Q&A #1: Should I let my child hit me, or a pillow?
(02:18) Parent Dee’s question about her child
(04:02) The six things going on in the question
(06:19) The Catharsis Theory
(07:18) Pointing out the difference in terminology about anger and aggression
(09:38) Most of the research has studied cognitive behavioral therapy as a treatment for anger and aggression
(11:22) The difference between adults and children in navigating situations
(13:10) Anger in girls and boys
(14:42) Addressing the difficult behavior instead of the reason for the behavior
(16:00) The importance of self-regulation in managing feelings of anger
(17:06) Most of us didn’t have great role models for how to cope with anger
(22:23) Things to do to help a child regulate their feelings
Click here to read the full transcript
Jen Lumanlan 00:10
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. And today I’m launching the first in a series of new episodes called Q&A. And my goal here is to take short questions from listeners and turn them into concise episodes that you can listen to for quick answers. When you have a specific question and you just want to know the answer to that question. I realize that it takes me a couple of weeks to research an average episode, and it takes you all a fairly long time to listen to it as well. And I know that while some folks really want to go in deep on learning about a specific topic, very often you just want to know what is the answer to this specific issue that I’m facing. So these episodes are really an attempt to give you that what you need in a very short, concise way. So this episode will be a little bit longer, partly because of this introduction and partly because this is actually a more in-depth question that we’re going to get to today, which is on hitting and anger catharsis, so. So that’s coming up in a second. Before we get to that, I just want to let you know if you have a question that you would like me to answer on one of these episodes, you can preferably record yourself on a video and send it and put it in a Google Drive folder or something like that and send it to email@example.com. If you would like to record an audio only question, you can do that on yourparentingmojo.com. There’s a button there that you can press and that will take you to a page where you can record the audio for your question in just a couple of minutes. So look for that if you would like to do that there. So these episodes are definitely going to be shorter, they’re going to be more informal, they’re not going to be as tightly scripted. I may make mistakes. So I’m trying to be OK with that and to really just get you what you need in a short period of time. OK, so the first question is actually from a parent who is in my parenting membership and she asked this question on a group coaching call recently, but I was not comfortable answering it on that call because I hadn’t looked at the research at it yet. I had been on the deck for a while and I had been in the back of my mind, but I hadn’t actually looked at the research. So I said could you please record that as a question and send it to me and I’ll make that in the first Q&A episode. So here she is asking her question.
My question is, my three-year-old wants to hit people when dysregulated. Usually, this means angry, frustrated, excited. The hitting when excited, frustrated, seems really impulsive and is often directed at other children or sometimes us father, or me. That hitting when angry is mostly directed at me or my partner, and there’s a desire to hurt us, I think; that’s what our sees. We have problem solved this a few times now, and almost always asks for giant inflatable boxing gloves. I’ve also tried some other options like paper ripping, screaming into a pillow, but these are generally not accepted in the moment. Though I am optimistic, this will improve with age. I have been hesitant to get the boxing gloves because I don’t understand the link between anger and physical aggression, and so I’m not sure if I should encourage the hitting when dysregulated even if it seems harmless and playful. My question, probably more specifically, is what’s the source of the desire to hit? And my concern is that I inadvertently reinforced the link between dysregulation and aggression, and specifically anger and hitting. Okay, thank you.
