How Can I Ethically Respond to an Aggressive Child? (Listener Question)

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In this episode, parenting coach Margaret Webb joins me to answer a listener’s question about how to handle aggression in children. We discuss the importance of creating safety and preventing aggression by understanding the underlying causes and addressing them, and  provide strategies for protecting oneself from a child’s aggression in the moment, such as finding a safe space and using calming mantras. We also explore the importance of teaching children to recognize and manage escalation, the role of empathy and minimal verbal engagement in de-escalating situations, and the significance of self-care and self-regulation for parents and caregivers.


About Debbie Reber

Debbie Reber, MA is a parenting activist, bestselling author, speaker, and the CEO and founder of TiLT Parenting, a resource, top-performing podcast, consultancy, and community with a focus on shifting the paradigm for parents raising and embracing neurodivergent children. A regular contributor to Psychology Today and ADDitude Magazine, and the author of more than a dozen books for children and teens, Debbie’s most recent book is Differently Wired: A Parent’s Guide to Raising an Atypical Child with Confidence and Hope.

About Margaret Webb

Margaret Webb is a certified Master Life Coach, parenting coach, nature-based coach, former teacher, wife and mother. As a life and parenting coach, she weaves together her experience as an elementary education teacher with the tools she’s learned in Martha Beck’s Life Coach Training, Sagefire Institute’s Nature-Based Coach Training, and what she’s applied to her own life as a mom of a now 20-year-old son with special needs.


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Episode Transcript


Hey everyone, it’s Debbie Reber here from Tilt Parenting and I am thrilled that parent coach Margaret Webb is joining me for today’s Parent Lean-In episode. Margaret is a dear friend of mine. She was my very first parent coach. She’s also the lead parent coach in my Differently Wired Club where she provides a ton of support for the parents in that community. Margaret’s also the author of the wonderful new book, A Hero’s Journey in Parenting, Parenting the Child You Didn’t Expect When You Were Expecting, which we recently talked about on this show. So if you haven’t heard that, definitely go back and check out that episode. It’ll be in the show notes page for this episode. But welcome Margaret, thank you so much for being here.

Margaret Webb:

I’m so excited to be here.


Awesome, well we have a great question to get into, so are you ready? All right, here goes. The question is, I’ve been around a lot of parents lately dealing with aggression in their kids. When I talk about Mona Delahooke’s work or trying to understand what’s underneath the behavior and how to prevent it, I am met with dismissal and some frustration. Do you know of an ethical way for a parent to protect themselves from a child’s aggression in the moment or anyone who talks about that? Of course, we want to create a sense of safety in the child’s nervous system so that we can prevent this in the first place, but if we’ve missed that window, what are parents supposed to do? What a great question, and Margaret, I’m going to ask you to start today.

Margaret Webb:

Yeah, I think this is such a great question and it’s something that is so common with parents, especially when there is an escalation of emotions and behaviors with our kiddos. And so I do feel like even though you might be met with dismissal or it might be like, oh, well, that doesn’t matter. I think it is important to acknowledge and to be aware of what is underneath or what is the underlying cause of the escalation because that can help shift the energy for the adult, not for the child, but for the adult in understanding where those strong emotions or where the aggression is coming from. Because if we’re just responding to that aggression as though it’s just a behavior, kind of being able to in that moment rewind even for a second to think about well what was happening before this? Where is it? Are they hungry? Are they thirsty? Are they, did they just lose a game? Did they just get home from school? And they’ve used up all of their energy trying to get through the day and then they come home and they take it out on me, they take it out on brother or sister, or they take it out on whoever is around. I think there’s a lot of good information that can be, you know, can be, and from just taking some time to quickly scan through some underlying causes that might be, you know, might be the possible causes. The question is about like, once that window has passed, what do you do?

