Infants wail and flail their arms, preschoolers use both words and fists, and kindergartners are learning to express it peacefully they're all letting out their anger.

0 to 2 by Carla Poole

Three-month-old Evan is getting very hungry as his caregiver prepares his bottle. After a few minutes, his hunger drives him to frantically wail and flail his limbs. He is frustrated, uncomfortable, and angry over this incomprehensible delay. Even when picked up to be fed, he continues to bat his arms around, sending a strong message of displeasure.

As Evan's behavior shows, even infants experience many of the feelings that can cause aggressive behavior - anger, frustration, anxiety, and fear. While infants are capable of feeling anger, their ability to express it is limited to screams and flailing arms.

Trying Out New Behaviors

As babies grow, so does their range of aggressive behaviors. When they're about 1, intentional biting, pushing, and hitting can begin.

Toddlers are able to express their anger in new ways and will experiment with different behaviors. However, they don't fully understand that aggressive actions can really hurt others. Often children's behavior is far harsher than what they are feeling or intended to express - the push that was meant to convey slight anger can end up causing real pain.

Sometimes toddlers will even use apparently aggressive actions when they aren't angry at all. Fifteenmonth-old Paul, for instance, quickly walks up to Aaron, his favorite playmate, and swipes at his face. Paul is stunned when Aaron begins to cry - he had simply been excited at seeing his friend and wanted to initiate play.

Aggressive Impulses

Toddlers often become aggressive when they feel threatened, even if the actual threat is minimal. Crowding can cause anxiety and make it even harder for children to control themselves.

If a group of 2-year-olds is crowded into a small housekeeping area, for instance, pushing and biting are likely to occur. Lacking both the patience and the language skills to ask their friends to move over, toddlers will simply push them out of the way.

At this age, children have limited means of expressing themselves; acting aggressively is sometimes the only response they can think of. Before children can use their words to say how they feel, they need your help to learn which words to use and how and when to do so.

Redirecting the Anger

Sometimes toddlers need to find socially acceptable outlets for their aggressive feelings. For instance, Thomas, an active 2-year-old, is angry because two other children are using the slide and he can't. Thanks to his caregiver's hard work to help him redirect his feelings, he doesn't lean into one of the children and bite, as he has often done - instead, he walks over to a nearby pillow and bites into it.

Feeling better after releasing some tension, Thomas can now find a new activity to engage in. As he moves into his threes, it will become easier for him to use language to express aggressive impulses - for now, though, he just has to bite something!

What You Can Do

Aggression is a normal toddler behavior, but it can be difficult to respond to. You can lessen the conflicts between children and help them find peaceful solutions.

Respond calmly and don't fan the flames. An excited or angry reaction to children's aggressive actions will actually add to their anxiety and reinforce the behavior.

Help toddlers redirect their anger. When a child starts to throw things at other children, give her soft objects to throw into a box instead.

Provide the words to help children express their feelings. Describe children's feelings for them, and give them specific things to say. For example: "Jesse was scared when you roared like a lion. That's why she pushed you. Jesse, you can tell Dan `Not so loud! It's scary."' Children will gradually learn to connect words to their feelings and to control their impulses.

3 to 4 by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

When Bernardo takes his prized red truck, 4year-old Malcolm forcefully tells him, "I need a turn, now." Adept at name-calling, Malcolm adds, "Poophead, gimme the truck! "

Thanks to their more advanced language development and improved ability to verbally express themselves, preschoolers are less likely than toddlers to use physical actions to vent their anger. After registering this protest, Malcolm may even consider negotiating with his friend.

Sharing and turn-taking are still somewhat difficult tasks for threes, and they'll occasionally grab at toys or otherwise attempt to defend their possessions. At the same time, however, 3-year-olds are eager to please others and are interested in engaging in cooperative play with friends.

Going for It

Often preschoolers' anger is expressed through instrumental aggression - aggressive actions aimed at getting something specific. They don't mean to hurt anyone, but they're preoccupied with obtaining a special object (the firefighter's hat), a particular space (the chair next to a friend), or a privilege (holding the door).

