4 Year Old Aggressive with Parents -- and Dog!

Dr. Laura,

We're at a loss with our son who just turned four. I'm a big fan of Positive Discipline and believe in setting limits with empathy. For the most part I feel very connected with my son but there are some issues with aggression coming up and I'm not sure why. The increased aggression is with us (his dad and me). Hitting, biting, slapping. This was more pronounced a bit ago but he still resorts to this when angry. We usually respond with a time-in. He's become increasingly agitated with friends coming over and seems territorial. Aggressive with our dog too who has been here since before our son was born. Yells at the dog, throws things at the dog, taking dog's food away, etc. I feel like I/we must be doing something wrong for this to continue. A friend is questioning why we don't use traditional time outs. I feel like we are clear about limits but his behavior is giving me pause. Making me second guess myself. I've read that all acts of aggression are instances where a child feels disconnected. How can that be?

Aggression is usually an indication of fear. This seems to be true for all mammals. A small dog sees a big dog, and the small dog growls! The best defense is a good offense.

While your son's aggression with you is within the realm of normal, a child raised with gentle discipline should be able to control his aggressive impulses by age four so that he is not hitting the adults in his life. And while it is also within the realm of normal for four year olds to be territorial with their possessions when friends come over, I would see it as a red flag that he feels threatened, afraid. I am also bothered that he is acting territorial with the dog. That is an even bigger red flag.

It is entirely possible that this is within the range of normal, and the answer I will give you will assume this. However, I need to tell you that if your son has risk factors you have not mentioned, then my answer may not be adequate to the situation. Meaning, hopefully he just needs your help to deal with his feelings. But maybe he is responding to something else, such as extreme jealousy of a sibling, or fear from a previous or current trauma, or tension if his parents are fighting, or even issues in controlling his aggression that are genetic (you would know about these from mental health issues in your extended family.) So I don't want to scare you, but I do need to mention these possible risk factors in case any of them are at play. If they aren't, then I think that helping your son with his fear will solve your problem.

Would it help to start using timeouts with your son? No, it would make him angrier. But time-ins are perfect. But your goal in time-in is not just calming him. It's helping him work out the emotions.

Four year olds often have a lot of fear locked up inside them. They feel small, and can't help noticing that the world is a big scary place. They have become aware of death. They know their parents could abandon them, which would threaten their very existence. Of course, children who are punished, which your child isn't, are usually more fearful. And kids who watch TV tend to be more fearful, as do kids whose parents have traveled and left them for a separation. But even kids who get great parenting can have experiences at school, or through medical intervention, or simply on the street (a barking dog, a homeless person) that are very scary to them. Sometimes these experiences have happened long ago, before the child was verbal. I have known of toddlers who cry and say a particular part of their body is hurting, who seem to be referring to medical events that happened in their infancies.

How is this linked to aggression? Well, most of us find fear to be a very uncomfortable emotion. And when humans don't want to feel a big, scary, feeling, we often "defend" against it by lashing out. (As we get older and can't lash out, many of us adopt other coping mechanisms to fend off uncomfortable feelings, such as eating or other addictions.) And some children do use TV or rigid behaviors like NEEDING a pacifier as ways to fend off uncomfortable feelings. But most four year olds who are trying to keep feelings that make them feel vulnerable from surfacing end up lashing out.

What does this have to do with disconnection? When we don't want to feel something, we disconnect with our own experience, in order to "stuff' that feeling. That disconnection from ourselves also disconnects us from others. So a child who is not comfortable in his own skin because of his emotions ends up feeling disconnected from his parents.

I should add that ALL children end up feeling disconnected from their parents on a regular basis. If they go to school, or are separated from parents, they need time at the end of the day to reconnect. That's why I always emphasize how important Special Time is. But Special Time is also important as a way to build trust so that the child will see the parent as a safe harbor and will let those scary feelings bubble up. Sometimes even wonderful parents are frightened of anger or upset by fear and they can't bear it when their child expresses those feelings, so it's important to get clear that you are welcoming your son's big feelings, and to breathe your way through them.

I am going to give you some links to read more about how to do this. After you read these, if you have questions, feel free to shoot me an email and I can clarify.

How to Help Your Child with Anger

4 Year Old- Aggressive Tantrums, Screaming

5 Year Old with Aggressive Tantrums

Please let me know how it goes.
warm regards,
Dr. Laura

No risk factors. In fact, my son has lived a pretty great life thus far and we've made that a priority. No illnesses, separations (aside from preschool), no sibling, and no genetic risk (depression does run in both sides of the family though).

My son is slow to warm though and has been from birth. I'd say sensitive too. He gets pretty overwhelmed with other kids and it took over 5 months for him to leave the teacher's side at school to go play with friends. The other day we had two neighbor kids over who he usually enjoys and he had a terrible time (taking toys from them, being argumentative and controlling). I didn't say much about it then but they did leave pretty quickly. After he'd calmed down I mentioned to him that he seemed to be having a hard time with kids at our house and he immediately said, I don't want any kids at my house, mom. I was struck by that and said that we didn't need to do that for awhile if he didn't want to. He seemed relieved. This issue has waxed and waned and I think it's developmental. He also may be more of an introvert (like his dad and me) than I realized.

The dog issue. I'm not sure what this is about. Seems like sibling rivalry almost. My son will get upset that the dog goes into a room that he doesn't want him to, or then upset if the dog doesn't want to be petted (who can blame the dog??). Sometimes it seems like it comes from nowhere. If my son is overtired or hungry I understand that he may have more challenging behaviors but sometimes it seems downright mean. I give him lots of room to make choices for things (activities, how he likes to do things). I'm not rigid about these things so I find it hard to believe he's trying to control the dog because he feels little control himself but I guess it's possible.

