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Discipline Dilemma: "He Can't Keep His Hands to Himself!"

When your child is aggressive, keep discipline fresh by tweaking old tactics to fit new circumstances.
 

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Nothing quite makes you feel like a candidate for Worst Mom of the Year than having your child hurt a playmate. To combat aggressiveness, teach assertiveness. Here's how to do it at every age and stage:

3 to 5: Much to the shock of new parents, toddlers and preschoolers push, shove, pinch, and even bite to get their way. While acting aggressively is never acceptable no matter how old your child is, "you don't have a little bully on your hands," says Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School. "Most likely she's frustratedimpatient, and overwhelmed by feelings she can't yet express." Your best defense is prevention: "Preschoolers have trouble controlling their impulses, so watching her closely and predicting when meltdowns are most likely (say, when she's tired or hungry) will help avoid them," says Dr. Rosenfeld. Without shaming, step in immediately: "We don't hit, we ask. If you want to play with Tommy's truck, ask him." Then, gently move her to a quiet spot so she can calm down, or distract her: "Did you see that big dog? Let's see if we can pet him."

6 to 10: If he's still hitting at this age, it's become a habit, and it's time to break it. "He knows to use his words, but he's found using his hands is more efficient," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of No More Misbehavin'. Halt the behavior first, then look beyond the anger to what's causing it. Is he being teased at school? Emphasize that standing up for himself is important, but not if it comes at someone's else's expense. Set a zero-tolerance policy for aggressive behavior, with appropriate consequences (no TV or computer game time; missing a friend's birthday party) while you focus on anger management and assertiveness skills. Encourage him to say how he feels ("I'm mad that you took my guitar. Please give it back.")

Show him how to calm down by taking slow deep breaths or walking away until tempers cool. Brainstorm alternatives: "Instead of punching Charlie when you want to use the computer, what could you do?" Reinforce positive actions: "You told him how you felt and asked for a turn — bravo!" Meanwhile, since predictability is comforting (for you as well as your aggressive child), add structure and routine to his day: regular family meals, standard bedtimes, and so on.

11 to 14: Aggressiveness now is a red flag, one you probably saw waving earlier but failed to curb. What's provoking your child? "Either he's being bullied and finally trying to defend himself," says Borba, "or he's become a bully and needs to channel his anger and frustration appropriately." Bully-proof your child by helping him develop the confidence to stand up to put-downs. During a calm moment, listen empathically while you gently gather facts about who, why, and where your child is being targeted. Once you discern a pattern (bullying on the bus, in the park, during study hall), devise a safety plan. Remind your child to position himself around adults whenever possible: in supervised areas during recess, or near the driver on the school bus. Help him report any incidents immediately. Tell him to fight back only as a last resort and only if he's in real danger. Since weakness spurs a bully on, plan different ways to respond: he could give the bully a cold, blank stare, then walk away or talk to a friend. Rosenfeld suggests scripting some quick comebacks to name-calling or teasing: "Who cares?" . . . or simply, "So?"

And if your own child is the bully? "Little bullies grow up to be adult abusers," says Borba. "And most bullying behavior is learned firsthand if a child sees adults handle problems aggressively." If a parent, older brother, or other family member is making life difficult at home, a child may take it out on others. Pay close attention to how your child acts with peers. Does he mistreat playmates, force fights, demand his way? Ask, "How do you think Logan feels when you do that? Would you like to be treated that way?" Insist that he not only apologize for his actions but make amends: repair or replace with this own money anything he damaged; tell other kids he is sorry; and champion his former victim. You may not be able to do this alone: seek professional counseling while you connect with teachers, coaches or other family members so you're all dealing the same way with this problem.

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