And I feel like safety is very important. And so I have spent many times behind a closed door. When my son was younger, he would have strong, strong emotional reactions to things. And I would, I would say, you know, instead of putting him in timeout, I would put myself in timeout. And I would go into my room or I would go into the bathroom, I would go somewhere and I would close the door. But I had a mantra that I used with him that was very helpful. And it was, I will help you when your body is calm. Because inevitably he would come and he would just be on the other side of the door and he would be banging on the door. And I would say, because realistically, I can’t help him when his body’s not calm. And so I would say, I will help you when your body is calm. I can help you when your body is calm. There were times where we would just go and we would get on the bed and he would thrash around. And I would, you know, and if it felt like he needed some pressure, then I would just kind of do a bear hug with him, but he would still be thrashing. but it allowed him to get some of that energy out. So I think, again, safety is very important. If you have other kids around, put them, just have them somewhere safe where they’re not going to be on the receiving end of strong behaviors or strong emotions from the other child, if you have pets and all that stuff. So keep, do what you can to keep everybody safe. But, you know, and realizing that a lot of times they’re not in control. They are not, it’s not something that they’re choosing to do. It’s that there is a surge of emotional energy that is going through their bodies and they’re not in control. I equate it to being, to PMSing. And it’s not some, you know, that’s not something that we can control. But if you want to or if you have the opportunity to keep your body regulated during that time. And say something like, you know, it seems like your body seems like it’s in the red zone. Or I’m noticing that your body is in the red zone. What, you know, do you need help? Or how can I, how can I help you? What can I help you? Do you, you know, um, trying some different things out to see if there’s something that can be the stick in the wheel, or is this something that they just need to ride it out and let the energy go?

You might say, do you want me to go into the room to calm, or do you want me to, you know, or do you want to go into the room and calm, or do you want me to stay with, you know, do you want me to stay with you while you calm? Keep the verbal engagement to a minimum. Because the more that we engage verbally, the more it’s almost like adding Tinder to a fire. And it’s just gonna keep escalating things. And so the more that you can just say one thing, that’s why I use the mantra, just one thing, keep it simple, keep it to basic choices and see how that goes. And this is all trial and error during those situations. Now, after the fact, I would definitely, you know, once everything gets back to a place of baseline where the emotions have calmed, I would start to teach them about recognizing in their bodies, like when an escalation, or I call it like the volcano, when it’s starting to erupt or when it’s starting to feel big. And this is not a one and done thing. It’s building a relationship with what does this feel like when you start, you know, like, do you feel hot? Do you feel like you wanna yell? How does it feel in your body? And use yourself as an example. And I will tell my son, you know, oh, I feel like when he’s really just kind of going at it, and I start to notice that I’m wanting to escalate, I will say like, Oh, the volcanoes, like, I feel like the volcano wants to erupt. And I don’t want that to happen. What do I need to do? And he’ll say, you need to go in the other room. You need to calm down. You need to listen, you know, take some deep breaths and so teaching them those same strategies of building awareness of what things feel like in their body, I think that can be really helpful. What are your thoughts?


Yeah, I love everything that you shared so much. So much wisdom and lived experience in those answers. Here’s the stuff that came up for me as I read through this question. I instantly thought of Tina Payne Bryson and Dan Siegel’s work and specifically the book that they co-wrote, The Power of Showing Up, in which they talk about the four S’s. The four S’s are safe, seen, soothed, and secure. And those are the ways in which we want to show up to help our kids feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure. And I’ve had Tina on the show before to talk about this, and I’ll have a link in the show notes page. But when she actually visited our Differently Wired Club, we talked about this kind of very specific scenario, and that the person who shared this question with us is in. And so I went back and rewatched that visit and what Tina also said was to how important it is that we avoid using threat-based control strategies, which can often be a default if we’re feeling backed up against a wall or we weren’t expecting this big escalation of behavior and we just wanted to stop, right? And so she talks about really focusing on those four S’s because then what’s actually getting wired in our kids’ brain is a more collaborative and cooperative way of being together, of solving problems, and where everyone’s kind of getting their needs met as best they can. So Tina talks a lot about empathy, right? Being really empathetic in, you know, and I agree, I just wanna say I agree with Margaret. Like in the moment sometimes less is definitely more in terms of verbal engagement. I used to say, way too much when things were not going well. But sometimes a very empathetic response, you know, I’m here with you, I can see you’re really mad, you have to go to bed, that doesn’t feel fair. It doesn’t feel great, and just leave it at that. But something so that our child knows that we see them and we understand that they’re having a hard time right now, but we’re gonna be calm through it. So when we can show up that way in the moment, our kids learn that we can handle their big feelings and that we are a safe person for them. So those are really important things to keep in mind that we want to ultimately help our kids learn resilience through this idea that, okay, my feelings are really big, but they’re not scary to everybody. And actually, I can manage these. So that’s where we wanna eventually get with that. So that’s one thought. Yeah, go ahead.

Margaret Webb:

Well, and can I just interject with, so I love that. And don’t expect that if you say, you know, oh, like I understand that you don’t wanna go to bed or I, you know, just the response isn’t always gonna be, oh, thanks, mom. Like, I’m so glad that you, you know, that I’m seen and that I’m heard. There’s probably gonna be, you know, like in that moment they’re looking for somebody to kind of battle with so that they can release some of their energy. So just know keep going back to that of like I know I know this is annoying or I know this is frustrating I know this is hard and just know that it’s not just going to be like this.


