How to discipline aggressive behaviour

Written by mekeisha madden toby
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You don't want to fail your child's acting out test

How to discipline aggressive behaviour
How to discipline aggressive behaviour (Getty Images/Lifesize/Getty Images)

I recommend saving the big punishments -- timeouts, no TV, etc. -- for the big crimes. That way they have more impact. Sometimes, a a younger child just needs a hug and a minute to breathe.

— Allison Kawa, a child psychologist and autism specialist

James Charles Roberson is a charmer. The 3-year-old loves to draw pictures of bugs, play with toy trucks and dote on his baby sister, Audrey. But he is human, and that means he tests his parents with disobedience every now and then. When this happens, Takisha and Jason Roberson calmly tell him they don’t approve of his behaviour and issue a warning. If he disobeys again, he has to take a timeout. “It's a challenge sometimes because he fights going into timeout, but we’re persistent,” Takisha Roberson said of her son. “He understands that we’re not playing with him, and he has to sit down and ‘do his time.’ ” The Robersons, like all parents, have had to find personal and effective ways to teach a child right from wrong. This is particularly important when the child is between the ages of 2 and 5. That's when personalities and habits, such as impulse control, start to evolve.

Disciplining techniques

When kids start to show aggressive behaviour, parents must try to understand why the child is misbehaving. However, parents must establish a disciplinary routine so the child understands he has done something wrong.

The Robersons took a cue from Jo “Supernanny” Frost and tailored their punishments to James Charles to match his age. Because he is 3, his timeouts last 3 minutes.

“When the timeout is complete, we remind him of what he did to get there,” Takisha Roberson says. “He has to apologise sincerely, and he gets a hug if that happens. We don’t want him to get the message that he'll be unloved if he misbehaves.”

If the Robersons’ style of discipline sounds wrong for you and your child, that’s fine. The most important thing is that the child learns and grows from mistakes. The same goes for Mom and Dad.

“The first step is for parents to take a deep breath,” says Allison Kawa, a child psychologist and autism specialist. “Children who are worked up and upset need their parents to hold it together and remain calm.

“Parents must experiment to find a punishment that is aversive enough to have an impact without being too strong.”

Kawa says timeouts and the loss of privileges do work.

“I recommend saving the big punishments -- timeouts, no TV, etc. -- for the big crimes,” she said. “That way they have more impact. Sometimes, a preschooler just needs a hug and a minute to breathe.”

Karen J. Abraham, a mother and teacher, subscribes to the Attachment Parenting International approach. It relies heavily on gentle parenting techniques steeped in communication and redirection.

“I have very bad memories of how timeouts made me feel as a child – feeling like no one cared to hear my side of things,” said Abraham, whose son Silas turns 2 in July. “This is not conducive to getting the kid to manage his feelings in a more socially acceptable way.”

Meanwhile, Craig Morgan, a sports journalist, and his wife combine redirection and timeouts to discipline their daughters Erin, 6, and Carling, 4.

“We usually ask our girls what they did wrong, why it was wrong, and then have them explain how they should have handled the situation,” Morgan said.

Morgan said he and his wife don’t believe in spanking, but they do believe in being firm. “There is too much soft parenting going on and too much coddling as we raise a generation of kids without adequate discipline,” he said.

The Real Problem

Aggressive behaviour in young children almost always indicates a bigger problem. Many little ones aren’t able to verbally express what’s wrong, so they act out.

“Sometimes it’s because the child needs a little extra attention,” Takisha Roberson said. “Kids can get frustrated and feel shortchanged when a new sibling is born or a parent is away for work, for example.”

Benjamin Garber is a licensed psychologist and the author of several books, including “Keeping Kids Out of the Middle: Child-Centered Parenting in the Midst of Conflict, Separation and Divorce.” He said parents have to pay attention to get to the bottom of noncompliance from their kids.

“Our job as healthy parents is to read our children’s nonverbal and early verbal cues,” said Garber, a happily married father of two and host of the website “We need to respond calmly and consistently, and teach them that their strong emotions are manageable simply by tolerating them ourselves.”

Kawa adds that disobedience is normal, but excessive disobedience could be an indication of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. If you suspect it is the latter, she suggests you have your child tested.

Changing Aggressive Behavior

Garber said it is natural for children to grow angry, whatever the cause. And it is unnatural for parents to suppress that anger.

“Many of us find anger threatening and dangerous,” he said. “We spend a great deal of energy correcting our children, saying what is not OK to do when you’re mad.

“It is even more important to teach our kids what is OK to do when you’re mad, such as hitting a pillow or screaming into an empty milk jug.”

Kawa said giving children choices is also effective. “If a child doesn’t want to share his toy cars, parents might say, ‘We need to share one car. You pick which car to share.’ ”

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