Biting & Kicking & Screaming, Oh My!

A mother wrote in to Mothering.com’s Ask An Expert with an 16-month old son who is biting her, screaming, not listening, hitting, and intimidating his cousin.  My reply:

Baby Mine Letter: I certainly understand the frustration you are experiencing with some of you son’s recent behaviors. Emerging from a blissed-out infant stage into an unruly toddler stage can be downright shocking, especially, for an attachment-parenting momma. The first L.O.V.E. Parenting exercise I would recommend is to write a letter to “Baby X.” Write about your experience with him in the first year, detailing the love, harmony and tranquility you experienced with him. This letter will serve to memorialize and contain this chapter in your mothering, and help you stay connected to your son when you get frustrated and feel disconnected as a result of his defiant behavior.

Universal: It is developmentally appropriate for your son to be testing the limits, exerting his will and showcasing his independence and defiance; now comes the universal parenting challenge of honoring his spirit and expression, and yet channeling it and harnessing it where necessary so he can respect the people and places in his surroundings. So begins the social integration of your toddler…

Temperament: It may comfort you to know that while developmentally appropriate, some of what you are experiencing in Jareth is due to his temperament. Some toddlers are screamers, some are not; some scream once and some scream a lot. Screaming, biting, hitting and not listening are taxing behaviors to deal with. Take comfort that if you choose to expand your family at some point, your next child might not exhibit all the same challenges. Also, make sure to integrate self-care to fill your reserves as you are dealing with this phase. Click here for a L.O.V.E. Parenting link to self-care. As well the L.O.V.E. Parenting meditation CD could be helpful to relax, ground and center you. Click here for information about the CD.

Visceral Release: Here is the thing, if your son were being too rough while petting a cat or giving a friend a hug, you could use the “gentle touch” modeling method to teach him to use a softer touch. In these examples his emotional experience is one of joy or connection and possibly, over-excitement. When your son is angry, however, he’s not interested in the gentle touches; that will not get him to the other side of the rough emotions he is feeling. To get a child to the other side of their anger, in lue of hitting, biting, yelling, kicking, spitting, pulling, etc, you need to give him an alternative that gives him the same visceral release as the action that was working for him. There is a L.O.V.E. Parenting technique called “A Place For Angry Feelings,” offering places to put that rush of emotion instead of on an other person or destroying something valuable. Here are some ideas: Punch a pillow, dig a hole and yell into it, run a bath, build & knock over a tower, rip up paper, put on music and stomp around, spin, scribble in a journal, bang a drum, or take a run/walk/ride around the block.

Mad-Bag: Another way to get through the angry feelings and back to inner-connection and calm is with the L.O.V.E. Parenting technique called the Mad Bag. Basically, you have a special bag that contains items to honor the anger (a journal with a black crayon for scribbling, a stack of paper for ripping to shreds,) items to transition out of the angry state and then a few activities for self-soothing. Read the full post describing the Mad-Bag here: http://www.loveparentingla.com/?p=790

Set the Stage: At a time away from distress Set the Stage with your child about the situation with a L.O.V.E. Parenting technique called WEL-C, which stands for Witness, Empathy, Limit, Choice. Witness that you see how upset he has been in the various settings and that you’ve noticed by his biting/screaming/kicking how frustrated he’s seemed. Exhibit empathy as you describe an age appropriate example of a time when you felt out of control of a situation and wanted to lash out. State the limit: he may not harm others: their ear drums, their bodies, their toys, etc. Choice: this is when you offer up some of the methods from the visceral release, as well as present the Mad-Bag. Basically, you are offering a host of tools he can access himself, even at this young age. You are offering him control over his own distress and a road-map out of it.

More alternatives: Another approach is to celebrate his natural expression, while defining the limits. This looks like giving your son an opportunity to use the full range of human expression, ie. screaming and biting, but in an appropriate setting, ie, keeping bodies safe and being sensitive to the community around you. Where can he scream: out to the ocean or a rushing stream? While listening to rock and roll? Into a pillow? Digging a hole in the earth and yelling into it? Where can he hit: a pillow, a bed, or a soft-block tower? What can he bite: A blanket? A pillow? Away from the moment of distress, give him full permission to do these things. When he goes to do this when it’s harmful to others, you can draw upon the memory of the safe place to put these behaviors.