Jen Lumanlan 03:50
OK, so this seems like a fairly simple question, right? Should I or should I not allow my child to hit me in a way that doesn’t hurt me? Or should I let them hit a pillow as an alternative? And actually this is a really complex issue, so I’ve identified 6 things that are going on in this question. So firstly, we don’t fully understand the link between anger and aggression, so we don’t know what causes anger necessarily. We don’t always know what leads from anger to aggression. We don’t know why anger doesn’t always lead to aggression. There’s a lot of complexity that we don’t fully understand. Secondly, different anger management techniques work for different people. Some people find hitting a pillow to be very useful to them. Others it doesn’t help them at all. So we can’t necessarily apply one solution and have that work for everybody. Thirdly, most of the research on anger and the process of navigating anger and managing that anger is done in adults, and then it’s applied as if it were immediately relevant to children, when adults have a massively more developed brain and way more different kinds of tools available to them to manage their anger. So I don’t think it’s really necessarily right to look at research that’s done on adults as if it automatically applies to children with no modification. Fourthly, anger in the expression of anger is discouraged among girls particularly so it goes underground, and boys are taught that anger is the only acceptable emotion, that is, that is OK to express. Fifthly, it’s this assumes that anger is the thing to be addressed rather than the reason why the child is feeling angry. And I see this in parents’ questions that come up in the membership, in communities that I’m in where parents want to know what do I do about the anger my child is experiencing? And what do I do about the thing that the way that they’re expressing that anger rather than looking at the underlying cause, what is the reason the child’s angry? And then finally, most of us didn’t have a reason to uh, sorry, most of us didn’t have role models for how to cope with anger because the people who raised us, our parents, our caregivers saw our anger as a threat to their control over us. They wanted us to be under their thumb whether they had that was at their official goal or not. And that our anger was a threat to that control. So we, most of us didn’t have a good role models for how we should actually navigate aggression in the course of normal relationships with other people.
Jen Lumanlan 06:19
And So what we’re getting at here, I’ve mentioned this word a couple times now—Catharsis Theory. And so this is a theory that has been developed over the years. And Dr. Riccarda Karsten in the University of Innsbruck, Austria, defines it as “The concept of catharsis traces back to the ancient Greek idea and was later suggested by Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer as a treatment for hysteria, which is a very loaded word often applied to females. Note the link to hysterectomy. Um, it’s sort of this, this female madness, as it were. So by experiencing and expressing repressed emotions, symptoms of psychological diseases were believed to be alleviated. A more recent definition of catharsis has been given by Geen and Quanty in 1977, who define aggression catharsis as a “hypothesized process which follows aggression and that is postulated, meaning we think it leads to a reduction in aggressiveness.” So there is aggression and there’s this cathartic process in this model and then there’s a reduction in aggression.
Jen Lumanlan 07:18
And so I just want to point out a bit of a difference in terminology in the way that I think about anger and aggression. So Karsten is using aggression to mean a feeling, and I see it a bit differently. I see anger as the feeling, and aggression is the thing that happens if catharsis fails, right? Like if we don’t get it out in some way, then aggression towards another person follows. And that seems to fit better with how a lot of other emotion researchers think about this. Dr. Feldman says that “Anger, an emotion evoked when one’s goals are blocked or one experience is insult to the self or significant other is an intense adaptive approach in motion that requires the mastery of efficient regulatory strategies for proper functioning.” And so it’s just sort of assumed that reducing anger is going to result in a reduction of aggression, so. The sort of that that correlation that’s expected between those two things. So the link between anger and aggression could probably fill an entire full length episode, and maybe it will one day. A study of five-year-old children found that children who were more angry were also more aggressive, but there was not a simple anger causes aggression 1 to 1 correlation among children. The relationships between the anger and aggression were more complex than that. So I want to to look at each of the issues that I raised early in the episode and dig into them a little bit more deeply and work towards an understanding of what do we want to do about this parent’s question about should I let my child hit me, should I let my child hit a pillow.
