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Dealing With Aggressive Children

Although aggressive behavior such as hitting, screaming, and even biting is not seen as all that unusual from a child of one or two years of age, the same conduct in children merely a year or two older is often seen as cruel and problematic. Controlling feelings and emotions is, however, a learned skill and can be very difficult to master (even for some adults!).

Staying calm and collected not only requires a fair amount of self-control and discipline, but also a basic understanding of appropriate social behavior and morality. Most children under the age of five or six have a minimal comprehension of what exactly is socially acceptable, at least beyond pleasing Mom or Dad. Even then, some children may find it difficult to control their temper and yet there is often a difference between a child who is deceptively ‘acting out’ (which is rare, and often due to an unstable or unsafe home environment) and one who is simply trying to be assertive.

The majority of children do not recognize their own strength or even the full consequences of their actions; and in a world where they are often being told what to do, where to go and how to behave, it does not seem all that unreasonable that they may sometimes need to speak out and be heard. Those school-aged children who continue to act obnoxiously or aggressively may have never experienced the opportunity of being truly listened to in a loving environment. Listening, on the part of parents involves not only hearing your children’s jokes and laughter, but perhaps more importantly hearing about those hurt, angered and unhappy emotions as well. So often, children are not allowed to speak negatively, complain, or offer a difference of opinion and thus their feelings continue to build up until one day they may unintentionally vent or lash out. It is important to remember, however, that hearing your children out does not mean submitting to their every whim or desire.

Aside from releasing pent up emotions, children who behave aggressively may also do so because they have been rewarded for the conduct. Parents may have hoped to raise a child who is strong and able to stand up for him- or herself in rough situations. More commonly, parents may have inadvertently reinforced the aggressive behavior through attention. Indeed, even nagging or punishing children for acting aggressively can make it more likely that they will act that way in the future. Imagine, if you will, a child quietly piecing a puzzle together or even playing a video game. He/She has almost completed the puzzle/game but cannot get the final pieces/play to come together. Throughout this quiet half an hour the parent has been around but has said absolutely nothing. Nothing, that is until the child becomes obviously frustrated and throws the puzzle/game across the room and begins screaming or swearing loudly. At this point the parent intervenes by reprimanding the child and sending him/her to their room. It would appear that the parent has done everything appropriate in this situation, except for the fact that the only attention this child received during the time period was negative. If this is commonly the case, the child may begin to feel that any attention is better than no attention and as a result may continue to act out disruptively in daily activities. When dealing with aggressive children, it is worth the effort to praise even the smallest attempt at proper behavior, while paying very little if any attention to negative conduct. Praise can be a very strong motivator.

It is also important to remember that behavior can be very difficult to change and that it takes a lot of patience. Turning an aggressive child into a nonaggressive child will not happen overnight, and the odd outburst may even occur once the behavior has seemed to restore itself.