Aggressive Behavior in Children

Are you worried about aggressive behavior in children? Does a child you know exhibit aggressive behaviors? Do you want to learn more about aggression in children and how to help?

You are not alone.

Aggressive Behavior in Children

When children exhibit high levels of aggression their parents and teachers worry. What is the problem? Why is the child behaving in this manner? What is contributing to and maintaining  the aggressive behaviors? And what can they do to help? 

Aggressive behavior in children is associated with psychological distress and upset in the young person, and he or she is often hard to calm. It is frequently difficult to sooth the young person when he is behaving aggressively, and to assist him in managing  his behaviors. These behaviors contribute to problems for the aggressive child, and he is often written off as "naughty" or "bad" and punished.

Aggressive behavior in children upsets others as well. Aggressive children  may be argumentative and verbally aggressive. They may have difficulty controlling their temper and are easily upset and annoyed by others. They are often defiant and may appear angry and resentful.Their aggressive behaviors can disrupt lessons in school and hurt, intimidate and frighten other children.

Unless we intervene to help these children, they are at risk of developing various behavior disorders, like Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder. As their problems increase, their aggressive behaviors threaten the safety of other children, and/or adults. When the aggressive behaviors  escalate to this level, some of these children are expelled or suspended from school. The protection of  other children and their teachers is the prime concern when this occurs.

Some children exhibit aggressive behaviors that are less extreme or problematic, but worrisome nonetheless. They may slap or poke other children or pinch them. Some children throw small objects or bang and break things when they are angry and upset. Others have temper tantrums and kick or scream.

Aggressive behavior in children can manifest as verbal aggression, such as calling other children names, threatening or teasing them. Or they may psychologically victimize other children by excluding them and spreading rumours about them.

Aggressive children need help to develop healthy coping strategies to control their behaviors and manage anger and conflict, and other distressing feelings and situations. We need to teach them alternative ways to solve problems. We need to provide strategies to help calm and sooth their nervous systems, so they are not so easily triggered and thrown into the "fight " response when threatened.

What Causes Aggressive Behavior in Children?

Children do not behave aggressively because they are "naughty or "bad." Aggressive behavior in children may result from brain patterns that have been shaped by prior experiences, usually those involving relationships and/or specific social experiences, or actual trauma itself, either a single trauma, or more chronic, complex relationship traumas. These brain patterns, in turn, trigger the "fight response." And the child responds aggressively to ward off the perceived threat. This process is often unconscious, and immediate, and out of the child's control. Others around the child may find it hard to perceive any discernible threat, or if they do, it may appear largely benign, and that any aggressive response is unjustified.

Consequently, it is often the brain, shaped, in part, by prior experiences, that lies behind the aggressive behavior in children. 

Multiple factors interact to foster aggressive behavior in children.

In some cases, for example, the interaction between the child’s temperament and/or a genetic predisposition and environmental influences (e.g. toxic stress) can increase a child’s reliance on aggression as a major coping strategy.

Some of the multiple factors that interact and can contribute to high levels of  aggression in children include the following:

  • Genetic and/or temperamental influences, that are, in turn, shaped by experience. Genes alone do not cause aggressive behaviors, but can be turned on by environmental conditions.
  • Insecure or disorganized attachment patterns can shape brain patterns that can heighten aggression in children.
  • Ongoing and unrelieved experiences of toxic stress.
  • Lack of appropriate problem solving and coping strategies.
  • Limited experience with role models (e.g. peers, family members, TV. & computer games) who value and provide examples of non-aggressive behaviors.
  • Ineffective parenting style: for example, authoritarian, controlling, harsh or coercive parenting style; permissive, overindulgent parenting style; rejecting parenting style; psychological problems in a family member such as depression or alcoholism can contribute to stress in a child.
  • Poor fit between parent and child: Ineffective parenting could be a result rather than a cause of the child’s behavior. Children’s problem behaviors may affect parents’ moods and parenting behaviors.
  • Family stress, disruption and conflict.
  • Instability and the lack of a safe secure environment. 
  • Neurological insult such as acquired brain injury. 

Help for Aggressive Behavior in Children

The following suggestions can help you address aggressive behavior in children. Try those that apply to your situation.

Remember, behavior change takes time. It requires consistency and follow through.

Be on the look out for small changes. Small steps make a difference and will lead you and your child toward a positive outcome. Notice when things are working or positive change is occurring, however small these steps may seem.

Consistency, follow through and patience increases the chances that your efforts will pay off. Try some of the following and help address Aggressive Behavior in Children.

  1. Avoid Physical Punishment: Harsh, punitive punishment is associated with aggressive behavior in children. Remember parents and other adults are role models for their children. If parents respond with aggression, their children are likely to do the same.

