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Q&A #1: Should I let my child hit me, or a pillow?
22nd January 2023 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
00:00:00 00:25:10

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This episode kicks off a series of new episodes that I'm very excited about, which is based on listeners' questions. My goal is to produce shorter episodes that cut across the research base to help you answer the questions that are on your mind about your child's behavior and development.
Our first question comes from Dee in New Zealand, who wants to know: should she should do what her preschooler is asking and buy a pair of inflatable boxing gloves so he can hit her when he's feeling angry. Or would hitting a pillow be a better option?
If you'd like to submit your own question, you can record a video of yourself asking it in two minutes or less, upload it to a platform like Drive or Dropbox, and send a link to it at Alternatively you can go to the homepage and click the button to record your question for an audio-only option.
Other episodes referenced in this episode:
Jump to highlights
(02:18) Parent Dee’s question about her child (04:02) The six things going on in the question (06:19) The Catharsis Theory (07:18) Pointing out the difference in terminology about anger and aggression (09:38) Most of the research has studied cognitive behavioral therapy as a treatment for anger and aggression (11:22) The difference between adults and children in navigating situations (13:10) Anger in girls and boys (14:42) Addressing the difficult behavior instead of the reason for the behavior (16:00) The importance of self-regulation in managing feelings of anger (17:06) Most of us didn’t have great role models for how to cope with anger (22:23) Things to do to help a child regulate their feelings
  [accordion] [accordion-item title="Click here to read the full transcript"]   Jen Lumanlan 00:10 Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. And today I'm launching the first in a series of new episodes called Q&A. And my goal here is to take short questions from listeners and turn them into concise episodes that you can listen to for quick answers. When you have a specific question and you just want to know the answer to that question. I realize that it takes me a couple of weeks to research an average episode, and it takes you all a fairly long time to listen to it as well. And I know that while some folks really want to go in deep on learning about a specific topic, very often you just want to know what is the answer to this specific issue that I'm facing. So these episodes are really an attempt to give you that what you need in a very short, concise way. So this episode will be a little bit longer, partly because of this introduction and partly because this is actually a more in-depth question that we're going to get to today, which is on hitting and anger catharsis, so. So that's coming up in a second. Before we get to that, I just want to let you know if you have a question that you would like me to answer on one of these episodes, you can preferably record yourself on a video and send it and put it in a Google Drive folder or something like that and send it to If you would like to record an audio only question, you can do that on There's a button there that you can press and that will take you to a page where you can record the audio for your question in just a couple of minutes. So look for that if you would like to do that there. So these episodes are definitely going to be shorter, they're going to be more informal, they're not going to be as tightly scripted. I may make mistakes. So I'm trying to be OK with that and to really just get you what you need in a short period of time. OK, so the first question is actually from a parent who is in my parenting membership and she asked this question on a group coaching call recently, but I was not comfortable answering it on that call because I hadn't looked at the research at it yet. I had been on the deck for a while and I had been in the back of my mind, but I hadn't actually looked at the research. So I said could you please record that as a question and send it to me and I'll make that in the first Q&A episode. So here she is asking her question.   Dee 02:18 My question is, my three-year-old wants to hit people when dysregulated. Usually, this means angry, frustrated, excited. The hitting when excited, frustrated, seems really impulsive and is often directed at other children or sometimes us father, or me. That hitting when angry is mostly directed at me or my partner, and there's a desire to hurt us, I think; that's what our sees. We have problem solved this a few times now, and almost always asks for giant inflatable boxing gloves. I've also tried some other options like paper ripping, screaming into a pillow, but these are generally not accepted in the moment. Though I am optimistic, this will improve with age. I have been hesitant to get the boxing gloves because I don't understand the link between anger and physical aggression, and so I'm not sure if I should encourage the hitting when dysregulated even if it seems harmless and playful. My question, probably more specifically, is what's the source of the desire to hit? And my concern is that I inadvertently reinforced the link between dysregulation and aggression, and specifically anger and hitting. Okay, thank you.     