Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Hello. Welcome back to another Beyond the Sessions segment of the Securely Attached podcast. I am really excited to dig into this listener question with you, Rebecca, and geek out on the science. So let’s get right into it.


Okay, I got the following email from a mom and she wrote, I’ve heard there are studies being done now that say that the ways we were all taught to manage anger are wrong. I had always thought we wanted to teach our kids to do things like stomp their feet or punch a pillow when they’re mad. But now I’m hearing that this letting it out method isn’t actually helpful and we should teach kids strategies to just calm themselves down when they’re mad instead. So I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the best way to help a child when they’re upset. Thanks so much. Okay. I think this is a super important question and I’m glad this mom had just sort of the wherewithal to say, I need clarification because there is contradicting information out about this and there’s contradicting information from what I believe are really credible sources on both sides. So we might not even come to a complete conclusion definitive one way or the other on this. But I have a feeling you have lots to say about this. I know I do, but…

Dr. Rebecca (01:58):

Let’s applaud this mom for knowing the science and thinking about the science when it comes to parenting, but also recognizing that something sounds fuzzy about it. There’s so much about this question that I feel like is so admirable.

Dr. Sarah (02:12):

Yes. So, okay, let me just review some of the things that I think this parent is hearing. On the one hand, I think there is a lot of talk to parents and to kids that when children engage in aggressive behaviors that it is we want to redirect them to something less destructive, but that matches that need to release. So this is that catharsis theory idea which comes out of science that says if you need to release aggression, better to do it in a way that doesn’t actually hurt anybody. So punch a pillow or punch a punching bag. And on the one hand, I actually think that there’s a use case for that. I also am aware of research that is also very valid that says we actually have studied aggression and anger and giving people more aggressive outlets for releasing that anger that are still socially acceptable, like punch a punching bag or punch a pillow actually leads to more aggression and it doesn’t affect or improve mood afterwards.


And so that’s a legit study too. And I think to be fair, that study was done with college age students, not little children, which may or may not matter. We don’t have the research to kind of speak to that. But I also think there’s a use case for that, which is it makes sense to me that if we constantly pair an aggressive urge or impulse with a physical release of that aggression. So even if it’s safe, safe, like punching a pillow or punching something else that we’re pairing that action with that urge neurologically. And so that might prime a child to be more likely to use that same movement to release that urge when it’s not safe. Maybe I am going to, if I always punch something when I’m mad, am I going to be able to differentiate a punching bag from my little brother when I’m really, really mad? And maybe not. Do we want to give children alternatives that don’t look anything like punching as a way to regulate their anger? And I would say yes to that. I also have definitely encouraged parents to give kids an outlet that matches the intensity of their anger. And it’s like a harm reduction model. I would rather have a kid punch a pillow than their brother. So I’ve said both. I’ve contradicted myself in this way too. So I’m curious what you think, Rebecca. It’s a little nuanced.

Dr. Rebecca (05:11):

The thought that I just had was that I am overwhelmed by my own thoughts. I have so many things to say. I mean, first of all, the idea that we can compare college students and young kids, I think one of them has a theoretically mostly developed prefrontal cortex and one of them doesn’t. Their brains look very different. I also think, what are we calling anger, right? I’ve read that anger. You don’t want to do a high arousal response, so you don’t even want to go for a run, let’s say when you’re angry because that doesn’t help. But how many of us can really truly on a day-to-day practical level differentiate, let’s say anger versus stress? I’m really angry, let’s say at my boss, but actually it’s covering up that I’m really stressed about my work and I go for a run and I feel better.


