Grown-up responses to kids being violent

We’ve had some challenges with D’s behaviour lately (my husband on reading this draft – “Don’t make him sound evil! He’s just a handful and he acts out sometimes!”). I started writing this post to sort my thoughts while we were at the apex of a lot of physical lashing out. Then we turned a corner, then we relapsed, and now he’s had a settled patch again peppered with a few not so good incidents… anyway the writing process was really useful for me and I’ve got a chance now to revisit. This post is not about behavioural modification strategies. I’m not a psychologist and I’m not even a very experienced parent! I did some useful training several years ago as part of my part-time job while I was at uni: I worked at a creche one day a week, and helped facilitate SKIP parenting coursed for teenage parents – but it’s very different when it’s your own child. This is a post about my responses, not so much his behaviour.

How I felt when he hurt someone

We had a patch of regular violent outbursts, and I felt very out of my depth. It’s not like other forms of socially unacceptable behaviour, where I feel fairly comfortable in my response, no matter how outrageous he is. For example recently he put my favourite hat in the toilet, did a poo on it, and tried to flush it down. Three year olds are bizarre! That was kinda hilarious and bloody annoying, but I feel like my responses to flagrant contravention of social rules is pretty good. When he hurts someone badly though, my emotional response is all over the place:

  • AHHHHH MY BABY IS UNDER ATTACK! Or that other child is under attack, oh fuck!
  • My child is an extension of myself and if he is bad, I am bad, and now I feel wretched because of his wrongdoing!
  • And now I am trying to justify his wrongdoing to avoid a sense of guilt and shame!
  • I am angry! I am angry at my child! And I am scared of being angry at my child because anger towards ones child is how children get abused and now I am scared and angry!
  • I am ashamed of myself and my child and want to remove us both from society permanently!
  • I am a failure as a mother because my child is hurting someone!
  • I don’t know what to do! I am a failure as a mother because I don’t know what to do!

Sitting behind these emotional knee-jerks are things that no three year old could comprehend – like the fragility of human bodies and risk of real harm. Or the painful reminder of a capacity to violence which has caused monumental suffering in the world. I don’t just see a three year old biting a baby, I see the dark side of human nature! I see this coming from a boy who will one day be part of that privileged group of white men who often get away with perpetrating violence against other sectors of society. All this is irrelevant to the situation at hand, but very relevant to how I feel perceiving the situation. Like a siren going off in my head BIG DEAL, BIG DEAL, BIG DEAL.

Starting with your own responses helps

Reading up on parenting strategies generally, they often have this giant hole for what to do when your kid is hurting someone. There are things recommended, of course, but WHAT IF YOU DO THOSE THINGS AND IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE?! What then?

Good advice can turn sour because we’re feeling flustered:

  • Gently explaining to your child devolves into exasperatedly haranguing your child.
  • Calmly removing yourself and the attacked sibling devolves into storming off.
  • Following through on a necessary consequence (like removing a toy that was used as a weapon) devolves into trying to think of a negative consequence that will really get the message across.

And if this continues, week after week, it’s pretty shit eh. My ideal child wouldn’t bite me – but if he did, he’d stop after a few clear messages that biting hurts people and so we can’t do it.

Yeah… not so much with my actual child…

Feeling flustered all the time, or disapproving all the time, it erodes the sense of connection, and the sense of joy in spending time with your kid, and that makes things even worse. And kids are so all over the place in their behaviours, meltdown one minute, charming the next, while you’re still reeling from the meltdown. I find it hard to navigate a steady course through it all.

Then, I remembered a thought experiment that I magpied from somewhere back in those days of late-night googling about baby sleep:

Imagine that you knew in advance that the situation would be completely unchanged in two weeks, somewhat better in two months, and completely resolved in two years. What would you do?

It blows my mind every time I think of it, on any parenting issue. Because if this was the case, we’d stop thinking of this a behaviour that we must somehow change, and start thinking of how we manage our own responses. Which is probably where we should start anyway. That’s the bit we can control, after all. And if we let go of the aim of addressing the behaviour in the short-term, it might open up some insights about what’s going on, and the bigger-picture messages we’re sending in the long-term.

