Dear Miss Faith,
I care for a little boy of 24 months. His parents are having big relationship problems, and this sweet little boy has suddenly become very aggressive, hitting me and the other kids I care for many times each day. I have tried telling him “Gentle hands!” and I help him touch gently, but it is not working at all. I’m losing my patience and the other children are starting to be scared of him. How can I teach him kindness and kind touch again?
That poor little guy. My heart goes out to him and to all of you. And of course, your first commitment is to keep all of the children in your care safe. Stronger measures than “gentle hands” are clearly needed, but it’s important to keep in contact with your warmth and compassion too. Here are a few ideas for you.
I Won’t Let You Hurt Me
When a child is hurting others because he feels out of control of himself and his emotions, using the phrase “I won’t let you hurt me” (or, “I won’t let you hurt your friend”) can be a strong, reassuring message. Many thanks to Janet Lansbury for sharing that phrase with me through her wonderful blog, Elevating Child Care. Then, pick that little boy up and hold him in a loving embrace until he calms down. If he struggles, try giving long, firm strokes down his arms or along his spine; this can can be very grounding for children. Imagine his frantic energy pouring out of his body and being absorbed into the ground, or into your calm, adult body.
Once he relaxes into you, you can say, “I KNOW you are kind boy. Are your hands ready to be gentle again?” If he responds in the affirmative, you might say, “Oh, good! Let’s try again.” Rather than just letting him loose, however, help him find something engaging to do. Stay nearby, and as soon as he is aggressive again, repeat the whole cycle. The more calm, compassionate, and consistent you can remain, the more quickly he’ll be able to let go of that behavior.
If he responds that his hands are NOT ready to be gentle again, this is not defiance! Rather, it is a call for more connection. Bring him back into your embrace and give him more strokes and snuggles. Then ask him again. If he says no again, continue but make it a little silly: perhaps you begin to bounce him on your knee, or speak in a funny voice, or have your fingers start walking down his arms instead of the firm strokes. Sing a funny little song, make eye contact with him, use as many elements of SMILE as you can. When he is warm and relaxed again, you might say, “There, NOW you’re ready! Let’s head to the play kitchen!”
The Secrets of Self-Regulation
When children get trapped in a cycle of negative behavior, it can spiral downward. We stop enjoying them, and more and more of our interactions become negative. The last thing we want is for a child to internalize the message that they are a “bad kid.” And indeed, chronic negative behavior on the part of the young child is truly not a choice, it is a compulsion. According to early childhood researcher Martha Bronson, children gain the abilities needed for self-regulation through three things:
- Stable relationships with loving adults,
- Consistent routines, and
- Nurturing environments
With so much inconsistency at home, this little boy needs extra support while in your care. If you want to support him in his ability to control his urges, you must work on being compassionate, consistent, and kind. One way to let a child know that his behavior is not a fundamental part of his character (and to remind yourself as well) is to blame his hands for the actions. “Oh no, those hands are acting up again.” “Are your hands ready to be gentle?”
Ramp Up the Positive Attention
Whenever you increase your disciplinary measures, it’s important to increase your acts of affection in equal measure if you possibly can. More easily said than done when a child is stuck in hurtful behaviors, I know! If you’ve employed the technique above and it feels like you’re doing very little aside from going through this ritual again and again, start initiating connecting interactions without waiting for the negative behavior to spark it.
“Those poor hands, they’re having such a hard time being gentle this morning,” you might say. “Let’s find some good work for those hands to do.” You might then have him do some ‘hard work’ (washing dishes is a good activity to prevent aggression), or you might encourage those hands to do a helping activity (find a toy to offer another child, for example, or he could help serve a meal).
Alternatively, if you need to reconnect to your own compassion, do something sweet and caring for his hands, to help them remember to be gentle. For example, you could get a bowl of warm water and some sweet-smelling soap. “Come here, sweet hands. Let me give you a warm massage.” Have him relax his hands in the water, and hold them softly, massaging them gently with soap. Rinse them and rub some lotion in. “This will help your hands feel better.” Wrap him up in a warm hug. You’ll get through this!
Warmly, ~Miss Faith
Learn more about research-based ways to support children in learning to handle their emotions and impulses in my book, Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers: Create A Life that You and Your Child Both Love. Go to Amazon for the reviews, then buy it from my website!