How Do You Respond When Your Child is Being Aggressive?


When our children act aggressively and hurtfully, it can be some of the most challenging parenting moments we face. We long for our children to be loving and kind, playful with their siblings and non-violent. So when we see them behave aggressively, it can be devastating for us. We might start imaging that there is something wrong with our child or that we have failed as parents. We might receive judgement and shaming from others around us. We might find ourselves not feeling loving at all towards our children and wishing they were different. This is extremely painful and Aware Parenting is truly life-saving to support us to support our children when they are being aggressive.

Aware Parenting understands that all children have feelings to express at times due to big traumas that we are not always able to protect them from and accumulated daily stresses that all children inevitably face in their lives. All of this can cause them to feel scared, overwhelmed, disempowered and confused.

When parents have the knowledge, the understanding and the capacity to listen, our children utilise their innate healing mechanism to release feelings through crying, raging, tantrums and some forms of play and laughter.

However, if they are not able to release these feelings, or if our children are in environments where they don’t feel safe to release feelings, or if we don’t understand the purpose of these healing processes, then these feelings accumulate in their bodies and this leads to challenging and aggressive behaviour. Sometimes our own childhood feelings are coming up for us and making it hard to listen. Maybe we are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and living in a culture that doesn’t understand, value or support parents.

Whatever the reason, in these cases, the painful feelings that our children all experience in life accumulate and are repressed so the stress is unresolved and instead is stored inside the body, causing agitation and aggression. Feelings can be repressed using control patterns such as thumb sucking, moving around, screens, biting nails, picking nose etc.. But, repressing feelings creates tension, discomfort and agitation in the body and pushes our children into hyper-arousal (or fight and flight mode).

We know when our children are in hyperarousal by their behaviour, particularly when we see them being hyperactive and aggressive, such as hitting, shouting, throwing things, grabbing, biting, being impulsive and uncooperative.

Mainstream culture misinterprets aggression in children:

  • The aggression is seen as misbehaviour, a sign that the child needs to be punished and shamed to teach them that this behaviour is unacceptable
  • The aggression is seen as an indication that the child has “bad” personality traits or worse still, a psychiatric disorder that requires medication.
  • Parents are often encouraged to respond either with harsh punishments and shame or a more permissive approach, ignoring the behaviour or telling the child to be gentle, to calm down, to take some deep breaths.

However, all of these responses, interrupt and shut down our children’s natural biological healing processes and cause the feelings to be further repressed, now with added shame and fear on top! This creates more discomfort, more agitation, more hyper-arousal which leads to more aggression and more challenging behaviour.

With an Aware Parenting lens however, we bring compassion to our children and ourselves. We recognise the behaviours that are showing us that our children are in hyperarousal and need support in the form of emotional safety to be able to return to homeostatic balance and become their true lowing, calm, balanced selves again. We recognise and welcome the signs and remind ourselves that children are born knowing how to heal and they will do so spontaneously when they feel safe.

Aware Parenting shows us how to create the emotional safety for healing to automatically occur, by listening to their big feelings, their tears and tantrums in our loving presence as they offload all the accumulated stress and release it from their bodies, through the tears themselves, the vocalisations, the big movements that they needed to use at the time of initial traumas to fight or to flee. We listen with empathy and understanding as they let it all out. We stay close while they rage, we stay connected while they have big tantrums and we imagine the stress and painful feelings leaving their bodies. Sometimes they might tell us that they hate us and we can keep responding with loving listening. If we have feelings about them speaking to us in this way, we can share that with our listening partner.

We can also move in with attachment play. There are 9 types of attachment play that Aletha Solter describes and some we use to create emotional safety for healing to occur, and some we use to facilitate their healing from stress and trauma. Sometimes we use these forms of play in the moment when the child is being aggressive in order to support them to release the stress in healthy ways with laughter and connection. And sometimes we use the play at other times to make it less likely that our children will act aggressively.

Games to build connection and safety include:

  • Body contact games with soft loving touch (such as clapping games, massage games, dancing together etc.
  • Cooperative games such as making things together, running without racing, jumping games, cooking together
  • Nonsense play such as being silly, making mistakes, getting things wrong and allowing our children to laugh
  • Contingency games such as imitation games, giving our children magic wands to control us, red light green light
  • Non-directive, child-centered play or special time, where we are giving our children regular set periods of time to play, where they get to choose what to do and we follow their lead, offering them our undivided attention.

