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Aggression and Children—II  

This article examines the first set of skills parents need to manage their children’s aggressive behavior – improving the emotional tone of the parent-child relationship. It can be thought of as improving the attachment between parent and child. At a simple level it is useful to think of attachment as the security children feel in their relationship with their parents. The more secure they feel the better able they are to explore and develop new skills and remain calm in the face of stressful situations. The more secure the attachment, the better the children can use the relationship with their parents as a resource for development.

What can parents do to create this outcome? They can create experiences in which the child feels important, attended to, and accepted. In formal therapy this is often done by playing the “child’s game.” The parent plays a game chosen by the child and follows the child’s lead. They focus on describing what the child is doing and reflecting emotion that seems inherent in the child’s play. They also offer a lot of praise, noting creativity or other aspects of the child’s expression that can be emphasized in a positive way. This should be done in an energetic, engaged manner. During the child’s game it is also important to avoid asking questions, giving directions or commands, and criticizing.

Even without playing a formal child’s game, parents can set up time to focus on child led experiences and improve the emotional tone of their interaction. With older children, who might not play in the same way, it might take the form of following their stream of conversation in a reflective manner without any attempt to direct or alter it. 

Parents might find as an added benefit that if they truly embody the principles of the child’s game, their children talk more. You may have the experience that most conversations with your children consist of a number of questions met with very brief responses. Little shuts down communication faster than too many questions. More reflection, and more attachment, is likely to lead to more talking.

Of course, improved emotional tone isn’t the whole story; it just improves the relationship and therefore improves parent’s ability to impact their children. Next month I will talk about some of the skills helpful in gaining compliance from children.

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