Violent Kids Aren’t Being Mean, They’re Struggling to Communicate

Fatherly's resident parenting expert talks about getting violent children to practice a better way and getting connected to kids by disconnecting from the phone.

Originally Published: 
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My 28-month baby girl recently became quite aggressive. She takes every opportunity to strike out at mum or I. I’m a full-time dad and a mum works shift work. Cheers for any tips.


Gold Coast, Queensland


Congratulations, Jamie, your child has discovered her desire for independence. That’s actually a pretty good sign. Unfortunately, the problem appears to be that she’s having trouble explaining what she needs. And that’s rough. Luckily, you can help her communicate her frustration in a way that doesn’t hurt you, your partner, or anybody’s feelings.

The frustration of having a child that behaves violently is notable. It feels personal. It’s not. And importantly, you’re not the only one who is frustrated. While it seems like you two-year-old is way more sophisticated than she once was, she likely still struggling with the language. The inability to adequately explain her needs, whether emotional or physical, can cause her to lash out. In the end, that’s what captures your attention and concern.

Unfortunately, the violence causes a chain reaction that reinforces her behavior. For one thing, she gets a reaction. If she didn’t, the behavior wouldn’t continue and she would change tactics. But also, in becoming violent as a reaction to frustration, she is strengthening pathways in her brain that lead to the violent response. She is essentially practicing the violent behavior and simply getting better at it.

Yes, that sounds frightening. And you’d be justified in that fear if it didn’t also give you a clue as to how to solve the problem. Your daughter has been practicing violence. What you and your partner need to do is help her practice a more appropriate reaction.

Dr. Larry Kazdin, who heads the Yale Parenting Center, suggests the focused practice of an appropriate response is really the best way to change these kinds of behaviors. Because, the fact is, that skills need to be practiced. As he explains it, you wouldn’t tell a pilot how to fly in an emergency and simply expect them to perform in an actual emergency just based on what you told them to do. That’s why pilots have flight simulators.

Your daughter’s not a pilot, but she could benefit from simulation too. Here’s what you can do. Figure out what it is that sets her off. And then, when she’s not in crisis ask her to play a game with you where you pretend you’re in a similar situation. But instead of hitting you’re going to have her yell into a pillow or stop a foot, or something more along those lines. Then, you role play. Remind her that it all pretend. But simulate the situation that makes her mad and praise her for giving you the better, appropriate response. Practice over and over.

This will actually help her rewire her brain so that the response becomes more appropriate. But, again, it takes consistent practice.

While you’re doing this, you need to make sure that you’re also praising her during the day when she doesn’t respond violently. Notice the good behavior any chance you can, Call it out and praise her for it. You’ll notice there are probably tons of times in the day you can do this. It will help.

Finally, you need to keep your own response to adversity and frustration in check. She’s learning by watching you. If your response to frustration or her violence is measured and calm. She’ll start understanding there are better ways to deal with adversity.

Being an independent kid is awesome. You just have to give her the right tools. You can do it!

Hey Fatherly,

When I get home from work, I only have a couple of hours before the kids who are 4 and 6 go to bed. I take time on my commute to de-stress, but I still have trouble connecting with my son and daughter. Can I make getting home more fun for everyone?


Cheyenne, Wyoming


There’s really only one way to solve this problem once and for all,: Stop going to work. Easy! But, on the off chance that you enjoy what you do for a living as much as I enjoy what I do for a living, then I’m happy to offer some tips on getting back to fatherhood after work.

So, what’s really great is that you’re already using your commute to decompress. That’s some pro-level fathering right there, and honestly the very first step to getting back into the family grove. The second step should occur the second your foot hits the threshold of your home: turn off your phone.

Look. You don’t have to keep it off for the entire night. You just have to keep it off until bedtime. Because that screen probably comes between you and your kids more often than you’d like. And if you’re throwing up digital walls the second you come home, nobody’s going to connect in real life.

Once your phone is off, I’d like you to work with your kids to create a kind of welcome home ritual — some kind of silly dance, or high five, or song that signals “Dad’s home!” in a joyous way. That way, even if the day has really beat you up, you have a way of literally shaking it off as soon as you come home. This ritual will give you a kind of muscle memory that will kick your brain into dad mode. It will help.

Next, feel free to get physical. Hugs help. So does wrestling. Find a place and get down on the ground with your kids for a bit. Toss them around. The connection here isn’t just physical. It will help your mood too.

Also, don’t let home life separate you. If you have things to do around the house, like cooking or tidying, enlist a kid to help out. This will keep them close and teach them about responsibility at the same time. You and your kid both will feel more connected to each other and more grounded in the house.

Finally, just put a smile on your face. Even if you’re not feeling smiley. Research shows that the simple act of smiling can go a long way to improving your mood. Plus, your kids will likely follow your lead.

Putting your phone down and your best face forward, man. That’s how you reconnect.

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