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My just two-year-old son is very aggressive. He hits and kicks his older sister, as well as our pets or other children. He sometimes does this in anger or when he’s bored but more often when I have said “no” to something. I feel it’s hard to implement some strategies because he’s so young (and some are probably not appropriate anyway given his early trauma). How can I help him manage his behaviour and keep him (and me!) some friends?

Tuesdays Girl, adoptive mum.

Hi Tuesdays Girl.

Thanks for getting in touch.

First of all, I’m so sorry that you and your family are having these problems. Aggression like this can have such an overwhelming influence on family life and can really get adoptive parents and foster carers down. I really feel for you.

I must say that anything I write now can only be based on broad brushstrokes of how developmentally traumatised children typically present and obviously isn’t based on a comprehensive individual assessment, which might reveal other relevant factors.

You haven’t mentioned what you know about your son’s early experiences but typically this kind of behaviour is linked with an early, prolonged experience of fear e.g. physical abuse and/or exposure to domestic violence, or the lack of anyone to regulate a child’s emotion for them in infancy.

You’re absolutely right to be sceptical of typical strategies for managing this kind of behaviour if early trauma is the cause.

“No” is a very difficult word for any two-year-old but the ability to handle it (to some extent) relies on a child having three things, firstly the experience of, and expectation that there will be, plenty of “yeses” particularly given that many requests will relate to needs rather than wants. Secondly, that a child has a wide-ranging enough emotional thermostat that disappointment isn’t catastrophic. Finally, the naïve and trusting instinct to want to connect most of the time.

If your son is also doing this when he is bored then it is likely that he associates aggression with stimulation i.e. he may have had very little experience of positive, captivating stimulation and interaction.

Ok, so what can we try?

First of all, if your son or daughter or anyone else is in danger remove the danger as safely as possible by pretty much any means necessary. They, and everybody else, need you to keep them safe but your son also needs you to protect him from an identity as a bully or aggressor.

Lots of positive, rather than punitive, supervision and structure are essential, get into the mindset of mothering a newborn, lots of close contact and warm, intimate connections.

Regarding the question about how to keep some friends, it’s a very big challenge and really relies on identifying one or two compassionate families asap! If you can identify the right people then confide in them. Let them know about why the problems happen (as best as you can!), that you certainly will do everything to stop your son hurting others and that you’re working actively on it. Key to this will be finding people who can grasp that more and more punishment won’t be the effective way of achieving this.

Notice and observe your own reactions to your son’s rage. I tend to think more about rage than anger with traumatised children as it often presents as much more primitive and visceral than anger and isn’t very accessible to rational thought. Does it make you want to fight back, get angry in return or hide and protect yourself (physically and/or emotionally)? Noticing our feelings may give you an insight into the feelings your son is trying to escape with his rage. If your feelings prevent you from using the strategies that you want to, don’t beat yourself up about it. Tell someone you trust and try and park the feelings so that they don’t take over your interactions with your son.

Fundamentally the most effective strategy in the long-term will be to get across to your son the ways in which his rage makes sense. This doesn’t mean that you’re letting him off the hook but he simply won’t hear any reprimand as anything other than criticism of his character until he understands that he is not bad and that his rage comes from a dark but understandable place that is started as external to him and is now, at least in the short-term, internal to him.

You can help him understand the cause of his rage by empathising with it and commentating on where it might have come from e.g. “it’s so difficult for you when I say “No”, it feels like I’m being so unfair!” Don’t worry if you get the origin of the rage wrong, the act of trying to get inside his mind will be enormously helpful to him anyway. If nothing else he’ll have someone to hold his hand in the darkest, scariest recesses of his inner world rather than being stuck there alone.

Regarding emotional regulation, for children who seem to go from 1, on their emotional thermostat, straight up to 10 with little or no warning, practicing the mind-mindedness strategies above will help but you could also try using some rhythmical play. This can be useful in the heat of the moment and as a preventative strategy. For example jumping, marching or kicking (something safely kickable!) in time to some music or to a beat that you keep by doing the same thing too. It’s important that this is a shared activity between you (or another trusted adult) and your son. You could also try skipping, hand-clapping games or the row your boat nursery rhyme with actions. You can take your child up and down the scale of excitement and energy with these activities i.e. making sure to go very, very fast, right down to slow-motion with lots of steps in between. This will help to build up your son’s experience of levels 2-9 on his emotional thermostat whilst also giving him an experience of moderating his energy levels and emotions.

These are just a few ideas. I really hope they help.

Can you offer Tuesday’s Girl any support or suggestions? Leave your comments below.

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