happened through play, and I need to laugh and cry with you to get it out of my system”
Think of all the times are children get persuaded or distracted out of their tears by well-meaning adults before they’ve finished crying. Think of all the little, and big moments in their lives where they got scared, or confused. Stress in pregnancy, a difficult birth, or just the everyday experiences of being in this world. For a baby even a stranger picking them up, or coming close while they are lying in pram can be frightening. All these experiences can gather up and manifest as behavioural difficulties.
So when we set limits with our children on their behaviour, lets do so gently and compassionately. We can be firm about keeping everyone safe so siblings or friends don’t get hurt. We can also understand the brain science of why our children can’t control their behaviour, but that we can do something to help them out of it. We can tell our children, ”I’m sorry you feel so bad. I can listen to you if you need to cry.”
Need more help with aggression? Check out Hand in Hand parenting’s online self study course No More Hitting.