Google+ Authentic Parenting: Dealing With Aggression In Children

Monday, February 14, 2011

Dealing With Aggression In Children

Image: mdanys on Flickr
Children can demonstrate aggressive behavior at any time in their little lives. Suddenly your sweet little angel doesn't seem so sweet any more. This can be very frustrating and can make us parents feel as if we went wrong somewhere. It can also cause the occasional awkward situation when in the company of others who do not know your child so well.

Children's aggression can be directed towards you, themselves, others or objects. It can come suddenly - you may not have seen it coming - or it can build up gradually.

Aggressive behavior can manifest in different ways:  biting, pulling, pushing, scratching, strangling, tearing, ripping... you name it.
All of these outbursts are very disconcerting and are perceived as undesirable manifestations of emotions, by you - the parent - and by society at large. Generally, even the child won't really benefit from the outburst, because more often than not, someone will end up hurt, physically or emotionally, and that isn't what the child was looking for.

The Why
Some people believe aggression is innate to mankind, but I prefer the line of thought that sees aggression as a reaction to aggression one has been subjected to earlier in life. Yet, even children who have never been punished can show violent behavior, does that not suggest the first paradigm is true?
Not necessarily.
The child could have be subject to aggression and violence on numerous occasions, without having experienced physical violence, or without you - the parent - having perceived it as such. Trauma at birth, negative emotions of the expecting mother, feelings of rejection can all lead to aggression. Even minor events can have a big impact on a small child (the smaller the child, the huger events and emotions appear to them).

Violence is a symptom of an underlying emotion. The child can feel rejected, irritated, frustrated, bored, hungry, sleepy, even love. Violence can also be a scientific experiment: what happens if I do X? And if I do it again? That doesn't mean they are manipulating or testing you, they are just being children: learning from experience. Another source of violence can be a lack of physical or mental activity, or doing the wrong ones.

How to deal with it
Personally, I don't think aggression is such a bad thing. If it's there, it's better to let it out than to let it consume them and feed and grow. Suppressing aggression in childhood will only lead to aggression in their adult life. The importance is to find healthy ways of getting it out their system.
As a parent, it is important to not see the behavior as negative, to not label your child because of it, and to deal with it in the same way as you would deal with any other strong emotion. Remember that the child that is violent needs as much love and comforting as the person or object that gets caught in the eye of the storm.

The first step should be to diagnose the underlying emotion of the behavior, and to try and find other ways of dealing with that emotion. Only you can find the plan of action that works for your child, as all children respond differently in this situation.

Here are some common tips that might work for you, but be creative and find something that works for all of you.

  • Punching Bunny: Give them a stuffed animal they can bite, kick, punch... 
  • Screaming box: when your child is prone to yelling and name calling: give the a box where they can yell into, and where they can confide all the angry words to. Afterwards the box can be closed and when they're ready, they can empty it in the wind.
  • Soothing corner: With older kids, create a little space somewhere, where they can have soothing objects of their choice (a doll, a book, a blanket, a pillow...) and where they can turn to when they feel overwhelmed. Choose the objects together and decorate the corner with your child so they grasp the idea and feel like they really have their own space. This needn't be big, just the size of a large tile, so they can sit there or stand there is enough.
  • Remain calm: If the violence does happen, do not respond emotionally, because things may only escalate. Respond calmly and with love. If a second party is involved, show you care for both of their sorts. If there are two parents present, tend to a child each. 
  • Take deep breaths together: Even if your child is too small to understand, the fact that you are breathing deeply will help you. When they get older, they'll start mimicking and benefit from the action.
  • Primal needs: hunger, thirst or lack of sleep will get the best of anyone, so make sure these are fullfilled at all time.
  • Talk: When the emotional roller coaster has come to an end, talk through the emotions. Ask your child how they feel, how their emotions made them feel. Tell them how it made you feel.
  • Redirect: When you see the aggression building in your child, try to turn their attention to something else. 
  • Balance in activity: Make sure your child gets to do a variety of physical activities, some that are soothing and some that are high energy, so they can achieve a balance in emotional and physical energy. Find out which activities provide the right mind-body connection for your child.
  • Change the scenery: Going out, or just stepping into another room can relieve the tension. If possible, remove your child from the 'location of the crime'. Then return the place together, when the aggression has subsided.

I hope these are helpful and I wish you all the best. You have taken the time to invest yourself into your child's healing, which is a beautiful gift, so congratulations!



  1. These are some great tips. I like the idea of a venting box and a soothing corner!
    I also try to redirect or change the scenery, but sometimes wonder if that also contributes to storing the anger instead of getting rid of it?

  2. It also depends on the age of the child. People really overanalyze the "aggression" seen in toddlers when really, you just figure out what's making them moody (hungry, tired, or just bored sometimes). And you model positive behavior, and you give them affection, and if you need to distract them then you do that. As kids get older, you can teach them more about feelings and consideration and whatever else, as they are developmentally ready.

    People get all worked up about their kids being bad when really they need to set their kids up for success in every situation, but they don't think about it. And they should.

  3. Thank you for your great input, Logical Mommy. It's true, we should be a little more relaxed about it, but often it is really difficult to be relaxed, especially when there are third parties involved.

  4. I have a 14 month boy. We do LOTS of snuggling. And I am careful to not get angry when he is having an off day, crying mostly due to teeth. I can usually tell if he is hungry, thirsty, tired, ect. However, I wonder if we have the beginnings of aggression. My son likes to hug, with lots of force. At the park or play dates I have to pry him off of some other kid. At home, he pulls the kittens hair, tail, face. We have a lot of problems with the cats. I find myself getting exasperated at this behavior. Any suggestions please?

  5. samantha, I had the same issues with my daughter, she would get these overflows of love and hug so fiercely it hurt and sometimes even bite... even the dog.
    It's a phase that passes, you just have to be very vigilant as long as it's there! Every time it happened, I would say: I can tell that you love X or Y very much, but people/animals prefer gentle touches, you see, like this and then show them. Generally when it's with animals, they will try. With other children this will be more difficult, because they might be a bit scared, then you can say: "you see, when you hug her too hard, it scares her. Next time you'll try it a little more softly".
    But don't make too much of a deal of it either

  6. Great post. I'm sure I will be revisiting this as my kids get older too!

  7. Thank you this was very helpful! I am going to try a few of these suggestions.


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