Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Aggressive Child

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 7, 2012

Daniel, six, with a two-year old brother, Jonathan, knew that Jonathan was the favorite. He was angry when Jonathan was born, very angry. Daniel acted out his anger with aggression, which further confirmed to Daniel’s parents, that he was the “bad child.” This was my theory as to why Daniel was so violent, both at school and at home. Many teachers, family members, and other professionals saw his aggression as either part of a “spectrum” disorder or an impulse-control disorder such as ADHD. In my office, Daniel was indeed quite aggressive. He would take off his shoes so that he could throw them at me. Yet, I saw his aggression as a way that he communicated that his emotional needs were not getting met, and he needed me to understand that. I explained to Daniel that throwing his shoes was unacceptable in that I did not want to get hurt and I  did not want him to hurt others. We could use my pillows to “play” in a way which might get out some of his aggression, but we could not use the pillows to hurt each other. He understood the fine line between physical play and aggression. Eventually, Daniel calmed down in my office, but he continued his aggression at school and at home. With that in mind, I began seeing his parents on a monthly basis. Both the mother and father agreed that Jonathan was a “much easier child,” suggesting that they did favor him at home. Jonathan made them feel like competent parents, whereas Daniel, partly because he was the first-born, and partly because he was more prone to acting out, made them feel like they were “parental failures”. I worked with the parents to help them see that as they felt like “parental failures”  where it came to Daniel, they then unconsciously encouraged Daniel to be aggressive as a way of denying their role in his behavior. As Daniel got into more trouble at school, the parents felt more relief that Daniel had “issues,” thereby taking away their feeling of “parental failure”. The cycle of parental inadequacy leading to the unconscious wish for Daniel to show that his issues are “organic” and not environmental caused the downward spiral of increasingly difficult behaviors. However, I pointed out to them that although Daniel’s behavior is getting worse, in my office, his behavior is getting better, suggesting that with appropriate limits, Daniel can calm down. Winnicott’s idea of a holding environment comes alive again. Daniel felt “held” in my office, so he did not need to be aggressive in order to feel understood that his emotional needs were not getting met. Daniel’s parents, for complicated reasons, were not able to create this “holding” environment at home. Violence is often a communication tool; a tool to wake up those around that the aggressor needs attention. Sometimes people do not want to be woken up. My work is to find a way to gently nudge a “wake-up” in these parents. I suspect that when I do arouse these parents, Daniel will be “cured”. We will see.

4 Responses to “The Aggressive Child”

  1. Jon said

    This seems to be a sad example of a destructive feedback loop. Daniel is angry. His parents view him as a “bad child.” This only makes Daniel angrier.

    Your “wake-up” nudge, when you find it, will be the necessary tool to break this loop. Good luck and good speed.

    • “A destructive feedback loop” is a very apt description, except that I would add that it is unconscious in that the parents do not believe that their ideas about Daniel are shaping his behavior, but rather they see his behavior as shaping their ideas. Finding the “wake up” nudge involves minimizing their defensiveness so that they can see that they are part of the problem, without being overwhelmed by that notion. Thanks, as always, for your thoughts and support.

  2. Shelly said

    Wow, Shirah, you fell for it. Congrats! The age-old adage that every grandparent says to a frustrated parent, “but he never acts that way with me!” WIth appropriate limits, Daniel will suddenly appear to be a different child– as if his poor parents haven’t already tried everything already? Why must everyone always blame the parents instead of trying to curb Daniel’s aggressiveness before he hurts his sibling and that too will be blamed on the parents?

    • Shirah said

      Oh dear. Sometimes, I agree, there is very little the parents can do to help a child. Other times, however, I think there is a lot that parents can do. Each child and each family is different. This is not about blaming the parents, as much as it is about how, for some children, structured parenting is vital to a sense of containment. Clearly, as you point out, this does not always work. Thanks, as always, for presenting the alternative point of view.

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