Letting go of the desire to show them they are SO SO WRONG and nothing else

This is my first impulse when he hurts someone. The impulse to just really really emphasise that it’s really really really really really bad. The problem is, it’s a very incomplete response. If the only thing he sees is an increasingly emphatic “DON’T DO THAT”, he’ll figure out that when he does this thing, his mum is extremely disapproving, but he’s three – he has no skills for how to manage anything, and just a whole lot of emerging complicated feelings of fear and shame and guilt.

We have a culturally confused attitude towards hurtful impulses in kids. We try and shield them from realities like genocide and famine and war and factory farming. We shy away from explaining these things for as long as possible, hoping they are suitably mortified when they find out but also not traumatised, and forgiving of our complicity and our own moral failings. Literally the same day D whacked B with the firetruck the President of the USA ordered an airstrike, and the White House Secretary minimised the Holocaust; we have a candidate standing this election for Labour who supports arming the Police; we have kids homeless in this country while politicians have multi-million dollar property portfolios; we’re blatantly letting Syrian children die because letting more refugees in isn’t a vote winner; and yet for our preschoolers we act like the human norm is some sort of highly enlightened peaceful coexistence. Fucksake. That’s all a bit screwed up.

And more – I think it’s potentially quite harmful to inculcate fear and self-loathing in the face of a violent impulse, which is the track that we fall down with an approach that primarily tries to impress upon them the WRONGNESS of the action without helping them learn how to manage those impulses.

Violence perpetrated by adults, especially family violence, is exacerbated by people being scared to get help. They’re worried they’ll try and ask for help, but instead they’ll receive opprobrium for admitting they need it. And it’s not just violence towards others, it’s also worth thinking about this in relation to substance abuse, self-harm and suicide. I know that sounds like a bit of a stretch but hear me out with my totally unqualified psychology reckons which I haven’t even googled. It’s absolutely clear that by adulthood, many people are scared of opening up about negative and harmful feelings and behaviours. But we don’t start out that way. When kids are small, they wear their whole hearts on their sleeves, and it provides us with an opportunity to teach them to hold those hearts gently, to find the most comfortable way of dealing with the shadows, which we all have to live with. As they get older, they will be more circumspect in their behaviour around us, and that’s fine too. But in those early years, their behaviour provides fairly reliable clues about their emotional state, and that’s a point where we can connect with them, and teach them that it’s safe to tell people about negative feelings – no matter how scary. This could be a protective message for their whole lives.

Bridging the empathy gap

When his behaviour is socially difficult in other ways I feel comfortable in how to respond because I can empathise with it. Like on Saturday he threw a tantrum because I wouldn’t buy him a gingerbread man at the zoo cafe. And obviously that’s annoying to deal with, but I get where he’s coming from, so it’s not so hard, it all seems fairly straightforward. When he’s violent towards me though, it’s a shock! PEOPLE DON’T BITE PEOPLE! WHAT THE HELL, KID! If I can’t empathise, I can’t respond in a way that helps him find the tools he needs to manage his behaviour.

Here are some things I try and remember to help me stay empathetic when he’s being violent:

