My teen son has Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) and ADHD, which means he is highly impulsive and is often verbally and sometimes physically aggressive too. Three years ago, I stopped punishing him for his poor behaviour choices and started holding him accountable kindly. Our relationship has blossomed while he is calmer, stabler and gentler too.
These inclusive tips were compiled by Sharon Eshmade, a counsellor, parenting coach, author, teacher, and mum-of-a-teen with behaviour and learning difficulties, to help you understand and confidently discipline your aggressive child.
1. Zero-Tolerance for Aggression
In our family, we have a zero-tolerance agreement regarding physically aggressive behaviour. We work towards having no double standards in our family so all missteps are treated equally.
A zero-tolerance means that we are all working towards not touching another member of the family (or anyone else for that matter) in frustration, fear, or anger. This includes not pulling your child by the hand or pushing them away.
With kids who are prone to being physically aggressive, oppositional, and defiant, this is an excruciatingly challenging target to work towards as a family.
2. Working in incremental steps
When our child’s negative behaviour overwhelms us, we can feel that there will never be an improvement and that they will never make their way assertively, but respectfully through life.
When we try to address all negative behaviour, our child will also have no room to address their instinct toward negative emotionality and will always appear to be out of control. When we don’t give them a way out of their poor behaviour, we can often land up joining them in theirs. What we need is a strategy to stop ourselves from being overwhelmed. The first step is to evaluate and list all negative behaviour in incremental steps, from the most disrespectful to the most acceptable. Now we can target and address specific behaviour priorities, so the process is far more straightforward and manageable.
3. Prioritise your concern
Our child’s negative behaviour may be described as such:
- Physical behaviour, encompassing any form of touching that is deemed inappropriate
- Stealing and destroying property
- Lying, and any form of blaming others or refusing to take responsibility for their actions
- Defiance, and any form of refusing to do what they are told to do
- Swearing, and any form of language usage that is undesirable and inappropriate
- Shouting, and any form of raising their voice when they don’t get their way
4. Target a specific behaviour
When listing these behaviours, we can appreciate why addressing all negative behaviour is overpowering and it also explains why we may have been overly punitive and negative in the past.
First, we must prioritise physical behaviour and only one distinct behaviour that will be targeted at a time. Within physical behaviour, list the negative physical behaviour in order of priority.
The list may look something like this:
- All physical behaviour, such as biting, kicking, hitting, punching, scratching, and pinching, that leave a mark.
- All physical behaviour, such as hitting, pushing, poking, and slapping, that does not leave a mark.
- Inappropriate affection, such as licking, hugging, exposing themselves to others, and kissing.
5. Communicate the consequences
We can begin with a zero-tolerance for physical behaviour that leaves a mark on anyone else. Leaving a mark on anyone else is the targeted unacceptable behaviour, no matter how it is inflicted.
When our child leaves a mark on someone, if necessary, give them a time in. A time in is like a time out but we are calm and present with our child as they work through their difficult emotions.
When calm and connected, it is the right time to gently explain why we don’t leave marks on others and how we don’t like being marked ourselves. We can show our child the mark they have inflicted so that they are aware of why there is a consequence, and it is also helpful as a restorative justice technique.
We can talk about ways in which we can use our hands kindly, such as turning the pages in a book carefully or playing with our toys gently. Another useful tool is to engage empathy by discussing how we don’t like being marked by other people or when we fall over because it hurts.
Now that the specific behaviour has been addressed, return to your ordinary activities. Each time there is an incident where our child leaves a mark on anyone else, this is the process that is consistently, respectfully, and kindly repeated.
6. Acknowledge but downplay other physical behaviour
If other physical incidents occur without our children leaving a mark on another individual, try and play down the behaviour as much as possible. If there isn’t a mark left after an incident, then we can remind our children to use their hands kindly and ask them to explain what they need.
The message we are sending is that there is a zero-tolerance for leaving a mark on someone else and that this specific and targeted behaviour is unacceptable but, for now, being physical is only discouraged.
After an incident, we might ask, “Are you okay?”, as we begin to realise that our child doesn’t hurt others for no reason. We might become increasingly aware that others are winding them up and manipulating the situation.
As we increase our empathy in appreciating how our child might feel in being out of control, we can also ask “How can I help?” In being helpful they might be quicker in learning how to help themselves, such as asking for help and support before they lose control.
7. Gradually shaping their behaviour
Once our child has grasped this specific concept and is no longer routinely leaving marks on others, we can praise them for increasing their self-control. Next, we can decide to target and eliminate other specific physical behaviour, the most egregious first, such as biting, kicking and/or punching.
We must also keep all aggressive acts that leave a mark as part of our zero-tolerance approach, as these incidents will probably still occur occasionally.
We may choose to target biting only or all three, depending on the frequency of each behaviour. When the targeted undesirable behaviour occurs, just as before, kindly, and respectfully follow through with the zero-tolerance consequence. If there is any scratching, pinching, hitting, pushing, poking, and slapping that leaves no mark, as before, verbally discourage the behaviour only and encourage being gentle.
In each step of this technique, we are slowly creeping towards increased self-control with more sociably acceptable behaviour. All marginal gains are encouraged and praised so that our child experiences increased positive feelings related to their increasing self-discipline.
8. Does this technique even work?
A slight improvement is better than no improvement. Recently, my older son screamed at his brother so forcefully that our younger son was very shaken and tearful. I asked them to come and talk the situation through with me.
I praised my older son for using his voice to express his boundary and for not being physical. I explained to my younger son that although difficult, it was better to be shouted at than be hit, for which we were grateful. I asked my older son to please tell his brother to shush or be quiet instead.
Over time, we are at the point where we have a zero-tolerance for defiant behaviour. Just the other day, my older son swore at me when I held him kindly accountable. When we talked about it my younger son reminded me that it was better to be sworn at than be hit. I told him that he was right and again we spoke about kinder alternatives to defiance, such as working together through a problem.
9. Ask for help
Raising a child who has a propensity for aggression is exceptionally difficult. I’m 13 years in and just this week my son was defiant, lost control and threatened to hit me with a chair, but he didn’t. He didn’t raise the chair up over his head, as before, but he did shout and swear at me.
This may not seem like a great outcome to you, but it is enormously encouraging to me. I now know that at his angriest, he is more successful at not hurting others. It’s all about those incremental steps to self-control, self-discipline and increased prosocial behaviour.
Visit me on social media or my website at http://www.crashtestmummy.net to download my book or email me at email@example.com. It may be useful to read my blog on “How to discipline without Hitting and Yelling” to support you too. Being kindly assertive with a volatile child takes awareness, acceptance, letting go, self-love, and practice.
For all references to specific points of view and research, please visit my website, download my book, and refer to the Appendix section.