  2. So be a good role model: Model appropriate emotional control and the management of angry feelings. Teach your children how to express their emotions — good and bad. This includes appropriate anger management techniques. Model assertiveness and appropriate problem-solving skills. Be the kind of person you hope your children will grow up to be. Parents, who are verbally or physically aggressive with each other, or with their children, promote aggression in their children.

  3. Reward Appropriate, Non-Aggressive Behaviors: When you notice your child behaving in an appropriate and non-aggressive manner, notice and commend her behavior. Tell her how proud you are. Also say something like, “You must be proud of yourself.” Children need to know their parents are proud of them. They also need to develop an internal sense of pride in themselves.

  4. Behavioral Contracts and Goal Setting: Let your child know exactly what behavior is expected and what behavior is not. Work with him to set goals for improved behavior. Write a contract based on these goals. Develop a chart to track the child’s behavior on a daily basis. Provide positive reinforcement (e.g. a special treat, outing or special time with a parent to enjoy a favorite activity or just time having fun or playing together).

  5. Avoid Reinforcement of Aggressive Behavior: Teachers and parents may inadvertently reinforce aggressive behavior through attention. Nagging or punishing children for acting aggressively can reinforce aggressive behavior. Some children feel that any attention is better than no attention. Consequently, negative attention can reinforce aggressive behavior. Praise, even the smallest attempt at appropriate behavior. Do your best to ignore negative behavior.

  6. Adopt a Warm, Supportive, Assertive Parenting Style: Avoid parenting patterns that contribute to aggression in children (e.g. authoritarian, controlling, harsh or coercive parenting style; permissive, overindulgent parenting style; rejecting parenting style).

  7. Teach your Children Appropriate Behavioral Skills and Model these Yourself: For example, assertiveness, problem solving and decision making skills. Aggressive children also need help to develop their social and conflict resolution skills. Teach them to control their impulses so they do not lash out without considering the consequences.

  8. Perspective taking and Reinterpretation of Situations: Children who behave aggressively  often perceive or attribute hostile intent where none was intended. It often helps to encourage these children to reinterpret and consider alternative reasons for an individual’s behavior. Encourage the aggressive child to take the perspective of others, including those he has hurt and those who he perceives have wronged him.

  9. Role Play and Consider Alternatives to Aggression: Aggressive children may benefit from opportunities to role play or consider alternatives to aggressive behavioral reactions. When they behave aggressively help the child to talk the problem through. Encourage them to consider alternative solutions and to engage in these the next time this occurs. Sometimes it helps to ask children, especially younger children to draw alternative solutions to the conflicts they face.

  10. Anger Management: Talk openly with your child about emotions. Help them to express their feelings in an appropriate and healthy manner and consider appropriate ways to handle anger.

  11. Enhance Your Parenting Skills: Take parenting courses, refer to relevant books, or seek professional support to help you enhance your parenting skills and move toward the kind of parenting style that works.

  12. Address underlying stressors or anxiety provoking behaviors: These will contribute further to stress and inhibit the child’s ability to cope, or the parent's ability to apply effective parenting strategies.
  13. After the aggressive outburst provide a brief time out for both you and the child. This can help calm you both down before you discuss the aggressive behavior with your child and decide how to address the issue. 

Dr. O'Connor offers psychological testing services to assist with a range of psychological challenges in young people, including aggressive behaviors. If the aggressive behaviors that concern you, show little sign of abating, despite your efforts to address them, a comprehensive psychological assessment or school neuropsychological evaluation is recommended to help get to the root of the problem, and point to evidence based interventions to address it. 

Children Who Lack Empathy

If your child lacks empathy or concern for the people he has hurt or if he hurts and is cruel to animals seek professional help. Similarly if your child’s aggression appears extreme and out of control at home or at school, or both, professional support is strongly recommended.

If your child’s behaviors are extreme or out of control seek the support of a psychologist or other mental health professional.

Or visit your local library or book store and find resources to help increase your understanding of aggressive behavior children and how to help.

Dr. O'Connor offers Psychological Testing Services which she tailors to fit the needs of aggressive behavior in children.

Remember"Understanding the Problem is the Key to Solving It."

The Psychological Assessment increases understanding of aggressive children and how to help. This understanding leads to evidence based interventions to address these concerns in the child.

You will also learn how a child is coping and where his strengths lie. Find out where things are going well and where you might need to intervene to help?

Order Dr. O’Connor’s book--"I Can Be Me. Although this book focuses on children of alcoholic parents, you can easily adapt it to help aggressive children and teach them healthy coping skills, such as how to handle their feelings, including anger, and how to problem solve and make good choices.   Guidelines for doing so are included in the introduction and in various chapters in this book.

To find out more about this book, click here.

Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.