  • Three is so very very young. There is so much he is still learning. Violent behaviours in a child who’s recently turned three aren’t analogous to the same behaviour in an older child, let alone an adult.
  • Kids are still learning impulse control, and violent impulses are something we all have to deal with from time to time. I sometimes get the impulse to kick the cat when he gets under my feet while I’m trying to get stuff organised, but I don’t kick the cat. Sometimes I speak to the cat in an exasperated tone. (Look, I kicked the cat once, ok, but he scratched me first.)
  • Kids are a bit like unguided balls of energy all the time anyway and sometimes that energy comes out in harmful ways.
  • Making D feel ashamed or scared of a violent impulse won’t help him learn to shrug them off, how to observe them flitting through his mind without acting on them or becoming anxious that they’re there. If we respond with full-blast outrage to every violent impulse, it’s counterproductive to the lesson that the impulse doesn’t have to lead to the action. Three is pretty little to expect a whole lot of success in trying to teach him how to insert something between the impulse and the action – prefrontal cortex not developed much yet – but it’s not too young to start the groundwork. Which means there has to be room for a response that lets him tell me without fear that he had an urge to do something violent, before he acts on it.
  • My shame and palpable mortification at violence is maybe a bit silly from an evolutionary perspective. The young of all social species engage in rough and tumble play as practice in a necessary skill. There’s nothing unexpected in a young human exploring the consequences of using his body in this way. Which doesn’t mean it’s ok – of course it’s not – but it’s something to be dealt with on its own terms, in relation to the direct harm being caused, not blown out of proportion like oh no my child is going to be a sociopath if I don’t come down on him strong for this.
  • Also: the modern world is very far removed from the environment humans evolved in, and living in a city means that every day my kids are dealing with social interactions that are difficult to navigate and sharply different from norms we evolved to manage – adults and older kids are used to those liminal relationships, used to the vast number of people who are neither friend nor threat, but children are still learning how this works. It make social interaction immensely more complex. He sees creche friends every day, weekend friends are different, familiar public spaces have different strangers each time, family from out of town visit or we visit them but it’s sporadic; it’s all really complicated stuff.
  • People lash out as a response to stress. A child’s experience of the world is inherently stressful because they have less control over their environment and less ability to communicate.
  • It’s not all completely bad, I want him to be able to assert himself or defend himself if he needs to!
  • Creche is really excellent, but moving up into the preschool room has been difficult for D socially. Some of his friends are still in the 2-3 year old room and some of the kids in the 3-5 year old room seems so much older.

Here, as in other areas, there is also a path of empathy in giving him the benefit of the doubt. What if he is as confused about how to handle this as I am – or even more so because he’s three? (this piece is great  Anxiety or Aggression? When Anxiety in Children Looks Like Anger, Tantrums, or Meltdowns – hat tip Thalia at Sacraparental). What if we assume he knows it’s not allowed, but got overwhelmed and started to spin out? (The same way I feel sometimes after a particularly rough night with B, when I’m at risk of yelling at my husband for something which would seem totally inconsequential were I more rested.)

Another path of empathy: instead of focusing on the negative action that we don’t want, try flipping the script. What can we encourage and help develop?

  • Skills to enjoy playing with other kids without close adult supervision –  being in the 3-5 year old room at creche means the kids are more independent than they were in the 2-3 year old room, and that has been a challenge for D. We’ve had two good meetings with the staff and I feel so lucky he’s at a centre where their approach to interacting with the kids is so supportive, and they’re so onto it in figuring out how to help with this stuff.
  • How to recognise the boundaries of physical play with others – we talk about this a lot at home with B, “if it’s not fun for everybody, we need to stop”; “we respect everyone’s boundaries”; “does it sound like he’s enjoying that game?”; “what could you do that we all enjoy?”, etc.
  • How to play alone when he doesn’t feel like playing with other kids, even for short periods (the truck bashing incident occurred while I was at the loo. I just want a brief toilet break without worrying the baby is gonna get concussion!)
  • How to recognise his emotional triggers  (for example, by asking “how were you feeling before you hit B?”, “what are some things we can do if you feel scared B is going to bite you?”).

Ok… those are fairly big asks for a three year old, but keeping those goals in mind is more useful than just “don’t hurt people”, over and over again. Creche has been absolutely fantastic with this, they’ve been really proactive in developing opportunities for him to learn how to find areas of positive play with the other kids. We’re so lucky there are high enough staff ratios that the teachers can take the time to work one-on-one where needed, to promote a sense of belonging and security for all the kids. I feel very conscious that a child with differently resourced parents exhibiting these behaviours might be met with a response that becomes ever more and more punitive. At first, part of me felt anxious that the social context of the preschool room was too much, but I’ve swung back around now to feeling pleased that he is getting a chance to develop these skills in a fairly small, play-based learning environment.

