Dealing with Aggressive Children

Children with aggressive behaviour constitute one of the most common and difficult challenges for parents, particularly for young parents. To work on this issue it is crucial that parents have developed a relationship (with the child) based on solid communication and trust.

Parents must be willing to take a step back from the situation and view their child’s behaviour in context. What is unacceptable behaviour to a parent may seem logical and appropriate to a child. The key to helping a child manage their own behaviour is to teach them realistic, constructive alternatives to the behaviour habits they have already developed.

A child with consistently aggressive behaviour may be taught how to identify when they are feeling angry and then learn strategies to apply in such situations. Children, for example, may be taught to count-to-ten, take deep breaths, run around the oval or visualise a peaceful scene. Children should not be discouraged from feeling angry but rather taught how to deal appropriately with anger when it arises.

In this article, we will take a look at some practical examples of aggressive children and provide tips to deal with this challenge.

Why is My Child Being Aggressive?

Children often display aggressive behaviours, such as biting, kicking, hitting, screaming or yelling to express feelings that they find too complex to articulate. Children may endeavour to express frustration, anxiety, stress, fear or vulnerability through aggressive behaviour.

Successful anger-management involves teaching children effective alternatives to aggressive behaviour. Aggressive behaviour often becomes a behavioural pattern for children because it is inadvertently reinforced. Such behaviour is reinforced in a number of ways. The first of these is when the behaviour solves a problem for a child.

For example:

Tina and Peter (both age 4) are playing independently in the sandpit at pre-school. Tina is playing happily with one of her favourite toys, the yellow tip-truck. When Peter notices Tina having so much fun, he decides he too would like to play with the yellow tip-truck.

Peter makes a beeline for Tina and promptly snatches the toy from her grasp. As she struggles to pull the toy back, Peter whacks her with a sand rake. Tina becomes upset and starts to cry. The pre-school assistant hears Tina’s cries and quickly bundles her off to first aid; thus leaving Peter free to play merrily with the yellow tip-truck.

In the scenario above, it has been reinforced to Peter that aggression pays off. Enough experiences along these lines and Peter may repeatedly use aggression to solve his problems.

Aggressive behaviour may also be reinforced through parental or peer modelling. TV shows and movies may similarly demonstrate that aggression and violence lead to glory and supremacy.

For example: 

Jane is 10 years old. She has a little brother, Josh, who is 7. Yesterday when Josh was watching cartoons on TV, Jane snatched the remote control from him so she could watch her Princess Diaries DVD. When Josh tried to grab the remote control back from Jane, she smacked him firmly on the leg.

On seeing this behaviour, Dave, their father, grabbed Jane by the arm, hit her on the leg and swiftly sent her to her room.

Whilst Dave was attempting to extinguish Jane’s aggressive behaviour, he actually sent a mixed message. Dave has modelled aggression as the solution to his disciplinary dilemma. In this scenario, both Josh and Jane have learnt that aggression can be used as a method for solving problems.

Tips to Deal with Aggressive Behaviour

  • Do not become aggressive yourself. Children often model their behaviour on what you do, rather than what you say.
  • Do not try to “talk things out” when your child is still angry. Wait until a quieter moment, when the anger has diffused. 
  • When things have calmed down, discuss the aggressive behaviour. Talk about what could have been done differently to avoid the aggression.
  • Write down family rules. Agree together on what the rules will be and get everyone to sign that they are in agreement. Refer to the rules when required.
  • If there are two parents in a household, stick together and be consistent in your approach to minimising aggressive behaviour.
  • Rewarding assertive behaviour will ultimately be more effective than punishing aggressive behaviour.

Practical Activity: Comic Strip

This activity is designed to assist children in developing their ability to identify times when a choice can be made within the lead up to aggressive behaviour.

Instructions:

  1. Ask the child to think of a recent occasion when they behaved aggressively.
  2. Ask the child to describe what happened (in detail) leading up to the event.
  3. On a large (A3) sheet of paper, ask the child to draw the lead up to feeling angry in a series of comic strip frames (complete with speech and thought bubbles).
  4. Ask the child to choose a frame in the comic strip in which they could have behaved differently.
  5. Brainstorm alternative ways of behaving (eg. instead of yelling at Brian, I could have counted to ten and ignored him).
    Ask the child to re-draw the comic strip including this new behaviour and a likely new ending.