When my son was 5, we started to experience some hitting and kicking from him when he had big feelings. Pure empathic limits, where I offer a combination of empathy (e.g “I see you’re not happy with this”), a clear verbal limit (e.g. “I can’t let you hit/kick me”) and a physical limit to stop the hitting/kicking (e.g. gently holding his hands or feet), were just not working for us. There was no shift in energy, no emotional release through crying of the feelings underlying the behaviour, but instead we were just getting ‘stuck’ in his aggression and my frustration.
One day, I was inspired to introduce some play in these moments. I grabbed a huge pillow and said, “I’m not going to let you hit me (my limit), but this pillow loves being hit!”, and pretended to be the pillow, saying things in a funny voice, “Oh yes, I love being hit! Hit me! Hit me!”. I encouraged my son to get his hits and kicks out on the pillow and it turned into laughter and diffused the situation. Remembering here, that his laughter is healing, it releases feelings of frustration and powerlessness. This game also seemed to meet my son’s underlying need in these moments when he was hitting and kicking: connection.
Another variation I came up with was to hold the pillow up to hit and say in a funny frail voice, “I’m just a wee (i.e. small) pillow!”, then mock sobbing when he hit the pillow. Sometimes when we played this version, my son asked me to say this over and over, and laughed and hit the pillow. The power reversal in this game gave him an opportunity to play the bigger, stronger one and release feelings about having been the smaller, weaker one in the past. This version of the game also had the added element of allowing ME to work with my sweet spot around being hit. The “young” part of me that felt hurt and victimised when I was hit by my son was able to authentically express these feelings in a funny way, and release them through laughter.
One of the aims of parenting in this way is to convey an acceptance of the whole range a child’s feelings, while providing appropriate limits in terms of not hurting people or damaging other things. These games communicated my willingness to connect with and love my son through his uncomfortable feelings and aggressive urges, while ensuring that his actions were not hurtful to anyone. And because the aggression was being directed towards the pillow, it was easier for me not to take it personally, and I could be more accepting and encourage full expression of my son’s feelings. The games also supported the release of feelings of frustration and powerlessness through laughter, and shifted the situation from one of aggression (and disconnection) to beautiful connection.