Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Correction for Aggression and Loss of Self-Control

Much of the following is from Taking Charge by Joanne Nordling (SYBYL Publications, 1999).

Aggressive behaviors are actions that deliberately try to hurt, either physically or emotionally. Children are being aggressive, for example, when they destroy objects in a room, bite, spit in people's faces, fling themselves around the room knocking things over and bumping into people, or bang their heads against a wall. It is aggressive behavior when children seem to lose all inner controls by going into a rage and hurting themselves or others. Aggressive behavior can also be carried out in a more controlled way, for example, if the child deliberately tries to humiliate or hurt someones feelings, or tickles someone for sustained periods of time, or tells a lie in which the goal is to get even and hurt another person.

The basic correction for aggressive behavior is the Time-out. Time-outs are different from the either-or choice that was described earlier as part of the ignoring correction. At first blush, the either-or choice and the time-out seem similar. If you tell a child, “You can either be quiet during this TV program or you can go be noisy in your bedroom,” it seems much the same as saying, “Go to your bedroom and take a five-minute time-out.” But they are not the same. There are important differences. The child who makes the either-or choice to go to the bedroom rather than stay by the television and be noisy, is free to leave the bedroom whenever he or she chooses a different behavior. That is, as soon as the child is quiet, he or she is free to come back to the living room. But children may not leave time-out when­ever they choose. They must abide by the time frame laid down by the adult for the time-out procedure.

Like the other three corrections, time-out is not a punishment. Its purpose is to stop the misbehavior, get the adult back in control of the situation, and the child back in control of himself.

Here are the guidelines for administering the basic Time-Out.
1. Time-outs are different for children two years old and under

For the very young child, for example, an eighteen month old who is whacking big brother with a toy shovel, the best tactic is simply to say, “No hurting other people,” as you pick the child up and carry him or her to a play pen for a one minute time-out.  If a young child bites you or pulls your hair, say in a strong voice, “No. People are not for biting.” If the child does it again, once more say, "No.” And put the child down. The consequence of being put down is a powerful reminder that if you want to be with people, you cannot hurt them. If a two year old is whining, you can place your child in their crib for two minutes and say “No whining.” When you get them say “happy mood” and take them out.  If they show a happy mood, give them immediate positive attention, if they continue to whine, repeat the process. It may take a few days, but two year olds can learn that whining is not appropriate.
2. Act the first time you see the aggressive behavior
You learned the value of not procrastinating in the section on self­ sabotage. Aggressive behavior especially should be dealt with immediately because every child needs to know that deliberate hurting is never allowed.
3. Time-out should be short
For the preschooler, sitting quietly for three to five minutes is usually enough to stop the behavior and calm things down. For older children, one minute for every year of their age is a reasonable rule. Making the child sit quietly for unreasonable lengths of time is punitive and will escalate a power struggle. Children quickly need another chance to try a different way of behaving. Excessively prolonged time­outs result in increased power struggles that sabotage the learning of responsible behavior.

4. Time-out should happen in a place where there is nothing interesting to do

A child's bedroom is generally not a good time-out place because it is filled with interesting things to do. The bottom step of a stairway in the front hall is good. Or you can use a chair in some part of the room out of sight of the television, where there are no books or toys. Keep in mind this is not a shaming, punishing exercise like sitting in a corner with a dunce cap on your head. The idea is to find an uninteresting place for the child to sit. If you are in a public place, the child can stand by a wall or sit on the floor. The basic idea is that there should be no social interaction and nothing interesting to do. Time­out means just that: taking time out from all other activities.

5. Use as little talking as possible
Simply say, “Time-out.”  Remember the effectiveness of one-word or two-word statements.

6. As soon as the child is seated, quietly set a timer

If you do not already have a simple kitchen timer, buy one or more, it is an essential tool for the job of parenting. Set the timer and put it down near the child. Say, “You must sit quietly for five minutes.” Then walk away and continue to carry out your normal routine.

7. If the child fusses or does not stay in the chair, use the physical assist

If the child argues, complains, or bangs the chair around during the time-out period, go back to where the child is seated, reset the timer and say, “No. I said sit quietly for five minutes.” If the child does not stay seated quietly or attempts to run, use a physical assist. Go stand behind the child, with the palm of one hand on his or her shoulder while the palm of the other hand presses down at the base of the child's neck, securely holding the child down in the chair. Say, “No. You must sit quietly.” It is important for you to practice this physical assist with another adult before you try it with a child. Pressing down with the open hand just below the child's neck should feel secure and calming to the child. If it does not, you are probably digging in with your fingers or pressing down too hard. Keep experimenting with the other adult until you have taught each other how to do it. Do not use more force than necessary. Do not hurt the child. Release your hold as soon as you feel the child stop the struggle.

