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Dr. Laura. In a recent thread you said:

post #1 of 6
Thread Starter 

You said:


She has big feelings that scare her, and that are hard for her to control.  When they bubble up, she fends them off by lashing out.  Since you are the person she is closest to, you're the object of her aggression.




If she continues to try to hurt you, hold her with her back to you, with your arms around her. This mostly protects you from her.  Be as gentle as possible.  Keep your voice calm and soothing.  When she objects, say "I will just hold you to keep us both safe.  You can show me all those feelings." You are giving her a safe "holding" environment so she can get those feelings out and move past them.


Almost certainly, she will struggle and get sweaty and red-faced and yell.  This is what it looks like when kids release fear.  That may feel scary, but remind yourself that you are helping your daughter to let her fear out.  This could take half an hour, which could feel endless, so keep breathing and reminding yourself that you're helping your daughter to "show you" her fear.  "




How is this more gentle or educational than "You can hit me, or get grounded. You choose."?


Is restraint more gentle than allowing a child to choose between self control and freaking out?


Do you not think being restrained for up to half an hour can serve as an aversive stimuli?



post #2 of 6
Thread Starter 

I mean, I had a kid who was AP'ed from birth, but qualified as ODD at almost 5. And restraint TERRIFIED him at 4 and 5.


The "threat" of being grounded, on the other hand, he saw as a choice (if he refused to go to a 2 second "time out".).

He started choosing to chill out, and choosing to not tantrum. (with non-punitive timeouts, btw.)

More about non-punitive time out here:


post #3 of 6
Thread Starter 

Uuhh...is my thread unlocked now?


Anyway, I don't see 30 minutes of terrifying restraint with a kid who is freaking out, frightened, thinking you're trying to kill them, etc as more gentle than letting a kid choose between hitting you/trashing their room and being grounded for the morning/afternoon/day.


I think that kind of restraint is probably functionally a punishment, and a really ungentle one at that.


Is my opinion at odds with science?

post #4 of 6

Mamakay-  Sorry I haven't been able to answer.  For some reason, this thread was locked and I had no access to it.


I totally see your point.  You say that if your son attacked you physically (as the original poster's daughter did), that it would not have worked for you to restrain him, even to keep him from hitting you.  That would have heightened his fear, rather than helped him feel safe.


I think that response is not unusual with a child who has been diagnosed with ODD, and I would be very careful about using such a practice with a child who was that oppositional.  Kids with ODD, for whatever reason, are not feeling as connected to us as they need to, and our focus has to be on building the relationship, including the safety.  I would obviously not let the child hurt me, but I would not hold him to keep him from doing so, either, because it would make him feel less safe. 


In the letter to which you refer, the child does not qualify as ODD, and the poster says that she and her daughter have a close relationship.  that child is NOT generally oppositional, and in fact is not physically lashing out at anyone except her mother, so there is not generalized aggression, either.  When the aggression is solely focused on the primary caregiver whom the child trusts, I see it as a cry for help, a red flag that the child can't manage some scary emotions and needs our help with them.  In those cases, I think the shortest path to helping that child with her fear is as I have described, because it helps her feel safe enough to surface the fear and move beyond it.  However, I appreciate your raising this issue, and I have gone back and added more to my answer to account for a negative reaction from the child -- and from the parent.  Some parents would not feel comfortable holding their child even to keep her from hitting them, and obviously, this would not work for them.   


If it works to set a limit -- "Please don't hit me, I don't hit you" -- and the child stops hitting, then obviously it is not necessary to do what I have described, but I would still try to take the child on my lap to help him with whatever feelings were driving him to hit me.  I would also do this with other forms of acting out, such as throwing his plate across the room, or screaming at me.  But I would only "restrain" him if I needed to, to stop him from hitting me.  And I would never hold him if it seemed to be making him panic, as you have described.


In my experience, most young children respond positively to this approach, and are even excited when parents offer them a safe place to "show" their emotions. It seems as if they hit us to get our attention, but once we are attending they stop hitting.  They quickly stop hitting and begin crying, letting out the feelings that they have been signaling with their aggression need to come out.  And they often ask to be held during this process because it makes them feel safer -- not verbally, but by threatening to hit us if we let them go!  They often do like to struggle against us, but if that feels too unsafe to us, they are often satisfied if we hold up a couch pillow and they struggle against the pillow.  In other words, children are grateful for this opportunity to "vent" and are not actually trying to hurt us.  It is our job to keep the interaction feeling safe for both of us while these big feelings come up.  After a good cry, they are so loving, so cooperative, that it is clear to any parent that something transformative has happened.


