By Bev and Phil Haas
My 4-year-old son continues to be so aggressive at church that it’s a problem for him and me. We’ve tried to change his behavior, but nothing seems to be working. I feel like I’m a terrible parent, and quite honestly, I’m tired of hearing other parents tell me what to do. Any suggestions?
We feel your frustration. That’s because we’ve been there with one of our kids. We remember the time Bev drove home from church with Phil in the backseat putting what appeared to be a professional wrestling hold on our out-of-control preschool son.
Your frustration is justified. It is embarrassing when our children act out—especially in public arenas. It’s not unusual for young children to bite, hit, scratch, kick, or throw items at various stages of their development. However, when these mistaken behaviors become more frequent and more intense there is reason for concern.
Watch for Triggers
The beginning of a familiar parenting principle found in Proverbs 22:6 encourages parents to “train a child in the way he should go” (NIV, 1984). This means parenting should take into account a child’s unique bent. Try to identify situations that trigger his aggressive behavior. Remember, you are looking for patterns. Here’s a list to watch for:
• feeling threatened
• being in a stressful or new situation
• lack of routine
• frustration or anger
• being touched without his permission
• lack of adult supervision
• mimicking aggressive behavior of others (adults or children)
Also take note of how you and others around your son react when angry. He may be taking cues from someone else on how not to react when frustration turns into anger.
Calmly Intervene and Control
At the first signal your son is about to become aggressive, calmly step in and remove him from the situation. Be careful not to reinforce any negative behaviors or make excuses. Like all children, your son must learn self-control when you are not with him. By not focusing all your attention on him you will send the message that he can learn to calm himself and act appropriately.
Barring a life-and-death emergency, there’s no need for sudden, abrupt movements or loud voices. Simply describe the behavior you want and expect compliance.
Here’s one idea from what we did with our son, Brian, when his preschool temper got the best of him (and us). A phrase we often used was, “People are not for hitting and children are people too.”
When Brian commenced screaming and hitting, we would wrap our arms and legs around him just tight enough to confine him until he could calmly say, “I’m under control.” (Yelling the words didn’t count!) Then we would continue to rock him and soothingly talk to him about what he could have done differently.
I’m (Bev) relieved to tell you that Brian learned to control his temper, and all who know him now can’t believe the horror stories we tell. Keep working on helping your son recognize that anger is an emotion everyone has, and that we have a choice to let anger control us, or we can learn to control our anger.
Be Consistent and Praise Positive Behavior
Never hit him back; it only reinforces that aggression is the answer to conflict. And when parents hit, they are often out of control as well. For us, “no hitting” also meant no spanking with Brian; by trial and error we discovered that spanking only escalated the situation. Time out was much more effective.
Whatever the consequence, be consistent and look for opportunities to praise your son’s positive behavior. When your son is able to play well with others and solve his problems diplomatically, praise him and be specific about what he did well.
Parenting an aggressive child is challenging, and it may seem like an uphill battle at times. But keep an uncomplicated and consistent plan as you follow through in a composed manner. If you don’t begin to see some progress or the behavior deteriorates, consult with your pediatrician. You may also want to find some parents you can talk to who have been through something similar and lived to tell about it.
Send your questions about family life to Phil and Bev Haas in care of The Lookout, 8805 Governor’s Hill Drive, Suite 400, Cincinnati, OH 45249, firstname.lastname@example.org.We regret that personal replies are not always possible. Phil and Bev Haas are involved in education and family ministry in Cincinnati, Ohio. They are the parents of two children and they have one grandson.