Jen Lumanlan 08:49
So on the idea that we don’t fully understand the links between anger and aggression that what that means is I can’t give you a for sure answer that’s true for everybody because for one thing we don’t understand this very well for anybody. And secondly the vast majority of this research is done in a lab and it may not have any real-world application whatsoever. You know, these are people that the researchers are doing experiments like making somebody angry and then giving them a test on something else and seeing how well they perform on the test. And that has no relation whatsoever to how I feel in my real life when my best friend does something that I don’t like. So it’s possible the results that researchers are finding in the lab have no real world relevance. Going back to the second idea that that different anger management techniques work for different people, most of the research has studied cognitive behavioral therapy as a treatment for anger and aggression, actually. And that is based on the idea that if we if we change the behavior, right, if we, the clinician can get the patient to change their behavior, then the problem is gone. There is no more anger. There is no more there, there’s just nothing to worry about here. And the research indicates that this may be moderately effective at changing behavior, right? We may be able to train people, adults particularly, maybe also children, to change the way they express their anger, but the cause of the behavior is still there, we’re not actually necessarily making the anger go away. We may be making the aggression go away. We’re not making the anger go away. We’re just training the person that it’s not OK to express it. So for me that’s sort of a non-starter, especially when we’re working with children who may not have consented to engaging in some kind of therapy to change the way that they are expressing their feelings. And, and so we’re sort of moving into the idea that that it’s not OK to express anger. So I’ll come back to that in a second. Our third point was that most of the research is done on adults and used as if it was immediately relevant to children when adults have way more developed brains, wider set of tools. So I mean this, this is sort of intuitive, right. Adults have a much better capacity to wait. We can defer a potential reward for a much longer period of time. Unless of course we’re struggling with something like ADHD, which can make the ability to wait much more difficult. But even with ADHD, an adult is probably going to have a bit more of a capacity to wait than a child does. Adults can imagine a wider array of strategies that might help them to navigate the situation, and also a wider array of tools that they can use, like making a list to help you remember the strategies, whereas children are trying to they can’t write yet, they can’t read yet necessarily. They they’re using a smaller array of strategies and they don’t have a way of remembering them in, especially in the difficult moments when they’re feeling dysregulated. So adults may have a goal to express less aggression. Very often children don’t have that goal, right? And this is it. This is something that adults may see how it affects the people around them. Children may not be making that correlation yet. They may not be seeing the effect that their behavior has on somebody else necessarily so. So an adult may have a goal of reducing their aggressive behavior, whereas a child may not have set that goal, which is going to impact their ability to put these strategies to use. So we can’t just say that most of, as most of the popular articles on this topic do, you know, if you Google, should I let my child hit a pillow or, you know, anger in children, something like that. Most of the popular articles that pop up are going to say they’re gonna cite one study of college students who are given deliberately bad evaluations no matter what their work was like. The evaluation says your work is terrible, and then they’re told to hit a punching bag while they think about the person who gave them the evaluation, and that those people report feeling more anger. Then a person who sat quietly for two minutes instead, and so most people say, well, because those students in that situation felt more angry when they hit the punching bag, then we should tell children that it’s not OK to punch things. But as we have seen, that doesn’t necessarily translate. Just because that finding happened in the college students doesn’t mean it’s applicable to a real-world situation with children. OK, the 4th point, anger is usually discouraged among girls, so it goes underground. And boys are taught that anger is the only acceptable emotion to express. So in our culture it’s not OK for girls to express anger, never mind aggression, right? So we tend to praise and reward the good and the nice and the cooperative behavior in girls, and we don’t give in to expressions of anger when those when those are expressed and we withdraw love and affection. And we train our girls it is not OK to express those feelings. So that doesn’t mean that girls stop feeling anger. It just means that they learn to cover it up and then they get into doing things like excluding each other and talking behind each other’s backs as a way of managing those angry feelings that are still there. They didn’t go anywhere, they’re just managing them differently. And so if you would like to learn more about that, my interview with Doctor Marina Gonick will go into much more depth on that. I’ll put a link in the show notes for this episode. We don’t reward emotional expression among boys. The only way that they can get big feelings across to us is through anger. And if we think, oh, well, I’m not raising a boy, this isn’t an issue for me, then girls police this as well, right? Girls tell boys not to cry. Mothers, parents, you know, female relatives tell boys not to cry. Ostracize boys if they express sensitive feelings.
