7 Simple Questions That Will Help You Manage an Aggressive Child
Dealing with an aggressive child or worried that your child might have anger issues? Many (if not all) children engage in aggressive behaviors like hitting, kicking, pushing, hair-pulling, biting, or scratching at some point. But wouldn’t it be great to know how to manage those behaviors?
As a child therapist before becoming a stay-at-home mom, I worked with a lot of kids who showed aggressive behaviors. And now, I occasionally get to deal with my own child trying to hit or bite me at times (often during temper tantrums).
And I know that managing aggression isn’t always black and white. How to intervene depends on many factors, including your particular child’s behaviors and environment, as well as your parenting strategies.
But here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when trying to figure out how to handle your child’s problems with aggression.
Ask Yourself These Questions to Help Manage an Aggressive Child
1. Why is my child being aggressive?
We know that children often become aggressive when they’re frustrated and can’t find appropriate ways to express their feelings. And I’ll talk more about how to deal with that below.
But when trying to figure out why your child is showing aggression, it’s helpful to identify the function of the behavior.
When you narrow behavior down to the basics, you can see that humans do things to either get something or to avoid something. And your kid is the same way.
He could be aggressive because he’s trying to get something tangible (like a cookie), access to an activity, or attention. Or he could be trying to avoid or delay something you want him to do (i.e. pick up his toys, share, put on his pajamas).
So when trying to figure out how to handle your child’s aggression, you want to show your child that the aggression is no longer effective in serving that function anymore.
Because when something is working for your child, he’s going to keep doing it.
Let me give you an example. Say your child hits you when you’re trying to get him to do something he doesn’t want to do. If you stop to place your child in a time-out for hitting, he’ll likely learn that he can avoid or delay the task by hitting. So in this case, you may want to rethink your approach.
2. Is aggressive behavior being modeled to my child?
Kids often learn through what’s modeled to them.
When parents use corporal punishment (such as spanking), they’re inadvertently modeling physical aggression for their child. Furthermore, aggressive behaviors are often modeled to children through other sources like television, video games, and peers.
This doesn’t mean that just because your kid is showing aggression you did something wrong or were aggressive toward him. And it doesn’t always mean that your kid is learning the behavior from somewhere else. (Remember that kids will often do a behavior once they learn that it’s effective for them). It’s just something to think about.
So while you can’t control every factor that’s influencing your child, consider whether there are any areas you can control. For instance, if your child has been witnessing aggression through video games, try restricting access to screen time.
3. Is my child getting enough quality time with me?
If your child is aggressive or is showing behavior problems in general, consider increasing the amount of quality time you spend together. Not while your child is being aggressive though.
Allowing your child to choose a special activity each day gives him some time in which he’s in control and getting attention from you. As a result, he’ll be less likely to get into power struggles with you or to engage in aggressive behaviors to get attention. Quality time also allows you to model appropriate play skills and social skills.
In general, spending quality time with your child helps him to like you even more, thus causing him to not want to be aggressive around you.
4. Are there other techniques I could be using besides discipline?
Oftentimes parents tend to overuse discipline or threats of discipline. But really, there are lots of other techniques that you could be using throughout the day to avoid aggression.
One strategy is to show your child the benefit of being “good.” You can do this by praising, giving positive attention to, and encouraging good behavior on a regular basis.
If the aggression problem is consistent, then rewarding your child when he’s doing the opposite of the aggressive behavior can be helpful. For instance, you could reward him for playing nicely with his friends (i.e. for not becoming aggressive during play time).
And giving your child options instead of only demands is a good way to avoid power struggles that could end in frustration and aggression.
Related Post: How to Get Your Kids to Listen to You (And Do What You Say)
5. Am I teaching my child important new skills in the meantime?
Another technique that you can use involves teaching your child the skills he needs to stop being aggressive.
For instance, your child might not know exactly how to play nicely or how to appropriately express his emotions. Therefore, teaching your child about social skills, communication skills, emotions, and appropriate ways to express his emotions can go a long way.
You just want to be sure to do this when your child is calm and not engaging in aggressive behaviors, as he’ll be more likely to retain the skills then.
When teaching your child new skills, be sure to do so at an age-appropriate level. For many kids, reading stories and using visuals can help them learn these skills more easily.
6. Am I paying too much attention to and, therefore, accidentally making the behavior worse?
As I mentioned earlier, sometimes kids do a behavior to get attention. And even if they’re not getting what they want from the behavior, they’ll settle for a reaction from you.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the more attention you give to a behavior, the more likely the behavior will increase.
