Has your child ever lashed out and hurt someone? Has she ever been attacked by another aggressive child? If your answer is "Yes," join the crowd! Almost all of us struggle with understanding and helping our children when they hurt others, and when they are hurt by other children. It's a shock to us the first time our sweet sons and daughters suddenly begin biting others, or begin throwing things at the new baby in the family. Here are some guiding principles for understanding our children's aggression, helping them relax again, and for helping the child who is hurt by another child.
First, it's important to understand that children don't want to attack others. They'd much rather play, experiment, and feel close and loved. They'd much rather be pleased with other children and feel a sense of belonging at home or at school or day care. When children do feel connected, relaxed, and loved, they are open to friendships and flexible in their play with other children.
It's when children have lost their sense of connection that they feel tense, frightened, or isolated. These are the times when they may lash out at other children, even children they are close to. The aggressive acts aren't premeditated; in fact, they aren't under the child's control at all. When a child loses her sense of connection, strong feelings overtake her behavior. On an ordinary three-year-old's morning, with typically loving and typically harried parents, the child's inner train of thought might go like this:
"Mommy's gone. She doesn't love me--she rushed me out of bed, ordered me around, and rushed me to school. She cooed at the baby, but she got mad at me. What am I going to do? I can't stand myself--my Mommy doesn't like me. Here comes Joey. He looks happy. I can't play! I feel desperate!" At this point, the child may lash out.
When children who aren't feeling connected are overtaken by feelings of isolation or desperation, they run for the nearest safe person and begin to cry or shriek in fear. They immediately begin to release the terrible feelings, trusting that they are safe from danger, and safe from criticism for expressing their feelings. At these times, children don't hurt anyone. They feel trusting enough to run for help. The crying and trembling and perspiring they do unties the knots of tension and restores their sense that they are OK. The adult who listens and allows the child to "fall apart" without becoming alarmed helps the child remember that there are people who care and can be trusted.
Children will lash out when they can't think, and can't run for help. What's confusing to parents, who are trying to show love to their children and to guide them well, is that children don't seem to look desperate when they are about to bite, push, or hit. They look like it's what they wanted to do. But children do give subtle signals that they feel too alone to function. If you watch carefully, you may see that a child's face goes impassive--acquiring a blank, passionless look--in the seconds before she lashes out. Fear and isolation take the life out of a child's expression. They don't look mad or frightened because they feel too far away to show anything on their faces. Fear robs children of their ability to feel compassion, warmth, or trust. Their trusting nature isn't gone. It is covered by a crust of "no one knows me, no one cares about me."
Children get these feelings of isolation, no matter how loving and close we parents are. Some children have an abiding sense of fear and desperation that comes from circumstances beyond anyone's control. Fears may be left by early medical crises that terrified the child about her own survival, by being given up for adoption by birth parents, by frightening experiences like parents fighting or a loved one going away. The day-to-day comings and goings of parents and caregivers, which a child can't understand in infancy, can also set in fears. These experiences leave a residue of feelings that can be erased by listening patiently to laughter, crying, trembling, perspiring, and struggling. They can't be erased by logic or facing "natural consequences," because the difficulty lies in a knot of intense feelings that defy logic and are out of the child's control.