autistic challenging aggressive child
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8 Tips for Coping with An Aggressive Child

A mother in our group has written this excellent guide to coping with an aggressive child in order to help other parents who may be in a similar situation.

These are some tips that I have picked up along our journey. I am by no means an expert, but there are some things that I learnt the hard way and I’m hoping that by listing them here, I might be able to help other parents who are in our situation.

1: It isn’t your fault

This sounds obvious, but it is really hard to remember this when your child is shouting at and hurting you. It truly isn’t your fault; don’t waste energy beating yourself up over it and trying to work out what you may have done wrong. If you are reading this and trying to do something to help your child, then you are a fantastic parent and I really hope the following helps.

2: Behaviour is communication

It may be hard to believe at the moment, but children use behaviour as communication, they don’t usually wake up in the morning determined to make life hard. I found that once I understood this, I had a lot more patience with my son. One of the best ways that I have heard autistic behaviour described is the ‘Coke Bottle Effect’. Imagine your child is like a Coke bottle; every time that something causes them stress is like one shake of the bottle until eventually the bottle explodes.

For an autistic child the things that can cause them stress can be very insignificant to us and therefore we don’t fully appreciate the effect of these on the child. Some examples of this could be their teacher wearing stronger perfume than normal or a different type of bread used for their packed lunch.

3: Keep a diary

I was advised to buy a week to a page diary and write in it details of my son’s aggressive outbursts. This includes what triggered the outburst, how long it lasted, what caused it to end, and a rating – 10 being the worst ever and 1 being not very much aggression at all.

We very quickly started to see patterns. For example, Sundays are always a problem day for us, probably because he was getting stressed about school on Monday.

We also started to keep notes in the diary of other things that could affect his mood, such as sessions with his mentor, non-uniform days at school or other significant changes to the routine. It may seem that this is a lot of work, but I really do recommend it as understanding the patterns and triggers in the behaviour can help you to help your child deal with these emotions better.

4: Keep siblings safe

Again this is something that probably doesn’t need saying, but it is so important. The aggression from our kids is a form of domestic violence, and our role is to not only ensure that siblings are kept safe, they must also be protected from witnessing their parents being victims of this violence.

We were advised to create an emergency plan with a family member. My mum has spare pyjamas, a toothbrush, etc., at her house and we can ring her and she will come and get my youngest son and take him to hers for as long as is needed. We have also explained to him that if we tell him that he needs to go to his room for a bit, it is not a punishment, it is to keep him safe.

5: Be prepared to make lifestyle adjustments

A lot of my frustrations were because it was so hard to do things that a ‘normal’ family can do. One of our biggest problems was car journeys, as my son regularly got aggressive in the car.

Once we got into the habit of splitting the boys up so that one was in the front with the driver and the other was sat in the back with the other adult. We then had far fewer problems with car journeys. We have also had to adjust our sleeping arrangements so that the boys don’t have to share a bedroom.

6: Don’t be afraid to talk about the aggression

What you are experiencing is serious and you need to get help, but unfortunately help is really hard to get. If you have any professionals working with you, then talk to them about it. Show them the diary as this will give them an idea of how often you are experiencing this. I also made voice recordings on my phone, which proved really useful as well.

If you don’t have a social worker or paediatrician, then talk to the SENCO at your child’s school as they are able to make referrals. There will also be a school nurse linked to the school who you can ring. Once you have spoken to someone, keep on talking to them. Unfortunately you have to keep badgering to get help.

7: When it’s ended, it’s ended

Once the aggression has ended, the child needs to have chance to recover. They will not only be exhausted from the physical exertion but they will be mentally exhausted. Try not to bombard them with questions as this will be confusing and they may not remember very much about what has just happened.

Also try not to dish out consequences, this could increase the child’s frustration, particularly if they don’t know why they got angry in the first place and they don’t have the ability to control it. I found it much better to reward the times when I could see that my son started to get angry and then controlled it.

8: Remember the positives

It can sometimes be really hard to see past the aggression. I found it helped me to take photos of my son while he was happy doing everyday things like playing with Lego, going out for a walk etc. These were not photos for Facebook or sending to Grandma; these were photos for me to keep on my phone and look at when I felt really low, to remind me of the lovely son that was still there underneath the aggression.

Unfortunately, this is a tough journey and you have to work at finding the strategies that work for you and your child. However, you are not alone. There are many parents going through the same thing and it does help to remember that. Just don’t be afraid to talk about it and ask for help.

Additional reading:

  • Lives in the Balance – an American website with advice on how to support children with aggressive behaviour
  • Tips for challenging behaviour
  • Violent & Challenging Behaviour: The Basics – information from Yvonne Newbold, who is working extensively in this area
  • Please see our page on Police Passports for a tool on what you can use to protect yourself, siblings, and your autistic children who might come into police contact.
  • Please see our page on What is Proprioception? as this can help explain underlying sensory needs that can lead to aggressive and physical behaviours in autistic children.
  • Heavy Work activities can help meet proprioceptive sensory needs and so can reduce physical and agressive-type behaviours.