So you want to be really careful and make sure that you’re not drawing too much attention to the aggression.
Sometimes parents do this by yelling, talking too much about the behavior, over-scolding, or even laughing. (Because it may be tempting to laugh at a cute toddler hitting a parent).
Here’s an example of how I try not to draw too much attention to the aggression itself…
My two-year-old daughter occasionally hits or bites me during temper tantrums, often when I’m redirecting her away from something she wants to do. I give very little attention to the hitting and biting; I might calmly but firmly say “Be nice.”
But she’s learning that those aggressive behaviors are not effective at allowing her to get what she wants or to get a reaction from me. If I instead chose not to scold her for each aggressive behavior or put her in a time-out, she would probably hit even more, or we’d end up in a long drawn-out power struggle.
So sometimes when the aggression is very minimal, such as in my daughter’s case, you can almost ignore the aggression itself, as long as you’re doing all other things right. (Never ignore unsafe behavior that could cause injury or worse though).
7. Is the discipline I’m using too frequent, harsh, or unreasonable?
While techniques like time-out or removing privileges can be effective forms of discipline, you want to try not to overuse them.
Instead, place more emphasis on the strategies mentioned above.
Otherwise, you could just end up feeling like you’re constantly taking things away from your child or putting him in a time-out. And that will do much more harm than good.
You never want to shame your child for his behavior. And you want to avoid yelling at your child.
But rather, discipline should be fair and reasonable. It also should fit the crime and not last for long periods of time (generally no more than 24 hours).
Finally, you want to make sure you’re using discipline correctly. For instance, there are specific techniques for using time-out effectively, which you can check out here.
Dealing with “Anger Issues”
When I worked as a child therapist, I heard a lot of parents expressed concerns that their child had “anger issues.” This was sometimes true. But most of the time these anger issues went away when the parents simply addressed the behaviors.
So if you fear that your child could have anger issues, don’t panic. Instead, try some behavioral tricks with consistency to see if that helps alleviate the problem over some time.
On the other hand, if your child has experienced life stressors that he’s likely angry over, then it may be a good idea to address both the behavioral and emotional factors simultaneously.
It’s best to seek a therapist to help with this. But there are a few things you can work on to address your child’s emotions in the meantime.
- Talk with your child regularly. However, when your child is worked up and in the middle of a meltdown is NOT an ideal time to talk.
- Model appropriate self-expression for your child. Use “I” statements when doing this (“I felt angry when…”).
- Sit down with your child and help him identify more appropriate coping skills or ways to express himself. It’s also a good idea to teach him some coping skills, such as deep breathing. Make a list of the coping skills you come up with or create a box for your child to place items that remind him of coping skills inside.
- Read stories that can help teach your child about appropriate self-expression and coping skills.
- When your child gets worked up, calmly and gently remind him to use his coping skills or even a particular coping skill if he’s struggling. However, if he doesn’t respond well to it, wait a little while before reminding him again.
Extra Tips for Managing an Aggressive Child
- Tell your child what to do, NOT what not to do (i.e. “Play nicely” instead of “Don’t hit.”)
- Encourage your child to use words to communicate.
- Be careful not to label your child as bad, even if he often engages in aggressive behavior. Remember that the behavior’s bad, not your child.
- Be consistent over time and across different settings. Also, try to get your partner or fellow caregivers on the same page as you when dealing with aggressive behaviors.
Because managing an aggressive child depends on so many things, there’s no one cookie-cutter method for dealing with an aggressive behavior. But going through these questions and filling in the gaps of what you’ve been doing to handle your child’s behaviors can make a huge difference.
It’s important to seek one-on-one help from a child therapist if you think your child is being aggressive due to significant life stressors or an underlying behavioral/ mental health disorder. So if that’s the case, please be sure to get support.
But keep in mind that oftentimes, making some tweaks to your parenting approach can go such a long way. Remember that you’re in control, and you can turn things around! 😊
Disclaimer: Although I was a therapist, I am not your therapist or your child’s therapist. Reading this post does not enter you into a client-therapist relationship with me. The content in this post is meant to be used as a general guideline and has not been individually tailored to the needs of you and your child. If you are in need of therapeutic services, please seek the support of a mental health counselor or behavior specialist.
References: My information comes from years of training on Applied Behavior Analysis, Parent Behavior Management Training, and other evidence-based techniques. I also like to refer to Russell Barkley and Alan Kazdin.