Staying connected while feeling stressed by interactions with your child

Here are some things I’ve been trying to remember to do, instead of being stressed all the time about potential for negative behaviours:

1. Fill my own tank

When interactions with D become more stressful for me, it’s all the more important that I come at them from a calm baseline. Hard to act on but needs to be first on the list.

2. Redirect the energy

Wow, take him outdoors on a good day and do something physical, and it’s a whole different kid! A few weeks ago we went for a walk up Mt Victoria​ and he rode down on B’s tiny three wheel bike and it was so much fun and he had an amazingly good time. He has SO MUCH ENERGY, CONSTANTLY. Until he droops like a flower closing for night, but then in the morning he is just GO GO GO.

3. Create space for relaxed interactions

If I were feeling overwhelmed and emotionally fragile and my reactions to the world were getting away from me, what would I need? I’d need to do more of the things that fill my tank: yoga, swimming, catching up with friends, getting more sleep, eating well. I wouldn’t need someone to yell at me. Let’s assume the same for a child. The thing that fills D’s tank more than anything else is one-on-one time with an adult. If B is there too, it’s not the same. If another adult is there and he’s not the sole focus, also not the same. He is delightful one-on-one, he is up for anything and such good company, provided he’s not tired or hungry. Space for one-on-one time on weekends is a priority at the moment. Being outdoors is especially a sweet spot, damn winter making that harder!

4. End the day well

Bed chats are sacrosanct. Bedtime for D is mum or dad sitting with him until he falls asleep, it’s his special time, we do a pep talk for the bed crew (7 soft toys and counting that are tasked with eating the bad dreams), we chat then tell stories and sing songs, then snuggle until he falls asleep. It is very soothing for both of us, I like knowing that at the end of the day no matter what has happened, there will be a nice peaceful chance to connect and set ourselves up for a good day tomorrow.

Other things to remember – what has and hasn’t worked 

1. Focus on the injured party

Of course. Everything always says that. I’ve found it best to really take it up to the maximum notch, talking to B the same way I would if he hurt himself falling over. I take a tiny pause and use the power of the passive tense – thinking to myself B is hurt (not D hurt B). Amazingly, often when I do this, D spontaneously comes up and apologises and tries to help soothe B.

2. Notice small improvements and don’t stress about regressions

With any other behaviour, I’d be totally ready to notice small improvements. With violence, it’s harder – because a small improvement looks like continuing negative behaviour. But a small improvement is still a small improvement! So I try and notice that he pushed B over but he didn’t bludgeon him with a hard toy, well, that’s slightly better. For interim feedback, we talk a lot about “remembering to be gentle more and more often” and “getting better at playing nicely with our friends”, and “learning how to catch our impulses so much of the time”.

3. Positive pep talks

Before creche we give D a little pep talk, “you’re going to have a great day, you’re going to remember your gentle hands and remember to respect people’s boundaries!” It’s cheesy but kinda great.

4. Being aware of hidden pay-offs

It might just be the catharsis of the outlet. Or it might be that suddenly everything stops and you get attention. Sometimes this is obvious, like snatching a toy and then you get the toy, or the parent comes and plays with you to prevent further snatching. There are definite hidden payoffs for D around my attention, if I’m telling him off and ignoring B, he might just be seeing that as a win.

5. Practising calling him out on something unacceptable without making a big deal of it

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, y’know? Some of the behaviour that looks like random violence against another child might be a minor faux pas in their world, like a slightly insensitive joke in the adult world. Sometimes it’s enough to say “Hey, I don’t think E liked it when you pushed him. There’s lots of other stuff to play on at the playground while you wait for E to finish his turn on the slide.” (Or “if someone hurts you, use your words and tell them you don’t like it”).

