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Responding to Aggressive Behavior

Parents have more questions about aggression (at all ages) than about any other issue.


Q: Our 19-month-old daughter has been acting aggressive both at home and at day care, where she has been hitting, pushing, and pulling other children's hair. HELP! What do we do?

Q: I have a 3-year-old girl who is usually outgoing and happy. But when she is angry at me, she will lash out and hit. The outbursts usually occur when she has been overloaded with activities or she's tired. Sometimes, she pushes my buttons so much that I get angry and yell. What advice do you have?

Q: What causes aggressive behavior in a 6 1/2-year-old girl, and how can we correct it?

Q: How can I help my 7-year-old daughter to handle frustration better? She either gets aggressive or cries and gives up.

A: It seems that I am asked more questions about aggressive behavior (at all ages) than about any other parenting issue. This behavior has quite different origins and implications for different children, and age is one big factor. All other things being equal (and they never are, of course), the younger the child, the less worrisome aggressive behavior is. We expect a child of 19 months to defend her newfound autonomy, and since she is not likely to have great command of oral language, she chooses the language of action. That doesn't mean we just let her go on hitting, pushing, or hair pulling. The adult in charge must firmly declare "No" to such behavior, while realizing that such admonitions alone will not make the desired change. Let it be clear to the child that you disapprove, won't allow her to hurt others, and so on — but know that the passage of time, that allows normal growth and development of language and frustration tolerance, is on your side. Recognize that self-interest, rather than politeness, comes naturally. Only gradually, after patient and consistent limit-setting, will young children redirect their aggression safely and appropriately.

Along with making your behavioral expectations clear for children of all ages, offer many opportunities to express feelings, including anger, in acceptable ways. Pretend play with toys and dolls is a fine vehicle even for children who are quite verbal. Storytelling and drawing with accompanying narrative also work well (for older children). Allow a child to have one doll hit another doll, since it is "just pretend." Draw the line on harming another person (or property). It would help for you not to appear alarmed by any sort of pretend-play content, but to join in the play, with the child as director. Translate her action into words: "Oh, I see the bear is very angry at the giraffe. I wonder why." Some anger will be dissipated if the child senses that you understand and accept her feelings while knowing you won't allow harmful behavior to people or property.

The 3 year old who loses control when she is fatigued or abruptly separated from fun play can be guided firmly but also alerted to the fact that the time is coming up when play must end for today. Some children need several warnings, so start half an hour ahead. Incidentally, the occasional raising of your voice is not necessarily bad, if that is the way to get across your unequivocal message to a toddler or 3-year-old. If you yell frequently or are out of control yourself, though, it will lose its value.

As for the 6 and 7 year-olds, I think you need to consider what frustrations may be behind their behavior. I don't mean to suggest that the physical aggression is justified and therefore allowable, but I encourage reflection and careful observation on the part of parents. Make clear distinctions with the children between doing and feeling, acting aggressively vs. verbalizing angry feelings. Most children will be very responsive to being listened to and having their feelings understood. Of course, if despite all these efforts, the behavior persists for months or grows worse, seek the advice of a counselor trained to work with young children.

About the Author

Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author of many books, including Fresh Approaches to Working With Problematic Behavior and Raising Happy and Successful Kids: A Guide for Parents. In addition, she has written and produced award-winning educational videos.

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