Jen Lumanlan 14:31
So moving into the 5th, the 5th idea of assuming that anger is the thing to be addressed rather than the reason the child is feeling angry, to me this is a really, really critical point. So we’re assuming that the difficult behavior is the thing that needs to be addressed, instead of looking underneath that behavior and thinking what is the need the child is trying to meet here and how could we help that child to meet that need and potentially meet our need at the same time. So, you know, I’m thinking of a. hypothetical example my child hits me. Maybe they’re tired, maybe they’re hungry, maybe they’re stressed because we I said no to something else that that they wanted to do earlier in the day. Maybe they have been spending all day kind of needling at their siblings, their siblings needling at them, and it’s finally catching up and it’s all compounding into this one hit, which was the behavior that we saw. And so we can instead of addressing the hit, how do I stop my child from hitting address the individual things that led up to that hitting behavior. So this child’s need is not to hit, right? It’s not that the child wants to hit necessarily. It’s about whatever the need was not met in the child before the child wanted to hit. And yes, the child may say hitting feels good. Hitting is the only thing I want to do. Yes, when I’m dysregulated, it can feel good, but that ignores the unmet need that led into that hitting behavior.
Jen Lumanlan 16:00
So. Dr. Pamela Cole writes about the importance of self-regulation in managing feelings of anger. And so she says, “Self-regulation includes both a.) socially appropriate persistence and overcoming a barrier, and b.) tolerating limits by inhibiting efforts to overcome barriers when appropriate. When a parent or teacher has told a child to wait for a desired object until the child has finished a task, it is usually not appropriate for the child to persist in trying to get the object.” So this is just, you know, random snippet of a researcher writing on anger. And it’s just assumed that the adult has decided how things are going to go and the child has no input into this and that there is no possibility of meeting the adult and the child’s needs. And therefore, the adults need is the one that’s going to be met and there’s and there’s no discussion of whether the child’s need could be met as well. And so this, this just permeates the, the research, the entire research base on anger. And I think we really need to be cognizant of that because it may very well go counter to our values to how we want to be raising our children.
Jen Lumanlan 17:04
So moving on to the 6th issue here, most of us didn’t have great role models for how to cope with anger because it was seen as a threat to the adults in our lives control over us. So when we did express anger, our parents probably yelled at us. They shut down, they walked away. They may well have tried to stop our expressions of anger. And so now we’re trying to show our children how to navigate anger in a healthy, productive way without either having had it modeled for us or having had anyone teach us how to do it. So I think this is a really important reason why we need to work on our own self-regulation first. We need to make sure that we understand what that is, and we’re taking steps to remain regulated in difficult environments ourselves, to model for our children, I’m feeling dysregulated right now. What am I going to do about it? How am I navigating that? Am I able to create the pause? Am I able to, from that pause, respond to you from a place that’s aligned with my values? When we’re able to model that for our children, then they are much more able to take this on themselves as well. So definitely recommend taming your triggers coming up if that is something that you’re interested in learning more about.
Jen Lumanlan 18:14
So coming back to the original question, now we’ve looked at all these issues on anger. Sometimes we will need to set limits on our child’s behavior, right? Sometimes there are going to be periods when we’re not able to meet everybody’s needs. And if our child is expressing anger at that point, should we allow our child to hit us? Or a pillow? So my response to that, and based on what we’ve thought through, is firstly, I wouldn’t allow them to hit a person even if they’ve got these big inflatable boxing gloves that are allowing them to hit you without actually hurting you because I really think it’s too easy for a child to forget when they’re in a different environment. I don’t have the gloves on right now. Oh, I shouldn’t hit this person. I don’t know the source of the desire to hit. It could be a primal drive that does not have a rational origin. So it’s possible that we are not going to be able to rationalize this away. And so to expect a child to be able to do that when they’re having a difficult moment and they’re trying also now trying to remember, do I have gloves on? Do I not have gloves on? Is it OK to hit? And to me there’s just too much there. It’s too difficult for the child to be able to do that. And so we shouldn’t necessarily, in my view, allow them to hit another person even if we’re making that safe. So another related point. There is not much consistency in children’s expression of aggression when they feel angry. And So what I would invite you to do is to try letting them hit a pillow and see if you notice a decrease in feelings of anger and expressions of aggression. Of course that feeling of anger is going to happen relatively soon after that