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Aggression

Overview

All kids play aggressively once in a while. Toddlers are some of the most aggressive creatures on the planet  -- routinely hitting, kicking, biting, pulling, pushing, and throwing things  -- because they're frustrated by not having control, power, or the ability to say what they want. But just because this behavior is normal doesn't mean you should let it go. You need to help your child learn how to deal with his emotions in a more productive (and civilized!) way.


Handling your child's aggression

Any time your child hits, pushes, shoves, or otherwise hurts someone else, be sure to:

Act promptly. As soon as you see (or feel!) your child bite or act aggressively, say, "No biting. Biting hurts." Don't bite your child back; it only reinforces aggressive behavior.

Consider a time-out. If your child is older than 2, she can understand consequences  -- a brief period of isolation can help her regain control. You can also try withholding a privilege, such as TV time.

Teach her to apologize. After her time-out, have your child say she's sorry to whomever she hurt. At first, she'll just be mimicking the words, but the more she does it, the better she'll understand what it means to be sorry and why apologizing is worthwhile.

Provide a better way to express herself. When she's calmed down, explain that you understand her frustration, then help her express it. You might say, "You were angry, and that's why you hit Jason. But no more hitting! Next time, tell him, 'It makes me mad when you take my toys.'" Teach your child to say what she wants, such as, "Please give my truck back now," or, "You can play with it when I'm done."

Help her understand her feelings. If your child is 4 or older, ask her how she feels when she's angry  -- does her heart race or does she breathe faster? Show her how to take deep breaths, count to ten, or quietly sing a song so that the next time fury strikes, she can use the same calming techniques.


Preventing aggression

Children experiment with different behaviors. One day they may show that they're mad by using their words; another day they may do it by knocking something off the table. To help them consistently speak up instead of lashing out:

Watch for warning signs. Many kids get frustrated when they're tired, overstimulated, or in a new environment. If your child tends to lose it at the end of a playdate, try making them shorter.

Balance negative messages. When your child makes his Batman action figure knock Mr. Freeze to the ground, ask why Mr. Freeze has to be killed and suggest that Batman take his nemesis to jail instead. Showing him alternative behaviors will help him see that he, too, can choose to act differently.

Set aside one-on-one time. Some kids feel that they need to act up in order to be noticed. So give him the attention he craves by playing games together, and noticing his good behavior whenever possible.

Keep your expectations real. Asking a toddler to always chew with his mouth closed or an older child to do all his homework in one sitting is a tall order. If your child simply can't do what you're asking, he may resort to anger to express his frustration.

Watch your own temper. If you shout and curse every time another driver cuts you off, why shouldn't your child do the same when he's upset?


What's behind extreme anger?

Sometimes, a child's aggression is more serious. She may intentionally hit a friend with a toy, or get so upset when a Lego tower doesn't come out right that she kicks a wall. Most often it's driven by such issues as:

  • Feeling overloaded from scheduled activities
  • A big life change, such as a new baby in the family
  • Being picked on by other kids
  • Having trouble with schoolwork
  • Overexposure to movies, music, and video and computer games with violent content

Try and figure out the cause of your child's anger, then take steps to address the cause  -- talk to your child's teacher if she's feeling bullied or is lagging behind in school; keep a closer eye on what she watches on TV. If your child's aggression seems consistently over the top, talk to your pediatrician.


Summary

Toddlers tend to lash out by biting or hitting because they're easily frustrated and don't know how to communicate. By age 3, most kids acquire the coping and language skills they need to work through their aggression. They won't be perfect: Kids often don't learn the right ways of behaving until they try the wrong ways first. It's important for parents to be firm and clear, and help their child learn better ways to manage emotions.


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