In my experience, this is NOT necessary as an ongoing approach (the way timeouts are).  It is remedial, in the sense that we are going back and helping our child with feelings that have gotten stuck; that for whatever reason, she did not feel safe showing us, so they are now getting in her way and pushing her into behavior that she would like not to choose.  So often kids will do this once or twice a week for a few weeks, and after that they stop.  Because they have melted the aggressive defenses, they don't need to use them.  Instead, they may begin to act out verbally, and when we respond with empathy, they move right into tears. They trust that we will help them with their feelings.


As far as timeouts go, Alfie Kohn cites a number of studies that show they aren't good for kids in developing emotional intelligence or in encouraging them to take responsibility for their own emotions and actions.  Unfortunately, timeouts don't get to the feelings beneath the aggression, and thus the parent has to keep using them over a period of time.


I know that many parents respond to their child's aggression by removing themselves, for instance by going into another room and closing the door.  I can't say I blame them, if it makes them feel safer.  And it is preferable to engaging in a physical struggle with a child who is hitting us, if we can't stay calm and hold our child through the outburst to keep us both safe.  But most parents find that the child NEEDS the engagement, and beats on the door.  When kids have big feelings coming up is when they most need our help.


My biggest concern about shutting a child in his room to calm down is that it triggers the child's panic about abandonment.  Essentially, when we remove ourselves, we give our child the message that we cannot deal with his big feelings, and he is not ok if he has them.  If he wants our love, he had better just swallow them and shut them down.  The problem is that feelings that are repressed that way are always bubbling below the surface, pushing against us, looking for a way out.  And they are below conscious control, so they push us to make choices that later make us wonder "What on earth was I thinking?"  In order to keep repressed emotions inside, we often resort to what I call "little addictions"  -- food, shopping, tv. 


So I would never banish a child to his room in a timeout, to subdue his feelings.  Instead I would always stay with him while he rages, empathizing as best as I can to help him feel safe. 


But while I do not fully agree with your approach, I agree that my letter needed revising, not so much for the original poster, but for others following the advice in their own families.  I very much appreciate your raising this issue, and your notes prompted me to add these two caveats to my original response:


The second caveat is about your feelings.  If your feelings are so triggered by being attacked by your child that you feel angry, then you cannot hold her in a loving way.  This is never a punishment, it is only to keep her from hitting you.  BUT if you are triggered, and angry, then she will pick that up and it will keep her from feeling safe, and defeat the whole purpose.  So when you find yourself triggered, don't hold her.  Just keep breathing and working to regulate your own emotions and muster as much empathy as you can verbally.  When she lashes out, keep yourself from getting hurt.  You can usually establish a verbal bridge with your child so that she feels supported enough to move through her fear.  So never hold a child to keep her from hitting you if you are getting angry.  It is far better to leave the room than to find yourself in an angry physical interaction with your child. 


The final caveat is about your child.  You know your daughter better than anyone else.  If she tries to hit you and you hold her to keep her from hurting you, all the while talking soothingly to her, that will usually help her feel safer and move her past her anger and into her fear and tears.  BUT if it triggers her and makes her feel less safe, you will see that.  Your goal is a sense of safety, not punishment, ever.  So trust your own instincts.  If this does not work for your child, don't do it.  The last thing I want to suggest is something that makes your child feel unsafe.  For kids to feel a sense of safety in such a situation, they usually need us to spend daily time with them simply connecting, so they deeply trust us and our commitment to supporting them.  (More on that Special Time below.)  You say you have an excellent, close relationship with your daughter, so I think she will feel safer if you hold her to keep her from hitting you.  BUT if not, stop.  Spend a few weeks connecting as described below.  Then you can try this again to see if it works for her.   The bottom line is to trust your own instincts.  When kids lash out physically, it is harder to keep ourselves safe without holding our child, but it can be done, and eventually they will still get to the same place of getting past their anger to surface and let go of their tears and fears.


You asked about science.  There is certainly a great deal of research (John Gottman being a good source, and the foundations of Attachment research also) that supports the fact that emotional intelligence in children starts with parental soothing and continues to develop when parents accept the full range of the child's emotions.  That full acceptance is part of what creates a secure attachment, and we have decades of research showing that securely attached kids do better in every way. 


So that supports staying with children's emotions with empathy, as opposed to sending them to timeout to repress them.  However, there is also ample research that the parent's ability to regulate her own emotions is fundamental to the child's ability to do so.  If the course of action I have described triggers the parent so she can't stay calm, then it won't be much use to the child.  All parents need to develop their own ways of regulating their emotions, whether that means venting to a nonjudgmental friend, journaling, meditating, or exercising.


My experience is that about half of all kids seem to be fine with conventional parenting approaches including timeouts.  They may have difficult teen years, but they end up doing ok, as long as the parents are basically loving and emotionally regulated.  On the other hand, about half of all kids have a harder time, for a range of reasons.  These kids need extra help from us to learn to process their emotions.  The first step is to ACCEPT their emotions, and to help them feel safe to "show" them to us.  