Playing Rough

Energetic, enthusiastic, and boisterous, many 4-year-olds - especially boys - enjoy a rough-and-tumble type of play that can border on aggressive behavior. While this play may look rough, it gives children an opportunity to release tension and explore various gross-motor movements - running, tumbling - in friendly, physically active ways. Just watch a group of preschoolers roar with laughter as they roll down a hill into a pileup at the bottom!

Fighting for Truth and Justice

Influenced by television characters, many fours exuberantly reenact superhero action roles during dramatic play. Through fantasy, they transform themselves into heroes who rescue victims and attack villains. Props used for magic rings, capes, and swords become important items. This conflict-driven play lets preschoolers work through issues of good and evil, take on leadership roles, and make choices.

Sometimes this type of fantasy play gets out of hand, so close adult guidance is necessary. While superhero play is normally a passing fad, some children become obsessed with it and may need positive redirection. [For more on this topic, see Between Teacher & Parent in the February issue of ECT.]

What You Can Do

Learning to express anger in a positive, socially acceptable manner takes a lot of work. Help children understand their feelings and find new ways to share them.

Encourage children to use words instead of fists. Help children learn to ask to share the tricycle instead of pulling it away. Suggest phrases for them to use in specific situations, such as "I'm using the trike now. You can have it when I'm done."

Role-play difficult situations. Offer "what if" scenarios that children can discuss and act out different solutions for. You might ask, for instance, "What if three girls want to talk on the two toy telephones?"

Model positive social behaviors. When a conflict arises, demonstrate how you would handle the situation. For example, show what you would do if a child wanted to borrow your new set of markers.

Provide ample play space and materials. Children are bound to fight and argue when they're crowded together and must continually share materials. Offering duplicates of popular toys can help eliminate squabbles.

Suggest healthy alternatives when children are feeling physically aggressive. Provide clay to pound and squeeze, a pillow to punch, or wood to hammer at the workbench.

5 to 6 by Ellen Booth Church

It was one of those days. Little skirmishes increased and intensified hour by hour. Finally, the kindergartners decided they needed to talk about the problems with fighting. Through group discussion and problem-solving, the children created their own list of appropriate ways to express anger.

And soon the fighting stopped - at least for that day!

Developing Diplomacy

Five- and 6-year-olds feel their emotions strongly. Fortunately, they're also able to learn safe methods to deal with these feelings. While most kindergartners are able to talk about their feelings, many have not had the opportunity to learn how to "use their words" in difficult situations. The verbal skills are in place, but the ability to control their impulses may not be. Often children appear to react first and think later.

Many Feelings, Many Actions

Kindergartners can feel angry about many issues, large and small. Big family issues such as divorce, a new baby, or moving may be expressed by acting out or shutting down - or almost anything in between.

In these situations there might be a change in the child's behavior or personality, but it can be difficult to pick out specific events that the behavior is related to - anything can set the child off. Smashing a frustrating toy, pushing or hitting other children, and knocking over block buildings can all be expressions of this deep anger.

Less significant issues about ownership, sharing, and friendships can produce intense responses as well. Things may blow up and calm down before you can even get to the other side of the room. Or someone is hit and crying within a matter of seconds. The source of the anger in these situations is usually current and readily apparent.

No Clear Cause

As with adults, children need to know what they're feeling before they can learn how to express it. Often children do not fully realize that they're angry, or they know they're angry but not the cause of the anger. It can take your best skills to unravel the mystery!

Fortunately, 5- and 6-year-olds are capable of sharing their feelings and even want to talk them out. At this stage, children are learning to seek help with limited embarrassment.

They're also developing a strong understanding of cause and effect and logical reasoning. Group discussion can help them see how one action leads to a specific reaction. By involving children in the process of recognizing and dealing with aggression, you provide them with proactive techniques they will use for life.

What You Can Do

Anger and aggression are normal parts of living. All children get angry, but not all use aggressive actions to express it. You can help children understand that anger is appropriate but that not all aggression is.

Create a place where children go to talk through conflicts. With a supportive mediator, children can express their feelings and arrive at a mutually acceptable solution.

Collaborate on a class list of rights and responsibilities. Discuss with children their right to feel emotions such as anger and their responsibility for expressing them peacefully. Work together to list safe ways to handle aggression such as punching a pillow, pounding clay, or running around the playground.

Discuss events when they happen. Talking about a conflict as soon as possible is key to helping children understand what occurred.