Jen Lumanlan 03:50 OK, so this seems like a fairly simple question, right? Should I or should I not allow my child to hit me in a way that doesn't hurt me? Or should I let them hit a pillow as an alternative? And actually this is a really complex issue, so I've identified 6 things that are going on in this question. So firstly, we don't fully understand the link between anger and aggression, so we don't know what causes anger necessarily. We don't always know what leads from anger to aggression. We don't know why anger doesn't always lead to aggression. There's a lot of complexity that we don't fully understand. Secondly, different anger management techniques work for different people. Some people find hitting a pillow to be very useful to them. Others it doesn't help them at all. So we can't necessarily apply one solution and have that work for everybody. Thirdly, most of the research on anger and the process of navigating anger and managing that anger is done in adults, and then it's applied as if it were immediately relevant to children, when adults have a massively more developed brain and way more different kinds of tools available to them to manage their anger. So I don't think it's really necessarily right to look at research that's done on adults as if it automatically applies to children with no modification. Fourthly, anger in the expression of anger is discouraged among girls particularly so it goes underground, and boys are taught that anger is the only acceptable emotion, that is, that is OK to express. Fifthly, it's this assumes that anger is the thing to be addressed rather than the reason why the child is feeling angry. And I see this in parents’ questions that come up in the membership, in communities that I'm in where parents want to know what do I do about the anger my child is experiencing? And what do I do about the thing that the way that they're expressing that anger rather than looking at the underlying cause, what is the reason the child's angry? And then finally, most of us didn't have a reason to uh, sorry, most of us didn't have role models for how to cope with anger because the people who raised us, our parents, our caregivers saw our anger as a threat to their control over us. They wanted us to be under their thumb whether they had that was at their official goal or not. And that our anger was a threat to that control. So we, most of us didn't have a good role models for how we should actually navigate aggression in the course of normal relationships with other people.   Jen Lumanlan 06:19 And So what we're getting at here, I've mentioned this word a couple times now—Catharsis Theory. And so this is a theory that has been developed over the years. And Dr. Riccarda Karsten in the University of Innsbruck, Austria, defines it as “The concept of catharsis traces back to the ancient Greek idea and was later suggested by Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer as a treatment for hysteria, which is a very loaded word often applied to females. Note the link to hysterectomy. Um, it's sort of this, this female madness, as it were. So by experiencing and expressing repressed emotions, symptoms of psychological diseases were believed to be alleviated. A more recent definition of catharsis has been given by Geen and Quanty in 1977, who define aggression catharsis as a “hypothesized process which follows aggression and that is postulated, meaning we think it leads to a reduction in aggressiveness.” So there is aggression and there's this cathartic process in this model and then there's a reduction in aggression.   Jen Lumanlan 07:18 And so I just want to point out a bit of a difference in terminology in the way that I think about anger and aggression. So Karsten is using aggression to mean a feeling, and I see it a bit differently. I see anger as the feeling, and aggression is the thing that happens if catharsis fails, right? Like if we don't get it out in some way, then aggression towards another person follows. And that seems to fit better with how a lot of other emotion researchers think about this. Dr. Feldman says that “Anger, an emotion evoked when one’s goals are blocked or one experience is insult to the self or significant other is an intense adaptive approach in motion that requires the mastery of efficient regulatory strategies for proper functioning.” And so it's just sort of assumed that reducing anger is going to result in a reduction of aggression, so. The sort of that that correlation that's expected between those two things. So the link between anger and aggression could probably fill an entire full length episode, and maybe it will one day. A study of five-year-old children found that children who were more angry were also more aggressive, but there was not a simple anger causes aggression 1 to 1 correlation among children. The relationships between the anger and aggression were more complex than that. So I want to to look at each of the issues that I raised early in the episode and dig into them a little bit more deeply and work towards an understanding of what do we want to do about this parent’s question about should I let my child hit me, should I let my child hit a pillow.   Jen Lumanlan 08:49 So on the idea that we don't fully understand the links between anger and aggression that what that means is I can't give you a for sure answer that's true for everybody because for one thing we don't understand this very well for anybody. And secondly the vast majority of this research is done in a lab and it may not have any real-world application whatsoever. You know, these are people that the researchers are doing experiments like making somebody angry and then giving them a test on something else and seeing how well they perform on the test. And that has no relation whatsoever to how I feel in my real life when my best friend does something that I don't like. So it's possible the results that researchers are finding in the lab have no real world relevance. Going back to the second idea that that different anger management techniques work for different people, most of the research has studied cognitive behavioral therapy as a treatment for anger and aggression, actually. And that is based on the idea that if we if we change the behavior, right, if we, the clinician can get the patient to change their behavior, then the problem is gone. There is no more anger. There is no more there, there's just nothing to worry about here. And the research indicates that this may be moderately effective at changing behavior, right? We may be able to train people, adults particularly, maybe also children, to change the way they express their anger, but the cause of the behavior is still there, we're not actually necessarily making the anger go away. We may