Aggression and Young Children: A Father’s Struggle

by Dr. Corinne Masur

Recently I read on a parenting blog that if children show aggression it’s because they are in discomfort.

Is this really so?

And while we’re at it, what do we mean when we speak of aggression in the toddler or the young child? Are we talking about anger? Tantrums? Hitting and biting? All of these? Or more?

Defining our terms could be helpful before starting this discussion. Dr. Henri Parens, a child psychoanalyst who has contributed to the understanding of aggression in children, divided aggression into two categories: hostile/destructive aggression and non-hostile or productive aggression.

All of us have, naturally, some internal aggression, which gives us the oomph to move forward, to strive to reach goals, and to grow and develop. That is the non-hostile, productive kind of aggression. On the other hand, hostile/destructive aggression is created by too much displeasure – whether it’s from frustration at not being able to do a task, jealousy of a sibling, or anger with a parent for saying “no.” This kind of aggression can be expressed in any number of ways – tantrums, hitting, throwing, biting, shouting, you name it – or it can be kept inside and expressed in more self destructive behaviors like the child who pulls her own hair out or picks at her skin or even hits herself.

When one four year old I knew made a mistake, he would hit himself in the head with his fist and say “I’m stupid, I’m stupid”. This was hostile and it was aggressive – but it was directed inward, toward himself rather than toward anyone else.

So it’s not as simple as “all aggression is a sign of discomfort.” There are different kinds of aggression that come from within us, some productive and some….not so much – but aggression is still a fact of human life, whether productive or unproductive. As parents we have the opportunity to help our children channel their aggression into more meaningful and productive paths.

Parents are often very confused about how to deal with their young children’s aggression and, for that matter, how to deal with their own – especially when they feel angry with their children. The subject came up this week in our parent-child group when two of the dads were attending. One dad told the group that his father had been a very angry man and that his childhood had been filled with the fear of his father and his father’s often uncontrolled verbal and physical expressions of his anger. Now that he was a dad to two sons, he wondered how best to handle the anger that came up with his children. He asked, “Should I be the opposite of my own dad? And if so, what do I DO with my anger? Or should I show my sons when I’m angry – but just not as much as my father showed me?”

It’s particularly difficult for parents who came from violent homes or homes in which there was a great deal of anger and aggression to work out how to deal with their own angry feelings when parenting their own children. However, the fact that this father was even asking these questions showed that he was reflecting on his experience with an angry father, on his own anger, and on its effect on his sons. This is the first step in being a different kind of parent than one’s own.

The second step, how to handle one’s own aggression in relation to one’s children, is difficult and complex. It is well known that all children, starting from around the time they are mobile, need limits. They need limits to protect them and keep them safe, and they need limits to help them to control their own impulses. Children feel safer when it is made clear to them what they can and cannot do – and when this is made clear without anger.

So what is a dad to do when he is annoyed with a child that has disobeyed him 4 times in a row? Should he let the child see his anger? Should he yell to get the message across?

A father who comes from a home where his own father was angry and aggressive will not want his child to have the same experience he did. However, it will be hard to be a different parent than the one he had. It will be hard to figure out what to say and how to say it to his own child when his child triggers anger in him. Reflecting on how he wants to parent and on how he would have liked his father to parent him is the first, big step toward being a different kind of parent to his own child.

The second step is learning how to intervene with his own children in a way that sets limits but is not so filled with feelings from the past that his child becomes scared. No parent should be afraid to set limits with a child for fear of being the angry parent he or she remembers from his or her own childhood. Limits are necessary. No parent should be afraid to let a child know that he or she is boss, or even that he or she is angry. Children need to know that their parent is the boss, because it makes them feel safe and protected. But parents do need to learn how to set limits and be the boss without showing too much anger – that is, without showing too much hostile or destructive aggression.

For more information on aggression in your child, check out Taming Aggression in Your Child by Henri Parens, 2012.

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