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"I'm Mad at You!"

My sons say they were just horsing around when Jack, 6, "accidentally" elbowed 4-year-old Ben in the nose, causing blood to spurt and tears to flow. When they play, somebody has to be The Bad Guy. And in our house, that means somebody always gets hurt.

Not that I know where they learned to pummel each other bloody. I go out of my way to shield them from toy guns, rough contact sports, and violence on TV  -- I'm trying to raise kids who hug, not hit. My boys do have their tender moments, but even though I buy blocks instead of bows and arrows, they get aggressive sometimes. And they're not the only ones.

"My son turns everything from Styrofoam to Legos into a gun," Colleen Hendrzak of Middlesex, New Jersey, says of Jack, 2. "But we don't have any toy weapons in our house, and my husband isn't a hunter. I don't know where this obsession is coming from."

Most weapon obsessions are harmless

Does that sort of fascination mean a kid will grow up to be a bully, or worse? Not necessarily, says Malcolm Watson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts. "All normal kids play aggressively once in a while. It doesn't predict that they're going to be ax murderers; it can even help them learn to socialize and solve problems," he says.

One need only be the mom of a 2-year-old to get a true taste of what it's like to parent a child with an energetic, in-your-face temperament. Kids between 24 and 32 months are some of the most aggressive creatures on the planet  -- routinely hitting, kicking, biting, pulling, pushing, and throwing things. They're not being mean  -- they're just frustrated with not having control, power, or the ability to say what they want. By age 3, most kids acquire the coping and language skills they need so they don't have to blow up as often. From time to time, preschoolers on up may kick up a garden-variety tantrum  -- one that involves crying, yelling, and foot stomping  -- and that's okay. It's even okay if your child lashes out in other ways, as long as it happens only once or twice, because kids often don't learn the right ways of behaving until they try the wrong way first.

This should come as good news to Leslie Pepper of Merrick, New York, who was worried that her son, also named Jack, might have a violent streak. When the 4-year-old put on his Power Rangers Halloween costume  -- replete with a snazzy sword for fighting the bad guys  -- he started "going around 'killing' everybody, pretending to stab them," Pepper says. "It definitely got me concerned, even though he's not usually aggressive."

Here's the calming fact: Play-fighting is not only normal, it's a great way to learn limits. "As soon as you cross the line during a pretend fight and the other child starts crying, you've learned that this is where you need to stop," says Richard Tremblay, Ph.D., director of the Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development at the University of Montreal, who's spent 20 years studying children and aggression. "If you never play-fight, you never know where that limit is."

Besides, if you watch your child when he's raising that play-dough gun, you'll see that it's not about shooting as much as it is about running, shouting, pretending, mimicking heroes (like police officers and Superman), and having fun  -- a healthy way for him to explore and express his feelings (and get in some exercise!).

Still, it's important that you balance out comic book-style 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. Raising alternatives will help him see there are other options he can use in real life.

Teaching empathy can also go a long way in helping a child turn negative social behaviors  -- like bossiness and bullying  -- into more acceptable ones like including other kids at playtime and being concerned for their feelings. That's how Claire Patrick, 10, became a hero to a tall and painfully shy classmate she'd begun relentlessly picking on at her school in Arlington, Virginia. When Claire's bullying provoked the threat of physical violence, teachers, counselors, and Claire's parents intervened; that's when Claire found out that the girl she'd been teasing had lost her parents and was being raised by her sister. The adults also helped Claire realize that the reason she was picking on the girl was because she was new in the school and seeking attention. "After that, Claire invited the girl to eat lunch with her and her friends," says her mom, Bethanne.

When aggression goes too far

There are times, though, when a child's behavior will go beyond typical tantrums, and a stern talking-to just won't cut it. She may intentionally hit a friend with a toy or take a Barbie squabble over the line by actually ripping off the dolls' heads. Leslie Ann Marcantel of Deweyville, Texas, is concerned about her 3 1/2-year-old son's temper. "If Joe Ray doesn't get his way or his Lego building doesn't work out just right, he not only throws a tantrum, he'll often storm out and kick or punch the walls," she says.

It's particularly hard for moms when their kids' aggression hurts others. Julie Marchese of Vernon Hills, Illinois, was shocked when, at a baseball game, she spotted Michael, her then 4 1/2-year-old, up on a small hill nearby, gunning for another child. "Michael had his arms wrapped around the other boy and was trying to throw him down the hill," Marchese recalls. "I ran up and asked what he was doing, and Michael just shrugged and said, 'He was bugging me.' I've been worried and wondering what's going on. His older brothers aren't this way."

Most children stop roughhousing when playtime is over. "When kids take off the costume (metaphorically speaking), they're no longer the vicious person. But some kids don't take off the costume," says Michele Borba, mom of three and author of Don't Give Me That Attitude!

Researchers say genetics plays a role, but a child's environment tends to dictate how "mean genes" affect behavior. Indeed, an aggressive child is more likely than a mild-mannered one to have poor impulse control and judgment, and less likely to understand that hitting and kicking aren't the best ways to express herself  -- particularly if she's provoked, stressed out, exposed to violence on TV and in video games, experiences violence at home or in her neighborhood, or even simply isn't getting enough sleep. The biggest indicator of whether a child will be aggressive, though, is her family. The more physical the punishment meted out, the more conflict, tension, and poor communication between parents and other members of the household, the more aggressive the child living through it, says Watson.

If a child's temper flares up constantly  -- both at home and while playing with friends  -- trouble could be brewing. With these kids, anger, not play, is the driving force. Some parents might be tempted to allow this kind of aggressive behavior, thinking that it's a good way for kids to let off a little steam. "It actually does the opposite, because once you're aroused, it can take you twenty minutes to calm down," says Patrick Tolan, Ph.D., director of the University of Illinois at Chicago's Institute for Juvenile Research. Indeed, too much aggression can even be bad for kids' health. A recent study in two countries shows that hostile children and adolescents are up to 300 percent more likely to become obese and insulin resistant and to have high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

To calm extremely aggressive behavior, try to figure out what's behind the anger. If it happens only at home, run through possible triggers. Your child may be railing against an overbusy schedule or lashing out over a big life change, such as moving to a new house. If her aggression plays itself out mostly at school, talk to the teacher to see if she's having problems there  -- perhaps she's being picked on or is having trouble with her schoolwork. Or go directly to the source: Talk to her about what's been bugging her. If you can do this without being judgmental, she'll appreciate that you're willing to listen. It's also important to set limits. Make it clear that aggressive behavior, particularly the type that hurts others, is not acceptable. Show your child appropriate ways of coping with frustration  -- taking a deep breath, leaving the room, or lying down on her bed  -- and resolving conflicts on her own.

You should also pay attention to your child's exposure to movies, music, and video and computer games with questionable content. But don't freak out if she catches the occasional gory movie or plays a Spider-Man video game every once in a while: Violent viewing can be linked to aggressive behavior, but it's not the sole cause of it. What's more important is that you talk to her about the messages such movies and games may be sending, and remind her there are other ways to handle similar real-life situations.

You may be amazed that such small changes can make such a big difference. But growing minds take in everything around them, and with the right mix of understanding and guidance from you, even the toughest little bully can learn to stand down.

Diane Benson Harrington is the managing editor of Freelance Success, a newsletter and website for writers. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.