Tips for Decreasing Aggression in Children

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Image via Katie Hurley

While some aggression among toddlers and preschoolers is to be expected at times due to the combination of low frustration tolerance and inadequate communication skills (not to mention lack of coping skills), it can become a problem if the behavior is prolonged, affects others, and interferes with normal daily activities. 

Kids tend to rely on primitive behaviors when they are not sure how to express their emotions.  They might not be able to describe how they’re feeling, but biting a sibling certainly gets the point across in an instant.

Most children outgrow aggressive behavior by the school age years, but it can be a long road to travel when kicking, hitting, and biting others happens more often than not and when parents feel helpless to make it stop.

As frustrating as aggressive behavior can be, it’s crucial to remain calm when these behaviors occur.  Yelling at a frustrated child often increases the frustration level, as well as the aggressive behavior, and throwing out every consequence is meaningless to an overwhelmed.  

There are a few steps parents can take to help keep aggressive behavior to a minimum.

 

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Image via iStock

Identify potential triggers:

More often than not, there is a specific trigger behind the aggressive behavior.  Sometimes it’s a simple case of inadequate social skills, but it’s important to consider things like exhaustion, hunger, growth spurts, problems at school (including bullying), and even issues within the family (family discord can cause significant stress for children).  

 

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Image via Flickr/Just some dust

Set age appropriate expectations:

Kids tend to rely on primitive behaviors when they are not sure how to express their emotions.  They might not be able to describe how they’re feeling, but biting a sibling certainly gets the point across in an instant.

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With that in mind, set age appropriate expectations in your home.  A list of house rules (using pictures instead of words for pre-readers) posted in a central location helps children understand what is expected of them.  Keep it simple.  Five rules on the list are sufficient.  It’s important to remember that rules can and should change as children grow to accommodate growth and development. 

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Image via iStock

Praise positive choices:

Young children are generally pleasers by nature, and positive reinforcement for good choices does inspire children to repeat those positive behaviors.

Be specific in your praise.  When children receive praise for their actions and choices, they internalize positive emotions.  This helps them remember to make positive choices in the future.

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Image via Flickr/jennifermbarron

Provide healthy alternatives:

A lot of the time, children simply don’t know what to do with negative emotions.  Frustration management is a skill that requires practice, and it’s up to parents to teach children how to vent their negative emotions in a healthy manner.  The need for physical release of emotions when angry can be very powerful.  Try a few strategies that help release emotion while getting some physical activity in:

  • Scribble feelings:  Give your child a box of crayons and a large, blank piece of paper.  Ask your child to pick a color to represent various emotions and ask him to scribble how much of each color he’s feeling at the moment.
  • Paper tearing:  Help your child write the triggers of his frustration on small pieces of paper and then tear them up and throw them in the air to get rid of those angry feelings.
  • Yell it out:  Identify a safe place in the house where yelling is ok (bathrooms or closets work well) and set a timer for your child to yell out his negative feelings for thirty seconds.  Be sure that the safe place is far away from other people and won’t disturb other family members.  This helps children recognize that it’s ok to vent emotions, but you do need to consider those around you.

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Image via iStock

Get help:

If your child appears angry and/or aggressive more often than not and you can’t pinpoint specific triggers to troubleshoot, seek an evaluation.  More often than not, childhood aggression is time-limited and age appropriate, but it can be a sign of childhood depression or other psychosocial stressors that require professional help.

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Tips for Decreasing Aggression in Children

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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