Exercise Restraint


Physical restraint is a necessary element to parenting that is often not employed, either because parents and practitioners are unaware of its value, or because they are afraid to use it.  Many people (parents and practitioners alike) hold to the notion that complete physical restraint is a form of abuse, and as such, it should be avoided.  What follows is a comprehensive description of the process of therapeutic physical restraint that will greatly improve the effectiveness of  parenting strong-willed-aggressive children in early development.


Imagine being a parent of a four year child who has just disrespectfully called you an undesirable name.   You instruct the child to go to time-out, but he refuses, stating “you can’t make me.”  You insist, but the child remains adamant that he will not go to the time-out chair.  What to do?

Most all parents face this conundrum at some point during the early years of their child’s development, and many come away from such occurrences with less than optimal results.  Often parents become angry or anxious, lose self-control, yell, threaten, cajole, intimidate, grab, carry, and/or physically force children to comply;  or parents give up or give-in, and allow the child to get away without following through with the parent’s original demand.  Afterward, many parents are likely to feel defeated and guilty because of their loss of control to their child.

Aggressive parents must realize that each time they lose their temper with their children two things occur: first, the child experiences emotional rejection from the parent due to the parent’s anger and aggression and second, the child gains power over the parent’s emotions and behavior.  Parents who do not lose their tempers, but instead give in to their children, must realize that they are creating children of weak character.

In order for a child to achieve healthy growth, parents must win crucial battles.  However, these “wins” must be conducted in a manner that is not humiliating nor indulgent.  When a child is overwhelmed by a parent’s anger, the child experiences the parent’s authority, but is reduced to nothing.  When a parent gives in, the child experiences the parent’s indulgence, but not the parent’s authority. Each of these situations results in a repeated dynamic in which the child is resistant to the parent’s authority, the parent reacts ineffectively, and the child experiences emotional power over the parent.

Often, (although not always) aggressive parents will feel guilty after a temper loss, and wish to reconcile with their child.  They will supply some indulgence, either material or emotional, to the aggrieved child in an effort to “make up” for the parent’s angry behavior. These parents must understand that doing so will usually serve to foster the tendency for increased feelings of power within the child, rather than achieve reconciliation, acceptance and/or forgiveness.

The less aggressive, more indulgent parents may often eventually find themselves regretting their parenting techniques in later years when their children become depressed or anxious because the world no longer indulges them, or they resort to threats of harm to themselves or others, or turn to substances and weaker people in order to obtain their need for indulgence.

The short statement to to be made here is this: it is in the best interest of the developing child to be managed and contained by effective parents.


Samuel Slipp in his book “Object Relations: A Dynamic Bridge Between Individual and Family Treatment, pp. 48-9, notes that as a child develops out of infancy into toddlerhood, the child will become disillusioned and angry with the mother when she is no longer caring for the child as she did in infancy (i.e., offering complete indulgence).   This gives rise to anger directed at the mother because the she is seen as “bad,” as she will not yield to the child’s demands.  Slipp clearly states in his analysis that the mother must provide a holding environment in which the child is not abandoned, treated with aggression, nor indulged.  In the extreme for the younger child (usually younger than eight) this means: effective, measured, physical containment (i.e., restraint); for older children this means internal restraint on the part of the parent.

Physical restraint, as described within this piece, should be applied only when a child loses behavioral control and becomes aggressive toward the parent, and the parent has no other option except to assume total control of the situation.  At such times, the parent must be prepared to be “in for a penny, in for a pound,” and execute the restraint to its fullest conclusion.

The result of effective restraint will be a child who has expended a great deal of negative energy within the confines of benevolent parental control.  The child will learn that the parent is not “bad,” but rather that the parent is compassionate, moderate and loving.  This will give rise to the child’s learned awareness that the parent is steady in temperament, and that the child is responsible for the behavior that led to the restraint.   These facts will result in the emergence of the child’s conscience.


The Beginning:

A typical situation would proceed as follows:

A four year old child is instructed to put away her toys.  She tarries and begins to show resistance to the parent’s request.  At this point the parent might insist that, before having lunch or before getting to watch a video, the child must pick up her toys.  She continues to refuse.  She goes to the TV and turns on her video.  The parent turns it off.  The child walks to the kitchen and gets into the pantry, the parent blocks her entry.  The child decides that it is time to push further, and calls the parent a name.  The parent maintains a neutral attitude, and tells the child that she must now go to time-out.  The child walks away from the parent toward another part of the house.  The parent directs the child to the time-out area.  The child continues in the other direction.  The parent ultimately tells the child that she has the choice to go to time-out or go to her room.  She sticks her tongue out at the parent.  The parent is getting frustrated over the child’s actions.  Now what?

The parent can, at this point, tell the child to go to her room, either on her own, or with the parent’s assistance.  Most often, by this time, the child is dug in and will not give in to any demand or suggestion given by the parent.  The parent now has no choice except to put hands on the child to help the child go to the room.  Here, the child is likely to physically resist by striking at the parent.  This loss of control is the signal for the use of physical restraint to subdue to the child.  The parent “wraps” up the child in an approved holding technique.  (Holding techniques should be learned from a professional who is well versed in their use.)

