Mom was asking for help with her 4-year-old who has suddenly become what she described as “unintentionally aggressive”…he was pushing peers, getting in their personal space, throwing things both at people and just in general, running at things and kind of crashing into them. He didn’t seem upset, or mad.
In fact, he seemed to find it really funny but when Mom or Dad tried to explain why this wasn’t acceptable behaviour, he would stop for a short period of time only for it to start up in a slightly different way.
So instead of crashing into a door, he’d crash into a couch. Mom was frustrated because while he seemed to understand when they explained the boundary, they’d also sent him to his room and taken away all his screen time after every incident but nothing was changing.
The quote or line that I’ve heard before was “you cannot punish the needs or disability out of a child.”
If you’ve heard me say it once you’ve heard me say it a thousand times telling children what not to do is not the same as telling them what to do.
Children are going to attempt to meet their goal by any means possible.
They don’t care if you don’t like how they’re achieving it. No amount of telling a child not to do something, or punishing or shaming them for doing something is going to stop them from doing it if it’s meeting their needs. Whether those needs are due to a disability or not.
This is why I like to approach parenting from a developmental perspective.
What do we know about 4-year-olds?
We know that they’re in the limbic leap- right? They’re in a stage where their security system is going absolutely bonkers with development, and that results in them seeing anything new or unexpected as a mortal danger, which means they’re dysregulated a lot more than other children.
We also know that 4-year-olds are generally straddling the line between associative and cooperative play. They’re moving towards playing with other kids, not just around them. They’re just learning to play in that back and forth, sharing of resources fashion.
They are also still very egocentric.
They see themselves as the centre of the universe and they do not give a flying fuck about your priorities or concerns. That’s not a character flaw, it’s not because they’re an asshole.
It’s their developmental stage.
They are not yet able to perspective take in a way that allows them to put themselves in other people’s shoes. They don’t understand yet how their actions are perceived by others.
It stands to reason that a 4-year-old who is pushing, having difficulty with personal space, throwing lots of stuff, and crashing into people, squeezing people way too hard…that they’re trying to regulate and initiate play this way. They’re trying to get someone to co-regulate with them in the best way they know-how.
Because throwing, pushing, crashing, squeezing that’s all sensory input. This is called proprioceptive heavy work it’s input created by the contraction of muscles and joints and that heavy work is generally very regulating for children. It’s input that helps them determine where their body is in space, which allows them to feel safe so their nervous system can chill out. They’re primarily doing it to other kids their age it makes sense that they’re using a maladaptive play invitation to try and engage another child in receiving that input, in playing with them to co-regulate.
Grab the scripts for crazy-making behaviour and know exactly what to say next time your toddler, preschooler, or kindergartener isn't listening.
By knowing what’s going on with your child developmentally you’re able to suss out the actual problem behind the behaviour a lot easier and then solve that problem. Punishments don’t make the problem go away, they just shame children for having a problem that they don’t know how to solve, and that they tried their hardest to solve with the resources they had at their disposal. Kids do well if they can.
No amount of punishment or shame is going to resolve a problem that’s the result of a need.
If this family were in ParentAbility this is what I would suggest to them:
One: Find more opportunities for acceptable proprioceptive heavy work.
What can he throw, and where? What can he squeeze, and how can he access that? What can he crash into and when?
How can we facilitate his sensory needs instead of shaming him for having them?
They aren’t going away and if we continue to shame him for having sensory needs he’s just going to get sneakier and sneakier about how he fulfils those. Generally results in kids doing some dangerous stuff.
It’s much more productive to facilitate those needs in a safe way.
Two: How can he involve his peers in those needs without hurting them or making them uncomfortable?
This is where we teach consent.
Can his friends play catch with him? How can we teach him to ask them to play catch?
Do his friends want to crash with him? If so we need to teach turn-taking and waiting so that it’s safe and everyone gets a chance without getting hurt.
Can we teach him to ask to hug his peers and what to do if they say no? There’s a whole list of problems this child has presented us with that have really simple solutions. He’s just 4, and he doesn’t know what to do in those instances, so we have to show him.
Three: Monitoring the situation and seeing what holes still need to be plugged
We’ve taught him to ask to before involving a friend in co-regulation, we’ve taught him acceptable ways to involve his peers in co-regulation that meet his needs, we’ve provided opportunities for him to act on those lessons.
What did we miss? We figure that out by observing them.
Generally, these show up in unexpected reactions from other kids. They have a friend to play catch and the friend says no….uh oh…we didn’t teach him what to do in that situation.
This means we need to step in and show him.
If you really need to throw right now, you can ask someone else, throw the ball somewhere that it won’t hit anyone, or choose another game.
There are always going to be tweaks and troubleshooting that needs to happen because we’re not omniscient.
We can’t anticipate every eventuality, and trying to is going to drive us batty.
I always take the approach of “this is the initial strategy, and then we’ll see where the gaps are and fill them as needed.” And that’s why we structure ParentAbility the way we do. We can provide that ongoing support for tweaking and troubleshooting.
You will be tweaking and troubleshooting until they’re grown. There’s always a new problem to solve, and old problems often come back as they enter new stages of development and require new solutions.
Punishments do not solve problems. All they do is try to hide the problem behind shame and unsolved problems generally escalate into bigger problems. It’s like if you notice a growth on your arm and are like enh, I’ll just cover it up and pretend it’s not there because I’m ashamed of it. Well, that doesn’t resolve it, and chances are it’ll grow and become a bigger issue that will take far more effort to fix.
I hope this gives you an idea of what I mean when I say we need to solve the problem, not the behaviour.
If you’re struggling to figure out what the problem you’re trying to solve is I invite you to go post about it in the Parenting Posse. We have over 10 thousand parents in there to help you figure it out.
If you want more hand-holding and for me personally to guide you through the process of figuring out what your child finds regulating, what skills they’re lacking, and how to teach them those things that’s when I encourage you to come join us in ParentAbility.