As for the time-ins, I really need to think about what we're doing. I definitely stay with him (although there have been times when he's hit me and I've felt really close to losing it and will take myself to another room for a minute or two). But after re-reading some of your articles, now I'm not so sure that my tone is inviting of his emotions. It's just so hard. If I could hold him while he cries or rages that would be great. But he's usually flailing and trying to hurt me. I've held him in a bear hug a few times but that starts to feel bad as it seems to incite him further. It's sure possible he doesn't feel totally safe to let it all out. I just get hung up on getting hurt physically and it feels like the fight escalates from there.

Anyway, these are a few thoughts and again, I appreciate your help. Your site and emails are invaluable to me. Really. Thanks!

A slow to warm child who takes five months to leave his teacher's side would be likely to have stored up a lot of fear. He does need to let that out. And yes, it is developmental in the sense that sometimes he feels more up to the normal demands of life than other times. But I do believe that he needs help with it, because otherwise he will get older without having developed healthy ways of handling his emotions. I have found that the big missing puzzle piece in gentle parenting is emotion, because most adults are frightened of emotions.

But his fear does not have to all come out with a tantrum. Have you tried games that make him giggle? Anything that involves fear should work. Be the big bad wolf, just to the point where he giggles, not to the point where he is really upset. Let him outsmart you, outrun you, over power you. Or let him be the wolf, and pretend you're so terribly afraid of him. You might also play some control games. "The dog isn't smart enough to play this game, he goes into whatever room he wants. But you and I can play this game. Ok, I'll start. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON"T GO IN THAT ROOM!...Oh,no, you went in that room! Now I have to grab you and give you ten kisses!...Ok, now it is your turn. Tell me what I shouldn't do." Then you can choose to follow his rule, acting very afraid of him, or bumble and don't follow the rule. Basically, anything you can do to get him giggling is a great idea. Pillow fights? Water fights?

Play will let off the same feelings as tantrums will, but deep fear usually does take some real crying and flailing. I understand that it is scary. If you can just stay near him but not hold him, that might be enough. But often kids need to struggle against us. Sometimes it works to say "I see you want to push. I will hold the couch cushion and you can push against that as hard as you want. I will not let you hurt me. I will keep both of us safe. You can be as mad as you want."

I am not in any way recommending that you let him hurt you. He does not actually want to hurt you, even if he tries at that moment when he is angry. He needs to know that you can keep both you and him safe. If you are not confident of that, you will communicate it, so it is best not to even try. In that case, can you enroll you husband? If he does not trust your husband as much as you, that is normal, since you are with him more. In that case, your husband needs to play some of these physical games on a regular basis, and then see if he can trigger a meltdown, just by setting a reasonable limit. But of course your husband will need to be prepared then for what the fear looks like as it is being released (flailiing, struggling). And if you can both be there, all the better.

The dog issue is puzzling. Since your son goes to preschool we can imagine that he might have some issues there that would then get played out with the dog, just as otherwise he might "bully" his little brother. Because what you are describing toward the dog is a sort of bullying, it may give us a clue as to something he is experiencing at school. He is not very flexible, and he gets easily threatened by peers, so it may be that in some way he is feeling targeted. Is that possible? Like, maybe, "You can't play with us unless you do what we tell you?" or "You can't play in the sandbox. Go play over there." You should ask the teacher, but this could even be things below the radar of the teacher. To find out, you might initiate a play session with stuffed animals who are at school, and at recess, and see if any of this comes up.

I'll be interested to hear what happens. Good luck!

Just wanted to send you an update. We play lots of games that make him giggle and even more after your suggestion. He absolutely loves the "don't go into that room" game (not sure how else to describe it but it's the game you suggested below). It was amazing the first time we played it. He just totally lit up. Anyway, there's lots of opportunity for that kind of thing.

I've really been thinking about the bullying thing. He has told me of incidents at school that I can tell upset him. They seem pretty tame to me (Henry said I couldn't play with the blocks!) but I can tell they made an impression on him. His sensitivity is striking. We were at an indoor playground today and there was a girl (who he knows) who was pretending to be a wolf (and doing a rather good job of it!). Anyway, he was near tears as he told me that it scared him and that he wanted her to be herself again. Could it be that his heightened sensitivity is contributing to feelings of fear that he's not always verbalizing (and that I'm not even aware of, since they seem even under my radar)?

Anyway, I still struggle with the meltdowns. He hasn't been as aggressive lately....I can tell he's trying to show some restraint. And we're doing more sobbing/holding while in time-in. Your current emails are hitting an issue head-on though. I spend virtually no time away from him, particularly this summer as he's not in school, and I'm a bit drained. Sometimes I find myself wondering why we have such an intense kid! We'll continue working on all this.

Thanks for the update. It's hard when they're home fulltime in the summer. Only a few weeks until school starts, right? Maybe there's a neighborhood kid who could be a mother's helper a couple of afternoons a week?

So glad that game worked out. Very interesting. Sounds like the dog issue is about control and power. The more you can get him giggling about those issues, the happier your dog will be.

And yes, I think you nailed it:
"Could it be that his heightened sensitivity is contributing to feelings of fear that he's not always verbalizing (and that I'm not even aware of, since they seem even under my radar)?"

I think your son is extremely sensitive. So he does need extra help to express fear. Which means it's great that you're doing a lot of giggling with him.

It's great that he isn't being as aggressive. Sounds like whatever you're doing is working. The sobbing/time in is probably very helpful so that he doesn't have to defend with aggression. That's a huge improvement.

Hopefully, since he isn't being so aggressive, you aren't so afraid of being hurt, so you're more able to "invite" his emotions? Meltdowns ARE tough. But mostly that's because of our own reaction to the feelings. If you can remind yourself that you're giving him a safe way to show you his big feelings, it helps. Breath your way through it!

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