Aggressive Behaviors or Intense Energy?
Topic: Aggressive Behaviors or Intense Energy?
When a parent describes their child as ‘aggressive’ they mean that they are hitting, biting, scratching, pinching, pulling hair, spitting in people’s faces, slapping, punching, kicking and generally using physical force. This term is also used if their child is biting their own hand, head banging or slapping their own head, and other self-injurious activities. In the dictionary ‘Aggressive’ is defined as follows: ‘Characterized by or tending toward unprovoked offensives, attacks, invasions, or the like; militantly forward or menacing: aggressive acts against a neighboring country.’ Thus when we use this word to describe our children’s behaviors, we are saying that our children are out to attack us. When they are self-harming, are we believing that they are attacking themselves in an unprovoked way? ‘Violent’ is another word that is used to describe the behaviors listed above. We often have parents seeking help from us who say things such as, “My child is becoming violent,” or professionals who say they are working with “a violent child.” ‘Violent’ is defined in the dictionary as follows:‘Extremely forceful actions that are intended to hurt people or are likely to cause damage, using or involving force to hurt or attack.’ When we call our children violent, we are suggesting that they are intending to hurt us. The word violent can conjure up images of murder and war, not something that we would attribute to a child with Autism.
A New PerspectiveAt the Autism Treatment Center of America, home of The Son-Rise Program, we do not take the view that children are attacking us in an unprovoked manner as the word ‘aggressive’ suggests, they are not somehow inherently bad, or really actually want to hurt other people. We believe that they are trying to take care of themselves in the only way they know. We do not label this behavior as ‘aggressive’, or ‘violent’ – we call it ‘intense energy.’ The label ‘intense energy’ has none of the judgmental associations that the words ‘aggressive’ or ‘violent’ have, and more accurately describes what is happening.
Below are two of the most common reasons why your child may have intense energy.
REASON #1 – SENSORY CHALLENGESWe know that our children’s sensory system is very challenged. They may have energy that is building up inside them that they do not know how to successfully release. When we have excess energy in our bodies we do some exercise to help release it. Autistic children do not seem to understand what is happening in their bodies and so create unique and interesting ways to relieve the buildup of energy. They bite, pinch and squeeze someone else with great determination and strength. The action of biting or pinching actually allows them to release this energy, helping them organize themselves physically.
Try this exercise:
- Find an object like a bouncy ball or a washcloth soaked in water.
- Really bite into it. Yes I do mean that. Sink your teeth into it with all your might.
- Do this three times, each time lasting at least 20 seconds.
- Clasp your hands together and really squeeze them, again not halfheartedly but with all your might.
- Do this three times, each time lasting at least 20 seconds.
- Write down how it felt to do this.
What are the signs?You may notice your child doing one of the following behaviors right before they hit or pinch you, or you may have seen an increase in these behaviors for the 30 minute period prior to their intense energy:
- Jumping up and down intensely
- Tensing part of their bodies, for example tensing their face so much so that it may shake a little.
- Bang any part of their body more vigorously with either their own hand or an object.
- Run around the house or room with increased energy.
- Yell sounds louder and longer than usual.
- Becoming more intense and faster in reciting their scripts from movies or books.
- Urgently fire questions at you when you know they know the answer.
- Get into a contrary pattern, where they ask for something, then say no when you give it to them, then ask for it again then say no when you re-offer it, and so forth.
What to do?The idea here is to give them the sensory input that they are seeking throughout the day, so that it does not build up to a moment when they will seek it from us using ‘Intense energy.’
You can do this by:
- Initiating squeezing your child’s hands, feet or head.
- Initiating a bear hug, you sitting behind your child and wrapping your arms and legs around your child so that you can give them a really big body squeeze.
- Rolling a big therapy ball over your child, this is a useful way to give a ‘bear hug’ to a bigger or older child.
- Encouraging your child to jump on a trampoline.