be making the aggression go away. We're not making the anger go away. We're just training the person that it's not OK to express it. So for me that's sort of a non-starter, especially when we're working with children who may not have consented to engaging in some kind of therapy to change the way that they are expressing their feelings. And, and so we're sort of moving into the idea that that it's not OK to express anger. So I'll come back to that in a second. Our third point was that most of the research is done on adults and used as if it was immediately relevant to children when adults have way more developed brains, wider set of tools. So I mean this, this is sort of intuitive, right. Adults have a much better capacity to wait. We can defer a potential reward for a much longer period of time. Unless of course we're struggling with something like ADHD, which can make the ability to wait much more difficult. But even with ADHD, an adult is probably going to have a bit more of a capacity to wait than a child does. Adults can imagine a wider array of strategies that might help them to navigate the situation, and also a wider array of tools that they can use, like making a list to help you remember the strategies, whereas children are trying to they can’t write yet, they can't read yet necessarily. They they're using a smaller array of strategies and they don't have a way of remembering them in, especially in the difficult moments when they're feeling dysregulated. So adults may have a goal to express less aggression. Very often children don't have that goal, right? And this is it. This is something that adults may see how it affects the people around them. Children may not be making that correlation yet. They may not be seeing the effect that their behavior has on somebody else necessarily so. So an adult may have a goal of reducing their aggressive behavior, whereas a child may not have set that goal, which is going to impact their ability to put these strategies to use. So we can't just say that most of, as most of the popular articles on this topic do, you know, if you Google, should I let my child hit a pillow or, you know, anger in children, something like that. Most of the popular articles that pop up are going to say they're gonna cite one study of college students who are given deliberately bad evaluations no matter what their work was like. The evaluation says your work is terrible, and then they're told to hit a punching bag while they think about the person who gave them the evaluation, and that those people report feeling more anger. Then a person who sat quietly for two minutes instead, and so most people say, well, because those students in that situation felt more angry when they hit the punching bag, then we should tell children that it's not OK to punch things. But as we have seen, that doesn't necessarily translate. Just because that finding happened in the college students doesn't mean it's applicable to a real-world situation with children. OK, the 4th point, anger is usually discouraged among girls, so it goes underground. And boys are taught that anger is the only acceptable emotion to express. So in our culture it's not OK for girls to express anger, never mind aggression, right? So we tend to praise and reward the good and the nice and the cooperative behavior in girls, and we don't give in to expressions of anger when those when those are expressed and we withdraw love and affection. And we train our girls it is not OK to express those feelings. So that doesn't mean that girls stop feeling anger. It just means that they learn to cover it up and then they get into doing things like excluding each other and talking behind each other's backs as a way of managing those angry feelings that are still there. They didn't go anywhere, they're just managing them differently. And so if you would like to learn more about that, my interview with Doctor Marina Gonick will go into much more depth on that. I'll put a link in the show notes for this episode. We don't reward emotional expression among boys. The only way that they can get big feelings across to us is through anger. And if we think, oh, well, I'm not raising a boy, this isn't an issue for me, then girls police this as well, right? Girls tell boys not to cry. Mothers, parents, you know, female relatives tell boys not to cry. Ostracize boys if they express sensitive feelings.   Jen Lumanlan 14:31 So moving into the 5th, the 5th idea of assuming that anger is the thing to be addressed rather than the reason the child is feeling angry, to me this is a really, really critical point. So we're assuming that the difficult behavior is the thing that needs to be addressed, instead of looking underneath that behavior and thinking what is the need the child is trying to meet here and how could we help that child to meet that need and potentially meet our need at the same time. So, you know, I'm thinking of a. hypothetical example my child hits me. Maybe they're tired, maybe they're hungry, maybe they're stressed because we I said no to something else that that they wanted to do earlier in the day. Maybe they have been spending all day kind of needling at their siblings, their siblings needling at them, and it's finally catching up and it's all compounding into this one hit, which was the behavior that we saw. And so we can instead of addressing the hit, how do I stop my child from hitting address the individual things that led up to that hitting behavior. So this child's need is not to hit, right? It's not that the child wants to hit necessarily. It's about whatever the need was not met in the child before the child wanted to hit. And yes, the child may say hitting feels good. Hitting is the only thing I want to do. Yes, when I'm dysregulated, it can feel good, but that ignores the unmet need that led into that hitting behavior.   Jen Lumanlan 16:00 So. Dr. Pamela Cole writes about the importance of self-regulation in managing feelings of anger. And so she says, “Self-regulation includes both a.) socially appropriate persistence and overcoming a barrier, and b.)...