Reacting to an angry child

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

From the archives: The original post was posted on 9th June, 2000

When a toddler hits a parent, should the parent communicate their honest reaction, whether it be showing hurt if they’ve been hurt, or any emotional response, such as feeling anger or sadness?

A poster wrote:

Take the case of a toddler, where aggression (hitting, throwing) is directed towards the parent as a result of anger over various kinds of frustration that I think are common to toddlerhood, such as frustration over a request not being understood immediately, or misunderstood, or the immediate frustration over not getting something (before finding a solution can be attempted). My sense is that in order for the child to learn from the situation, it is useful for the parent to communicate their honest reaction, whether it be showing hurt if they’ve been hurt, or any emotional response, such as feeling anger, or sadness. 

I think this is all true, even the showing anger part. However, it is vital to keep in mind that the usual (i.e., not Taking Children Seriously) purpose of displays of emotion is to cause pain, and if even a small amount of that happens, the parent will be systematically removing the conditions which make consent-based decision-making possible. If when the child behaves contrary to the parent’s wishes, the parent intentionally inflicts pain, this violates what ought to be the object of the exercise once Taking Children Seriously has broken down – which is to restore the conditions for Taking Children Seriously.

Is showing one’s reaction in this situation (because the parent is the “victim”) different from “intentionally punishing the aggressor, either physically or by even frowning at the aggressor” as cautioned against above? If not, how does the toddler learn that his action has had a real effect upon the one that has been hurt? I’m assuming that any explanation of the morality of this situation has to include the reason why hitting is not “right” (because it hurts someone else).

This conveying of information about morality, etc., should have happened a lot earlier! At the point where everything has gone wrong, that is not the best time to start conveying it. It is a very bad idea to convey the idea that us not being hurt is the reason you are being hurt. That is a very bad trade-off to put in someone’s mind.

To put that another way, if one is not careful, one may inadvertently give the child the impression that there is no possibility of finding a solution we all prefer, and that the situation – and worse, life more generally – is a zero-sum game – where I win and you lose, or you win and I lose. If winning is at the expense of another, then most often, no one wins. Instead, we should all be thinking of finding real solutions. The child should not be given the impression that they are impossible. If you were to grow up believing that life is a zero-sum game, just how open to consent-based decision-making would you be?

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2000, ‘Reacting to an angry child’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/reacting-to-an-angry-child/