Thank you for that clarification. Yes, that is certainly not what happens. But what it can do is help us as the parent or caregiver in that interaction stay calm. And it can de-escalate things potentially more quickly. And I say potentially because if this is a new strategy, it might actually have the opposite effect the first couple of times you try this, because they’re not going to get the same expected response. And they might be like, wait. I want more than this. I want my parents to know I’m really upset right now. So, but if we zoom out and remember what we’re trying to do here, which is raise kids who can eventually regulate their own emotions, and we wanna make sure that they feel safe and seen with us and be that non-anxious presence in their life, this is the way to go. I want to hear more from you on this Margaret too. In the moment, prioritizing our own calm is not easy. And we want to be able to lend our nervous systems to our kids. So centering ourselves in that moment is so important. Again, like Margaret said, making sure your child’s safe, but sometimes being on the other side of a door. You can verbally soothe through that door.

One of the things that I used to do was physically hug myself. So it would help me calm my nervous system because I would get escalated the second my kid got escalated. So if I could wrap my arms around myself and squeeze my arms, I’m doing it right now, you can’t see me, but that would help me get back into my body and out of my head and it would help me return to calm more quickly. Also Margaret taught me the skill, simple but powerful skill of just taking that deep breath, holding it slowly releasing it in the moment, doing that a couple of times, you know, that triggers our autonomic nervous system, which can then help our parasympathetic nervous system kick in, which is like the relaxing calm part of our nervous system. So take those breaths, a couple of breaths, that is going to help your body without you even having to think about it, naturally calm down a little bit. I’m gonna share one other pro tip, something I used to do, just to kind of shake things up. Sometimes in the middle of a big escalation and things were not going well, my kid was really dysregulated, I might just put on a song, either like a classical music song or sometimes a dance song and I would start dancing. I would do something really unexpected and something that could capture my kids attention in the moment and enough that it would kind of stop whatever was happening, if that makes sense. So sometimes doing something really unexpected and you can do this with humor or other things too, but in the moment can shake things up enough and disrupt what’s happening. So that’s kind of like a, it’s not something I could rely on all the time, but every now and then it worked really well. I’m gonna share a couple of resources because the person who asked the question asked specifically some other people to tap into for ethical ways to navigate. So I’ll share those in a moment, but Margaret, I just wanna ask you how you took care of yourself in the moment. Like, what was your strategy? 

Margaret Webb:

My strategy was to do the opposite of what I was feeling, which was like you were talking about, we want this to go away and to be done and be over with as quickly as possible. And so I had to do the opposite and slow myself way down and like almost go in slow motion where, and it was so uncomfortable at first because it is uncomfortable to be in the midst of those strong feelings and behaviors and emotions. But I just had to, I had to slow how I was talking. I slowed my body, I slowed my breath. Like everything just slowed way down because I noticed in reflection during these times, I wanted to go fast, I wanted to put it out, I wanted to be done, I wanted to move on and that was just feeding the fire. And so doing the opposite was the most helpful for me to regulate and calm myself.


That’s great. Thank you. So helpful. So I just wanted to lastly share some people you could check out if you want to learn more about these in the moment strategies. So my list is, um, well, you mentioned in your question, Dr. Mona Delahook, she has so much information on her website, um, where she keeps a blog and you’ll likely find more strategies for in the moment, but her book, Brain Body Parenting has a lot of great information. Tina Payne Bryson, who I mentioned, has talked a lot about this on Instagram and in all of her writing. Hunter Clark Fields, she’s the Mindful Mama Mentor. She’s been on the show a couple of times. She has a podcast and she’s really good about staying calm in the moment. We’ve talked about that on the show. Dana Abraham of Calm the Chaos has some great strategies. And then of course, Margaret. Margaret did a podcast with me probably six years ago called Getting Through Difficult Moments. So that’s a great listen. And Margaret also has a lot of strategies in our book. So I will have links to all of that in the show notes pages. So you can go check that out. So I just want to say thank you so much for that great question. I know that’s a question that impacts so many people. Many people are dealing with aggression and it can be so perplexing to know how to respond in the moment in a way that feels right and in alignment with our values. So thanks for that. And thank you so much, Margaret, for joining me to talk through it.

Margaret Webb:

So fun. Thank you.


All right, bye everybody.


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