Guest post: Verbal and physical aggression - how you can improve challenging behaviour
I'm the @ParentingAdvisor on Scope's community. I run Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and can give you advice on anything behavior-related to help you with your child.
If your disabled child or teenager often lashes out in
anger, either verbally or physically, you might be feeling frustrated and worried. You may be concerned for your own safety and
that of siblings; you may also be wondering how your child will cope in later
life if they continue
s to be so reactive. Thankfully, there
is a lot that parents can do to improve very
challenging behaviour. You don't need to live with aggression.
Some children are quite easy-going by temperament. They do most of what they’re supposed to do without making much of a fuss about it, and they accept changes to their routine without becoming too upset.
Other children have a more extreme temperament. They are more sensitive and reactive, easily bothered by little things that another child might easily brush off. They are often very intense, given to big reactions. They tend to be impulsive, speaking or acting before they have had time to think about the possible consequences. They may also be inflexible; if they expect something to be a certain way, they get upset when it turns out differently. And of course, any special need or disability your child has is likely to add a huge amount of anger and anxiety into the mix.
Do these characteristics describe your son or daughter? Unfortunately, there's no magic wand to turn a child with a tricky temperament into one who’s easy-going. But there are many things you can do to help keep your child’s mood and behaviour more stable, even if they have a condition that can make life more difficult.
Of course parents want to know what to do in the heat of the moment to stop aggression. I will answer that question in a later blog post, but today I want to explain how we can prevent a lot of the aggressive behaviour from happening in the first place. So please bear with me; focusing on prevention usually improves even very challenging behaviour quite quickly.
Following prevention strategies won't be a walk in the park, but the results will be worth the effort because family life will become significantly calmer, easier and happier.
The importance of sleep
1. Getting enough sleep is very important; it will help your child feel better and behave better. Make sure they’re going to bed early enough. Most children up to the age of eight still need twelve hours’ sleep. Children from nine to 12 years old need at least eleven hours of sleep a night, although they often don’t get that much. Teenagers need between nine and 10 hours of sleep, although they think they don’t. If your child makes a fuss at bedtime, dawdles, or if they have difficulty falling asleep, start the bedtime routine much earlier. That way even with delays or time-wasting they will still be getting to sleep at the right time.
Get some exercise
2. All children need daily exercise to burn off their natural energy. If they don’t get enough exercise they often become moody, irritable and resistant to following the usual routines. You may have a child whose disability makes it difficult for them to get enough exercise, especially if they use a wheelchair or have problems with coordination. If you’re wondering how to do this, I would be happy to talk with you about it.
Cut out all the sugar
3. Sugar and refined carbohydrates (especially any products with white flour) often make children more moody, angry and oppositional, especially children who are starting out with a more extreme temperament. I recommend removing all sweet foods and refined carbohydrates for a month to see what results you get. If you’re worried about doing this, please do check first with your GP or specialist.
Low blood sugar is often the cause of mood swings, non-cooperation and tantrums. This is particularly true of children who, due to a medical condition such as cerebral palsy, might be more sedentary. Make sure that your son or daughter has a meal or a healthy snack every three hours throughout the day. Each of those meals or snacks should include some protein, some fibre and some complex carbohydrates for energy, but no refined carbohydrates. Children with autism may be very sensitive to certain tastes, smells and textures, and this can make it difficult to feed them a balanced diet. If you’re having problems with this I would be happy to give you some ideas on how to help your child gradually get used to foods that, until now they have rejected.
Step away from the screens
4. Too much time in front of a screen often makes children angry, reactive and uncooperative. My guidelines for screen time may not be what you want to hear! Below the age of three years old any exposure to screens can negatively affect mood and behaviour. Between the ages of three and eight I recommend no more than half an hour a day of leisure screen time (television, computer, tablet, Xbox, mobile phone, etc). For ages eight and older, I recommend one hour a day of leisure screen time.
If your children are in the habit of having a lot more screen time than the amount I recommend, you may find that in the first week or two of this new limit on electronics they may be even angrier! Stay strong because your children will get used to the new rules, and soon you’ll see the benefits.
Children with disabilities or special needs may become dependent on screens if they are not easily able to entertain themselves in more active ways. You may need to teach your child how to occupy himself during the times when screen time is not an option and no one is available to be with him. If you have questions about this, I would be glad to give you some suggestions.
These are a few of the strategies that many parents have used to successfully guide children and teens to become less angry and reactive, more cooperative and more respectful. But as the parent of a disabled child, you may be feeling overwhelmed. It’s very easy to allow feelings like guilt to keep you from establishing, and then following through on, routines and rules about sleep, nutrition, exercise and electronics. If you’re not sure how you could put these strategies into practice, I would be glad to talk you through how you might be able to.
This is the first of several blog posts where I will share practical and effective ideas for improving even very challenging behaviour. I also invite you to visit the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting website and browse our free resources for parents.