When the child is quiet and stops struggling, restart the timer and walk away. Occasionally, a child will fight the time-out procedure for a long time. Be prepared to stick with this for an hour or all evening if necessary. If you do not sabotage yourself, children will generally only test you at such an intense level one or two times. If you are firm and consistent, they will feel safe with you. If they know what the limits are, and they know the limits are fair, they will not continue to test them.

One last admonition: Using the physical assist by holding the child in a time-out place can turn into a power struggle if you let yourself become emotional about it. If you find yourself using the time-out correction more and more, instead of less and less, you and the child are caught up in a power struggle. You need to go to another adult who is familiar with these corrections to help you figure out how you are sabotaging yourself.

8. If the child loses all self control, use the physical restraint

The following is Joanne Nordling’s person experience:
When I was working as an intern at the Children's Psychiatric Day Treatment Center at the University of Oregon, I had to put an extremely aggressive ten-year-old boy in time-out. As sometimes hap­pens with very angry children, he exploded with rage. The only way I could make him stay in time-out was to wrestle him to the ground and sit with my back against the wall, my legs wrapped around his legs, holding his back against my front. I crossed his arms in front of his chest and held on. He was strong and I had to hold on to him with all the strength l could muster. When he relaxed, l relaxed any hold on him. When he started to struggle, I tightened my grip. We sat there on the floor for over an hour until he finally sat quietly for five minutes. It was one of the longest hours of my life. But from that day on, he was my friend, and he never seriously disobeyed me again. I was astonished at his positive reaction. He did not seem to feel demeaned, probably because, interspersed between our long silences, l also made an attempt to respect and listen to his feelings. “I know this is hard for you. It is hard for me too.”

Fortunately, these occasions arise only rarely. Still, it is good to know how to do it if the need ever does arise. Feeling safe is one of the most basic of human needs. Do not hesitate to hold children securely if they explode out of the boundary of self-control. Let children gain the security they need from the strong and matter-of-fact way your body holds them. Your own physical size and strength is obviously the limiting factor that will deter­mine the size of child you can hold in this way.

No child feels good about losing his or her inner control. Even though it happens only rarely, you will feel more confident if you are prepared for the rare instances you need to help a child regain inner control.

9. When the time-out is over, do not mention the negative behavior again

Time-out is not a punishment. It is a way to temporarily help you stop the misbehavior and help the child get back in control. Once the incident is over, begin giving positive attention for neutral and positive behaviors. In the same way you would give children a chance to get right back into a canoe if they tip it over, so children need to be given the chance to immediately resume normal behaviors in order to experience success in their interactions with you. As soon as they are exhibiting positive or neutral behaviors, let them know by your positive attentions that you care about them. It was their behavior you did not like.


If children are frequently acting out in aggressive ways, you can be certain they are responding to some deep hurt which they perceive has been done to them. Children who continually lash out at the world in aggressive ways are acting on an instinctual premise that they must protect their inner core of integrity. They have come to believe that their best defense is a strong offense. It may not be clear to you right now, but invariably, every child who frequently feels compelled to manipulate or hurt others is doing it from a need to secure himself or herself from further physical or emotional hurt. In order to help the child, you need to know how the child perceives his or her world. Listen to the child.

Besides listening to the child, talk to other adults who know the child. Talk about the problem with your spouse. Talk it over with the teacher or members of your family. Ask each other the question. “What has hurt Marty so much that she feels the need to hurt and manipulate others?” If you can discover what it is, you will better know what kinds of specific positive attentions you can give Marty to help her feel safe enough, so she will not have to keep lashing out at other people. The problem is that children cannot verbalize their unmet needs. Often parents and teachers cannot figure it out without the help of a professional counselor. If after you have tried everything suggested, and nothing changes, it is time to look for such a person.

It is sometimes hard to figure out whether a misbehavior is self­-indulgent or aggressive. If your gut reaction is one of shock and hurt because you believe the behavior was meant to really harm or manipulate, or if you sense the child is not just having it temper tantrum but has lost control of himself, use the time-out. If you are experiencing extreme irritation with the behavior, and believe it is primarily a bid for attention, treat it as a self-­indulgent behavior.

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