But oh, wait, there’s research saying that I wouldn’t feel, I mean, I think these, I’m a giant fan. This is going to sound so dumb. I’m a giant fan of science, I think, and I think it can be really, really illustrative. And I think there’s ways in which it’s just so important to highlight the limitations when it comes to day-to-day life. Just like you said, if the choice is giving your really active kid, it’s one thing to say go punch a pillow versus punch your newborn brother. But what about a trampoline? What about the fact that your toddler may typically be able to spend a lot more time outside, but now there’s a newborn baby, and so childcare is minimal and they have all this energy and sometimes little kids use their energy to hit their newborn and it’s their newborn brother. And it’s not about anger. It’s about I’m being rough and might the bouncing on the trampoline. I mean, I don’t know. I just think these statements open up so many more questions than they do provide answers. And so I agree. I have given probably advice that if you lined it all up would come across as polar opposite. And that’s because families are different and situations are different and kids are different. And that’s why there is no formula for some of this.

Dr. Sarah (07:30):

Right? Which what you’re saying, I’m like a light bulb is blasting bright in my head right now. I just realized, okay, that distinction you made about getting really clear on is this anger. And more specifically, I would even take it further to say, even if I’m seeing anger, what’s beneath the anger is this child is angry because this thing happened that made them angry and they’re reacting to it versus even deeper, is there a regulation kind of tax on their system? For example, if you have a newborn sibling and you’ve got all of these little micro stressors that are now in your life as a result of this transition in your family rhythm and your parents’ attention and bandwidth right now, your nervous system is getting all of these little mini loads added to it, added to it, added to it. And then yes, the sibling, the new baby cried when you wanted something and mom had to go to them and not you, and it just totally flipped their lid.


And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and they punched or hit. We could address the hitting and we could address the anger, but we’re really still kind of very much at the tip of that iceberg. There’s so much more that could really be considered when we’re thinking about what led to that kind of critical moment of the hit. And I think that’s also important and has very little to do with what this research is studying, what these studies are actually looking at. They’re looking at kind of the top of the iceberg, part of the expression of anger and the experience of arousal and urges and what do we act on and what do we don’t act on? What do we act on and what do we not act on? But if we really want to get a much more holistic picture, I do think we have to look at the sort of nervous system load. I’d be more inclined to intervene there than giving a kid a pillow or not giving a kid whatever. But I also know that a kid who’s mad enough to hit having them take a couple deep breaths is very rarely an option, whereas a college student might be able to access some deep breathing when they’re mad. So there’s a whole nother developmental piece.

Dr. Rebecca (10:07):

I just think it’s like I can picture parents listening to this and being like, wait, I need to now analyze. Is this the iceberg or the tip? It’s always not the tip of the iceberg. So I mean, I hear the parents’ confusion in the question and just, I think my big response would be, take it easy on yourself. Do what works with your kid. Try different things. I mean, I just think that’s the other thing about research is that it’s always about a sample size of however many people, and it’s always about size and regression to the mean or whatever. I may not even be using that term correctly. I’m hearkening back to grad school stats. But your kid, it’s like when parents ask me about, which maybe we could do an episode on, but does sugar impact behavior and all the research shows? No, all the research shows it’s just placebo, but that doesn’t mean that sugar or perhaps something that frequently goes hand in hand with sugar doesn’t affect your child. And so again, I think we’re getting at this larger question of it’s a tremendously dangerous prospect, witness our world to say, okay, we’re just going to dismiss the science. Just do what works for your kid and family. You could justify corporal punishment if you did that right?


And it’s really important to look at it all through a nuanced lens and be critical of how the science may not apply to your day-to-day life. And it’s really hard to walk that line. And I don’t know that I realistically in this podcast episode can come up with for this particular question of giving a kid a pillow. And again, I would say, are we differentiating between punching a pillow versus jumping on a trampoline? And I don’t know that I have any answer as to what to do in a straightforward way, even if it’s to back up and look at the issue and then you have your answer. I just think there’s no answer necessarily for your kid in your family at four o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday.

Dr. Sarah (12:41):

And I totally agree with you, but I do think one, the whole point of this podcast in general is to help parents be educated consumers of parenting content. I want parents to writing questions like this. I’m hearing this that contradicts this, which should I believe? And while the very true and very frustrating answer is, well, it depends on all these variables including your own child and the time of day. So I can’t answer your question, that’s all totally true. But also, I mean, you and I have worked with, gosh, over a thousand families if we put it all together between the two of us, maybe even more like there are patterns. There are things that anecdotally, qualitatively, I have sort of observed in the families that I work with and my own children that definitely don’t always fit sort of the rules that we can extrapolate from science that feel very valid and sound.


