Brandon Linden of Norfolk, Va., just turned 2 and he’s already been kicked out of daycare for biting. His mother, Jenni Linden,* says he is “10 times more aggressive than the other children: He cries more, acts out more and he bites and pushes.”
“On the other hand, Brandon can be very compassionate and loving,” says Linden. “I am hoping eventually he will learn to keep his impulses under control. I feel bad because I want people to see the little sweetie I know. Instead, he is a little hellion.”
Linden admits she and her husband both have bad tempers and assumes that Brandon has inherited some of that characteristic. However, she wants to find some positive ways to deal with Brandon’s aggressive behavior so it doesn’t continue as he grows.
Not Born to Bully
Dr. Michele Borba agrees that some children are naturally more impulsive or aggressive than others, perhaps as part of a genetic disposition, but she also thinks that little bullies are made, not born. That means they can also be unmade with patience and consistency.
Dr. Borba, who is author of several parenting books, including Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Problems and How to Solve Them (Jossey-Bass, 2005), says Linden has made a very positive first step by recognizing that her child is, or maybe, a bully.
“One big misconception parents often have is that they think aggressive behavior is a leadership skill when really it’s just the child being a bully to dominate and get their way,” says Dr. Borba. “Leaders do not use physical violence to get their way.”
It’s important that parents take off their rose-colored glasses regarding their child’s behavior as early as possible. According to Dr. Borba, statistics show that aggressive behavioral patterns become entrenched by age 8. Furthermore, if a child is identified as a bully at age 8, they have a one in four likelihood of having a criminal record as adults.
“Parents need to be a little more intentional when they watch their kids play,” says Dr. Borba. “Put your radar up and watch him interact with children; if he’s pushing and shoving, that’s a sign that he might be a bully. Also, ask other parents for an honest assessment. Other parents always know who the bullies are, while the bully’s parents may not have that objectivity.”
In addition, Dr. Borba says to watch for these six characteristics that may mean your child is a bully:
- Aggressive behavior over time (not just one or two isolated instances).
- Being verbally abusive; often saying insulting or mean things.
- Always needing to dominate the situation.
- Lacking empathy.
- Deliberately provoking other children to anger or make them cry.
- Cruelty to pets or other children.
Unmaking Baby Bullies
Dr. Elisa Medhus, author of Raising Everyday Heroes: Parenting Children to be Self-reliant (Beyond Words Publishing, 2004), agrees that children can learn more positive behaviors, and it starts with the parents learning control.
“A parent needs to remain calm, at least on the outside, in order to deliver logical consequences and teach the child how to express his anger or frustration constructively,” says Dr. Medhus. She suggests that when the child acts up, the parent should remove him from the scene of the crime so he doesn’t do any more damage. If he’s completely out of control, take him home, but, if possible, bring him over to sit beside you and guide his internal dialogue questions, such as:
- What’s our rule about biting?
- Why do we have that rule?
- How did you feel when Bobby bit you last year?
- How do you think Johnny feels now?
- What could you have done instead?
- What do you need to do now to make things right?
“Questions like these help children develop strong internal dialogue and empathy, skills many aggressive children don’t have,” says Dr. Medhus. “Kids must learn to control their impulses. Perhaps it’s more difficult for those with impulsive disorders, but it’s still possible. We all must overcome various weaknesses, kids included.”
Dr. Medhus also suggests a four-step approach for teaching children to express anger constructively:
- Step one: The child tells the other person he is mad. It’s OK to do so in an angry voice.
- Step two: The child says why, but in terms of one of the two root emotions behind his anger. Anger isn’t a root emotion – there’s either hurt or fear behind it. For instance, a child might say, “I’m really mad at you for calling me names because it hurt my feelings.”
- Step three: Have the child state his expectations, such as: “I want you to stop doing that!”
- Step four: Have the child request an acknowledgement: “OK? Can you agree to that?”
“This approach is much more powerful than name-calling and hitting,” says Dr. Medhus. “It actually resolves the conflict. It also helps children identify core feelings and see them not as something to use as a weapon against themselves or others but as a communication tool designed to bring about change, whether that communication is with themselves or another person.”
The parent of an aggressive child is the one who has to initiate the changes because the child doesn’t know how to do so. Dr. Borba suggests getting some strategies from one of the many books available and writing down a makeover strategy. In other words, have a plan for what you will do when your child behaves aggressively.
Once you have your strategy, get everyone else on board who is involved in your child’s care and discipline. This means your spouse or the child’s other parent, your child’s daycare or preschool providers, and any pertinent extended family members.
Then, start keeping track of incidents and your responses to them on a daily calendar. This can be similar to keeping a journal. If the number of incidents declines over time, then progress is being made, so keep it up. If the number stays the same or increases, it may be time to seek professional help.
Even if it comes to that, the chances of successfully changing your child’s behavior are very good. It just takes time, patience, and love.