6. As the adult, it’s always my job to de-esculate.

Sucks how you gotta be the adult all the time.

7. You’re allowed to have a genuine emotional response and communicate it to your child!

Being angry at your child all the time is obviously not good. Being angry sometimes in unavoidable. I’ve been trying to find  ways to communicate to D when he’s done something that makes me grumpy, while making it age-appropriate. It’s been a big preoccupation, figuring out how I can explain my emotional response to his actions, especially when they’re violent, but also in other contexts.

Here’s where I’ve got to (it took me extra time to make it alliterative, please give me 5 additional mum blog points):

  • Self-reflective: am I annoyed at him because he spilt his water bottle on the couch, or am I annoyed at myself for giving him a water bottle on the couch when I know he fiddles with the lid and there was a risk he’d spill it? Probably annoyed at myself. Therefore, neutralish response and try to remember not to give him drinks on the couch.
  • Sincere: I don’t think it’s ok to pretend you’re feeling something more strongly than you actually are in order to make your point to your child about their behaviour. This wouldn’t be cool with an adult. Don’t do it to a kid who trusts you and relies on your emotional honesty as a guide to the world. On the other hand, if the main consequence of a child’s action is the adult’s sincere and self-reflective emotional response, shielding them from that response requires enormous control from the adult for the pointless result of the child not appreciating the effects of their action. How can they learn from their behaviour if we don’t let them see the results? How can they see us as human beings if they don’t see us display normal human responses including anger where it’s warranted?
  • Safe, short and straightforward: Kids are not adults. If you’re angry at another adult, you can get away with making them do a bit of interpretive work or emotional self-protection work when you’re telling them how you feel. Ideally you’d always communicate anger well to adults too, but it’s not a disaster if you don’t. But for kids, and angry parent ranting incoherently is potentially scary or just weird and seems unhinged. If you’re letting your child see that you’re angry, (which I think is good sometimes!), the next step is figuring out a way to communicate your emotional state so that they can actually understand. At the moment we’re using a technique that is working really well. I tell him something “made my grumpiness go up (or down)” or “made my happiness go up (or down)”. It’s been a great tool. I love that it’s not a binary state of emotions like “I feel sad”. He has been responding really well to it and keeps telling me when things make his happiness go up (like buying B a little bodysuit with bunnies and flowers on it made D’s happiness go up, awwww!). I figured out this way of framing things after a Mummy Fail one day when I shouted at him in the car, funny now, not funny at the time: he was shrieking randomly the whole car trip and I asked him not to repeatedly etc, we were all tired after the supermarket, and then another shriek from him and I snapped: “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP I’M TRYING TO DRIVE AND I CAN’T CONCENTRATE WHEN YOU YELL ALL THE TIME AND I REALLY NEED TO DRIVE SAFELY AND YOU NEED TO STOP THAT AND NOT YELL AND I CAN YELL REALLY LOUD TOO BUT I DON’T YELL BECAUSE YELLING IS HORRIBLE“, she said, yelling in a very yelly way. He wasn’t really too bothered and just laughed and told me “shut up mummy” and then I was all, ah crap, now I taught him to say “shut up”. Crap! Argh!

(… but)

8. Accepting that I won’t be perfect in my responses and that’s ok

Sometimes the off-the-cuff, angry responses are a good learning opportunity. I threw the firetruck/bludgeon in the bin. But then I got it out again and put it in the wardrobe when D was hysterical that I threw it away. Did that undermine the message? I don’t fucking know. It’s hard! Interacting with people is hard! Sometimes it will be a mess and *shrugs* we muddle through anyway and sometimes the failures are key to figuring out an alternative approach so they serve a useful purpose or whatever.

 9. Prevention

So easy to forget! Always take a snack. Always take a drink bottle. Don’t expect him to walk too far when he’s tired. Give him plenty of opportunity for active play outdoors when he’s full of beans.