In Real-Time: Once you’ve set the stage and introduced other methods of healthy release, you have created a collective frame of reference upon which to draw. When he starts to exhibit the challenging behaviors again you can reach to the WEL-C but use quick version, as in, “Son, I see you are upset and raising your hand to strike, I get it and can relate, you may not strike me, I can give you an alternative or you can make your own choice.” It’s often good to reiterate the limit here, “but you MAY NOT hit me.”

Get out of the way! The bottom line, your son may not bite you ever again. I want you to email me in a month with zero bruises reported. Physically remove yourself out of harm’s way and stop his hand mid-strike with a firm, “you may not hit my body.” You must be that clear internally that this is an absolute, unequivocal boundary. You may redirect the punch to a soft surface or simply place his hand at his side. This will most likely take vigilance and several repeats but you must stay the course. This is challenging but not insurmountable. Your diligence in this matter will absolutely affect his outbursts with you and other children.

Social situations: once you have some of these L.O.V.E. Parenting techniques in place you will be better equipped to navigate the social situations. He will have alternatives to hitting, a place to find inner-calm, and a clear limit. In the meantime, you must be absolutely clear with your son and keep the other children safe. Keep the vision of how you want your son to behave, don’t lose faith and keep walking towards that vision.

Escalate/De-escalate: When your son is hyped up and not listening, don’t match his energy; keep your energy calm and direct. Address him with absolute knowing: “Son, you may not touch the stove, I am responsible for your safety, and you must listen to my voice.”

Stop, Look & Listen: Another listening technique is upbeat and fun: “Stop!” “Look!” “Listen!” (just as Elvis sang it :-) It is truly a quick and literal reminder for him to stop what he’s doing, look at you and listen to your voice, and then return into the swirl of play, integrating whatever instruction you needed him to hear. Have him sing “Stop! Look! Listen!” (any melody will do) at a time when the listening isn’t an issue; this makes it easier to access the desired response later.

Spanking: It is crucial hat you never spank your child. I know that you said that you “don’t spank, although we have resorted to it a couple of times.” Please know that I have compassion for you and I know how frustrating it can be, but I am responding to the red flag that the stress of the situation is getting the better of you and you are occasionally doing something (spanking) that you don’t believe in. Here is one link of many that speaks to the many negative aspects of spanking and child development. http://www.naturalchild.org/jan_hunt/tenreasons.html. At the very least, as you already know, spanking your son undermines your attempts to teach him to redirect his own explosive energy and impulses.

Alternatives For You: Here are some practices that might help you to manage your own frustration in lue of spanking: a quick audible breath, a long, audible breath, a clap, three claps, an energetic hand shake (like shaking water from your hands,) an operatic “Ah!” or turning around slowly in a full circle (this lets you temporarily “leave” the situation while remaining physically present.) Integrate these actions for yourself and make a vow today that you and your husband will never spank again.

Email me to sign up for my E-zine with new articles and techniques so you can stay in the loop. I also have a L.O.V.E. Parenting Technique CD with parenting visualizations, meditations, affirmations and techniques; it is relaxing, informative and uplifting; it may be of benefit for you. If you want more depth and support you can always contact me for a private coaching session.

All the best,

Jessica

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Jessica Williams

About Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams created L.O.V.E. Parenting with a series of techniques for effective communication, deepened connection and more joy in parenting and life. Jessica is also the creator of www.UltimateParentingCourse.com with the best of today’s progressive parenting experts together in one program. Jessica is a featured expert internationally on both Mothering.com’s Ask An Expert and the upcoming www.KidsInTheHouse.com. Jessica is a regular contributor to Mothering Magazine’s All Things Mothering, LA Parent Magazine, LA Mom Magazine & DailyBuzzMoms. She has been interviewed on television and radio and taught workshops at family wellness centers, schools and doctor’s offices. Her BirthKit has helped women have a transformational & empowering birth. Jessica maintains a private coaching practice in her native Los Angeles where she lives with her husband and their three children. “Truly amazing woman. I love her advice.”—Carrie-Anne Moss. “All you have shared has helped tremendously.”—Lisa Bonet. “I am experiencing nothing short of a miracle thanks to your laser beam approach.” –Andrea Bendewald.