The Language Of Play

Sarah's three year old son, Jason, had suddenly become aggressive. She could understand that sometimes he was frustrated and would strike out in anger, for example when another child took his toy. What she was bewildered and angry about, however, was why, in the middle of a playgroup, he would sometimes dash across the room and violently squeeze or push another child with a look of glee on his face, even though the other child had done nothing to provoke him.

In order to help young children overcome their impulsive and aggressive misbehaviors, it's important to understand a few basic truths. First of all, this type of behavior is not unusual in young children. That doesn't make it acceptable, of course, and you'll want to work to correct it, but putting it in its appropriate developmental context often helps parents remain calm enough to take effective action. Toddlers, whose language is still limited, even if they're very verbal, are likely to use physical behavior to communicate feelings. Thus, Jason's dash across the room to violently squeeze another child could be his way of communicating excitement. In addition, because toddlers haven't had a great deal of experience, they often don't know their own strength. Combine that lack of knowledge with a still developing sense of impulse control, and you often get behavior that looks "mean" when in fact the underlying motive of the child may simply be to greet another child. In a moment, we'll see how understanding your child's motive can help you work with him at home to diminish and ultimately eliminate his misbehavior.

The first step to take when your child is acting aggressively involves swift decisive action and being consistent over time. This will help her learn that she must communicate differently. Therefore, when she's aggressive (no matter what her motive is) pick her up and remove her as quickly as possible from the situation. Say in a firm voice "You just chose to leave. People are not for hitting (pushing/ biting/ etc.)" Once she's been isolated (and you may have to remain with her if you're in public) tell her she'll have a chance to try again in a few minutes, but that if she chooses to hit she chooses not to play. Then, as much as possible withdraw your attention. It's important that she not feel as though she's being rewarded by your attention. After a few minutes, return her to the situation and say "Now it's time to try again. I know you'll remember to keep your hands to yourself." If it happens again, it's usually best to leave altogether if you can.

In order to further discourage this type of behavior and encourage the development of impulse control it's also helpful to determine your child's motive and pinpoint the circumstances under which his behavior is most likely to occur. Ask yourself the following questions:

* What is the underlying feeling of my child? Enthusiasm? Anger? Frustration? Is my child simply trying to say "hello" or make contact with another child?

* With whom does this behavior most often occur? Younger or smaller children? Grandparents? Parents?

* Under what circumstances does it occur? At the end of a playdate? In groups? After a long day?

Once you've determined the various circumstances that surround the aggression, and you've determined your child's feelings, you're ready to help her learn a different way of communicating.

Children younger than 10 often use play - both pretend play and play with objects - to learn new things, to reinforce what they've already learned, and to process information and rules that may initially bewilder them. Thus, when your child gravitates towards playing the role of "mommy" with her baby doll in the stroller, she's putting herself in mommy's shoes, figuring out how it feels to be a mommy, and learning something about how it feels to nurture and protect (her baby doll.) Or, when your son plays "Superman", he's exploring what it feels like to be heroic and powerful. Because play is so critical to children's learning, you can use it to diminish aggressive misbehavior. Let's see how Sarah used Jason's play to help him communicate differently in social situations.

Sarah determined that Jason was most likely to show aggressive behavior when he wanted to play with another child. Armed with this information, she sat down with Jason when he was playing with his trucks. "Can I play too?" Sarah asked. Jason gave her a red car.. They began to play, with mom following Jason's lead. Soon, Sarah said "My car wants to play with yours. Vroom, vroom. But my car doesn't know how to say that. Oooo, he feels SO frustrated (here Sarah made her voice frustrated, and bounced the car up and down). He wants to slam into your car. (She made a move towards Jason's car with hers.) But wait! Pushing isn't ok, is it? Jason, tell me what my car can do instead. Can you think of some way he can tell your car he wants to play and is frustrated?"

Notice how Sarah took Jason's motive for his aggressive behavior and worked it into the play. The first couple of times that they played, Jason didn't answer Mom's question, and would simply slam his car into hers. But Sarah was persistent and came up with her own answers: "I know! My car can run around and around yours. `I want to play' he says, `Come play with me.'" By playing in this way once a day with Jason, she helped him develop his verbal skills. Within a week, Jason had already become less aggressive, and was showing more and more capability in using his words, often saying "I fusterated."

Infinite variations on this game are available, limited only by your own imagination. Playing with your child in this way at least once a day will diminish the behavior and give your child the resources he needs to handle social situations.