OTTAWA — While she didn’t know what to do, Kathy Buist knew one thing: The sort of parenting she was doing, the sort her parents had done and the sort seemingly everyone else thought should work was not working.
“Before my daughter was diagnosed with ADHD, it was World War III at our house,” Buist said. “Traditional parenting did not work for me. Nothing worked.”
That was a decade ago. The class made such a difference Buist told the organizers she’d like to train to teach it. Buist has been teaching the class as part of the Parent Project for at least eight years now, and understands parents who come to her with their hands thrown up in the air in frustration.
“When you have a child that is out of control, overly aggressive, you just don’t know what to do,” Buist said. “We teach parents to see what works best for them, not what everybody else thinks they should be doing. The way you were parented is completely different that what happens now. When I took this course, within two weeks things were better at my house. Now, it wasn’t overnight. Sometimes, we’d take two steps forward and five steps back.”
Answers to questions about parenting aggressive children are as varied as situations are, said Kelly Smith, a family aide with Allen County Children Services. Smith previously taught the Parent Project class in Allen County and now conducts family visits and teaches things such as the “Choose Your Partner Carefully” class.
Sometimes families are seeing issues with their kids at a very young age, other times children exhibit aggressive and violent behavior as they get older. Some times, specific incidents or other problems trigger an issue. And, children in the foster care system struggle to accept rules and limits placed on them.
The displays of aggression can be varied as well, including biting, destroying property, pushing and kicking, bullying siblings and parents and harming animals. Often the behavior comes with other changes, such as school grades dipping or a failed relationship of a parent. If a parent notices changes for more than a couple of weeks to a month, they should seek out help, said Diane Gable, director of SAFY Behavioral Health.
“The earlier to pinpoint behavior and the earlier the intervention the better,” Gable said. “A small behavioral issue, such as stealing once from a drug store, is easier to deal with versus a habit or pattern.”
Gable sees families with toddlers already exhibiting strong-willed behaviors beyond normal stubbornness for 1 and 2-year-olds. If parents and their children can’t develop typical attachment and bonding, they’re setting themselves up for more severe problems as children age.
Teachers are often the first people to alert families children are having trouble. Special education specialists at Lima schools say they have seen an increase in the seriousness of mental health issues children are experiencing; children often have entire teams of professionals — from inside and outside the school — working on answers. Teams that include counselors, teachers, social workers and parents are often coordinating care and plans for a child.
“It can be anything or a combination of things and it’s tricky, figuring out the cause. Often, something is building,” school psychologist Matthew Bica said. “You might have a mental health issue that’s made worse by environmental factors or leaning difficulties.”
The experts have multiple tips for families, but at the top of the list for parents is to take a breath when in the middle of an emotional, physical moment.
“Take a timeout for yourself,” Buist said. “I put myself in timeout. My husband worked nights, and I did the bulk of the parenting. I would say, ‘I’m too upset to talk about this now.’”
Buist also helps parents plan for discussions with their children, and how to keep the conversation focused, not allowing a child to get off track or push buttons to get what they want.
Children do need their opinions valued, but in constructive ways, Buist said. They can help establish a few house rules that change as kids get older.
Especially older children need a chance to state their case, Gable said, who tries to move families from pointing fingers to developing more constructive interaction. For example, a family meeting is a good first step, Gable said.
“Honor the problem and have a meeting to talk about everyone’s perception of the problem. When one person is talking, everyone else is quiet,” Gable said. “If you can’t move through that easily, if it turns into a fight, I would turn to counseling and get someone else involved.”
Parents also need to remember they are the first, and most important, role models. Children are paying attention far more, and far more closely, than parents usually think about. It’s most important in the heat of the moment.
“Children are sponges. Parents are the most influential people in their children’s lives,” Smith said. “We hit home at remaining calm, never making a decision when angry. Especially when you’re dealing with a child who has aggressive behavior, it’s easy to something with serious consequences that you didn’t mean to do. We can teach ways to manage anger and address it in more appropriate ways.”
Smith also works with families to develop weekly goals, structures, routines and house rules. She advocates behavior charts that focus on the positive but provide specific consequences, without physical punishment, for the negative.
The old rules — setting limits, being consistent, following through and holding children accountable — still hold true and become more important, Smith said.
“We try to teach parents the foundations for all decisions is love and affection, and active forms of saying they love their children,” Smith said. “I can’t fix a child; we work with parents and the things they’re doing, because they have to model the behavior they expect of their child.”