How to Handle Aggression in Your Young Child
Recently, I’ve gotten lots of questions about how to handle aggression in young children. It’s a common concern, and it’s always startling when your previously sweet little baby starts to bite, hit, or generally wreak havoc. How did this happen? Did I do something to cause this? Surely, we rationalize, he’s learning it from daycare…(or a sibling, or a neighbor)…ANYONE but us, right?
Well, he MIGHT be learning it from daycare. But guess what? Aggression is an INBORN DRIVE. Aggression is NATURAL in young children (and older children…and adults!). We ALL have some aggression in us….thankfully. Aggression helps us protect ourselves and our offspring, and, when properly re-directed, gives us energy to pursue our goals in life.
But there’s a lot of parenting “advice” out there that seeks to squash any hint of aggression in our kids, and indeed to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Worse, to punish the expression of it in children.
Instead, we must understand that aggression is a normal drive; as inescapable as hunger, thirst, and the developmental urge to get up and walk. When I see a child in the clinic who expresses NO aggression — THAT worries me.
Of course, the problem is not with aggression per se, but with HOW IT IS EXPRESSED. That’s the key, isn’t it? Aggression must be re-directed appropriately, so as not to be destructive.
So, how do we do that, as parents?
First, get comfortable with aggression, including your own
Yes, your own. I will bet that the Dads reading this won’t have as much difficulty with this part of the assignment. After all, boys and men are typically more direct in their expression of aggression. I’m all for women’s rights, but there’s no doubt that most boys (and men) are more directly aggressive than girls and women. My husband is a lot more comfortable with our kids’ aggressiveness than I am. But I’ve had to learn from him that it’s not good for me to automatically chastise the kids simply for being aggressive — kids need healthy outlets for their aggression, as long as they’re not hurting anyone (or anything).
Moms need to understand that we, too, have an aggressive drive within us. Think about it. How do you channel your aggression? One friend of mine goes on a pounding run. Another paints vivid pictures. My sister likes horror films. Personally, I’m a head-banger. I feel so much better after a good power walk, listening to Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins or Black Sabbath (am I dating myself here, or what?). Get comfortable with your own aggression, and think about how you channel it in a positive way. Then, think about how you can help your children with the same issue.
Next, convey this to your kids:
I understand you want to break that toy. I know you’re mad. That’s OK. But I can’t let you break things. Sometimes when I get mad I listen to loud music and jump up and down. Wanna try it with me? Or: You guys can’t hit each other. I know you got mad at each other. Let me help you use your words to say how mad you are at each other. Then when we’re done, we’ll try to find out how we can be friends again.
More tips on handling aggression
For babies and young toddlers (up to about 18 months), IGNORE it as much as possible.
(And yes, even babies express aggression. What breastfeeding mother can’t attest to that? One minute you’re having a nice nursing session, and then all of a sudden — OUCH! Your sweet baby has decided to act out his aggressive impulses — on your nipple!) If baby is biting, physically stop her, in as unemotional manner as possible (you don’t want her to be reinforced by a big reaction from you), and try to move on. Babies will misinterpret any chastisement, and internalize it as shame. Not good.
For older toddlers, you can express your understanding of the emotion, but firmly show him what you’d prefer. You also want to praise and reinforce his HEALTHY expression of frustration and aggression. I know that little girl made you mad. I could see you were upset. But I am so proud of you for being a big boy and walking away from her. You didn’t hit. Great job! And try really, really hard to stay unemotional about it yourself. Easier said than done, I know, but if your child can trigger YOUR annoyance and aggression easily, it’s reinforcement for his own aggression. If you act out your aggression, so will they.
For preschoolers, you can talk more about their conflicts and help them role play or plan out problem situations in advance, or even after the fact. I know Ashley sometimes makes you mad. What will you do in school today if Ashley upsets you again? Can we practice what you might say or do, instead of hitting? Or try a role-playing exercise. OK, I’ll pretend I’m Ashley, and you try using your words instead of hitting. Let’s practice.
I also want to say a bit about “scary stories”. Preschoolers naturally gravitate towards “scary stories”, because they fulfill an important psychological function. They offer a way to SAFELY MASTER FEARS — as well as their own aggression. Because fears and aggression are related, psychologically. Fears crop up when children start to see what their OWN aggression can cause. They then start to generalize this fear of aggression to others. Some parents or “experts” suggest avoiding scary stories, but this is actually counterproductive. It’s important to give your child an opportunity to process and deal with scary things in a safe and manageable way. Why do you think the classic fairy tales have been around so long? Because they offer children a chance to process their natural aggression and fears. Of course, follow your child’s lead. Don’t expose him to scary stuff he can’t handle. But recognize that it’s important psychologically to allow him to deal with aggression in stories, at school, and at home.
In general, you want to convey your empathy and support for all your child’s feelings. When he feels understood, it will be easier to show him how to appropriately channel and redirect his aggression and other negative feelings. This is an important lesson for him to learn now, so that he can manage his aggressiveness throughout his life.
Mom of Four, Parenting Expert
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Aloha, I’m Dr. Heather
I'm a psychologist and Mom of four, here to make parenting easier -- and more fun. My advice is science-based and road-tested in the real world. I specialize in babies and young children through age 7. I'm also a parenting writer, national speaker, child development expert, and social media strategist.
Let’s Get This Potty Started!
Anthony T. DeBenedet, MD, co-author of The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It