has happened whatever that incident was. And the expression of aggression is something that’s going to happen more over time. And I would invite you to keep a journal on that right. Is there a time when your child is asking for a pillow? Is there a time when you offer a pillow to your child? And note how were those received. Did it seem to help? Did it seem to get some of those feelings of anger out through aggression? Did I notice that my child was then less angry throughout the rest of the day? And the reason for keeping a journal is that the research on this catharsis hypothesis, this idea of anger leaving the body through hitting something, is really mixed, right. So most often it’s study using violent video games. Where playing violent video games sometimes, but not always reduces aggression or anger, depending on what the research is looking at and they often aren’t. They’ll use those terms interchangeably. So sometimes it does in an average across many, many studies. But we don’t care necessarily what the average is. We care how this is affecting our child, what is true for our child. So the best thing to do, I think, is to try it and see if it helps our child. And so I’m thinking ahead, anticipating your question. But Jen, I’m not worried about what’s happening this week. What I’m worried about is what’s happening 15 years down the line. Am I going to teach my child to hit a pillow this week? And in 15 years they’re going to lash out at people because, because I taught them to hit a pillow. So yes, I hear you, and my response to that is we cannot know the answer to that question. Your child may resent being forced not to hit things right, and that may build up. And they may hit things when they’re older, and they may struggle with restraining aggression because we allowed them to hit a pillow. We just can’t know. And the research can’t help us with this either, because the majority of the research on this topic is not longitudinal. These, these are not, the researchers are not going out there saying, you know, did you hit a pillow, did you hit people? Did you feel angry? Did you express aggression? And then 20 years later asking people, well, are you still feeling it now? Are you still doing those things now? No, we don’t have any answers to those questions. The researchers are looking 30 minutes down the line right there. They’re asking a child to play a video game or not play a video game, and then report 30 minutes later. Are you feeling angry? Are you expressing aggression through any other mechanism? So the research is not providing us with an answer to that question of how is this going to turn out in the long term?
Jen Lumanlan 22:23
So other things that we can try and do in terms of offering things to our child to help them to regulate their feelings, are potentially things like ripping paper, throwing rocks at a tree is a great one that another member in my community does with her child, right. She will do it when she’s feeling dysregulated. Her child will also do it as well, making fast movements like jumping jacks. That one came from another member as well. You can you can tell your child if this feels good to me when I have feelings of anger to express, and you can try offering them to your child as well when they are also feeling dysregulated. As they’re getting older, their feelings of anger may get more less intense in the moment, potentially, and more diffuse. And at that point, different opportunities for navigating that anger become available. And we start to see children reporting that they are doing things like drawing or writing or sports or pausing, right, pausing in that moment like we’re doing and taming your triggers, doing a sensory grounding, noticing what’s around us, noticing all the purple things that are in the room, getting in touch with our sensation of touch. So touching the table in front of us and really attuning to that. Things like choosing not to believe our thoughts right now, knowing that just because a thing goes through my mind does not necessarily mean that’s the truth. Looking for other explanations for events. Swearing, actually, some researchers indicated swearing may be cathartic for adults, potentially older children as well. Even with younger children, you could perhaps try making your own swear words, right? You could pick a word that sounds really funny or kind of explosive to say, and make that your “swear word” and say that when you’re feeling very dysregulated. But I really think that what we want to be ultimately getting at for the vast majority of parents is not necessarily how am I handling this anger in the moment, but where is this anger coming from? And it is this anger about a situation where I could have said yes to the child, right? And the child is having a reaction to a situation where they are righteously feeling I have a need that is not being met. And is there a way that we could potentially help them to meet that need and also meet our own need as well?
Jen Lumanlan 24:40
So I hope this episode has helped you. Even though it’s a little on the shorter side, it was a little bit longer than most of these will be because I had to dig into the research a little bit to answer the question. This still did take two days to research, so if you would like to make it one time or a recurring donation to support me in making these kinds of Q&A episodes for you as well as the in depth, you know, much, much longer episodes, you can do that at yourparentingmojo.com/support.
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