I'm not sure which is harder, watching someone be mean to your child, or watching your perfect angel turn into a hitting, kicking, biting machine right before your eyes. Witnessing your child's aggressive behavior can feel somewhat horrifying for several reasons.
First, it's embarrassing. It can feel like a reflection of you as a mother and it's natural to want to make it clear to others that you don't condone such behavior.
Second, you love your child and you want everyone else to love them too, to see the best side of them that you know is in there under the aggression.
Third, it's a little scary. Sometimes it's hard as parents to know what qualifies as "normal" behavior for young children and what we should be legitimately concerned about.
For all of these reasons, we tend to have big reactions when our child exhibits aggressive behavior, but that isn't always helpful. Aggressive behavior is completely normal and expected in young children and it is an impulse, something they do in response to big, overwhelming feelings, not because they think it's okay.
As parents, our reaction is key. The goal is to help our child understand what they're feeling and why they reacted that way, to help them develop other coping mechanisms for their feelings, and to let them know the behavior is unacceptable, without making them feel ashamed.
Here are 10 Montessori-inspired phrases to try next time you witness your precious child acting somewhat less than angelic.
1. "Let's stay home today."
The best way to handle aggressive behavior is to prevent it. Of course, this is not always possible, but try to observe when the behavior is occurring so that you can recognize patterns and protect your child from situations that are likely to set them off.
In Montessori classrooms, we often keep a written log when a child is continually exhibiting aggressive behavior. Noting the time of day, peers involved and environmental factors such as noise will help you to determine if something physical such as hunger or overstimulation is inciting the behavior.
Once you understand the factors that are likely to set your child off, you can recognize when they are having a rough day and likely won't be successful. In this case, you can opt to stay home or stay near them when you go out to help prevent the behavior.
2. "I can't let you do that."
If your child is in a phase of physical aggression, try staying near them when they are around other children. If you notice them becoming aggressive, physically block them and say, "I can't let you bite," or something similar.
The key to success here is to be very firm, but not angry. Your goal is to make the limit clear while remaining calm. If your child gets a big reaction from you, they may repeat the behavior for attention or to explore why it gets such a big reaction.
3. "Let's take a break."
When you first notice your child becoming agitated, invite them to take a break with you. Find a quiet space and practice taking deep breaths together or sing a quiet song. Once they're calm, you may choose to talk about what was bothering them.
Practice mindfulness exercises in calm times too to help your child develop ways to regulate their behavior.
4. "Let's find something you can bite."
Toddlers sometimes hit or bite not out of anger, but to explore the sensation or satisfy a physical impulse. If your child seems to behave aggressively when they're not upset or angry, try offering another way to meet this need.
You might offer a teether or a snack, or showing them how to punch a pillow when they feel the urge to hit.
5. "Are you okay? How can I help?"
If you're not able to prevent the behavior and your child bites or hits another child, always focus on the "victim" first.
There's no need to be overly dramatic, but model how to check on the other child. This is more effective in demonstrating that the other child is hurt than lecturing your child. Your child may want to help by getting a drink of water for the other child or offering a hug.
6. "I want to talk to you about what happened on the playground."
While it's important to make limits clear at the moment, it can also be helpful to find a neutral time when you're both calm to discuss your child's behavior. Try to keep this discussion as neutral as possible. Start by stating what you saw. You might say something like, "I saw you hit Johnny when he took your shovel. You didn't like it when he did that, but I don't want you to hit."
Depending on your child's age, you might discuss what they were feeling and what they might do next time they feel that way. Offer clear alternatives, like telling your child's friend they're not done with the shovel or asking a grownup for help.
7. "You look frustrated."
It is sometimes helpful to name feelings for preverbal children. Toddlers often react with aggression because they are not able to verbalize what they are feeling.
If you're not sure what your child is feeling, you may phrase it like, "I would feel angry if someone took my apple."
If your child is older or more verbal, you might try asking what they were feeling instead.
It can be helpful to discuss feelings in calm times as well. Try reading a book together or, for an older child, drawing people feeling different things.
8. "How would you feel? I would feel…."
In addition to discussing your child's feelings, talk about how the other person might feel.
Try to remain neutral and free of judgment as you ask your child, "how would you feel if someone bit you?"
If your child isn't able to respond, try saying how you would feel. You might say, "I would feel sad and a little scared if someone bit me. Biting hurts."Empathy takes time to develop, but it is never to early to start working on the skill.
9. "Stay by me until you can be safe."
If your child has been aggressive and you can't (or don't want to) leave, ask your child to stay by you until they can play safely. You might need to hold their hand to keep them close.
You might stand quietly for a few minutes and then discuss things they could do, or friends they could play with, peacefully.
If you feel like your child can play calmly after a few minutes, give them another chance. Stay nearby though so that you're available to prevent further aggression if necessary.
10. "It's time for us to go home."
If you are at the park or on a playdate and you see your child unraveling, don't be afraid to cut the outing short. Your child may be upset, but it is better for them to try again another day if they are unable to control their impulses. This can be said in a loving way so it is not perceived as a punishment.
It can be really hard to see your child behaving aggressively, but it helps to remember that this behavior is normal and that your child isn't doing it to be "bad." They need your help, through both loving support and clear limits, rather than anger or judgment to get through this tough phase.