And so I feel like one, it doesn’t mean we should throw those things out. I do agree that if a child is always given a prompt to hit a punching bag or to go chop wood or to go do some other expression of aggression when they’re feeling aggressive or feeling angry, it’s likely that that’s going to be something that will become their go-to. And just knowing brain science, it makes sense. What you pair tends to become more easily connected. So if you want to mitigate that, offering a wide range of coping strategies in the moment and seeing which one sticks, maybe sometimes it is going to be the only thing accessible to that child is to hit something, and so we go there because it’s better than hitting your brother. But if we could build that coping toolbox over time by intentionally outside of the hot moments, working on other things that we can do when we’re feeling mad to help us get that mad feeling out, knowing, I think that I believe this, and I think this is a regulation kind of lens, which is if your child’s at a 10 and they need to figure out what to do with that 10 level, 10 anger, giving them a coping strategy that works at a level four, anger isn’t going to work.


Just like with grownups, if I’m furious drinking a cup of chamomile tea will not help me in that moment. I will want to just throw that cup on the floor, but going down to a level eight, if I want to flip the table in a meeting that’s going just so frustratingly awful, and I say instead, you know what? I got to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back, and I go to the bathroom and I like quiet scream in the stall, right? That’s a level 10 coping mechanism that might release some of that level 10 rage. Will it feel as good as flipping the table? No. Will it work better though than trying to drink a cup of chamomile tea? I think so, and I feel that that’s true for kids. I always tell parents to try to understand what level of dysregulation your child is at and give them something or adaptive enough to help regulate that level of intensity or release it. And so I do think that contradicts sometimes this idea of punching back.

Dr. Rebecca (16:32):

And I’m going to throw a wrench in all of it because there’s a whole other body of research. If you look at like Peter Levine and the whole Somatic Experiencing body of research that talks about how one of the reasons that human beings experience PTSD whereas wild animals in the world who are not in captive do not is because wild animals complete their fight or flight response, whereas human being, I mean this is widely studied now, human beings, again, look at Bessel VanDerKolk. The body keeps the score because we undergo traumas, whether it’s little T or capital T, when we hold those in our body, then we experience symptoms. Even there’s research on burnout. But if you run up and down the stairs a few times, basically the research is that you don’t have to get rid of the stressor in order to complete the stress response. So if you are very stressed, let’s say about the patriarchy, you can potentially, without getting rid of the patriarchy, run up and down the stairs a few times and it won’t solve your issues per se with the patriarchy, but it will help your body metabolize and process feelings of rage and perhaps trauma in a healthier way.


Look at exercise. Look, I mean, again, I just think it’s like, okay, so we’re talking about anger and hitting a pillow, but boxing, if you frame it as exercise is shown to help with mental health issues, I want to come back to the purpose of the podcast, which is how do we help parents? If I go down the research road, it gets very confusing and conflicted because I don’t know. Now, I don’t know how to end that sentence mean, but this is how I’m feeling whether you want to keep it or not. So I hear you, Sarah, with everything that you say to families, and I guarantee you, again, we’ve talked about this before, we say the exact same things, whether you’re talking about matching the intensity of a child’s rage with the intensity of the coping mechanism, whether you’re, I can hear myself if I get a flavor from a family, let’s say that there really is this anger and this pairing of the response of the anger with let’s say an aggressive action.


If it’s punching, then I might, yeah, start recommend. How do we build in more deep breathing? How do we practice bringing the temperature down? I talk about how a lot of times if a kid is having a hard time think outside the box, dim the lights appeal to their nervous system, a sip of water starting to speak slower and quieter and more rhythmically will bring the heat down. And I could imagine another family where they’re trying to do all that kind of stuff and they’re not recognizing that kids and humans need an outlet for releasing their stress responses, and that’s often in the form of fight, fight or flight and fight looks like anger. So are those two things conflicting? Sure. I tend to kind of rely on my clinical insight and in my own family using both.

