Dear Dr Justin,
"My 9-year-old son lashes out at his younger siblings when they bother him and often ends up hurting them. He feels terrible afterwards, but he can’t seem to get his anger or his reactions under control. What should I do?"
Lashing out in anger is something that can easily turn into a habit for our children – and for us as adults. Anger, however, is not a “primary” emotion. Anger is usually based on a strong sense of fear or sadness.
What’s really happening when a child is lashing out in anger is that their emotional brain becomes overwhelmed, takes control, and reacts to the big emotions it’s processing. This can be distressing for us, for them, and for the sibling or friend affected by their outburst. First, we need to work on managing the aggressive behaviour. Then we need to find its root cause. Finally, our focus should be on shifting the habit.
Avoid the situation where possible
Our first step is to try to stop a recurrence of the violent behaviour. You can do this by watching out for, and avoiding when you can, triggering situations. If you see that your son is becoming overwhelmed or upset, or if everyone is overtired or hungry, separate your kids or find something else for the others to do. It won’t fix everything, but avoidance and distraction can be handy strategies at times.
Tend to your hurt child
If your son lashes out again and hurts another child, your immediate attention should be on the hurt child. Let the aggressor know you’ll chat with him soon and encourage him to find some space to cool down. This will be hard! You will want to express your righteous anger! You will want to set your kid straight! But just like our kids need to learn to control their reactions, we do too.
Emotions up, intelligence down
When we are angry our thought processes aren’t so clear. Kids catch our cranky. But they’ll also catch our calm. To diffuse anger in someone else, we have to be calm ourselves. It helps to remember that something has happened inside of our child to stop him from being able to regulate his emotions.
There is a root cause to his aggression. And without a doubt, he is in distress. He needs your help too. You can only do that when you are calm.
Respond to your angry child
So, what do we do? Time out? Loss of screen time? Spanking? No, no and (definitely) no. Punishments after the fact don’t work.
When a child becomes enraged, his brain stops working. He literally cannot remember any punishments (or lessons from those punishments). Punishing him may make us feel better, but it won’t help him learn to control his aggression.
Aggression is a red flag. It tells you that your child is hurting. The best way to help your son is to dig down to the root cause of that anger.
Look him in the eye, and say, ‘You hurt your little brother. He is really scared. You must be feeling really bad to hurt your brother like that. What is going on?’ Studies show that empathy from parents leads to reduced risk for aggression in their kids. Stay compassionate while you work through the issues. Give cuddles and comfort. And when your child is calm, help him brainstorm better ways to respond (calling out for help, walking away, speaking firmly). Help him practice those responses so that they become easy to implement before he loses control.
Show him you love him
Finally, show him love – kids need to know that their parent’s love for them is unconditional even when they’ve misbehaved. There’s no need to worry that you are somehow reinforcing his bad behaviour by showing love. The reality is, you’re giving a hurting child exactly what he needs. Lashing out or acting up are not attention-seeking behaviours. They’re connection-seeking behaviours.