Of course, record numbers of adults in this country are taking prozac and other psycho-pharmaceuticals, and we don't yet know how our parenting approaches are related to the epidemic of anxiety and depression among adults in this country. I suspect that AP practices and parenting for emotional intelligence will produce more adults who are able to manage their moods and feelings without medication, but we have no proof of that yet in longitudinal studies.


Again, I really appreciate your helping me clarify this approach so it's more helpful to my readers.  Thanks so much!

post #5 of 6
Thread Starter 

Dr. Laura,

Thank you so much for your comprehensive reply.


For what it's worth, my own challenging kid was not diagnosed with ODD, but only because he was still 4, and our FP wasn't comfortable with referring kids that young out. But according to what I've read, some psychologists are fine with dx'ing a kid as young as 4 as ODD, and some don't till ages 5, 6, or 7.

To be completely honest, I was scared that my kid who was still tantruming and attacking me at 4, might be diagnosed as "pediatric bipolar" at 5 or 6. It's not that uncommon that kids raised "anti-consequence/punishment" later get diagnosed with pediatric bipolar, meds and all. That seems to me to be the dark underbelly of the anti-consequence AP world.

Of course, these challenging kids could also go to an OT and get dx'ed as SID, or sent to an expert in attachment theory and get dx'ed as having an attachment issue. It was very "choose your own adventure" for a minute there when he was 4.



As far as timeouts go, Alfie Kohn cites a number of studies that show they aren't good for kids in developing emotional intelligence or in encouraging them to take responsibility for their own emotions and actions. 


Have you critically checked Kohn and read the original research he cites? I have, and his definition of "coercion" is way different than how the people he's citing define it, iirc.




My biggest concern about shutting a child in his room to calm down is that it triggers the child's panic about abandonment.  Essentially, when we remove ourselves, we give our child the message that we cannot deal with his big feelings, and he is not ok if he has them.  If he wants our love, he had better just swallow them and shut them down



I have never locked my kid in a room for more than minutes for the same reason that I've never restrained him for more than minutes - it really, genuinely freaks him out. That said, my kid has willingly gone to his room (under the threat of grounding) as early as almost 5 years old. He's a really wonderful almost 8 year old now, by the way. Yes, I probably sent the message that he had to learn to control his feelings. And he learned to control them. What is evil about that?

post #6 of 6

I guess the question you and I are exploring here is how young humans learn to manage their emotions, which is what allows them to manage their behavior.  That is the goal all of us are after, right? 


Humans are born unable to regulate many of our physical and psychological systems.  Many of us, maybe most of us, are lucky enough to have a good enough combination of genetics, prenatal environment, and early responsive-enough parenting.  Those factors combine to shape our neural wiring.  When we are soothed, the neural wiring is built and repeatedly reinforced so that we learn to soothe ourselves.  The research on this is still in its infancy, but is very clear -- we learn to regulate ourselves emotionally in the context of our intimate relationships.  This is not just a psychological learning, but a physical one.  The brain and nervous system take shape depending on our interaction with the environment.


Some of us are born a bit different, genetically speaking.  Some of us get flooded with stress hormones in the womb.  Some of us don't get the responsive parenting we all need.  For whatever reason, some young humans reach age four without the ability to soothe themselves, which is the essential first step to regulate their own emotions. 


SO what do we do with a child who is four and is attacking us?  We teach him to soothe himself and restore himself to regulation.  Sometimes to do that he needs to cry first, and often to get to those tears, we need to go through some rage, which is a natural defense.  But then we need to be there to soothe him, so he increasingly learns to soothe himself.  That deep healing takes place in the context of relationship. 


So there is nothing evil about asking our child to learn to control his feelings so that he can engage appropriately with us and others.  If he is able to do that, he does.  Sometimes kids are NOT able to do that on their own, so they continue to act out.  In those cases, as with the original poster who spurred this discussion, those kids need more help --both with expressing their emotions and being heard, and with being soothed.  Some kids who are sent off alone to calm down DO learn to calm their emotions by themselves, but those repressed feelings then pop out, as repressed emotions often do, and the child develops other symptoms --anxiety, biting her nails, nightmares, hitting his brother.  In my experience, kids whose parents don't accept their emotions are the ones who act out as teenagers, when the risks are much higher.  So I always recommend that parents instead simply help kids with their emotions when they are very small, which is more emotionally healthy.  I see this as a "time in" rather than a "time out" because the child is not left alone. 


You say that your son has been able to learn to regulate his emotions on his own.  I would argue that you're a sensitive and involved mom, and that you were very involved in his learning.  Regardless, I'm delighted to hear that he's grown from a difficult four year old into a wonderful eight year old, and that his learning to manage his emotions did not cause him to develop other "symptoms."  Many four year olds are really difficult, and the parents of those four year olds need to know that they can love their child through that difficult stage, and that he will, within a few years, become a wonderful kid who can manage his feelings and his behavior.  Thanks for this thread!


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