Dr. Sarah (20:13):

Yeah, but you make a really good point that it could be helpful if you’re listening to all this and you’re feeling a little bit confused or overwhelmed or not sure which camp would fit your family better, is to look at the context, zoom out and say, am I a family that tends to have a harder time with anger? Do I repress anger a lot? Am I suppressing potentially my child’s anger release by constantly redirecting them to do something nice or calm when they really need to release? Do we have a little bit of some avoidance of expressing anger in a healthy way at all? Because it’s scary on some level to have anger in the family system. If that’s the case, maybe you’re a family that might do well to explore ways of actually coming up with safe, but real ways of having authentic release of anger and having fights and letting them be and not constantly trying to redirect them or suppress them or make them nicer.


That said, if you are in the sort of other end of that spectrum of maybe you’re a family where like, gosh, we really struggle with some explosivity and there’s some impulsivity and there’s a lot of quick and fast and hot moments, maybe we need to move into the middle a little bit too, where we can say in the cool moments, reflecting together on what else can we do to build our calm down toolbox? What are some other things that we can be more willing to try? And it might start with the parents of like, maybe I want to do some things that are more not in the aggression release space, but in the really downregulating, I am going to drink that cup of chamomile tea, or I’m going to start noticing what does a five out of 10 feel like for me? And could I intervene?


Then I often talk with parents about thinking about our anger or whatever dysregulation fill in the type on a scale of one to 10. If we only notice that at a nine 10, there’s not a lot we’re going to be able to do other than just ride it out. But if we start getting better at noticing, well, what does a seven look like? What does a six, what does five? If I could intervene at a 5, 6, 7, I might have more options that would work to help me bring my anger down. That’s usually my first step is just getting better at noticing at what level of intensity I’m actually becoming aware and getting more aware earlier so I can do something other than just a punching bag or a person if I’m seven.

Dr. Rebecca (23:11):

No, and I think you just filter that down in a really effective way and made it clinically relevant. I hope that people who are listening are also hearing even if not fully understanding because I’m not sure I am just how complicated research can be and how important it is to really be critical when you read things, because you can frame research however you want to frame research. If you think about it, you could write an evidence-based paper on why it’s okay to let your child do completely opposite things, and both would be correct. And so it’s just another reminder and hopefully people are getting many, I would hope, of how discerning you have to be when you get information and you see information and you see information that is supported by science to see if there are to just check your sources and just know that things are complicated. I guess I’ll leave it at that.

Dr. Sarah (24:20):

And to speak to something you said earlier, which I think is incredibly important, is to filter even research through a lens of, but does this work for my family? Because all the research in the world is not always going to work for your unique family and your unique circumstances all the time. And so yes, it’s good to be informed. It’s also good to be critical of research and no matter what, it’s good to first put everything to the test of like, okay, but does this work for me and my family? Because at the end of the day, that’s all you can really control, and so I hope this helps, and if you have more questions on confusing research, oh, please send that in. We love dissecting research and making it more, I don’t know, just translating it so that people can actually take what they need and leave what they don’t.

Dr. Rebecca (25:20):

Absolutely. I do enjoy becoming overwhelmed by my own thoughts, as I said.

Dr. Sarah (25:27):

It wouldn’t be beyond the sessions if you didn’t.

Dr. Rebecca (25:30):

100%. Thanks.

Dr. Sarah (25:33):

Talk soon.

Dr. Rebecca (25:34):


Dr. Sarah (25:37):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

Go to https://drsarahbren.com/question to send us a question or a topic you want to hear us answer on Securely Attached – Beyond the Sessions!

215. BTS: Does teaching my kid to punch a pillow when they’re mad make them more aggressive?