Controversial topic alert.
I wasn’t prepared for how controversial this stance would be until my reel went viral (over 1M views on instagram) and received so many comments from parents and professionals about how what I was sharing was wrong and harmful.
One lovely woman even said, “I just want you to know, you’re a terrible Mom.”
Good thing I am so confident that this strategy is something that not only works for my daughter but so many other neurodivergent children that I can let those comments roll off my back.
If you’ve been on the fence about redirecting aggressive behavior or you’re doing it and are worried it’s not the right thing… this post is for you.
I’m sharing my personal and clinical reasoning behind redirecting aggressive behavior in children to clear some things up.
By the time you finish this blog post, you’ll either feel solid in your plan of responding to aggressive meltdowns or have a new strategy to try for the next one.
What neurodivergent meltdowns look like
Before we move on, let me set the scene for you.
You have a child with big feelings, maybe they’re neurodivergent, or maybe they have anxieties or sensory sensitivities.
They have huge meltdowns, lasting 20 + minutes and typically involve some form of aggression, like
When you try validating their feelings, they continue to be aggressive.
When you try telling them “ stop hitting!” They hit harder.
When you tell them to take a deep breath, they scream at you.
Sound familiar? Yep, we have those meltdowns too.
[PS- struggling with meltdowns? Grab my demystifying meltdowns workshop to learn how I approach this in my own house and when coaching my clients]
Stopping the meltdown is like stopping a moving train
Repeat after me. You can’t stop a meltdown.
I mean, you can certainly try, but trying to stop a meltdown is like trying to stop a moving train.
Even though I knew this, I didn’t believe this until I experienced it at home, after so many failed attempts at stopping my daughter mid-meltdown.
Finally, I realized that instead of asking her to go against the urge that her nervous system was giving her body, I decided to go with it but see if I could mold it into something a little safer, for everyone.
It’s kind of like when a train is going super fast speed and there’s a fork in the train tracks coming up.
On the track this train is on, there are a ton of people it could run into.
Since the train is going too fast to stop, it’s better to just redirect the train to that side track with all its momentum.
Remember, in the middle of an aggressive meltdown, your only goal is to keep everyone safe.
You want to protect people from being injured and property from being damaged.
But you also have a fast-moving (aka aggressive child) train with no time to stop.
So redirecting the behavior to something safer is the most effective option.
Redirecting aggressive behaviors to safer alternatives
Here are some ideas, and if you want to see them played out visually, check out this instagram reel.
If you have a child who hits or punches, you could redirect their hitting to a punching bag, a pillow, or a couch cushion.
If your child throws toys or other objects, offer them crumpled-up paper to throw, or go outside to throw ice cubes (my daughter loves this one, she loves the visual and auditory feedback of the ice cubes crashing).
If your child pushes or tackles people, ask them to try to push the wall down for 10 or 15 seconds, this provides proprioceptive input which could also be serving a sensory regulation purpose.
If your child uses their legs or feet like stomping or kicking, they could stomp on some recycled cardboard or jump on bubble wrap (seriously we keep a stash of bubble wrap handy for this very thing).
Some other helpful “safe destruction” actions include:
- Ripping up cardboard
- Crumpling paper
- Ripping mail/scrap paper
- Crushing recycle cans
- Chewing/biting on chewelry
The controversy about redirecting aggressive behaviors in children
So now that I’ve shared that with you, let me share the big controversy about it… why people had a hard time with this.
I hear things like, “Isn’t it confusing to teach my child to hit after telling them not to hit?”
My response is… well my boundary isn’t “no hitting”, it’s “you can’t hit me.” Or your sister etc.
Someone else has mentioned, “This feeds into aggression and teaches my child that every time they’re mad, they NEED to hit something, I want them to learn to take deep breaths instead of hitting”
My response is… yeah wouldn’t that be lovely to get to a place where our kids can be so pissed off that they can stop and take a deep breath instead of hit? That is the goal, I get it.
BUTTTTT…what’s our option until then?
Keep taking the hits and the kicks?
Keep going against the grain trying to get their body to do stop doing the thing that makes it feel like it’s protecting itself?
Shouldn’t we teach healthy coping skills instead?
For the record, I 100 percent believe that we should be teaching healthy coping skills for emotions like deep breathing, taking a break and expressing our needs verbally.
I teach my daughter this between each meltdown.
We are constantly role-playing, and practicing scripts, I prepare her for triggering environments, all of it.
And mostly it helps.
But she has bad days, like we all have bad days, and sometimes she can’t control her body.
And instead of her hitting me, I give her something else to punch, and guess what happened?
I’m not getting as many scratches or bruises.
We have fewer broken toys from being thrown because now she asks to throw ice.
Do I think when she’s 25 and she feels angry about something her boss or partner said she’ll need me to hand her a bucket of ice to throw?
No. I do think maybe she’ll have learned what her body needs in those moments.
Maybe she needs to have a punching bag in her room and exercise (completely functional) more often.
Or maybe she’ll take up ceramics because the act of throwing and kneading the clay will be an outlet.
As she gets older and bigger, her kicks are more powerful, her throws are more intense and she has more of a chance of causing actual damage and injury to people, and I also know that it’s unrealistic for me to expect those urges to suddenly disappear.
So when I see my daughter start to do that, I will continue to set the boundary that she can’t hit me or anybody else, if she needs to hit, she can hit this or take deep breaths with me (I will always offer a second option).
Outside of those moments, I will continue teaching emotional regulation skills.
Before we enter an environment or activity that is likely to trigger a meltdown,, I’d say something like, “When you start feeling your hands get tight and needing to hit, you can either punch this pillow or squeeze your hands together- you may not hit me.”
So my approach is always: remind her of the boundaries, remind her of the tools, and be there to help her enforce them and regulate with her if she needs it.
Looking for the best ways to support your neurodivergent child through intense, 20+ minute long meltdowns? The answer lies in supporting them through all 4 stages: before, during, after and BETWEEN the meltdowns. Grab this pre-recorded workshop for my step by step guidance.
The bottom line:
If you’re a parent of a neurodivergent child and are dealing with these intense aggressive behaviors that are getting harder to physically contain and nothing else is working for you in the moment, try redirecting the behavior.
This might not work for every child. Every child’s needs/family’s needs are different.
You know what’s best for your family.
This is my experience and what has been working for us.
Want to know more about my 4 step process and how I handle meltdowns, including the super aggressive ones? Check out my demystifying meltdowns workshop here.