“Momma, have you ever felt like there’s a puzzle and there’s a piece missing and you find the piece and it fits? When I’m with the Maasai all the pieces fit.” This is a quote from my friend Roland, a seven year old boy, on a trip to Tanzania with his mother. He was on a safari and, using a stick, he was learning how the Maasai use spears to protect them from lions. His mother told me how at home in the United States, she always feels like she is apologizing for his aggression.
Her story made me think of many 2 year olds who I see in my pediatric practice. They come because they hit and are “too aggressive.” Their parents want help controlling the behavior. Once they feel comfortable talking with me, these parents frequently confess that when they see their child hit another child or throw a toy they have “visions of Colombine.”
We as a culture seem to be on a road to outlaw aggression. The fact is, however, that aggression is a normal, healthy feeling. Assertiveness, a quality generally considered to be a positive one, actually has a similar meaning, but looks different in a two year old than in an adult. Lacking the verbal skills to express intense emotion, Johnny, wanting the red truck another child just took out of his hands, may not have a calm discussion, but rather might grab the truck and whack the other child on the head.
Parents clearly have the responsibility to teach a child that such behavior is unacceptable. But, in order to avoid having a child grow up like Roland, with a sense that a piece of him is missing, it is essential that not only parents, but our culture, is accepting of the feeling behind the behavior.
In fact, the latest research at the intersection of neuroscience, behavioral genetics and developmental psychology is demonstrating that a parents’ ability to reflect and contain a child’s feelings will help that child learn to manage these feelings, and may change the way his brain handles strong emotions. He may be less likely to behave aggressively in the future. If, on the other hand, a child gets the idea that his feelings are “bad” and “wrong”, these feelings don’t go away. They just become disconnected from the child’s sense of who he is, like Roland’s missing puzzle piece.
If a child does not have a way to think about his feelings, he is likely to simply act them out. Children who continue, as they grow up, to behave in aggressive ways that are inappropriate for their age are often describes as “impulsive.” Impulsive literally means to act without thinking. A child needs to learn from the adults around him how to think about his feelings.
So where does this difficulty thinking about aggression come from? Many mothers and fathers reveal that they have experienced violence somewhere in their past. When Johnny whacks another kid with a truck, or hits them, it brings back a surge of feelings of intense stress and even rage. These feelings are completely unrelated to Johnny, but make it very difficult to think about Johnny’s experience from his two year old perspective. Other parents, like Roland’s mom, tell of having a sense from extended family and/or their social environment that aggressive feelings are bad.
Just as it is important for parents reflect and contain their toddler’s aggressive feelings, when children go to school and are behaving in unacceptably aggressive way it is essential to recognize the meaning of the behavior. Simply enforcing “bully –free zones” will not work. Often bullying reflects children’s experience of stress and violence at home. It may be more intense if as young children they did not learn to contain their aggressive feelings.
All of which points to two very specific needs. Our society must support parents in the challenging task of being fully present emotionally with their young children. We must provide a high quality and accessible mental healthcare system to support families in their efforts to help children who are struggling to contain and manage their aggression in the school setting. An acceptance of and respect for healthy aggression may in the long run decrease the risk of another Columbine.