I loved this session, which gave me a new understanding of aggression. What it is, and where it comes from, and some strategies for dealing with it. This session alone has radically changed how I view conflict in my relationships, and lessened my panic when my kids misbehave. After this, there are only two more sessions in Gordon Neufeld's Power to Parent DVD course, over the next two Thursdays.
Frustration is the emotion which drives aggression. Not anger. Frustration is a primary emotion where something doesn't work. Anger has a judgement component to it (blaming someone, saying it's someone else's fault) but frustration comes when what you are trying to do no longer works.
Attachments that are not working is the biggest source of frustration for kids. This is actually true for all of us, regardless of your age. Seeing a child as frustrated should fundamentally change our behaviour as parents.
Frustration is the engine of aggression. When something doesn't work, our first impulse is to change it. We want to change ourselves, others, or circumstances. If we weren't frustrated, we wouldn't try to change anything, but there are a lot of things that children are unable to change.
If we can't change, then we must adapt, or come to terms with the situation. A maze is used to understand this as it's blind and complex and you start in the middle and try to find your way out. If you can't, futility becomes registered in your brain, and this frustration energy settles and then re-distributes.
When futility sinks in, our brains develop. Tears come automatically from recognizing futility. These tears have been tested in laboratories and they are different from onion tears or pain tears. Futility tears come from keen disappointments. Children need these tears and feelings of deep futility in order to move into maturity.
If we can't change the situation, we must move to futility in order to adapt. If you can't move from frustration to futility through tears and acceptance, you move from frustration to aggression. Frustration is over if you can effect change, feel sad or have mixed feelings (frustrated but conflicted, i.e. "My sister makes me so mad I want to punch her in the face, but I love her too"). You need the mix, so you are ambivalent, with part of you wanting to fight, but the other part wanting to avoid getting in trouble.
Mixed feelings are good, and session 8 goes into more detail about the importance of mixed feelings when parenting. At five to seven years old, children find their temperment, and the ability to process and understand mixed feelings. Before this, their brains are not developed enough to understand mixed feelings, which is why preschoolers tend to turn frustration into aggression very quickly.
Kids need clarity on what can work and what will not work. This is how they learn to adapt. When a child is sad and disappointed, we must allow this. We must make room for sadness. Sadness and disappointment are vulnerable feelings. Where there is a lot of aggression, it's the "dry-eyed syndrome" where tears of futility have been lost.
Usually we give consequences when kids attack, and we are intentionally frustrating them, which adds more fuel to the fire. We may flood a child with frustration so they will be moved to tears, but if they have lost their tears, it makes for aggression. Aggression is not a behavioural problem, it is an emotional one.
It's important not to take our children's frustrations personally. It's better to focus on the frustration instead of the acting-out behaviour. We can say things like, "You wanted mommy to do this and it's frustrating that I said no." Frustration is existential - it is with us all of the time. We can give our kids permission to be frustrated, but not to attack. We must back out of the incident and get back into the relationship. The relationship is okay. It can stretch us as parents to every ounce of maturity and beyond, but we must lean on our own temperment, and not react to the incident.
The brain is wired to get rid of that foul frustration energy. Dr. Neufeld drew a picture of a traffic circle to describe it. You enter at frustration, and you hope to exit at change. If you can't change the situation, you move on to adaptation, provided you can cry tears of futility before you hit the adaptation exit. If you can't feel the futility and learn to adapt, then you move to attack.
Simply saying, "Don't hit" isn't going to cut it when the child's brain has ordered them to attack in order to get rid of the frustration energy. You can ask yourself, "What isn't working for this child, and can I help them change it?" If you can't change it, then you must get them to the futility stage, so adaptation happens instead of aggression. Support their sadness. Resist the urge to negotiate - give your reasons after the child has realized it's futile to resist.
If the child wants a cookie five minutes before dinner, you can say no and be the agent of futility, but then you can move to the angel role by saying, "You really wanted that cookie." Let them cry and comfort them. Children need to come to the still point, where they are no longer trying to change you or the situation. If you can find the sadness, the aggression goes away. You must feel the pain of what you cannot change.
We have to soften our kids if they don't go immediately to tears. Tears are good. Soft hearts are good. We can work at getting mixed feelings, after we've removed them from the immediacy of the situation. Anywhere you find mixed feelings, you find the ability to develop the front cortex of the brain which helps the child deal with frustration ("I'm scared to go on the bus for the first time but I'm also excited about going to the zoo with my class").
To treat an aggression problem, we need first to tend to the relationship. We can get on the same side of the frustration and give our child the sense that we are on his or her side. We don't want to be adversarial with our kids. We are all on the same side. Understanding this traffic circle of frustration, and the value of soft hearts and tears of futility, has really helped me become a better parent, and recognize frustration when I see it, giving permission to feel sad and disappointed, and adapt to what cannot be changed.