10. Stories are great for making points more subtly

I have to resist the temptation after D’s been rough to turn every future interactiong that day into some sort of didactic moralising monologue. Let it go! Change the subject! Stories are good for an alternative. Our favourite story is the one of Prince Gentle Hands:

Once upon a time there was a little prince, who lived in a castle with his mummy and daddy and his baby brother. His name was Prince Gentle Hands. He was very kind and gentle to everyone and always gave his mummy lovely cuddles and shared his toys with his baby brother. One day, Prince Gentle Hands was playing in one of the treasure rooms in the castle and he found a necklace. He really liked the necklace so he put it on, and… oh no, it wasn’t a necklace after all, it was a magical collar, and it turned him into a rough and tumble rambunctious puppy! And he ran about the castle, knocking everything over, and then he ran up to his daddy the King and – uh oh, because he was such a naughty puppy he BIT his daddy! And his daddy cried and said “where did this puppy come from? I don’t want to play with a puppy that bites me!” And Prince Gentle Hands the puppy was so sad that he hurt his daddy and he ran away and hid in a cupboard. Later, Queen Adventure Pants was looking for Prince Gentle Hands because it was dinner time, but she couldn’t find him anywhere. Then she heard a noise like a puppy crying and she opened the cupboard and there was the puppy, so sad. She picked up the puppy and he scratched at his collar and made his sad puppy noises again. Queen Adventure Pants said “aww poor puppy, is your collar uncomfy?” and she looked at the collar to try and take it off. And she saw it was a magic collar that needed the puppy to do a special magic trick to take it off, so she said “little puppy, to take the collar off you need to push your feet into the floor and take four deep deep breaths in and out”, and the puppy did just that, and then – Prince Gentle Hands wasn’t a puppy anymore, now he was a boy! He was so happy he was a little boy again and not a rough tumble puppy who bit people and he gave his mummy a really lovely cuddle. And then Prince Gentle Hands went to find his daddy the King, who was so pleased that the puppy had gone and Prince Gentle Hands was back, and they all had a nice dinner of sausages – because puppies and little boys both like sausages.

11. Just because they don’t get the point immediately, doesn’t mean it was ignored

I need to remind myself of this. Reiteration, with space for processing, is the key to learning.

12. Careful use of screen time

We are on a complete ban of any shows that depict any rough behaviour, even if the moral is to say it’s not allowed. I’m also promoting shows that have positive sibling interaction. We’ve been watching a lot of Charlie and Lola.

13. Weekends and Wednesdays are for recuperation, not additional stress.

We need to keep the home days relaxed.

14. Asking how he was feeling before he did something hurtful

Not asking why he did it. That’s a really complex question for a three year old! Asking him how he feels before sheds more light on the situation.

15. Impulse control games

Impulse control generally is a really fertile area for play. Our favourite is pretending we’re going to throw an egg on the floor then actually cracking it into a bowl to beat into scrambled eggs. He thinks it’s hilarious.


This too shall pass.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m D’s mother. It’s so lovely to have you all here at his 21st. It’s definitely a high point in my life to be standing here tonight seeing my rascal of a boy grown into a lovely young man, ready to take on the responsibilities of adulthood.

What do say about D! Well, I’m sure you’re all aware of his sense of humour and his skills in debating – we can take some responsibility for that! I used to say when D was small that it was exactly as if someone had taken my personality and his dad’s personality, mixed them together, and made it miniature. We always felt like at least one of us understood him, usually both of us, no matter how much of a handful he was being. And you wouldn’t think it now seeing this very accomplished and centred person he is at 21, but sometimes as a toddler he was a real handful. You see, D never wanted to be a child. He was never content to occupy that role in the order of things. From the time he could speak, he was talking about being bigger, and asking when he would be a “dwown up”, and objecting to anyone interfering with his vision for the world. Well, he’s all dwown up now, so get ready world! 


2 thoughts on “Grown-up responses to kids being violent

  1. I am speechless. What an amazing piece of writing/reflecting. I don’t have kiddos yet, but I kinda want to print this out and stash it somewhere for when I do. Thank you


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