Dealing with severe aggression in children

Having interviewed dozens of families, visiting with many for lengthy periods of time, and observing carefully parental learning, loving and leading of children with autism, aggression, physical limitations, environmental challenges and anti-social behavior, I’ve come to believe I know very little. I am totally amazed at how much effort it takes on the part of these parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers and others who love these children greatly to help these often gifted children see normal development for their individual lives. What is “normal” to us is certainly very seldom normal to them.

These loving patrons give time, talent and tremendous amounts of financial investment to help to ensure that their child has a fighting chance at life. I have two dear friends that I consider model parents of children with special needs in one way or another, and their gifts of intellect, interaction and involvement blow my mind. One has written a book that is surely most helpful to other parents struggling with the same issues.With this being written, I intend to deal today with a very sad situation and beg those I love to attempt to understand what I am writing. I recently had the opportunity or the challenge to deal with a child who is so aggressive and dangerous that he as a second grader in a public school has been banned from ever riding the bus to class. He has hurt several children and the teachers called for some type of intervention on the part of the parents. The grandmother volunteered to me that the mother could not or would not admit that her son had a problem and that she continued to react as though he did not. I found this hard to believe, but after four days and nights of observing the situation at close range, I saw it for myself and experienced the turbulence his actions can cause. As I wrote, it is sad, sad, sad.

The two adults and two children had only been in my home for about 30 minutes when I watched this almost 8 year old climb up to the top of our entertainment center, take down a very expensive sand globe or hour glass given to me by a dear friend for my last birthday, and begin to shake it furiously. It is a large object made of glass and my own grandchildren are not allowed to play with it. I bit my tongue and waited for the mother to suggest he put it back where he found it. She did nothing. Finally, my husband got up, took it forcefully from his hand and replaced it, only to have the child climb and retrieve it a second time. My husband then took it again and removed the object from the living room and placed it in our bedroom out of sight and far from inquiring hands.

An end-of-summer program was planned at our church for our Sunday school attendees and we invited this family to go with us since I had committed to help with the event. They accepted our invitation, and at the end of the evening, some gifts were given to the children who had earned them. The table decorations were used as prizes. I noticed in horror that this child was running from table to table gathering up all of the prizes he could hold in his hands. Please remember, he was a guest. I very quietly slipped over and suggested he put all of them down with the exception of one, which I told him he could keep. He literally threw a fit and demanded three sand buckets, several small toys, two games, and some sports equipment. While I was replacing the gifts he had gathered, I looked across the room and lo and behold, the mother had gathered up a large collection of the same gifts for her children. I gave up at that point and simply ended the gathering with as much dignity as I could muster.

When we came out of the fellowship hall, this young lad was stomping his feet and walking up and down the walkway screaming, “I am angry. I am so angry. I am so angry.” After five expressions of his anger, I asked, “What are you angry about?” He informed me that he wanted all of the gifts for himself. His grandmother later told me that the family had been told to encourage him to express himself and for them to allow it when it happened. Don’t know about you, but if I had “expressed myself” like this, my mother and grandmother would have disciplined me so that I no longer had any self-expression left. It was embarrassing.

When we got in the car to drive home, I tried to explain quietly and calmly that in a group everyone must share and that he was a guest and that whatever he received was a special blessing. He reached over and balled up his fist and hit the top of my hand so hard that I thought I heard bones break in an already arthritic hand that I use to make my living. I really had to exercise self-discipline to keep from hitting him back because he made me so angry at the moment. No one corrected him, told him to apologize or to stop hitting people.

Within the course of this visit, my receiver for DirectTV was broken from simply pushing buttons on the remote, changing things too quickly, and the controls for my Wii game console were slammed time and time again against each other until my husband took those to the bedroom, too. A glass tabletop was broken violently, several toys were destroyed, and my peace and sanity were on edge. When good meals were cooked and served, I was told, “Oh, so and so won’t eat that. We’ll have to make him a sandwich.” And one of the adults would barter and dicker until he agreed to eat something of his choosing. I stopped trying to please him after the first meal.

My personal closet was gone through, my jewelry rifled, my grandson’s room ransacked, the items on my desk where I work scattered, and not one time did I hear or see any correction, suggestion, or discipline. I fear for this child and for those he will be around in the future.I do understand children with needs, but I do not understand parents who do not see those needs because of their own deeply seated insecurities, self-interest or devotion to material things and worldly pursuits. Parenting is hard work and it takes dedication, determination and discipline done in love and prayer.

It seems so much easier at the moment to simply allow the child his own destructive behavior, but when that behavior affects the life and property of others, it is time for some regrouping, training and decision making. Several writers have offered suggestions for helping to modify this aggressive behavior in children. I have combined several lists to keep this advice short and practical and I pray it helps.

Experts in the field say that poor supervision is often a culprit and that when parents do not take or make the time to supervise behavior, it goes unchecked and gets worse with age. They also credit harsh or erratic discipline as adding to the problem. Parental disharmony often results in the managing of difficult children and parents must agree to work together. There are times when the rejection of the child — simply turning him over to his own devices — occurs. This is a very sad solution.

There is often low involvement in the child’s activities from the mother or father. Parents tend to view the problem from afar and offer little positive encouragement. There is this lack of encouragement and reinforcement of polite or considerate behavior in the child, combined with giving the proper attention to the child when he yells or throws a tantrum that causes the most danger.

In the situation I observed, only the grandmother ever admitted the child had a problem. It was simply much easier for the parents to deny it, and therefore, they did not have to deal with it. This solution can only end in horror for the child and those around him. God help these young parents who have taken on much more of a task than they can or will know.

Brenda Cannon Henley is an award-winning journalist and writer living on the Southeast Texas Gulf Coast. Having enjoyed more than four decades in ministry, Brenda shares her columns with our readers and works with churches and faith-based programs nationwide. She can be reached at (409) 781-8788 or at brendacannonhenley [at] yahoo [dot] com.