- For an older child 14 and above, I would suggest that you make sure that they get a lot of exercise, such as swimming, jogging/running/long brisk walks, jumping on a big trampoline, something where they really exert themselves. Do this three times a week.
How to respond to my child when they hit for this reason?
- Think the following thoughts:
- My child is hitting me in an attempt to take care of their sensory system.
- It means nothing about their love or respect towards me.
- I can help my child by giving them more sensory input to help them balance their bodies.
- These thoughts will help prepare you to respond in a peaceful, calm and loving way.
- Squeeze their hands, head or jaw
- If they are banging their head on you, offer to squeeze their head. Offer to squeeze their hands if they are pinching you. If they are biting you, offer pressure on their jaw line.
- Explain to them that they do not have to hit, pinch or head butt you, and that you would be happy to squeeze them whenever they want it.
Tips:–>For a child who likes to bite oftentimes as they are hugging, have a small chew toy in your pocket that you can offer them, or place pads underneath your t-shirt to guard your shoulders. –>If your child manages to bite you, move into the bite verses pulling away from it. For example, if they are biting your arm, push your arm into the bite; if you pull your arm away it will hurt more. Take your thumb and forefinger and push either side of your child’s jaw line, this will not hurt your child and makes them instantly open their mouth.
REASON #2 –THEY ARE COMMUNICATINGHitting, biting, slapping, spitting, punching, head banging, biting themselves can just simply be your child telling you that they want something. This can be the case for a child who has yet to become verbal and for a child who is highly verbal. If they believe that the people in their lives will get them something quicker if they hit either the person or themselves, then they may press the fast forward button by doing just that.
What are the signs?
- They pinch/hit/bite/punch right after you have told them that they cannot have something.
- They are having trouble making their wants understood.
- They hit within different games usually rough and tumble – this can be your child’s way of re-initiating the game with you.
Try this exercise:Answer the following questions in the context of responding to your child hitting you when they want something or are having a challenge communicating to you what they want:
- How is your body reacting? Does your heart beat faster? Do your hands start to sweat?
- What are you feeling? Angry? Sad? Scared? Happy?
- How do you move? Faster? Slower?
- Do you give your child the object or activity they were asking for?
- If you do not understand what they want, do you offer them many different things?
What to do?
- Think the following thoughts:
- My child is clever! He is trying to get what he wants by the quickest route possible.
- This means nothing about me.
- I know what to do. I can help my child by moving slowly and letting him know that I do not understand him when he hits.
- Move slowly.
- This is very important. We want to show our children that any form of intense energy will not help them get what they want quicker, in fact it makes people slower.
- Tell your child that you do not understand what they mean when they hit you. Explain also that even if they hit you, it is not going to change the situation and you are still not going to take them to the store or park.
- Move out of the way, and give an alternative.
- Now that you know why your child behaves in this way be prepared. If your child wants something to which the answer is no:
- Know that they may hit you.
- Step out of the way, so they cannot reach you with their hands. This will give you time to protect yourself by catching their hands and squeezing them, or offering something else to hit, like a ball or a drum.
- If your child is an adult or bigger than you, always have a big therapy ball or a big cushion available that you can put between you and your child to protect yourself. If you think they may hit you, put it between you so that it is ready for your protection. Believe that you are strong and hold it in place with all your determination, do not let it go.
- Do not give your child the thing they hit you for.
- This is very important! You want to help your child understand that intense energy of any kind will not get them what they want. This is a very important skill to teach your child, one that will serve them socially in the years to come.
- If you want to give your child the thing they just attempted to hit you for, make sure that you ask them to communicate in a different way before you give it to them. Ask them to point to it, or use an approximation of the word, or the word itself. Celebrate them for doing this, and make sure you explain to them that you are giving it to them because they communicated in this different way, not because they hit you.
- Be Persistent and Consistent.
- You already have a history of moving fast when your child hits you, thus it may take a little time for your child to realize that this is no longer the way you respond. Keep responding in the way outlined above until they get this concept. (see Timing & Persistence)