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3 Steps to Stop Aggressive Behavior in Kids

Bethany Johnson
Feb. 26, 2018

Baffled by your child's aggressive behavior? You're not alone. Two experts weigh in on what's behind the rage, explaining why your child may be hitting, pushing, grabbing or biting others -- and what you can do about it.



You know kids can sometimes be aggressive, but are you prepared for your own little angel to bite, hit, growl at or push others? His behavior can be baffling, but as his parent, you have to act quickly. Where is this aggressive behavior coming from, and how do you keep it from happening again?

To get to the bottom of anger and aggression in kids, take some advice from clinical psychologist Laura Markham, author of "Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids," who says there are specific causes to aggressive behavior -- and that parents can learn exactly how to diffuse the issue.

Why You Need to Address It
When a child is allowed to use aggression, the behavior is reinforced mentally, and he is more likely to repeat the harsh tactics again when he wants something, according to research from the National Association of School Psychologists. This research also reports that, when left unchecked, aggression is linked to academic difficulty and social rejection by peers. For everyone's sake, you need a strategy to make sure that your child's aggression is discouraged, while teaching him how to respond appropriately.

Where Aggression Comes From
According to Dr. Markham, aggressive behavior in children is a symptom of fear or powerlessness, not hate. "Kids don't actually want to hurt anyone," she says. "It's just that when they feel threatened or vulnerable, they see others as the enemy."

Dr. Jennifer Barham-Floreani, author of "Ticklish" and other parenting books, says the causes may also be physiological. "When a child with no prior behavioral issues demonstrates challenging emotions, I start asking questions relating to the child's physical and chemical stressors," she says. Has your child recently had his hearing and vision assessed? Might he have some other physical problems? Could he have sensory issues? Check in with your pediatrician, and also see if your child's teachers or day care providers have noticed if your child benefits from extra sensory stimulation.

How to Stop Aggressive Behavior
When your kid lashes out physically, what do you do? Dr. Markham offers these three steps to correct his behavior:

  1. Use Your Words, Not Your Hands
    "Intervene by moving out of reach," Dr. Markham says. "Say 'Ouch!' and then 'No hitting. You seem very mad; tell me in words.'" This conveys to your child that you care but will not be a victim of physical violence. It also reminds him there are other tools, like words, available.
  2. Empathize With Them
    Diffuse the aggression by saying, "I know it's hard to not get your way. I don't like that feeling either." Show compassion without giving in to the child's demands. Offer hugs and an understanding posture. This tells the child he's safe here and doesn't need to be ashamed of his feelings. He'll learn that he can't hit -- but he won't lose your love, no matter what.
  3. Test the Waters With a Small Chuckle
    Once things have settled down, give your child the permission to laugh by offering the first little giggle. Find a way to laugh together. If your child seems stressed, you might talk about what happened while letting him know you love him in a silly way. Be sure your child knows you're not laughing at him, but at something together. "Laughter is the body's way of expressing minor anxieties -- fears -- that may surface as aggression when the child gets upset," Dr. Markham says.

Don't punish your child, says Dr. Markham. If you believe the child should have consequences for getting physical, you're right, but it should resemble an offer to make things right. This puts your child back in control and able to do good. Once the tears are wiped, Dr. Markham suggests telling your child that hitting hurts others, but you can make it better. If the recipient of his outburst is another child, suggest that he color a picture for him or return the toy he snatched. Forcing your child to say, "I'm sorry" might not be effective, but giving him more direct consequences to his actions might be.

Preventing Future Aggression
Staying on top of the ever-changing physical needs of kids will reduce the frequency of outbursts, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, but aggressive energy should also be redirected before it goes negative, says Dr. Barham-Floreani. "Help kids balance 'feel-good hormones' by encouraging hopping, skipping, marching, jumping, swimming or bouncing a ball against a wall," she says.

Getting on the same page with all of your child's caregivers is also key. Managing aggressive behavior is a time-consuming job, and you'll want support. Make sure your nanny, teachers, grandparents and partner are all familiar with these tips so that everyone who cares for your child is on the same page and unified. Everyone needs to be putting the same plan into practice so that your child becomes used to experiencing the same reaction to his negative behavior.

For tips on coming up with a plan, check out Coordinating With Other Caregivers.

If you don't feel able to get the aggressive behavior under control, talk to your child's teachers, day care providers, or pediatrician. They may be able to help guide you toward other solutions or support.

And for more on behavioral issues, read Behavior Disorders: Could Your Child Be Affected?

Bethany Johnson, a professional writer from Washington, D.C., specializes in the quirks of family life and relationships. When she's not writing, Bethany and her husband raise both free-range chickens and free-range children on their organic farm in the suburbs.

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