The Middle:

The child will respond to this by escalating his or her resistance and will start to rage in a manner that may be very stressful for the parent.  The parent must keep in mind that it is the child who is out of control, not the parent.  The parent must remember that the child must now be held until the child has expended the rage, and reaches a state of calm within the confinement.  This could take several minutes, or it may take hours (depending upon the nature of the child, the child’s age, and the number of times the child has been or should have been restrained in the past).

Restraints of this type will proceed as follows:  The parent will initiate the restraint and will immediately begin to tell the child three things: one, “I love you;” two, “go ahead and be as angry as you can be right now, get your anger out;” and three, “I will let you go when I think we are finished.”   The child will likely rage and resist with a great amount of determination.  The parent will often feel anxiety, and want to release the child because of the fear that the restraint is not working.  This is to be avoided at all cost.

It is at this point that parents need to remind themselves that once a child starts raging within the confines of the parent, the child has but one viable thing to do, and that is to calm down.  The parent must hold on for the duration of the child’s rage, must be certain not to hurt the child in the restraint, and must maintain an attitude of confidence,  and steadfastness throughout the experience.

It is crucial to understand that, if a parent gives up before the full completion of a restraint, the child will have defeated the parent at the worst possible time for both child and parent.  The child will have won the ultimate battle with the parent, and the parent will be at a loss for effective resolutions to critical situations from that point forward (unless the parent recovers from the mistake and refuses to give up the next time a restraint would be required).

The End:

The parent must anticipate the possibility that physical restraint could last a long time (for many children, especially those who are adopted and suffer symptoms of Reactive Attachment Disorder, the restraint could last much longer than an hour).  Knowing this at the outset will give a parent the strength and determination to hold out long enough for the child to return to a sense of calm.  At the conclusion of a restraint, the child should be a great deal more pliable and compliant.  However, the restraint should not “just stop” just because the child is calm.

A parent must keep in mind that restraint is the response to only one aspect of the child’s behavior, i.e., the fact that the child lost self-control and became physically aggressive toward the parent.  The matter of go-to-your-room and time-out still have to be addressed.

The very first thing that a parent should do when ending a physical restraint is to prolong it a few minutes.  The parent will state to the child that it appears that the need for restraint is over, but “we’ll wait a few more minutes.” If the child can tolerate that wait, it is very likely that the restraint has been effectively completed, if the child argues or begins to get angry again, it is a sign that the restraint is not complete, and more time is required.

Once assured that the restraint has been successful, the parent can outline the terms for the child’s release from the restraint.  The parent will present the entire series of events that will transpire before being released from the parent’s control.  The parent will state that first, the child’s legs will be freed, then after a minute, the arms will be released, then they will hug each other for a bit, and, after another minute, the child will go to his room and await instructions to go to time-out.  When the child agrees to these terms, the parent will execute them.  If, at any point during the release, the child begins to return to anger, the process of release will be stopped and the restraint will be rejoined.

When time-out has been successfully and agreeably completed, the entire matter is considered to be resolved and life goes on.

What NOT to do!:

A RESTRAINT SHOULD NEVER BE EMPLOYED TO FORCE OR COERCE A CHILD TO COMPLY WITH PARENTAL REQUESTS OR DEMANDS.  Parents should never use the threat of a restraint to get the child to do something that the child does not want to do.  Restraints should be employed ONLY when a child goes goes out of control, and as noted above, the restraint will end with the child resuming emotional balance.  Although to some parents it may appear otherwise, compliance should be a “by-product” of a restraint, not its aim.

What to expect after a successful restraint:

A successfully applied restraint will result in a “rebonding” between the parent and child.  If the parent maintains a sense of steadfast reserve throughout the effort, the child will ultimately feel the parent’s concern and compassion.  Many parents report that a child’s attitude will improve for days or even weeks.

It must be remembered that restraint is the last resort in a parent’s arsenal of tools for combating anger and rage in children.  How a parent relates to a child throughout each day will go a long way to determining whether a restraint be needed five times or fifty times during a child’s development.


  • Obtain the help of a professional proficient in holding and restraining techniques; preferably someone with awareness of the attachment aspects of holding.
  • Attempt restraints with smaller children between ages of three and nine.  Do not attempt to restrain a child who can physically dominate you, or escape your grasp.
  • Employ physical restraint only when a child is out of control and hurting self, others or property.
  • Maintain emotional self-control, and do not give into anger or fear.
  • Never restrain or threaten to restrain to gain or force compliance
  • Avoid using the threat of restraint to get the child to calm down; either use or don’t use it, but do not threaten.
  • Once started, do not stop until the anger within the child has dissipated.
  • Before initiating a restraint, remove items that could hurt a child (watch, belt, jewelry, eyeglasses, etc.).
  • Remember to hold the raging child close; trying to keep distance between you and the raging child could result in enough room for the child to head-butt.
  • Be prepared to allow the child to urinate on him or herself during a restraint rather than allow to fake the need, and gain control of the situation.
  • Remember, parenting is a process.  What is done or not done today, will either reward or haunt a parent the next.

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