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Standing your ground with (and for) your aggressive child

One of the most prevalent reasons foster parents and even adoptive parents give for choosing to have a child removed from their home is aggression towards other children, or towards the parents. If parents say that a child has been aggressive, everyone suddenly encourages them to disrupt. A decision that research shows is detrimental and further compounds trauma is seen as "the right choice for everybody." Even if families feel strongly that they want to find a way to make things work for their child, there's not a lot of resources out there to help them, nor support for them as they try to make a way to move forward with their child.

There are some situations in which it may be impossible to keep other children in the home safe when there is a child involved who is aggressive. And I acknowledge that. But I also want other parents to know that there are ways to combat this behavior, and that placement disruption (or even more traumatic, adoption dissolution) should be last resorts, NOT the first option considered.

I'm not sitting here saying this as someone who can't even imagine what families who deal with aggression go through. I'm writing this as someone who has parented multiple children who struggled with aggression. My guys who have exhibited aggression are just as incredible, sweet, and worthy of love as my guys who have never raised a hand to anyone. Walking the road of healing with those particular children has been the hardest thing I've ever had to do as a woman and a mom, but I would absolutely do it again. My aggressive kids are worth stability and permanency and unconditional love, and man did they ever need it as much, if not more, as a gentle child does.

If you've got a sweetheart in your home who is hurting other children, or hurting you, the list below outlines some strategies and resources that have immensely helped us. Mostly though I want you to know that you are not crazy or wrong for wanting to stick it out. I commend you for sticking it out for a young human who needs you more than anything, and who might have never ever had someone willing to stand and fight for them, ever in their life.

Deep breaths, hands steady, eyes on the prize: hope and healing for your children, ALL of them. If you're someone committed to moving forward with your aggressive child, keep reading:

1) Read The Explosive Child immediately (or listen to the audiobook version). This action step is a MUST even if you're not the parenting book type. The cliff notes version is this: Every child does the best that they can, even an aggressive child. Your child doesn't choose to exhibit these harmful behaviors; they are a symptom of their inability to cope with life's demands. Because of that, consequences do not decrease aggression in most cases, as they do not a) remove the triggers causing the child to struggle or b) equip the child with the necessary coping skills that they are lacking. This book was a huge game changer for every aggressive child I've parented, and the MAJORITY of the progress they made was due to implementing its principles.

2) Make a safety plan that protects and empowers the non-aggressive members of your family. This plan needs to be discussed when all family members are calm, and should be explained with no fuss, blame, or drama. The aggressive child in your home should be part of this meeting as well, and if they are able to communicate it, they should be asked to give input on how other family members can help them deescalate more quickly and safely. For families who are experiencing frequent aggression throughout the day, the safety plan may look more like a daily routine. Past safety plans that we've had have included things like regular time periods of "separate playtime" where the children were confined to separate zones of the house for their safety, and strategic care provider hours to ensure extra hands on deck during tricky times of the day. The safety plan should be posted in the home, and reviewed or edited by the parents as needed.

3) Chart behaviors, and look for patterns. This doesn't require a fancy chart or system. I used to text our agency worker about each incident soon after the fact so that I could go back through our messages for reference. When looking for patterns, pay attention to the time of day during which behaviors are happening more frequently, and try to note what was happening in the home right before the aggression occurred, even if (ESPECIALLY if) those events don't seem significant to you. Tracking aggressive behavior helps you formulate and edit your safety plan, identify times of day during which extra hands on deck would be most beneficial, and attempt to identify triggers you may not have noticed.

4) Tap into your own physical power, and use it to help your child and yourself. I have been lucky enough to have training in deescalating physical aggression in the school setting, and it has helped me with my own children as well. These are the strategies that have helped me the most:

  • When standing near an aggressive child, plant your feet widely, and stand sideways rather than head on. Keep your hands palms up and towards the child. This makes you a more difficult target to reach, and allows you to pivot as needed. It may also be perceived as less threatening to a child in fight or flight than a head-on stance.

  • Take deep breaths in through your nose on a 4-count, and out through your mouth on a 4-count. Repeat a parenting mantra in your head that reminds you of your goal with your aggressive child. Mine is "I did not cause these problems, but I am the head of the problem solving team."

  • Find time whenever you can for cardio and strength training, and stretching. The healthier and more powerful your body is, the easier it will be to block blows, or hold and comfort an aggressing child as they struggle to deescalate.

  • Hold a pillow over your chest and abdomen. If the child enters your physical bubble, firmly walk into them pillow-first, and in a deep, commanding voice, tell them to move away from your body.

5) Avoid the victim mentality. My children know that mom is overall a happy, calm, capable parent regardless of whatever problematic behaviors they are struggling with. They know that if they are aggressive towards me or others, I will approach them with my head up and my eyes locked on theirs, calm and unafraid. I process any fear, PTSD, or emotional hurt caused by aggression with trusted friends and mentors in private, but when working with my aggressive children I do not flinch, or cry, or talk about how hurtful the behavior is. A steady and confident walk towards them and an unwavering tone in your voice sends a strong message: they might be out of control right now, but you are not.

Mostly I want you to know that you're not the only parent who has walked this road. Out of respect for our foster or adopted children, we need to be tactful and mindful of how we approach this topic, but sometimes this has the negative side effect of causing parents of aggressive children to feel as though they're all alone.

I assure you, you are not. I am with you, and so are many other brave people, parents and children, who battle these types of demons together.

Fight on. You ALL deserve connection, peace, and healing, and so do your children. I truly believe that with persistence, interventions, and the powerful force of our will, we will ALL get there. I've seen it before and I hold onto hope of seeing it again.

Fight on.

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