Games that support the release and healing of the stress and trauma that is causing aggressive behaviour include:

  • Setting a timer for special time and letting our children know that we are playing with them for a set time and when the timer goes off, we will be stopping. During the play our children feel connected to us and safe and often start to release feelings through laughter. Then when the timer goes off, our children use it as a pretext to release feelings through crying, raging and tantrums and we can move in with listening to their feelings and offering a loving limit, saying “No” to any more play today and “Yes” to welcome the feelings that are being released.
  • Symbolic play, where we introduce toys or themes that help our children to play out their stressful experiences (such as playing with a doctors kit after having a medical trauma). We can again let our children lead the way and be there by their side as they process the stress.
  • Power-reversal games, where the power balance is reversed and our children get to be the strong and powerful ones. These games often support our children to make big body movements to release stress and trauma and there is often lots of laughter, so they are very helpful to release feelings of disempowerment, frustration and fear.

We can offer our children loving limits, with a balance of attention to provide the safety they need through our loving presence and a reminder to connect them to their feelings. When we are offering loving limits, we do so with a loving soft tone, holding a firm, clear limit, saying no to their aggressive behaviour with love and welcoming the feelings that are coming out in response to the “no”. We don’t use words or a tone of voice that adds shame, judgement or punishment. So we therefore avoid saying things like “It’s not ok to hit”, or “We don’t hit in our family” and instead we remind ourselves and our children, that we know they don’t want to behave like this. This term was coined by Level 2 Aware Parenting Instructor Marion Rose and describes how the loving limit says “no” to the aggressive behaviour whilst also saying “yes” to the feelings that are causing them to behave in these aggressive ways, to invite them to cry and rage and release all the feelings. If our children are hitting or lashing out, we use the minimum force required to gently and lovingly hold their arm to stop them hitting. We might take them to a safe place like the bedroom and stay with them, keeping ourselves and them safe and listening to their tears and raging.

It is really helpful for our children to hear us using kind, loving words while we are listening to their feelings during the loving limit, such as:

“I see how upset and uncomfortable you are sweetheart, I am right here with you. I am not willing for you to hit. I know you don’t want to be hitting, so I will stay here with you and keep everyone safe until you feel better.”

It is also helpful to reassure our children that we know they are loving and caring humans and that their painful feelings are causing them to lash out and be hurtful. As Pam Leo says in her book Connection Parenting, “A hurtful child is a hurt-full child”. It is really important that we let our children know that we love them, regardless of how they are behaving and we see that their painful feelings are making them act in aggressive ways. Aletha Solter says in her book Cooperative and Connected “Children need the most love and attention when they act the least deserving of it”.

Whether listening to feelings, attachment play or loving limits (or a combination of these) we are supporting the child to feel safe enough to release feelings, rather than acting out and being hurtful and aggressive to others. In her book, Healing Your Traumatised Child, Aletha Solter describes that, when we are supporting our children in these ways, we are allowing them to complete the natural biological recovery processes so they can then come out of hyperarousal and return to balance.

Another very important aspect of Aware Parenting is not having punishments in the family.  Punishing a child who is being aggressive does not help because it is not dealing with cause of the behaviour and it is detrimental to your relationship with your child. In addition, it causes children to feel that our love is conditional on their “good” behaviour and it removes the emotional safety that is vital for our children to heal from stress and trauma. We cannot make our children behave better in the long run by making them feel worse.

As a result of being supported in these ways to use their innate healing processes, our children’s behaviour is so much calmer, the aggression stops, they feel balanced, they cooperate, they sleep better and can sit still and concentrate. They have fewer accumulated feelings in their bodies and less need to repress feelings so they are gentle and loving towards us, their siblings, their friends and pets.

But, in order to support our children in these ways, we need to be receiving listening and support ourselves from someone who understands this approach.  We need to be recognising when our needs are not being met and take small steps to do so. We need help to explore and share what is coming up for us, what are we making it mean when our children are aggressive. Our own unhealed repressed trauma can also often make it hard to support our children in these ways. So, we need to reach out for support to do our own healing work too. And, as always, offering ourselves compassion and receiving compassion from others, is so crucial for parenting.

If you would like support to understand this approach more deeply or to help you to support your child with aggression, I am here. Sending love to you all.

Your parenting coach and mentor

About Joss Goulden

I am a trauma-informed Parenting Coach and a Level 2 Aware Parenting instructor, certified with the Aware Parenting Institute. I have been practising Aware Parenting for 17 years and am the mother of 2 children, aged 19 and 17.

I am also passionate about Homeschooling and Natural Learning. I have homeschooled my 2 children and I have been supporting families with Homeschooling and Natural Learning for many years.

Aware Parenting with Joss

I am so passionate about sharing this beautiful approach with parents. I believe that Aware Parenting is THE solution for so many of the challenges facing the world. - Joss Goulden, Aware Parenting Instructor
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram